Utila is known for its scuba diving - and partying. It is on the 2nd largest barrier reef and many people come here to become certified divers and instructors.
Prices are pretty much the same across the board - about $250 for your open water certification, including your accommodation for 4 nights. Since it is so cheap, there are a lot of people who come here for the basic certification and end up getting sucked into the island lifestyle while continuing their training to become Dive Masters or Instructors.
When we were in Utila a few months back, we had a great time hanging out at the local bars, eating great food and relaxing on the beach. Knowing that we only had a few days to relax before heading back to the states, we choose to dive with Captain Morgans Dive Center since they are located on a small caye about 30 minutes by boat from Utila.
We figured it would be better to get off the main island so that we didn't end up spending as much money eating and drinking out, and we were excited to be on a smaller, quieter island for a few nights.
After getting off the Utila Princess, the ferry that takes you from La Ceiba to Utila, we went into Captain Morgan's to sign up. We stayed on Utila that night and ate at Evelyn's BBQ, and the next morning we met up with everyone to take a boat over to Jewel Caye.
Jewel Caye and Pigeon Caye are two small, inhabited islands (pop: about 500, I think) that are connected by a bridge. I would estimate that both islands together are about 1/4 mile long. Captain Morgan's puts their students up in a small hotel at the end of the island, with large spacious private rooms and private bathrooms. There's also a small, outdoor kitchen for you to use. The views were amazing and the cool breeze meant we had very few insects to deal with.
I was extremely nervous about the ideal of scuba diving, seeing as I am not a very strong swimmer and I panic a bit when I am just snorkeling. But, I knew this was an amazing opportunity, so I figured "what the heck, when in Rome....".
The course consists of a few videos, knowledge tests and a final exam, on top of 2 confined dives and 4 open water dives and 2 fun dives. By the first day, we were already gearing up and jumping off the pier right out front of the hotel. Admittedly, this was definitely the scariest moment. We were hardly in the water for 5 minutes when we were already starting to descend under water.
Our instructor lead us down one at a time, and when it came to my turn, I pretty started off with a panic, took out my regulator and starting swallowing water. Yeah - I know, not pretty. We were just a few inches under the surface, and she just shoved the regulator back in my mouth and quickly reminded me that I have a tank of oxygen strapped to my back - so really there's no need to panic. We tried again, this time I kept my oxygen IN my mouth, and we safely made it to the bottom.
The first couple dives were spent doing skills test under water for a few hours each dive. This is the worst part, since you have to take your mask on and off, take your regulator on and off and pretty much put yourself in extremely uncomfortable situations while sitting on the bottom of the ocean. But as time went on, it definitely became more fun. The skills actually help ease your mind, I think, because once you get through these, you know that you can handle most situations if they were to occur. Once we get to the open water dives, we are finally swimming around and checking out pretty amazing coral and fish. (After we got our Open Water certifications, it is easy enough to move on to your Advanced Diving - but, sadly, we didn't have enough time. Definitely, this is something that I want to try to get in the next part of our travels. )
The four days on the island were mostly spent waking up early, going on a boat, diving and lessons and buying daily caught fish from the neighbor to cook for dinner. (Fresh tuna and barracuda for about $1.00/pound - yummy yummy!!) It was exhausting and rewarding and an amazing end to our amazing trip. We met great people and would definitely do it all over again.
Since our flight from La Ceiba didn't leave until late afternoon (and the ferry leaves Utila at 6 a.m.!), we caught a cab from the dock to the only bit of charm in town - a cool little coffee shop called Ki'Bok. We ate breakfast, walked around trying to find cigars for Mike, and wasted many hours until we had to catch our flight to return back to the states for the first time in 5 months.
When we left La Ceiba to head to Guatemala months ago, we knew that we would eventually have to make the long haul back to catch our flight. Being that La Ceiba was not at the top of our list of places we wanted to return to, we decided it would make our travels worthwhile if we took the ferry from La Ceiba over to Utila and learn how to scuba dive. At this point of our travels, this option was totally out of our budget. But - it's hard to not take advantage of the cheapest scuba diving in the world when we were going to be so close.