And so, with the disembarkation of the boat, we set off on the first proper leg of our journey together through Central America. Riding on the top of the enormous catamaran as it cut its way through the Caribbean Sea finally felt like an adventure. The mountains of Honduras slowly faded into the disappearing coast and eventually submitted to a rolling storm as we blasted to the small Island of Utilla to learn how to breathe canned air and swim with the fishes.
The ride only took an hour or so, and before we knew it, we were docking on a wooden jetty, in complete contrast to the ugly concrete terminal we had left from. Looking over the island, we could see the beautiful wooden coastal houses jutting out into the tranquil, blue sea. The mountain rising behind them was thick with lush green vegetation, and, as expected, there wasn’t a car in sight.
We were met on the dock by a man holding a sign with our hostel name on it, Mago Inn Resort. He led us over to our transport and threw our bags in the back. I hadn’t considered it, but this was the first Tuktuk James had ridden in, and the first time is always an experience. So is the 100th honestly. We squeezed our frames into the back seat with our luggage and hurtled off up the dock and through the winding roads away from the sea.
It was quickly clear why we hadn’t seen cars, and Tuktuks were once again the preferred mode of transport. The roads were tiny, and as we screamed down them, we narrowly avoided the packs of wild dogs, lines of motorcycles, and families also sharing the tight streets. It was a very nice island welcome for James and a fitting one for Central America. I felt pleased he was finally seeing the side of life I had hoped he would rather than the landfill site of San Pedro Sula.
On arrival, we were led through a jungle-filled garden down a winding path. We passed an open-air restaurant buried among the trees and then to the main event. A huge swimming pool right in the middle of the apartments that surrounded it. It had previously been used for the earlier classes in the diving school but was not just used to chill out after a hard day being in the sea.
We had a shared room booked that apparently had no air con and about 10 other people in it. However, due to some unforeseen circumstances, James and I had been upgraded to a twin room. It still had no AC, but the improvement was vast. We had a room to ourselves, and after feeling the almost solid humidity and heat, the less bodies in a room, the better.
We had a few days to kill before the actual course started. They kindly let us stay for an extra 3 nights on top of the nights we had booked for the diving course at no extra cost. This gave James time he needed to acclimatise not only to the weather but also to the time difference. However, in typical fashion, he refused to let either of them be even the slightest trouble and just cracked on. No problems, apart from being almost constantly sweaty, but that never gets better.
We spent the first few days pretty easily, slowing ourselves down to island time. Of course, I still had a little work to do here or there, no more than an hour or so a day, and he had to keep on top of his work, which, again, took little to no time. We just spent our working hours sitting by the pool in the evening before the mosquitos came and ate us to death. It was an easy few days, and lovely to spend them with James again.
We decided to fill our days with all the things we wouldn’t have time for once we started classes. They ran from 8 am until the afternoon, so most activities were out of the question by the time they were over. Day one we headed straight to the diving center and got signed up. They told us we could go snorkelling for free with the boats and that they had some kayaks we could borrow to explore the island with. We hopped straight on the kayaks and decided to head out onto the crystal clear seas around the island.
Utila Diving Center had a nice little promotion on in the lobby. They were trying to sell incredibly expensive but super high-end, eco-friendly, responsibly farmed, reef-safe, child-proof sun cream. The samples they had laid out for the pleasure of prospective buyers kept James and I burn-free for the whole trip to Utila as we shamelessly slathered ourselves in the thick sunblock. They had all sorts. Some of it was obviously for people much browner than us, which resulted in some funny two tone, two types were like enamel paint and left us looking like ghosts, and one of them even had glitter in it. I think they may have been expecting us to buy at least one bottle, but poverty-driven oportunism runs deep.
The side of Utila we were on is built around a huge cove. After picking up our phenomenally heavy kayaks in the mangroves, we paddled out into the open water and blistering midday sun. The water was beautifully calm, and you could see meters deep to the white sand and clear coral on the sea bed. It didn’t take us all the long to push ourselves all the way across the cove and to the public beach on the other side. When we got there, it was suitably quiet, and we took a swim in the sea amongst the cabanas before heading back along the coast, looking for a restaurant we could dock in for lunch.
It appears that the season was more or less over on the Island, or the restaurants are more of an evening thing. We pushed from one jutting Caribbean restaurant to another, fruitlessly hunting for something that not only looked good but also suited both James’ and my tastes. I am already annoying enough to feed, being a newly founded Glutard, but combining it with James’ vegetarianism, lactose intolerance, and need for 6kg of protein a day, menus thinned out very quickly. However, we finally found ourselves in a small, quiet wooden shack, sitting way out into the water on its bamboo legs. We pulled our kayaks up close and jumped onto the jetty.
Bad Biker Boys
If there is a shared hobby between James and I, apart from being fucking legends, it’s riding motorcycles. There was no way we were going to be doing this trip without at least a few excursions on the wildly cheap little bikes you could pick up all over Central America. The little Honda Navis everyone rents are Honda’s answer to their own Grom, which is a nasty little pit bike that has earned itself a bit of a reputation for being illegal and ridden by lunatics. The Navi is a lot more sensible but is still a lot of fun, despite its CD-sized wheels.
We picked them up from the centre of town after being sweet-talked by one of the many salesmen. It came to about 20 dollars for a day, which is more than reasonable. The best thing about the bikes is how much they opened up the island. Being as small as it is, there are taxis, but as for public transport, forget it. If you get a Tuktuk to some remote area, you have to either pay for them to wait for you, or just get your hike on until your break out of the jungle back into civilization. We opted for the bikes and picked out a few choice spots after talking to some of the islanders.
First and foremost, we needed to get the skids down. There was no way we were impressing anyone unless we could get the back wheel out and drop a knee around the dusty corners. I almost did both on the way out of the parking garage when I forgot that the bikes are automatic and there is no gearing. Twisting the handle gets you going, no need to drop the clutch. I almost had the bike taken off me before I had even managed to smash the forks to dust on the backcountry roads.
Our first stop was just at the top of ‘town’. It is an old Iguana reservation. We rocked up after taking a few wrong turns down surprisingly paved roads. The farm itself was closed. This didn’t mean we couldn’t make our way in and take a look around, though. James didn’t seem overly impressed by the scabby Iguanas in cages that looked barely fit to hold the breeze brushing over them, let alone the lazy-looking dinosaurs within. It was a pretty wet little area there, and the mosquitos drove us out quicker than the subpar reservation. Who needs guard dogs when you have standing water and 100% humidity?
Our next stop was a lot more like it. We took a few turns, following faded signs painted on old driftwood until we came across what we were looking for. Down a backroad and buried deep within enormous bending palms was a stunning, two-floored, painted plantation house. The sweet, rich smells of organic chocolate drifted through the jungle and carried us by our nostrils to the front door. This was the island’s chocolate factory, and it was gorgeous.
The little Utilan man inside was the epitome of all the other wonderful people we met on the island. He had a strange Caribbean lilt to his voice that hinted at both island and Spanish heritage. He finished up what he was doing with the departing customers and welcomed us in. Over the next half an hour or so, he showed us the whole process, from bean to bar, explained the history of the trade over the islands, and told us a lot about the history of Utila and its people. He finished up by giving us a guided tasting of all the chocolates they had on sale. They varied from delicious and appropriate coffee with sea salt to incredibly rich fudge. James was able to eat it all, with most of it being made with coconut milk rather than cow. I remember when he used to eat a family-size bar of Galaxy a night in bed during our heavy weed-smoking times, so this was a revelation. The bedtime Galaxy fiending was probably what made him intolerant in the first place.
One of the things I ended up really enjoying about travelling with James was his open and tireless curiosity about things that interested him. I find myself being too shy to really pick someone’s brains which I’m aware is incredibly stupid. However, when James found something he was interested in, he would ask endless questions and encourage conversation that opened up the areas he really cared about. It was a pleasure to watch him engage with professionals and witness the dialogues he would start. His questions weren’t hollow or polite; they clearly came from a place of interest. It is something I admire and need to try to implement more in my own conversation. This was the case with chocolate; obviously, he’s a closet fatty.
We screamed off towards an old lookout at Pumpkin Hil, the highest point of Utila. This was reminiscent of my past travels and even my habits of earlier in this journey; find the highest point, climb it, and get the lay of the land. This one took us away from the town and towards the opposite end of the island. Paved roads were quickly replaced by dusty valleys or rocky, pit-riddled dirt tracks. It makes for fantastic riding, and after the trip Mum and I had taken in Mexico, I knew the bikes were up to the task. We belted our way into the jungle and up to Pumpkin Hill.
We eventually had to leave the bikes as the route got too steep and made our way onward on foot. The route seemed clear enough – head upwards. Eventually, we made our way to a ridge running along the top of the high point. There was a clear path running along it, and it was a beautiful one. We were in an island jungle, surrounded by the sounds, smell, and incredible assortment of plants and trees that come along with it. Ants the size of small rodents cut trails through the path, carrying everything from leaves to medium-sized house pets on their onward march through the jungle to god knows where. We stopped to watch them as they continued their tireless and seemingly endless journey, marvelling at the reasons before marching onward on our journey to god knows where for god knows what.
Eventually, we found the lookout tower people had recommended. In my mind, I think I had expected the usual tourist-type thing with a few small platforms suspended on nicely maintained stilts. This was not that. This was an old lookout post used for industrial purposes. The red and white tower stretched its rusted and swaying length high up into the sky and way above the trees. It was about twice my body’s width and hollow. The inside of the steel tube held a rusted and decaying bar ladder that climbed the entire height to come out to an equally rusted platform swaying in the breeze. It was narrow, and I think James only just got his shoulders in.
However, after the long and tetanus-inducing climb, the view from Pumpkin Hill was more than worth it. Soaring high above the rather flat island, this hill and tower gave a 360 degree of the whole island from one white beach to the next. The salty breeze washed over the green expanse of the whole place, giving a subtly foreign smell to the whole thing. Eagles and vultures soared below us, looking for small jungle snacks, and we were able to take in the view across the Carribean ocean and beyond. Not a single landmass was in sight, we were very much out, deep in to ocean, without a mainland for miles. We picked out a beach we liked the look of and slid out way back down the barrel of the tower towards our bikes.
Our final stop was a small beach on the opposite side of the Island to Utila town. It apparently often has turtles, but we saw none. We spend the afternoon eating Tortilla chips, playing in the warm ocean, and smoking it up on the beach. The day didn’t call for much more, and that was alright by us. It’s hard to feel impatient when nothing else is going to top what’s going on at the time. The weed we had picked up helped too.
The problem with this time of year, dense jungle, high humidity, and having skin with blood under it, is the mosquitoes, and god damn they come out in force. As we made our way back to the bikes, it began. Mosquitoes come in various shapes and sizes, and these ones are industrial. They weren’t the polite little nibblers of the UK; these ones could drain a full-size horse like an imploding submarine. One big draw, and you’re nothing but a human-sized raisin. The walk quickly became a run.
Slapping at exposed legs, arms, and bodies did nothing to put the Mosquitoes off, and it quickly became exhausting. The feeling of being eaten and able to do nothing about it but run isn’t a nice one. We quickly made our way to the bikes and roared away from the buzzing hordes of vampiric fuckers. Mosquito spray for these kinds of creatures is no more than a little seasoning on a veritable feast. People Tabasco.
On the way home, I wanted to find some natural pools to swim in. Rumour has it there are a couple tucked away somewhere. On our hunt, we bumped into a very tanned and toothless man who promised he knew where they were. He roared away on his big motocross bike, bidding us follow him. He seemed like he knew whats up, so we went right ahead.
It turned out that, according to him, he owns huge swathes of the Island along with his brothers, and they’re embroiled in continuous infighting and legal problems to decide who has full rights. The pools he was leading us to, according to him, will one day make him millions. He told us all this while navigating the dusty jungle roads on his bike, looking over his shoulder to toothlessly shout his story in his thick Caribbean accent.
He led us to the side of a patch of jungle and pointed us in. It was a landscape I had never seen before. Scrubby trees poked out from Earth that looked like an alien planet. The ground was made up of pockmarked grey rock which had clearly once been volcanic coral, deep under the sea. It was sharp as razers and hard as granite. It made for a tricky time to navigate. Some of the formations went right over our heads as we climbed towards the water.
The ‘pool’ itself was down in a pit left behind when the sea receded, pulling all the soft earth away from the savage ground. It was stagnant, and the already brutal onslaught from the mosquitos was only made worse by the standing water. James had had more than enough, and so had I. Our guide barely noticed the biting insects and had a good laugh at our obvious discomfort.
We headed back to the bikes, deciding against swimming and probably picking up a parasite lost to the ages since the time of the ancient ones. Our guide wished us a wonderful time on HIS island and disappeared into a cloud of road dust and Honda exhaust.
A Trailer for Coral
The offer to go out on the boats and snorkel for free was one we absolutely couldn’t pass up. We were both looking forward to getting out in the sea and after my time in Caye Caulker, I couldn’t wait to see what the reefs here had to offer. They didn’t disappoint.
Similar to Lake Atitlan, the boats the diving centre used were big fibreglass shells. These ones were a bit better designed than the Lakes, with tank holders, an enclosed front area, and a large open back, but I could see the building method was the same. It’s fascinating but makes a lot of sense if you need a lot of lightweight boats that can be easily repaired on a budget. These things aren’t expected to hit the high seas, just bump over a little Caribbean chop.
We headed out into the sea to where the class we were hitching a lift with planned their dive, and jumped on in. The sea was incredibly clear and warm to the skin. Before we even got in, the coral and sea life were visible, moving beneath the boat. With our flippers and snorkels on, we dove in and under the waves.
As soon as we both took our first freedive amongst the formations, I knew we had chosen a fantastic place to learn to dive. Towering walls of stunning coral life played host to thousands of fish, both competing to be the most colourful. It stretched on and on into the distance and down further than we could see on our freedives. We were going to be spoilt for choice as we learned to breathe compressed air at the depths, and I couldn’t wait.
I was unsure of how well James would take to the water. He is heavy as lead and if his swimming history was anything like mine as a child, he wasn’t the most natural naturally. However, within minutes of being in the water, and after I explained how to force a snorkel clear, he was using the flippers to great effect, diving deep into the coral, looking like an over-muscled manatee.
We spent the morning popping from one spot to the next, picking out interesting things to look at and chase, learning our own underwater language as we went. Despite the copious amounts of thick cream cheese suncream we had stolen that morning, we both needed to wear a T-shirt for about an hour and a half. I had learned my lesson in Caye Caulker, and James is just regularly, and suitably, scared of skin cancer.
We headed back to shore, so ready for the coming days of diving, incredibly hungry, and ready to do what we did every evening and have a few drinks in the pool with the other members of the Diving School.