We said goodbye to D&D and I left yet another thing behind – this time my CF card in my real camera. The good news is it only had a few pics on it that I didn’t already copy to my computer. The bad news is those were the pics I took of the river tour and ruins at Lamanai in Belize. I usually keep an SD card in the camera as well – and write JPG to it, and raw to the CF. But after like 2 years I finally realized I never use the JPG anymore so I might as well stop. Oh yeah – that’s why I do it. At least there’s a JPG backup. Anyway I don’t think there was anything earth shattering – just some pics of turtles, small caymans, and a bunch of ruins shots.
We drove to La Ceiba, then took the 4pm ferry to Utila Island – the smaller of the two popular Honduras “Bay Islands”. On the way I thought I found another Pollo Campeñero, but it was just same chicken under a heat-lamp inside a Circle K. Lame.
In the parking lot I decided to give away my prized Chichen Itza “Major Award” to a guy who was just hanging around and had no idea what to think of his new prize.
I have no idea what I was thinking when I bought this thing, apparently channeling my inner 13-year-old: “It’s a skull, and a face, inside a JAGUAR – TOTALLY RAD!” I was tired if it taking up space and weight in my overhead storage. He wandered off pondering the thing – probably trying to figure out how he could quickly exchange it for a buck or two.
Tommi, Steph and I had a few beers on our ferry ride and toasted the new adventure ahead. We planned to stay a few days on Utila – then hopefully a night or two on Roatan, the larger and more developed Bay Island. The big draw there was a sloth sanctuary where you can hold the sloths. It turned out we spent about 6 nights on Utila, and never made it to Roatan. I have a feeling Tommi pines for the sloths at least once a day. I bet she finds a way to get back here at some point.
Utila turned out to be one of my favorite places of the trip, and I believe a truly special unique place in the world. Like a lot of these close to shore Caribbean Islands, Utila has a completely different history, culture and language than its mainland parent. Utila apparently was founded by some mix of pirates, British naval officers, slavers, ex-slaves, Garifuna (ex-black slave diaspora from other Caribbean islands), local indigenous people and other groups. Supposedly almost everyone shares one of 5 last names on the island – one of them is Morgan, of the actual Captain Henry Morgan fame. Of course his treasure is supposed to be buried somewhere nearby.
Everyone speaks English and a local creole – that’s basically broken English with some local words. According to a local dive instructor – even people from different sides of the island have different accents. I’m going to look for a good book about the history of all these Caribbean islands (any suggestions welcome). I’m fascinated by the different micro-history of each one.
Once we landed we walked around talking to dive shops/hostels. There are about a dozen dive shops on Utila, which are also usually places to stay. Rooms are discounted if you dive with the same place. We had researched a few and heard stories from some others. The main decision for Steph was where to get her Open Water certification. She finally settled on Alton’s, which from what we saw was one of the more professionally run places. Good choice as it turned out to have our favorite divemaster – Beto.
However Alton’s only had non-AC dorm rooms available, so we stayed at nearby Trudy’s – which has more of a younger party crowd. In the late afternoon there was a very nice cool breeze, so I wasn’t too worried about AC – more about my snoring in a dorm setting. But in evening the breezes die down and it gets pretty stuffy. We were glad to have AC. I guess in August/September the breezes dies down and it gets flat out hot.
Also I think I’ve figured out the snoring thing. I can tell if I wake up with a dry mouth that I’ve been snoring. In a humid climate, I don’t seem to snore as much. Maybe I should get a humidifier back in LA. Later Steph and Tommi and I shared a place – and they said they either didn’t hear me or it wasn’t bad (hmmm or they’re just being nice).
We also dove with Trudy’s a few times and had a lot of fun. Later I moved over to Alton’s when my room wasn’t available at Trudy’s. It’s definitely nicer diving right near your hotel – so you can grab stuff if you forget it. Also the first night at Trudy’s was a LOUD divemaster graduation party – which took a break as they all went out to the bars, then came back at 1am and went on until dawn or so. But all the other nights it was pretty quiet.
That night we checked out a crazy place called Treetanic – built by hand by some crazy expats with a lot of local help. Unfortunately I only got night pictures – but you can see the full thing and read the full story here. I really can’t describe how nuts this place is – and it just keeps going on and on.
We walked back from Treetanic to our hotel around 10pm – just as all the kids who work in the dive shops were heading out for the night after pre-gaming with their red solo cups. This was a recurring evening theme of the trip – old farts headed in, kids headed out.
By “kids” of course I mean anyone under 32. Utila is a very popular spot for young people to come, get their divemaster pretty cheaply, then work for 6 months or more. Over the course of 6 days saw many tearful goodbyes as someone was leaving the island to go back to real life. It reminded me of the end of summer camp in Grease.
Even though Utila is so laid back and has almost no cars bigger than a golf cart, I never could figure out if it was legal to walk down the street with a beer in your hand. But no one seemed to do it. So I didn’t either, even though the risk of repercussions seemed negligible.
One of my lessons from this trip, seeded my first night hanging out in TJ with Gramps, is basically: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Latin America it seems to me is still a culture with a lot of etiquette rules and social norms in place of explicit laws. Utila is still a poor place and no one is going to hassle paying tourists. But I just get the feeling it would just be rude to walk down the street with a beer. Sure you’re not fooling anyone with those solo cups. But maybe just making the effort is all that matters.
Another way to blend in with the locals in a lot of places I’ve been on this trip is to wear jeans or pants at night. But screw that. I’m already sweaty enough. They’re just going to have to deal with my bare gringo legs.
The next day Tommi and I went diving at Alton’s while Steph took her Open Water classes. Utila is mostly about diving. There’s a coral reef surrounding the island and some dozen dive shops – with some of the cheapest rates in the world. One thing they seem to be doing well is preserving the reef and preventing massive development – maybe because they know it would jeopardize the dive industry – their bread and butter. Utila is not covered with a lot of gorgeous beaches from what I saw.
The biggest vehicles on Utila are golf carts and a very small number of cars. Although some people seem to be pushing it with dune buggy things that sit 6+. One thing I figured out in Caye Caulker and Utila really enforced – look for islands without cars. I’m kicking myself for not checking out Isla Holbox in the Yucatan. Oh well, save something for next time.
One night we went to a local dive bar Steph had read about. It was pretty fun and had a number of rowdy characters playing some animated pool and giving each other massive amounts of shit in the island style. I decided I needed to be a lot drunker to really dive into that mix. There was a poker game in the corner that also looked pretty local. But we might have been able to talk our way in.
The most animated guy at the bar was some wiry 60-ish looking guy with a do-rag around his head. I literally just had to mention the do-rag to my local dive instructor the next day and he was like “Oh yah Chat. Everyone knows Chat.” (Note – that’s not really the name, but it was something similar.) Like I said – it’s a small island. Everyone knows everybody and everything and there’s nowhere to run away to if you misbehave. I’m sure this has its good and bad. But it seems to work pretty well to keep crime and bad behavior to a minimum.
For me the biggest draw of Utila next to diving, is the people. There’s just a laid back, good-natured vibe. Everyone has known everyone forever and they know they have a little slice of paradise. I always try to imagine what it would be like to grow up on an island with sand and beach as your front yard. You can play all day with no way to get lost or worry about strangers. I wonder what it feels like the first time you go somewhere else as a kid and realize the whole world lives very differently from you. I kept asking locals if anyone ever leaves. They said some do, but they usually come back.
The 3rd biggest draw for me might have been the local banana bread sold at the little store between Alton’s and Trudy’s, which I managed to not take a picture of. But really. It looks like banana bread. So freaking good though. My habit was up to 2 a day and getting close to 3.
I finally got my GoPro working for a couple Trudy’s (Underwater Vision) dives. I decided not to hassle with it on my first few dives with Alton’s because I wanted to just get comfortable. Beto was a big help with tips to get me to breathe slower (put my tongue under my top teeth), and work on my buoyancy (how to use inhaling and exhaling to rise and fall instead of the BCD). For the first couple dives, I still had a tiny bit of that panicky feeling going down that I had experienced in my Open Water class in LA. But by the 3rd dive it was completely gone and I was loving it underwater.
Apparently there’s a red filter I need to apply to these videos which will bring out the color more. But it’s not in the free Go Pro software and I don’t have the bandwidth (actual bandwidth, not corporate euphemism bandwidth) to download any new apps at the moment. So just imagine more color 😉
Stingray trying to bury itself in the sand – until we annoyed it so much it swam off
Notice when this barracuda turns to look right at me. A little unnerving. These guys can swim at 40mph or something. Beto said he was knocked out by one underwater.
I wanted to do a night dive, but since I was only open water – I had to have my own instructor and do it as an “adventure dive”. For my instructor I got Alton. He knows about everything there is to know about diving, the local waters and history of the island. Funny thing is I didn’t figure out until the next day that he was the Alton on the name of the dive shop. I can’t say enough good things about Alton, Beto, Malin, and everyone else at Alton’s.
The night dive is apparently the best time to see animals – especially just after sunset when all the critters hiding all day come out to feed as fast as they can – so they can go back to hiding.
This guy was huge. Must be a close cousin of the king crab.
I think I bonded with diving for good on the night dive. I was kind of hungover all day from the blurry night I referenced above. But I immediately stopped feeling sorry for myself underwater. I realized that underwater none of my bad habits follow me. I don’t drink underwater. I don’t chew my fingers underwater. I don’t dick around on the internet and argue politics underwater. But most of all I’m completely present when I’m underwater. Something I struggle with at times in day to day life – as my friends, family and ex can probably attest.
I wish I could live underwater and just come up to the surface for supplies. Much like if I’m out hiking, I don’t even care if I see lots of animals. I just enjoy being in nature and a beautiful foreign environment. Animals are a bonus.
I know for a lot of people meditation works wonders to bring them back to present. I’ve tried a bit – but never been able to force my brain to sit still long enough to really meditate. Yes I know I should start small, etc. But for me – something like diving just short-circuits all that. I have to be present when diving. I am in a beautiful hostile environment, where I have to keep track of a number of things. to keep myself alive. I literally have to monitor my breathing and slow it down – a major tenet of meditation. I guess for me, I like a practical reason to do those things as part of some larger physical activity – as opposed to an exercise in an of itself. If I don’t have that, some part of me rebels – which yeah is probably a root problem that I should try to address.
I could go on with this internal monologue for many paragraphs. But the upshot is diving is good for me and I need to seek out similar activities that bring me to present. Hiking works as well. Even though I space off a lot more while hiking – I’m in a foreign environment, so the thoughts are usually good – life-aligning-type stuff. Same goes for road trips – although I like the exercise component of hiking much better. Which is why this foot problem is breaking my heart. I really feel like some of the happiest times of my recent life was those 6 months preparing for this trip, hiking 10k ft. Mt. Baldy 2 out of every 3 weekends. My whole retirement plan is to drive around, hike and take pictures. I have to get this thing fixed or healed somehow.
I left my Go Pro out on Alton’s dock after the night dive. Some of the dive instructors there said they might have taken a few pics with it. Below is what they took. Oh you kooky kids!!! I shudder to think what the Trudy’s kids would have done with it.
After the night dive. I realized I only needed 4 more adventure dives to get my Advanced Open Water certification. I decided to go ahead and do it and stay an extra day – as Tommi and Steph were still unsure how long they were going to stay. The next two dives were a deep (30m’) wreck dive (two birds with one stone I think) and then a drift dive. The wreck dive was really cool.
The next day we did a navigation dive and (I think, I don’t have my log with me) a deep dive. Kind of a bummer I missed the buoyancy dive because that’s probably what I need the most. But maybe I can pick it up somewhere. And that was it – I am now Advanced Open Water (thank you Malin for filling out all the paper work – I’ve heard horror stories of dive shops not following through on that once they have your money and you are long gone).
On our next to last day – we checked out one of the only easily accessible local beaches – and hung out with some new friends who were also in my advanced open water class.
After Utila we headed to Pico Bonito, a national park near La Ceiba – which is where the ferry arrives. I was fretting a bit imagining all the things that could have gone wrong with my car sitting there for a week in the ferry lot – mostly break in, flat tire, or propane tank exploding and burning the car to a crispy hulk. Tommi of course was on me about the negative thinking and how I can manifest these things with it. I told her my energy doesn’t work like that. I need to imagine every bad thing that can happen in order to prevent it. We got to the car and it was fine of course, which prompted Tommi to say “See!” I was ready though. I said “See what? That’s the power of negative thinking!” Which went over about as well as you’d expect. I don’t think she’s buying into my negative thinking anti-manifestion philosophy just yet.
Of course if something had happened to the car, I know she’d never say a word. But she’d be thinking it.
We got to a jungle retreat we’d heard about – Omega Tours and Eco-Lodge. After some haggling we settled on the two bed “cabin” which had loud-looking fans and the beds were on two floor levels. So I figured even my worst snoring should be abated a bit, and we risked it. Turns out the snoring was not bad at all (supposedly).
The other thing I was worried about was no AC – which I have come to believe is a primary component of an “Eco-Lodge”. Not sure how I feel about that. When we checked in the sun had just gone down, and it was not quite hot as balls, but certainly humid as balls. After all, as the host greeted us – “Welcome to the Jungle”. Nice. Are we gonna die? But anyway the cabin had 3 walls that were just screens, and as the night air cooled down it was perfectly comfortable with a fan. Score one for Eco-Lodges.
The next day we went on the popular white water rafting tour. The river was pretty tame as it’s the dry season, but we still had a blast.
We had to practice pulling someone into the boat. I took this footage with the GoPro. Tommi is lucky my bandwidth is so low there’s no way I can upload the whole clip. So we just get to see the Tommi Splash, not the arduous Pull Tommi Back Into The Boat 😉
Tommi showing how it’s done
There’s a little waterfall that they love to run the boats into so you get soaked.
I think Steph was done with this about 3 plunges before it actually ended
The bath with me in front was a little shorter
Later we got to do some rock jumping
The next day Tommi and Steph had to fly out at some insanely early hour. So we drove to a little town just outside of San Pedro Sula.
Our hosts at Omega recommended a great cheap place – Hotel Casa Blanca in El Progresso – which is near the airport. According to booking.com it was completely full. However we got there and it was anything but. Another lesson of this trip is that online presence/functionality is really spotty. This place is such an establishment that it has a green sign in town directing people to it – yet you can’t book it over the interwebs. So always try in-person if you can.
Asking around at the hotel, and triangulating with Trip Advisor – we got recommendations to one place in El Progreso – a family meat grill place called Las Tejas – Asados Tipicos
The sign out front says “Asados Tipicos – Comida Familar”. Imagine a restaurant in the U.S. – “Typical meats, familiar food”. Hmmm… maybe there’s niche there.
On the way back from dinner, we stopped for ice cream at a big rest stop thing which also had a pizzeria attached and a grill in the parking lot. The place had a ton of outdoor seating and seemed to be something of a local hangout. As we sat outside and watched people joke around and hang out, I realized that I doubt any of these people would trade their lives here for a new life in the US and all the lonely arduous trouble that comes with it – if the economic opportunities were remotely in the same ballpark.
The locals I’ve met seem almost universally proud of their beautiful countries – and will light up any time you ask them about things to see and do here. From everything I’ve seen (which obviously doesn’t include the worst impoverished areas) the idea that people are fleeing some hellish existence here couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s at the same level of reality as the idea that people are fleeing California in droves due to crime and rampant socialism gone wrong.
Obviously there are still very real problems with poverty gangs and crime in the big cities. But personally, everywhere in Latin America so far I’ve gotten nothing but warm greetings and friendly people. Imagine a Spanish speaking Latino with toddler-level English being able to say that about 4 months traveling in the US. o_O
And that was it for Tommi and Steph in Honduras 🙁 They took a butt-early flight the next day, and I drove to a border town called Chuloteca. I stayed in an unmemorable hotel except for the loudest extended family on earth SCREAMING in the pool until 10pm or so. I looked out expecting to see 75 people and saw about 12.
Then I headed for the Nicaragua border the next day – nervous about what I’d heard could be the bribe-i-est border of the trip, and stories about people getting stuck there for 2 days just because some agent was having a bad day.