Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Honduras – Gone Fishin'

Hey we got something to tell you! We managed to stay out of the ocean for exactly 107 days. That's not bad considering that we traveled in countries with nice beaches ever since our trip started. For the past 2½ month we even could have had access to two different oceans (Pacific and Atlantic / Caribbean) but resisted. In Guatemala, we didn't even get close to the ocean... But here in Honduras we broke down. We are heading to the beach... Utila to be precise and it's time to go fishin'.

What? If you know us well, you wouldn't look for us at a sandy beach and especially not fishing.
OK, so what is this fishin' then? No, it's also not "phising"! We are strapping on some tanks and going to get up and close with the marine life... Scuba Diving is a kind of fishin', isn't it?

Utila is part of the Bay Islands in the Caribbean; and, it couldn't be any more different from the rest of Honduras. Literally, only the fact that you can still use the same currency (Lempira) and that you don't need to show a passport when arriving, let's you believe that you are still in Honduras. Though you do have to show your passport to get on the ferry – we guess that this is mainly to make it easier to count casualties in case this shoebox sinks. But more about the ferry later.

Arriving in Utila is like entering a parallel universe (compared to mainland Central America). First of all the locals either appear totally Caucasian or African; Ladinos are as rare as a white face in downtown Guatemala City…
Then, there is the language: at first it sounded like gibberish. But after some concentrated listening and a good degree of imagination, it could be recognizws as a form of English but with a slang so thick that makes a Jamaican nearly sound as if he's speaking Cambridge English.
Just try to picture this: Imagine taking an hour's ride and arriving in a totally different world... Sounds like Buck Rodgers right? And that's exactly how we felt.
We arrived late and settled into the first acceptable hotel that we could find (called Bavaria, run by a German woman; adding a bit more to that parallel universe theory). For dinner, we indulged on two huge pizzas (first one in months which fit the current theme, especially since it was real pizza, not just a tortilla with cheese and ketchup.)

Patrick set off early the next morning to select a dive shop and find another hotel where we would be staying for a while. (To all skeptics out there: Yes, he also occasionally searches for places to stay!) He had to start early and move fast as the checkout time at the Bavaria is at 10am! How ungodly early is that, especially here in the Caribbean – in Germany too, actually!

Cross Creek: our home on the Bayou
for the next few days
We moved to a place called "Cross Creek" which is both a dive shop and lodge. And since the two previous days in this part of the world were hotter than the peak hot season in Singapore, we definitely wanted air conditioning. Our first A/C room in Central America was sooooo needed to replace the lack of any kind of breeze.

Hammock lane
Cross Creek is a cool place to stay (no, not just because of the A/C). It's a short walk from the main street through silted or raised residential houses. Then there's a little bridge across a narrow inlet to the ocean (looks a bit like a creek... Thus the name "Cross Creek"?). Once across the bridge, you enter a large wooden platform (like a boardwalk) built above a bayou that is flooded at high tide and becomes a marshland at low tide – with lots of little crabs running around everywhere.

Dive masters House?
better treatment, than customers?

The whole lodge and dive shop area sits on top of this huge boardwalk and has this certain "I'm on vacation" type of feeling. We were in our own world separate yet from the other parallel universe across the creek: Room, dive shop, hangout area, bar, hammock lane, dive boats, and kitchen... all within a few footsteps, suspended above the Bayou and far removed from the rest of Utila's tourist scene.

We went diving the next morning... Or shall I say: "gone fishin'". It's nice to be back in the water: Simply relaxing, cooling, and easygoing. We really enjoyed being one with the water element again and simply letting marine life float by. What a nice break from the stress of backpacking.

This was the first time in many years that we dived with rental equipment; surprisingly, it only took a few minutes to get used to it. Probably the weirdest feeling was not having a dive computer or a watch. This is what's called a timeless dive. On top of that, the gauges were in Feet and PSI, not Meters and Bar as we normally use.
Despite just having a depth and pressure gauge (in unfamiliar units), we could roughly guestimate how much non-deco time we had; but being 'good divers' we made sure to stay at the same depth as our dive master – the guy with the computer - all the time. Anyway, we never really got close to the non-deco time:
We dived with a group of Danish Tweenagers on the first day. The all were certified advanced divers, with only ~ 12 dives total, go figure! Most divers in Utila are beginners and therefore can't go deep and suck air like a jet engine. Some of them were sucking so much air that they only had 400 PSI (30 Bar) left after 30 minutes of diving. That's an accomplishment actually ;-)

Heading out to the reef
Fishin' time!
We had previously heard that dives in Utila are usually limited to 40-45 minutes (normally in Asia, it's 60 min). We told our dive master that we wanted to stay down a bit longer than that. On the first day, he actually sent up the "air suckers" and let us continue for another 15 minutes or so, but that was only the case during dive one. The rest of the time we both had to come up with the group and usually with more than half a tank of air left – we could have continued for at least another 20-30 minutes.

Did I forget to write that Utila is THE place to get PADI certifications? It's apparently the cheapest place in the world to get certified – perhaps the world as defined by Americans that tend to forget that the world also includes the continents to the east and west of their homeland. Dive certifications in Southeast Asia are probably at the same or lower price. But there is no doubt that Utila is like a diver certification factory. In 2004, Utila Dive Centre (the sister shop of Cross Creek) issued the most PADI open water diver certifications in the world. Currently they issue about 1500 certifications a year, that's more than 4 per day, everyday!!!

This diver certification production line setup explains why we dived with a group of "Advanced" Divers that had only 12 dives ... At ~30min each, that makes for about 6 hours underwater! Very "advanced" indeed!

On the third day Patrick was diving in a group with a girl that had 16 dives total and was just about to get her "Rescue Diver" certification?!?

Why do we emphasize this so much? Because it shows how ridiculous the whole PADI certification can be.
The perfect private island
How can anybody with 16 dives be a "Rescue Diver" when they hardly can control their own air consumption or buoyancy? We both have over 300 dives under our weight-belts and believe that only experience can make a diver a good diver and capable of rescuing others. (OK, it may help to learn the theory too... once you have some experience) But how good is a rescue diver that sucks air like a jet engine and potentially uses up your air too?

A last thought on this topic: what is the meaning of PADI? Put Another Dollar In.

How was the diving? Besides the abundance of beginners, actually not too bad, the waters around Utila are fairly clear and litter-free with 20+ meters visibility (65ft). The coral life seemed healthy, mostly hard corals and small sea fans. Temperatures were comfy at around 28°C (82°F) and almost no currents.

By the way, we don't travel with our underwater camera case, so the few photos here are from our previous dives (or the web). The fish life was very scarce though. We've only saw a few schools of Fusiliers, no Travellies, Barracudas, Surgeons, etc. Also small fish were few in numbers. The reefs actually felt a bit like many towns in Honduras after 6pm: deserted!

Juvenile spotted drum fish:
source: Wikipedia
Maybe the fish only come out at night here? We did see a few things that we haven't seen before, especially the "drum fish"; a small school of squid; a few large crabs that normally would only be seen in a night dive.
We've also saw a turtle during each of the first two dives, and were later told that this is a total stroke of luck – really? No Nemo's (clown fish) though... Actually, we've hardly seen any soft coral or anemones and zero nudibranches. Seeing a Nudi is apparently also a trophy here – Boy, were we spoiled in Asia!

The most unusual and coolest thing about diving in Utila was being there for the first "Lion Fish derby"… what in the world is that?
Lion Fish are not native to the Caribbean and have only few natural predators here. Actually the native groupers would eat them, but they are now severely over-fished in the Caribbean.
Hence, the lion fish are a pest and harm the eco-balance by eating up the juvenile reef fish (is that the reason why there are no fish here... Not over-fishing or pollution?)
But seriously, the lion fish really are a pest in the Caribbean, something that we didn't know before.

Wanted: dead or alive!!
The Lion Fish derby is a blank check to go out hunting for them with a "Hawaiian sling spear". It's a competition to kill and collect as many of them as possible. And two days later there was a planned lionfish BBQ on the beach. Lion fish are apparently tasty; we also didn't know that. Nobody eats them in Asia.
We couldn’t go out and hunt. As we arrived on Friday night and did not sign up with a dive shop until the derby was in full swing on Saturday. Anyway, only Dive Masters and Dive Master Trainees' were allowed to go for the kill. Others were only allowed to act a spotters and watchers. I think this is a good idea as I wouldn't want an over excited advanced rescue diver with only 16 dives shooting a 3 pronged spear in my direction!

We also didn't sample the Lion Fish at the cookout either. The refrigeration on the dive boats during the hunt and the island, for 2 days of storing them, is sketchy and we just didn't feel like risking food poisoning by a poorly refrigerated poisonous fish.

Takin' it easy: Utila style
Some of the dive master trainees (yep, another big attraction in the Utila PADI certification venue) were still hunting lion fish the next few days after the derby. Actually during our first dive, a DMT in our group caught one. Our dive master took the spear from her and fed the lion fish to a moray eel – while we were watching. That was very cool. Condolances to the other certified "advanced" divers in our group, this was well after you ran out of air.

WHY? Why did we come to dive in Utila? If you asked yourself this question while reading the above, then you are absolutely right to think that we just love to complain... We hear you.
Actually what got us interested to come here was two things. 1st, 2nd, 3rd... 21st is that the Bay Islands: Utila and Roatán, are well known for frequent Whale Shark sightings. And since it's been a while since we last saw Whale Sharks in Donsol (check out our Blog post about that) and the fact that we never seen a Whale Shark while diving (not even at Richelieu Rock), we wanted to try in Utila, especially since May is high season for them. Our excitement was stopped dramatically when we were told that divers are not allowed in the area where the Whale Sharks normally are sighted and that seeing one while diving from Utila is as rare as winning the lottery. Bummer!!!

Now that we are here, we might as well go diving anyway. Hey maybe we can sign up for a PADI course in Whale Shark spotting, even better a "advanced, rescue, master Whale Shark spotting" course ;-). Pretty much the only way to see them is to sign up for a special whale shark sighting tour, since we've done that in Donsol we figured that we'd just go diving.
Typical Utila house:
is it still under construction
or falling apart?
Which is the second (22nd actually, in case you kept count) reason why we came here. We just wanted to go down under again and cool off. For Patrick, it was also the first time diving in the Caribbean – if you agree to consider the Florida Keys not as part of the Caribbean. Julane actually got her open water certification in the US Virgin Islands and was sort off in "home waters" again.

Prime property:
Can you believe that this place is on
the main street close to the ferry dock?
 Despite not seeing any whale sharks, we managed to log some enjoyable dives, see a totally different side of Honduras and take a break from the sometimes tiring life as a backpacker. If you are in the area, we recommend visiting Utila, but if you have to fly far to go get here, then we recommend considering diving in Southeast Asia, the marine life is more colorful and plentiful there.

There are also a few nice places
on Utila, but they are rare.
Besides diving, we wandered up and down the streets of Utila, which is fascinating in its own quirky way: somehow it feels like time is ticking in slow motion and in some cases has stopped entirely. The houses for instance mostly look like they were built in the 60's and then patched up a little over time but mostly just left to the elements.
Some of these shabby houses actually have a lot of character and charm. On the other hand, there are a few mansions that stand out like sore thumbs, in a grandiose kind of way. These are often built by the "retired" western expatriates.

Don't look at me like that,
I'm still going strong!
Transport is another example of how Utila is different: the few cars on the Island look like Mother Nature is claiming back her resources, to such a point, that it's a miracle that these piles of rust still move in one piece. The main form of transport is golf carts, motorbikes and quads/ATVs (that's a motorbike with 4 wheels). The occasional bicycle is also seen, although mostly with a Gringo in close proximity. This combo of unusual transport down the narrow street of "East Harbor", which is Utila Town really, is adding spice to the different taste that Utila has.

In the daytime, the town is very quiet, most people are out diving or hiding from the hot sun (Siesta) but at night it gets a bit busy, restaurants and street side food vendors open up to the hungry tourist crowd (which has an average age of about 25 years). We don't really know if there is a big party scene here but judging by the hangovers from some of the "advanced" divers on our dive trips, we think there must be. Actually we found it fascinating that many of the backpackers seem to allocate their daily budget as follows: 25% for accommodation, 15% for food, 50% for beer and booze, and the remaining 10% for either aspirin or more booze, depending on the daily headache situation.
Sunset cocktail time
At our place "Cross Creek", most of the other guests were crammed into a dorm room without A/C (cheap), but judging by the empty beer bottles at hammock lane, they must have slept really well anyway :-) We of course also enjoyed our after dive "deco beer" or cocktail, but never woke up searching for the Aspirin. Maybe we're just getting too old?

After 5 days, it was time to head back to "real" Honduras, actually we are pretty much going straight to Nicaragua, an 810km (503 miles) road trip, with two overnight stops. First, we have to show our passport again to board the Ferry to La Ceiba. This ferry is the only option to get to and from Utila (besides chartering a plane or private boat or losing the dive boat and floating to mainland) so it's basically a monopoly and it shows. The ferry is called "Utila Princess"…sounds nice, eh!
Look at the picture to form own opinion. But we think it looks like a fishermen's friend tin box with two pontoons. And it certainly is a fishermen's friend. Many passengers feed the fish during the passage (hint: they did not plan on feeding fish). Note: Passengers are given nice empty plastic "lunch" bags upon bording.

This tin box does the ~1 hour crossing twice a day and charges 400 Lempiras (USD 22) for one way, making the "Utila Princess" worthy of the name...
The princess is arriving
She's not pretty nor fun to be with, actually she kind of makes the people sick. But at least, this Princess demands to be paid royally! And of course she is a true monarch (monopoly) and we are her obedient serfs.
Just to give you an idea how expensive this boat is: An average Honduran earns about 6500 Lempira a year (that means he has to work for 4.5 days to spend 1 hour with the Princess) a big Tipico Lunch or Dinner costs ~80L and a room in an nice local business hotel ~300L.

But what we loved most was that the Princess has strict rules. "We don't wait for anybody, also not friends and family" was printed in large letters at the ticket booth in Utila. OK, fair enough she likes to leave on time. But shouldn't that go both ways? Can't passengers expect that she leaves on time then?
Inside the "royal chambers"
Oh, I forgot, she's the Princess... So we ended up leaving 30 minutes late on the way back to La Ceiba... The reason: the air conditioner was broken, and they tried to fix it. But why in the world did they only start repairing 10 minutes before the scheduled departure when she was resting in the port for the last 3 hours?
Oh, I forgot, she's the Princess... Probably needed her royal beauty sleep.

The trip back to La Ceiba was 30 minutes delayed, hot (A/C still not working) and plenty of fish food was produced. We're back in real Honduras now and happy that we took a trip to Utila. This was actually the highlight of our travels through Honduras, Copán being a close (very different) second. Third was... hmmm let me think... hmmm... the food maybe?

From La Ceiba, we took a direct bus to the Capital Tegucigalpa (Tegus, as the locals call it). Fortunately, it was a rainy day and our 8 hour bus ride was for once comfortable, in temperature at least.

Tegus is a dangerous city, tourists are advised to be cautious and not walk on any streets after dark, and robberies at gunpoint are unfortunately not unheard of here. We stayed the night near the various Bus depots' area since we only came to Tegus to connect to a Nicaragua-bound bus the next morning. The area of Comayagüela where all the bus depots are has the following introduction by Lonely Planet: "Comayagüela is where the most of the bus terminals are. The area can be dodgy during the day and downright dangerous at night!...Comayagüela, which the US embassy portrays as only slightly less dangerous than a dark alley in Baghdad... "

If that doesn't give an uneasy feeling stomach, then the recent news that travel acquaintances of ours have been robbed at gunpoint during broad daylight in Panama City will do the rest. You can probably understand that we were "concerned". When we arrived in Tegus, we checked into a secure hotel near the Tica bus terminal from where we would leave in the morning and focused on getting two important tasks accomplished: Get the details on the Tica Bus to Nicaragua (schedule and cost) and get just enough Lempira out of the ATM to pay for the room, bus and dinner. ATM in an area like that? Yes, we know it's not a smart thing to do. But we had no choice. Neither the hotel nor the bus company would take credit cards. Actually the area didn't seem so bad. No bums or shady characters, enough hotels, a normal amount of armed guards, etc., but better safe than sorry.

Last night in Honduras.
Back at the safety of our hotel
We were back in the protection of our hotel's leafy courtyard well before sunset and had our "take-away" dinner there. What kind of dinner? Fast food fried chicken! Since we also had this for dinner on our last night in Guatemala, we figured that this is now a new tradition "Pollo Frito" for the farewell. After 20 Days in Honduras we are leaving for Nicaragua.

We leave mixed feelings behind. Honduras has not quite been able to excite us as much as Guatemala did. The people here are very friendly and more approachable than the Mayan indigenous communities in Guatemala, but the country and landscape did not quite stack up to the WOW effects of Guatemala. We also have not seen the colorful clothing or diverse handicrafts or artistic ability here. Somehow it was all a bit faded and monotonous.

Many Travelers skip Honduras or go straight from Copán to Nicaragua, we understand why. If you are tight on time and budget it may be a good idea to focus on Guatemala and Nicaragua? (We don't know about Nicaragua yet, but heard only great feedback)

Goodbye Honduras!