May 14, 2006

Bye Belize, Hello Honduras
Útila, Honduras

After two full days of travel by bus and boat, I arrived in the Bay Islands, just off the northern coast of Honduras.

Steve Porter

My choice to leave Belize and head into Honduras was completely spontaneous—spurred by the direction my female Dutch roommates were traveling in, and the scuba diving session my Canadian friends picked up while they were in town. The evening before I departed I ran into two other interesting people: Evan, an Italian who was also headed to Honduras, and Steve Porter, a former resident of England who has been backpacking abroad (continuously) for over 13 years.

Interestingly, Steve—a year shy of 60—has no camera, and keeps only a private journal. With so much travel under his belt, it's too bad he doesn't have a proper medium (or desire) to share his knowledge. I asked him if he had any tips for me, to which he pleasantly replied: "I smile a lot, but I can honestly say I never seen anyone smile as much and as genuinely as you, Craig. Your smile is better than any tip I have to give you."

With the addition of the Italian, our group was four, and after far too many queasy hours on the (expensive US$50) ferry we arrived in Puerto Cortéz, Honduras. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when a short time later I stepped onto the standing room only bus and heard Ebony and Ivory playing over the speakers—finding it oddly appropriate.

Walking around the large city of San Pedro Sula (where we spent the night), I observed how much of the population seemed to be of Indian descent—something that makes me curious to look into further. San Pedro seemed to be a prosperous (but crime-ridden) city, nestled in the foothills of some of the most dramatic topography I've seen in quite some time. As I sat on the buses that moved their way through the Honduran countryside, I remembered how much I wished I had a nice professional camera setup in southern Belize—I would love to spend a month there doing a photo essay inside the hyper-green saturated environment.

Útila

Colonized in the 16th century by blue-eyed British Pirates raiding Spanish sailing ships, Útila, the smallest of the Honduran Bay Islands, is known as a destination for backpacking scuba divers—and up until a few years ago was about the cheapest place on the planet to become an internationally certified diver. There seems to be much debate over whether Útila, or the larger sister island of Roatán is actually the best place to enjoy life at (on the islands).

Supposedly home to five different strands of malaria (and droves of mosquitoes and sand flies), it's also been suggested that travelers (less spontaneous than I) start on an anti-malarial a week or two before arriving on any of the islands. An ATM or credit card sporting the VISA Plus logo is also a must, as the only bank with an ATM on the island of Útila can't process anything else. I've found it very difficult to find a non-VISA Plus ATM during my time in Honduras (my primary bank card is a MasterCard).

The Hunt

As soon as you step off the ferry in Útila you get bombarded with flyers for the dozens dive shops in town. Most outfits also run hotels or hostels on their property, and offer cheap (US$3-5) housing options while you’re diving with them. Finding a place to stay isn't the hard part, it's picking the place to invest in that can be challenging.

If you care enough to shop around (for price and personality fit), selecting the right diving outfit can be a laborious process. Imagine a small town for tourists filled not with countless shops selling trinkets and souvenirs, but diving excursions and certifications. You can't get lost here; there's only one main street in town that briefly stretches along the coast and lagoon. It's often very agitating trying to walk down the narrow, sidewalk-less street; pedestrians are always dodging bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, ATV's, golf carts, and cars.

The prices between most diving outfits are nearly identical since a nasty price war two years ago prompted all but two shops to form a "coalition" with one another. The current going rate for a PADI open water diving certification is about US$240.

My traveling companions were tempted with the offer of a US$200 all-inclusive (course and accommodations) deal from a locally run outfit called Paradise Divers, but I didn't feel safe after looking at the operation, talking with the owner/instructor, and doing a little research on them. I decided that paying the additional US$65 with an organization that I felt completely comfortable with was worth the extra expense and peace of mind.

A lot of places I visited felt unprofessional in one way or another. I didn't care that Chris, the surfer-dude instructor of Underwater Vision (who I hear is also dating the owner's daughter), was drinking while he outlined the course and fee's. I can drink and party anywhere in the world—I was looking for an outfit that I would actually learn from.

Ultimately, I settled on a place called Cross Creek, and ended up bringing the Dutch girls along with me (who were concerned about safety/experience after they spoke with a fellow countrywoman currently enrolled the open water program at Paradise Divers). Evan decided to stay there and save the cash.

The Certification

PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, is the world's largest diver training organization. Completion of the PADI Open Water Diver course essentially allows me to buy/rent/use scuba (self contained underwater breathing apparatus) equipment from just about any dive center or resort in the world—for life.

The certification is an immersive—pardon the pun—three and a half day course that feels like your studying for an intensive driving exam. Inside of the classroom you watch videos and work out of a 250+ page PADI book (requiring you read, complete knowledge reviews, quizzes, and take a final exam). The classroom theory is complemented with several sessions of shallow and open water diving (when you deploy out of an off-shore boat) where you're required to complete a series of above and below water skills.

I've got five other students in my class, and with a little luck, we'll all be certified by Wednesday afternoon—taking our complementary fun dives down to 60 feet on Thursday morning.

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