Originally, I wasn’t planning to go to Honduras at all, but I am so glad I did! I just had a glimpse of this beautiful country, exploring Mayan Ruins, snorkelling in crystal clear waters, and learning to dive in Utila. I decided to take my PADI Openwater dive course with Utila Dive Center, and had a great time (most of the time!). Read on to see how I got on diving in Utila, and if I managed to get my scuba diving certification.
About Utila Honduras
Utila is a small island off the north coast of Honduras, one of three islands known as the The Bay Islands, alongside Roatan and Guanaja. There are scuba diving courses in Roatan too, but this seemed more geared towards cruise passengers instead of backpackers, so I chose Utila. Utila is legendary among backpackers and divers for being one of the cheapest destinations in the world to take PADI dive courses, as well as having ideal diving conditions. In Utila, the combination of turquoise Caribbean Sea and the second largest reef in the world brings the chance to see turtles, rays, dolphins and even whale sharks!
Is Honduras Safe?
A lot of travellers miss Honduras altogether due to safety concerns, and many people asked me if Honduras is safe. Utila, in my opinion, is one of the safest places in Latin America, with a small community of locals, expats, and backpackers, and in my week-long stay on the island I didn’t hear of any problems at all. I felt very safe in Honduras generally (in Copan and Utila), and although in larger cities you have to be more careful, in these popular destinations you really have nothing to worry about.
Which is the Best Dive School in Utila?
When I was looking for dive schools in Utila, I checked TripAdvisor, and looked in the Lonely Planet for suggestions. I chose Utila Dive Center because of their excellent reviews (they are top on TripAdvisor), and the Lonely Planet rates them highly for their safety practises. Safety was a huge concern for me, as this would be my first time diving and I was very nervous about getting under the water. I was very happy with my choice.
Communication with the office before I arrived was quick and easy, and everyone I met was friendly and professional, while clearly having great passion for diving. The equipment was in excellent condition, and throughout the course our instructor Doug checked that we understood everything. I was also very impressed with the number of dive instructors we had supporting us all the time. We had six people on our course (all girls by the way, showing that diving is very popular among women too!), and 4 or 5 instructors in the water with us every day.
Our Dive instructor Doug was ridiculously good looking (imagine a real-life Aladdin wearing swimming shorts) but really nice and very professional too. He was clearly very passionate about diving, and the preservation of sea-life, and was an excellent instructor taking the time to explain everything clearly, and checking all our safety equipment carefully.
We also had two qualified instructors who were doing internships with UDC to gain more experience. Millie and Tom were both English, so I felt right at home! Each instructor was assigned a pair of divers, so we were 2 pupils per instructor. Usually the maximum proportion UDC have is 4 pupils per instructor, and the extra help was a bonus when we were trying to control ourselves underwater! Floating underwater is harder than you think when you have all the scuba gear on!
In addition to our qualified instructors, we also had two trainees assisting us, Craig and Sophie, who helped to make sure we were all happy and relaxed, and moved us around underwater if we needed a gentle push! At all times I felt very safe, and if there was a problem we could just signal to one of the instructors and within a few seconds they were there to help – and come to the surface with us if we needed, although we soon learned the skills to cope with any problems underwater.
How much does it cost to dive in Utila?
As I mentioned, Utila is one of the cheapest places in the world to take scuba diving lessons. The PADI open water diving certification which is the first course you need to qualify you as a diver, for diving up to 18m below the surface, costs $350 USD for the course, and includes two free ‘fun’ dives at the end. At UDC you can also take other PADI scuba diver classes such your Advanced Open Water diving course, which includes different options for advanced dives such as a wreck dive and night dive, and qualification for up to 30m. There are plenty of other diving courses available here too like underwater photography, or you can just take some fun dives to explore the area.
The PADI Open Water Diving Course at Utila Dive Center
In a nutshell, on the PADI Open Water Course you will learn everything you need to be able to dive independently up to a depth of 18m in an open water environment (eg lake, river, sea). The course at Utila Dive Centre is 4.5 days long, and includes 5 academic modules, 5 confined water sessions, and 4 open water dives. The dive package also in all materials, taxes, equipment, five nights’ accommodation at the Mango Inn resort, and two fun dives at the end of the course.
On the first day of the diving course we started at lunchtime, had introductions, and watched a couple of videos explaining the basics about how diving affects our bodies in terms of increased pressure, nitrogen build up, and the oxygen in our lungs. I admit, this part was a bit dull, but essential learning! The next day we met in the morning for more videos and explanations from our instructor Doug to confirm we had understood, and to show us more examples of real life scenarios. We also had tests along the way to check we weren’t missing anything.
That afternoon the sea was too choppy for our first dive, so we used the pool at the Mango Inn for our first underwater experience. We learned about the scuba gear, how to correctly assemble it, including the scuba tank, fins, weight belt, snorkel & breathing equipment, as well as put it all on (which can be a challenge with skin tight wetsuits!). We learned how to safely descend into the water, how to balance ourselves, speak to each other underwater, and ascend safely, as well as learning how to cope if something should go wrong. We also learned that we should never dive without a buddy, so there is always someone there to help, to share air with in case of emergency, and to have fun with!
The following day was our first sea experience, in the training area around the dock. I was glad to have had my first day training in the pool as I was nervous about getting in the sea, but with all the support from our instructors it was fine! We also had some more indoor classes, learning more theory and how to plan dives with & without a dive computer, being careful to stay well within the safe limits for time and depth to avoid nitrogen build-up or running out of air.
The next day we had some fitness & swimming tests close to the dock to check we were ok with swimming in the sea, and set out for our first dive from the boat! We went to two dive sites with calm, shallow areas with a sandy bottom so we could rest on the sand while practising our skills. We also watched the last videos, and did some final recaps ready for our exam the following day.
The final day of the course was pure diving, and the final exam. Our first dive went well, aside from a few issues with our ears. When descending into the water, you have to keep equalizing the pressure inside your ears, which a couple of us found very difficult. Once we were under water it was fine though, but a strange feeling too! When we surfaced from the dive, the boat captain said there were dolphins nearby, so we set off to find them. I made the mistake of eating a biscuit which did not agree with my stomach at all, and by the time we found the dolphins I was vomiting over the side. I was gutted, as everyone else jumped in to snorkel with the dolphins and I couldn’t even sit upright without puking! I caught a few glimpses of them above the water & managed to get in the water for a few minutes before throwing up again. Everyone else loved it, although a couple of other girls had dodgy stomachs too!
We continued to what should have been the final dive, but I was so sick I couldn’t even get in the water. I was afraid to put on all my gear and go underwater in case I was sick there too. The instructors assured me that you can also vomit into your breathing equipment and it’s no problem, however they did not pressure me to dive – only you can make the decision to get into the water. The rest of my group did complete their dives, and were qualified, yet I was not. Without the final dive with the instructor I wasn’t qualified to dive alone. I was gutted, but still sat the final test in the afternoon, and passed with flying colours.
Luckily, as the course also includes two fun dives the day after, I was able to do one of the dives with another instructor, and finally got my qualification the day after my course mates!
How to Get to Utila
The best way to get to Utila is by ferry from La Ceiba, the nearest city to the Islands on mainland Honduras. There is just one ferry company which runs two ferries per day from La Ceiba to Utila, and vice versa. The ferries cost 575 Lempira each way and currently leave La Ceiba at 9am and 4.40pm, and return from Utila at 7am and 3.20pm, although this may change so check with your dive school for up to date times
Another option is to fly to Roatan and take a ferry from Roatan to Utila, however the ferries between the islands don’t run every day and cost more than to the mainland at 715 Lempira each way!
Hostels & Hotels in Utila
If you are planning to dive in Utila, most dive schools offer free accommodation with their dives, so don’t book your accommodation before you have chosen your dive school. Generally, the level of accommodation provided is pretty good, so focus your decision on which dive school you prefer. With Utila Dive Centre we stayed at the hotel Mango Inn, about 5 minutes’ walk from the ferry dock. The standard included accommodation is 4 bed dorm rooms, or you can upgrade to private room with or without air conditioning. Electricity on the island is very expensive so it costs a lot more for the air-conditioned rooms. The Mango Inn also has a pool, which was a nice luxury to be able to cool off in the evening. The on-site restaurant also serves delicious (but expensive) food. Be sure to bring mosquito repellent, and the garden area is pretty but full of the little biters!
Is Diving in Utila for You?
Yes! I highly recommend learning to dive to anyone. However, there are some medical conditions that may limit your ability to dive, like pregnancy, heart or breathing problems, so discuss any concerns with your doctor. You also have to be over the age of 10. You will be required to complete a health questionnaire before you start the course, and visit the doctor in case of any potential risks. Seemingly mild conditions like hayfever or sea sickness can also pose a risk (more due to the medication than the actual affliction), so it is best to get checked out before you dive.
If you would like to try diving for a day without committing to the full course, there are also day ‘taster’ sessions available. For me, diving was a challenge – there was more theory than I expected, although I understand now why learning about pressure, and the effects that diving has on your body is really important. It was also interesting to challenge myself to learn something new – I can now check the pressure in an oxygen tank, and prepare myself to dive under water, I can take my dive mask off underwater, replace it, and empty the water from it, I can speak ‘dive’ sign language, and have made new friends and many happy memories!
What I loved about Utila Dive Center
Everything! From start to finish I was impressed with the professionalism of the team, the quality of the teaching and safety equipment, and overall vibe. At the dive school dock there is also a café serving great good value food & drinks, and on a Thursday night they host a legendary barbecue and drinking games (but try not to be too hungover if you have a morning dive the next day!) In short, I loved it! Being underwater also made me more aware of how fragile the ocean is, and how we can take steps to protect it. Utila Dive Center is also part of Project Aware which aims to preserve our oceans & the creatures in it, raising awareness & taking action against debris and rubbish in the water.
Anything I didn’t like?
I’m still not sure diving is for me. This has nothing to do with the course, and more to do with my sea-sickness. I even get seasick snorkelling which is a shame because I love catching a glimpse of the underwater world. I also struggled with equalizing my ears so in the few days after the course I still felt like I was hearing under water! However, I always try things twice (unless I really hate it!) so would love to try diving again now my ears & stomach have recovered.
Overall, I found the course challenging, and learning something new for the first time in ages was both physically and mentally draining – and at the end of the day I was exhausted! However, it was definitely worth the effort, and I certainly recommend Utila Dive Center to anyone looking for a dive school in Honduras.
Have you been diving in Utila? Tell us your experiences in the comments below.
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Thank you to Utila Dive Centre for hosting my time diving in Honduras. Although I received a complimentary PADI openwater course, all opinions shared are my own.
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