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To Utila

The next morning, Roberto was kind enough to drop me at the station where I would catch the Hedman Alas bus to La Ceiba and then transfer to a ferry to Utila. First, we stopped by Mercado Guamilito (the "tourist market" in San Pedro Sula, full of stalls selling local trinkets, food vendors, and women making tortillas).

I had my first and only "baleada" here, which is a uniquely Honduran specialty that consists of a thick flour tortilla spread with beans, crema, and cheese, to which you can add meat, eggs, avocado or a variety of other toppings if you so choose. I washed it down with blackberry juice while we sat at a plastic table amid the food stalls.

The bus ride to La Ceiba, a port city, was about 3 1/2 hours on the highly-recommended, very air-conditioned Hedman Alas bus. Tickets can be bought ahead of time online or at the bus station upon arrival, and the company has a private, secured waiting room.

I paid 472 Lempira (US$20) for a scenic one-hour ferry ride to Utila, the smaller of the well-known Bay Islands that dot the northern coast of Honduras. Utila is well known for its backpacker-party scene and cheap SCUBA certification courses. I was there for one reason: to see the famous whale sharks that migrate through the area in March and April and again in smaller numbers in September and October.

I stayed at The Lighthouse, a beautiful $53/night hotel set over the water with gorgeous views of the bay and a refreshing breeze on the deck. Schools of fish swimming under the hotel were visible from the second floor, and the voices of SCUBA classes in session drifted over from one of the many dive shops several doors down.

The owner, Thelma, and her husband O'Neil provided a wealth of information about the town, from where to eat to bank hours and how to outsmart the ATM that only allows you to withdraw US$180 at a time. The Lighthouse is set at one end of the main strip of town, far enough away from the plentiful bars that you can relax outside at night on the deck without interference from the noise of the rampant backpacker scene.

The main street in Utila

That first night, I ate at a restaurant called RJ's, which in my admittedly very limited experience I would call one of the best restaurants on Utila. I had a huge plate of fresh snapper, rice, beans, salad, french fries and bread for 160 Lempira (US$7). It was one place on the island that I returned to whenever it was open - which was unfortunately only Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

The snapper at RJ's

The next morning, I headed out promptly on a dive boat with Utila Dive Center, one of the best dive shops on the island. An approximately four hour snorkeling trip cost only US$20 (the price for divers is higher), with a fee of 300 Lempira (US$13) if you are lucky enough to see a whale shark.

Lucky we were. On my first jump into the water, we were confronted with the site of a giant shark around 30 feet ahead of us, quickly descending out of sight into the open ocean. I was told that no sharks had been spotted since April up until the day before my arrival, so I certainly had come at the right time. I saw sharks a total of four times in two days, the most striking being on the second day when I was the first one off the boat into the water, turned to my right and had to frantically attempt to back up to avoid being hit by a giant tail around three feet from my face.

Far from being the scary experience I imagined before my first jump, seeing the sharks was an overwhelmingly peaceful experience. They seemed to be bothered by the noise of the motor and the frantic screams of 10 people jumping into the water with them, and unfortunately never stuck around the surface for more than a minute or so before descending far beyond reach as we paddled after them, desperate for a final glimpse before they faded away into the blue.

The dive boat captains had an elaborate system of hand signals and handheld radios by which they communicated shark locations to each other, and they spent an hour or so before and after each dive speeding around the bay, searching for so-called "tuna boils" which can indicate a shark is near. A tuna boil indicates a giant group of tiny fish, which tuna and sea birds come to feed on. When the boat driver saw jumping fish and diving birds, they motored to area, sending one of the guides to the roof to try and spot a shark feeding at the surface. If they saw one, they screamed at us to "go!," and we slid off the end of the boat in a row and swam as fast as we could after the shark that inevitably tried to leave as soon as we entered the water.

After a morning of snorkeling and whale sharks, I relaxed with papaya "licuados" (basically a smoothie made with blended fruit and milk) at Che Pancho, a popular Argentinean restaurant which sold them for around 60 Lempira (US$2.50).

Overall, I highly recommend Utila, especially if you would like to get SCUBA certified, which I considered doing but ultimately did not have enough time. It is supposedly one of the cheapest places in the world to do so, with courses costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $250. The water is clear and warm, quintessentially caribbean, and I heard high reviews from the divers on my boats. Plus, you have a chance to see the largest non-cetacean animal in the world!

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