Utila is one of the three Bay Islands off of the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras. It’s known as a scuba paradise, although most likely more for the price then the mind-boggling sights – its probably the cheapest place to get scuba-certified. If scuba diving isn’t a priority, it may be better going to a cheaper location with better beaches (Little Corn Island, Nicaragua possibly), although there is good snorkeling accompanying the scuba boats. Otherwise, it has been pretty touristy and looks like a typical backpacker haven with steeper prices. In my opinion, keep your expectations low and spend minimum days obtaining certification – although the wildlife is definitely interesting, the hyped whale sharks are hard to see; chances are you’ll see only a sea turtle or two instead.
Finding a scuba shop: To shop at all of them would take most likely a full day. It’s probably better to screen a couple based on price and commodities, and then vigorously weed out candidates from there. There are generally three categories: (all prices as of Feb 2009)
1) The most expensive ones ($270-290 USD all-inclusive) which guarantees good training but is run like a factory, taking in trainees and spitting them out ASAP. (Utila Dive Centre, Gunter Dive Shop)
2) The mid-range ones ($240-270 USD all-inclusive) which has decent facilities and good training, and are more relaxed. (many)
3) The dirt-cheap (one) ($229 USD all-inclusive) which has horrendous facilities but apparently decent training, and is the one the island loves to hate. (Paradise Divers)
Be aware that most dive shops will include both (a minimum) of two free dives, as well as (a minimum) of three days paid dormitory housing. Some also include more housing days, as well as additional free dives. Many places do not include the reef tax ($3-$5/day), and some give horrendous Lempira to USD exchange rates (up to 7% markup) as well as large credit card surcharges. Besides asking all of the usual questions, make sure to ask if the shop goes out to the North Shore; many of the cheaper deals hug the south of the island, which can make for repetitive dives.
In the end, I chose Utila Water Sports, which was $252 all-inclusive of 5 nights’ accommodation, reef tax, and four free fun dives (as opposed to the usual two). This was for a SSI course; add $15 for PADI. It takes five days at the least to get certified and use the fun dives!
When budgeting for Utila, be sure to factor in the cost of the ferry, which currently holds a monopoly on the passage (425L depart from La Ceiba, 400L return). Also factor in costs for meals, which run 50L for basic baleadas to 100L for a set course. It is also possible to cook, but expect to pay US-prices or more for groceries.
Dock of my dormitory, also used for confined training