The Islas de la Bahía

By the time I made it to the coast, Honduras was starting to look more Caribbean, more festive and fun but not necessarily any less sketchy. Tela, the city where I caught a ferry to the islands was weather worn but cheerful. A local at the hotel there told me that Tela was the best place in the world to celebrate Carnival. I wasn’t sure I understood him; I asked for clarification by asking if he was talking about the same Carnival they have in Rio de Janeiro. He replied that the Carnival in Tela is much better then the one in Rio.

black fly from wikimedia

I took a ferry out to the Island of Útila. It turns out that there was a reason that learning to dive in the Islas de la Bahía was the cheapest in the world. My diving instructor told us up front that most diving classes in the world would take a lot longer to teach you to dive. Instructor and equipment costs were the most expensive parts of the business, so to keep costs low they moved students through as fast as they could. He told us that this made the class more dangerous and he worried that we would remember less of the safety training in future driving. That said, the class was well run. I was confident in the instructor and the equipment seemed high in quality.

The class curriculum covered the PADI open water diving course and then went on to cover the advanced open water course. The practice in the advanced course was the most memorable including a night dive and two dives to 130 feet. The moon looks great from 50 feet under water. Most of the dives were around beautiful coral reef, but the last dive we did was at the edge of the trench. 

Honduras is named after a 2km deep trench that separates the Islands from the mainland. When we had just jumped into the water and were bobbing on the surface I started to feel a little anxious; once below the waves the trench was less intimidating though just as impressive. The instructor led us along a geological formation that looked like a river bed and out to the edge. Looking into the abyss I had the Lovecraftian thought that an inconceivably large creature could fit in that darkness below me. The instructor had told us that if we were confident enough we could spread our arms and legs and tumble head over heals as we descended along the cliff face. I followed his advice and was rewarded with the memory of watching first the light blue blur of the sky, then the absolute black of the deep, then the murky green-brown of the cliff, alternate across my field of view.

Part of the reason that I didn’t feel a sensation of alarm while slowly sinking into the abyss may have been the effects of nitrogen narcosis. On one dive, to something like 60 feet, the instructor demonstrated the effects of the compressed nitrogen in our blood. We were supposed to do simple math problems while on the sea floor. When it was my turn, the previous student handed me the pad of paper, but the wooden part of the pencil had split and the two pieces had slid relative to each other. The way I pushed the end of the pencil to get it lined up again alarmed the instructor who signaled an immediate ascent. I was annoyed — I wanted to do my arithmetic problem. When we got to the surface he explained that he thought I was so hopped up on nitrogen that I had mistook the pencil for a pen. I think the instructor may have been suffering the effects more than I.

Útila was almost completely inhabited by expatriates, most of them from the US. The actual locals spoke a version of English that was absolutely, completely incomprehensible to me, though it did sound vaguely like a Scottish Brogue. The residences on the island were sturdy colonial looking things painted white with lush gardens, verdant to the point of being overgrown. The tourist infrastructure was made up of shacks.

Part of my diving course fee covered a shared room in a very pleasant little shack on the beach next to the diving school. The night of the last day of classes I had to move out to make room for the next batch of students. The Instructor told us that we were free to use one of the hammocks on the porch if we liked. I took the school up on the offer of the hammock that night after spending the evening consuming large quantities of rum and pineapple juice at a hopping bar/shack run by French Canadians. There was a gentle breeze blowing as I lit a mosquito coil on the floor below the hammock to keep the black flies away. During the night, there was some gusty wind that must have knocked the coil over; later it became completely still. I woke up hung over and completely covered in itchy bites.

Returning to the mainland, I headed North along the coast. The Lonely Planet said that there was no way to travel from Honduras to Guatamala along the Caribbean. There were bandits there, you see. I figured there must be some way to get through safely and left my Lonely Planet guide behind in a public place for another backpacker tourist to use.
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