Utila feels lost in a tropical time warp. Listening to the broad, almost incomprehensible Caribbean English coming out of islanders with names like Morgan and Bodden, it seems pirates ran amok here just a few years back instead of three centuries ago. Life on Utila still moves at a sedate pace; local conversation is dominated by the weather, the state of the fishing industry, and spicy gossip about the affairs of the 2,000 or so inhabitants.
In the past couple of decades, Utila has gradually come face to face with the modern day. A steadily growing stream of budget travelers flow in from across the globe, all eager to get scuba certification  for as little money as possible (about US$270 in early 209, including dorm-style accommodation) and to enjoy the balmy Caribbean waters and famed reef. With its semiofficial designation as the low-budget Bay Island, Utila has become one of those backpacker hot spots like Zipolite or Lake Atitlán—packed with young Europeans and Americans out for a good time in the sun.
Utila is also well known among sea life enthusiasts as one of the best places in the world to see the whale shark, the largest fish in the world. These monstrous creatures, getting as big as 15 meters, frequent the Cayman Channel right off Utila and can be spotted (with much patience and a good captain) frequently throughout the year, and particularly in April, May, August, and September.
Timing can be hugely important in making sure that you have the vacation you were looking for in Utila. The rainy season stretches from mid-September to mid-December. Visibility is lower when diving during this season, but reasonable, while snorkeling can be flat-out unappetizing due to the colder weather. The hottest months tend to be April and May. If you do visit during the rainy season, bring a pair of Crocs or other rubber clogs; regular shoes will get muddy and wet, while flip-flops fling droplets of sandy mud up the backs of your calves while you walk.
The opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks is one of those once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences and, for many, the reason they choose Utila over any other Caribbean island—whale sharks are frequent visitors on the island’s north coast. That said, no matter what any hotel or dive shop claims, there is never a guarantee about spotting one, even during the April–May whale shark high season.
Many businesses cater to low-budget travelers, and many of those offer excellent values for their services, be it a dive course, US$10 hotel room, or luscious fish dinner. More recently, slightly more upscale visitors have started arriving, and local hotels  and restaurants  are beginning to increase their services to this market as a result. But the international backpacker party scene is as strong as ever and will undoubtedly continue for years to come. The majority of backpackers are European, although there are large American and Canadian contingencies as well.
The smallest of the three main Bay Islands , Utila is 11 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide, with two-thirds of its area covered by swamp. Two small hills on the eastern part of the island, Pumpkin Hill and Stuart’s Hill, are volcanic in origin. Sand flies can be voracious on Utila, so come prepared (some swear by Avon’s Skin So Soft mixed with a light—10 percent or less—DEET repellent). Just remember that the DEET damages coral; rinse off before you head into the water.
As in Roatán , the Utila reef is under threat from fishermen and careless divers, to say nothing of water pollution. But without the steep hillsides of Roatán and still plenty of undrained wetlands, Utila is not likely to face as serious a water quality problem, at least in the near future. The Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA) in Utila patrols the entire reef around the island, with the exception of the shallow waters around the cays, where only local residents are allowed to fish. BICA also pays for environmental education in schools and sets up mooring buoys for diver boats.
A good general source of information about Utila can be found at www.aboututila.com , which includes descriptions of dive sites and current average dive prices, as well as information about hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. The website www.utilaeastwind.com  is the online home of Utila’s monthly local newspaper, and is a good source of info on the island (from local news to restaurant reviews, movie showings, hotel prices, and a directory of phone numbers). The BICA website, www.bicautila.org , also has information on the environment of the island and the reef.
Utila hosts its annual Carnival the last full week of July. There are cultural and sporting events, a community bonfire at Chepes beach, and various street parties held in local neighborhoods. Restaurants stay open later, and a few bars even stay open 24 hours a day. If you have a particular accommodation in mind, it’s best to reserve well in advance, but the smallest hotels do not typically take reservations, and there’s always a room to be found.
Sosa has flights to Utila from La Ceiba  Monday–Saturday, and might also have Sunday flights during the March–August high season. Sosa tickets are sold by the dock, at Morgan’s Travel (tel. 504/425-3161, U.S. tel. 786/623-4167, utilamorganstravel [at] yahoo [dot] com, 8 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat.), in the blue wooden building across from the ferry office. Morgan’s can also book international flights.
Note: When visibility is poor on the north coast due to bad weather (not uncommon for much of the year), the airport at La Ceiba  closes with regularity. Don’t be surprised to find yourself stranded if the weather turns bad.
The Utila Princess II (www.utilaprincess.com ) departs Utila for La Ceiba at 6:20 a.m., returns from La Ceiba to Utila daily at 9:30 a.m., departs Utila again at 2 p.m., and departs La Ceiba again at 4 p.m. Departures can vary during the slow season, so check first, especially in La Ceiba where you don’t want to take a taxi out to the dock and have to wait around. Travelers can spend the hourlong ride inside or on deck enjoying the breeze. Cost is US$22 per person, and tickets are sold in the cement building at the entrance to the dock (tel. 504/425-3390). As with air transport, though not as frequently, the boat is sometimes cancelled due to bad weather.
Captain Rusty (tel. 504/3553-7187) does three-day charter sailboat trips from Utila to the Cayos Cochinos , for US$250 per person (minimum two people). Bear in mind that if you do an overnight trip with him, it can be fairly tight quarters on his 40-foot boat. He also does Utila–Roatán trips on his boat for US$50 per person.
Captain Hank (tel. 504/3379-1049, sunyata84 [at] hotmail [dot] com) has a 55-foot sloop with three private staterooms, air-conditioning, hot showers, kayaks, and snorkeling (diving, of course, can be arranged), charging US$100 per person for an overnighter to Cayos Cochinos and US$200 per person for two nights/three days. He also offers service between Utila and Roatán, charging US$75 per person for three meals and one night on the boat (four-person minimum). Trips to Belize can also be arranged.
Carissa Cooper and her husband, at Cooper’s Inn (tel. 504/425-3184), have a boat, and when the whale sharks are around, they will do two-hour trips with the chance to snorkel (US$50 pp, 2–4 people). They can also help put you in touch with reliable local fishermen for trips to Water Cay  (US$37 for up to four people).
For more information on local boating, contact the port captain’s office (tel. 504/425-3116) by the dock.