March 31, 2012

Finally, back in UTILA!

bird's eye view of theTOWN OF UTILA
Pleasant feelings of nostalgia marked my arrival to Utila in April 2011. It was the first Bay Island I visited way back in 1998 when it was pretty much part of the underground backpacker trail, it was one of the cheapest places in the world to get your diving certification, hotel rooms ran as low as USD 1.50 per person per night, and the nightlife was very liberal to say the least.

anUTILA/Mars-like sunset special
Things have not changed so much since then on this island paradise located 45 minutes by ferry from La Ceiba. For starters, that carefree atmosphere catering to young backpackers is still present, it remains one of the cheapest places where you can get certified, and the hotel rooms are still relatively low in price. Many of the restaurants and bars I visited back then are still around too. Some have been remodeled and some have even changed address, but in essence the good old places with their wooden structures and rustic interiors still remain the same. However, progress is inevitable and it has reached the island, for instance there is definitely more traffic going up and down the main road creating “gridlock” for the four-wheelers and motorcycles on the only intersection in Utila.

the Gaudi-esqueJADE SEAHORSE

Then, there is also inflation which has driven the prices up somewhat, but considering backpackers are still their main customers, the prices remain pretty reasonable. It may also help that now I have a job which means I can spoil myself and be less frugal. Point taken, instead of disbursing the exorbitant price of USD 1.50 for accommodation back in 1998, this time I stayed at the Jade Seahorse, paying perhaps 50 times that amount. That is still a bargain, taking into account that you are staying in no doubt the most beautiful place in Utila. I am telling you, this has got to be one of the most unique hotels you will ever see in the world! It is like being in an Alice in Wonderland meets Antoni Gaudi dreamlike experience but in the Caribbean! Literally, the decoration is off the wall, everything in this hotel, the floor, the roof, the walls, they all come together to make an art piece, in fact there is so much detail it is difficult to see it all at once. Upon arrival you instantaneously go for your camera and start taking pictures as if you were in an art museum, it’s that impressive.

DIVINGstill drives theUTILAeconomy
get yourPADI OPEN-WATERcourse at an amazingly low price
In Utila diving is still the main driver of the economy and the dive shops, Alton’s, Cross Creek, Deep Blue, Utila Dive Centre, and many more are still busy operating, going on 3 to 5 fun dives daily and instructing divers from beginners to instructors a wide variety of dive specialties and courses. These seem to occupy almost the entire main street, neighboring such Utila staples like the Bundu Café, a great place for breakfast which is now about ten times the size of the original and just as popular; there is also RJ’s Bar and Grill, a grilled seafood aficionado’s restaurant of choice which still opens only three times a week to packed crowds. What makes RJ’s so special is that they serve fresh caught shrimp, barracuda, tuna, and mako shark (a new law was signed by government in 2011 which bans commercial fishing of all shark species), right from the sea onto the grill and onto your plate which is then garnished by mashed potatoes, rice, and salad etc. And it is not just about seafood, there is also the choice of grilled steak, pork, and chicken. In the end at RJ’s you are guaranteed a large and succulent grilled dish for an amazingly low price.

inexpensive grilled seafood atRJ's
I also found the Tranquila Bar dominating the nightlife in Utila. It completely dispalced my favorite hangout and long time Utila favorite Coco Loco. Tranquila Bar has been described by one of its three owners as a bar that caters to all ages and nationalities. In her own words, the mixture of the three founding members is what makes Tranquila so successful today. An American, a Guatemalan, and a Honduran representative have managed to team up and combine their cultural influences and tastes to create a magnificent setting with their own blends of music, together with creative and refreshing drinks, and the perfect combination of finger foods and specialty dishes. To top it all off, it is located on a wooden deck overlooking the Caribbean Sea, making IT the ideal place to catch the beautiful Utila sunsets.

the party begins atTRANQUILA BAR
Recalling all of these old school hang outs brought back so many amazing memories which have made me realize why these places seem to have withstood the passing of time. They not only have endured a devastating hurricane (Mitch in 1998), a political crisis (Mel in 2009), and the ups and downs of a seasonal economy, but most importantly they have touched a sweet spot in my subconscious and that of others before me; and they did it with a hip room, a deep dive, grilled tuna accompanied by a sweet piña colada, together with a fabulous music playlist in the background. It was the combination of these finer details which really stuck and lured me back again for another taste. The problem is that I have been visiting the same places over and over again every time I set foot on the island! On my next visit to Utila I will try my best to check out not just the old and familiar but also the new and promising which I am sure will also have great things to offer.

March 16, 2012

Omega Tours - White Water Rafting Part II

thePROSwatchful eye 
The words "bathing suit", "swimming", and "camera" usually don't go together in the same sentence, unless you have some type of water resistant camera or a camera housing to go with it - such equipment was an investment I finally made prior to embarking on our aqua filled vacation; you see, I recently bought the underwater camera housing for my Olympus PEN camera and I got to try it out for the first time on our rafting trip. Originally meant for diving, it proved to be very handy as it allowed me to document many parts of this activity which otherwise would have been forgotten as the years went by. Unfortunately for me, being a total rookie in the rafting business, I had to pass the camera on to one of the more experienced guides during some of the most treacherous sections of the river, as I did not want my new diving gear splattered on some rocks all over the Cangrejal River (I did manage to get some awesome diving shots, but that's for a future post). Nevertheless, you don't need an expensive waterproof camera case to catch all your river rafting action, as the Omega Tour guides bring along waterproof bags where a small point and shoot camera fits perfectly, keeping it dry and secure.
be careful no to be carried away by theSTRONG CURRENT

Down by the river we got familiarized with some rafting lingo, paddling instructions, and more importantly, making sure to follow directions. After receiving this obligatory safety first lecture, we marched upstream, cutting across the river bed over slippery stones, all the while trying not to get wet. Once on the other side we walked for a couple of minutes until we reached what appeared to be a dead end. A deep pool of water lay in front us and there was no going back except forward and into the river. I remember glancing over at my friends as they were deciding who would go first, and getting that first adrenaline rush as we got ready to take the 10 foot plunge! The water felt kinda cold at first but turned extremely cool and refreshing in seconds, and even though the river's water level was low for the time, we all got a feel of the river's powerful current. In order to not be washed downstream into oblivion you needed to swim diagonally to reach the other side, a feat everyone passed with flying colors, although some had to put in the extra effort to join the others.
Upon dry land we did not have to walk long until we reached challenge #2, a mammoth rock formation which stood tall, maybe two and half stories tall, daring us to climb its smooth and white colored walls. So ill-prepped with our flip flops, crocs, and beach sandals, we climbed slowly one by one, with the guides over looking making sure everyone made it to the top safely. Up and down rocks we went and a short walk later, we reached another large boulder, similar to the one we climbed earlier but this one came with a very pronounced incline leading into the river. It was virtually a launch ramp which allowed you to get enough speed to take off and dive into the deep pool below. We all took turns jumping into the Cangrejal, some even going as much as three times. I guess that's the fun Udo meant when he said there would be a lot of jumping and walking and jumping and swimming.
experiencing a naturalWATER SLIDE

The next part was probably one of the events I liked best. Instead of rafting or walking, this time we floated... YEEES, the 15 of us floated downstream at a slow pace most of the time, but catching fun speeds at certain drop-offs in the river. How soothing and relaxing is that?! I tell you, a 15 minute ride down this picturesque river in Honduras is the answer for anyone suffering from any type of anxiety. We were extremely delighted to relax and let ourselves be carried away!! Only condition here was to keep one's legs flexed for breaking purposes, if needed.

Finally, it came time to go rafting. Prior to our own run down the rapids, a lone kayaker scouted the river route, bolstering Omega Tours' commitment to safety. We drifted close behind, divided into 4 rafts, and proceeded to rehearse a few moves called out by each of our guides. This included how to duck into the raft, how to all lean onto one side, and how to paddle forwards and backwards, among others. After synchronizing these newly acquired skills we were ready to do our thing. We tried hard not to swallow white water down our throats and into our noses, but it's not as easy as you would think specially when the guides purposely keep the raft under the gushing water for you to choke for a few seconds. So, despite the occasional rush of water up our noses, we looked liked seasoned pros splashing water and bouncing all over the place. We finished each pass giving each other confident high fives, with the use of our paddles, I must add.

rushing through theRAPIDS
I was so glad I got to capture all of these amazing moments for future reminiscing! The rock climbing shots, the multiple dives into the deep pools of water, and catching my friends swimming in one direction but ending up in another, were all caught by my versatile camera. Best of it all was to catch their smiles as they rushed down one of nature's own water slides. In CCR's own words, Mary would have been Proud as we were rolling... rolling... rolling on the river!!!