There are three Bay Islands of Honduras, of which Utila is the nearest to the coast, and the first one you come to from the Rio Dulce. It, like the other Bay Islands, is part of an underground mountain range, fringed by coral reefs. Utila has signs of volcanic activity at Pumpkin Hill, but most of the island has a limestone base, and is, as the chart describes it, low and swampy. It’s about 8 1/2 miles long and not more than 3 miles wide. We rode around a goodly portion of it on our folding bikes and I had a leisurely climb of Pumpkin Hill.
The town of Utila has two parts: the main concrete road runs along the shore for traffic consisting of golf carts, ATVs, bicycles, strollers, skateboards, and, just to mix things up, the occasional pickup truck or van. There’s a ferry dock; that’s how everything gets here.
And there are restaurants and bars, hardware stores and groceries, cell phone stores and ATMs, all the usual paraphernalia of modern life, but small, the size appropriate to a place with maybe 7-8000 people. Special to Utila and the Bay Islands are dive shops and realtors, both with an eye toward the modern galleons bearing cash in their pockets. It’s a pleasant island tending along the lines of the Abacos, or Carriacou, or Bequia, and popular with backpacker/divers.
Up the hill is the village proper, while the gringos are building out of town mostly along the coast, mowing down the mangroves and clearcutting the groundcover for their stateside- sized casas. But apparently the locals too have been building for some time:
For more than a century, islanders have continuously augmented their beach front by “making land”. The original shoreline of Utila, only a few yards deep from the high water mark, has been extended in many places an additional thirty to forty yards or more by filling in fenced rectangles of water with refuse and broken coral. Houses that were poised on pilings over eight feet of water some sixty or seventy years ago now sit on terra firma and the process goes on–giving portions of the harbor a Venetian effect–even though the cost is high in money and labor. Land making in the swamp areas has been pursued in like manner, one barrio in the community being named Holland to commemorate its origin through reclamation.
Hiding from a south and west wind that made a mess of the main harbor, we anchored a few days between Utila and a cay-community at SucSuc and Pigeon Cays. Buildings huddle together on crooked pilings over land barely above sea level, and every porch is a dock. This, I’m told, was in fact the site of Utila’s earliest British settlement. Can’t figure out why anyone would chose this damp pied-a-terre when they could have the hillside, now or then. But I am coming to suspect that the presence of no-see-‘ums had something to do with it.
Another surprise was being greeted in English, a pretty and picturesque form of it. Come to find out that the Bay Islands were British during the early part of the 1800s; a lot of the settlers had names like Jones and McNab, Bush and Cooper, Jackson and Thompson, and several came via the Cayman Islands. Although Honduras took formal possession around 1860, it is said that some residents didn’t realize anything had changed until Queen Victoria died in 1901. Here’s how they saw it two hundred years ago.
Gradually mainland Hondurans have come out to the Bay Islands, but we still met people who spoke only one language or the other. And then there’s a Garifuna presence – these are the slaves forcibly removed from St. Vincent in the 1790s and dumped in the Bay Islands, from whence they have spread to Belize and coastal Honduras. I think they have a language of their own, but use the other two. I tried asking a Garifuna woman for something in Spanish, and as she was showing me, she finally said “Don’t you speak English?”
One of the neatest places I’ve ever seen is a hotel/restaurant/bar called the Jade Seahorse. Owned by, I’m told, glass bead artists from Israel, the entire property is a riot of color and texture, not just the glass grottoes and encrustations, but the cabins and carpentry as well. “Makes me want to go home and get artsy” said Doug. “I seem to be a little conservative.”