The road from Belize to Utila: it can’t be *that* hard, right?

The diving mecca of Utila in Honduras is a staple on the backpacking route, so you would think getting there would be a solved problem. But every travel resource says the same: it is a long journey without an easy solution. At Yuma’s in Caye Caulker, I first learned just how much a challenge it might pose: they had a laminated three-page instruction manual for the trip. The recommended route was a multiday mix of ferries and buses that run at awkward times, many only one day a week. And not the day of the week I wanted. Oi.

In the end, I took my time and completed the trip over four travel days in one week with overnight stays in Punto Gorda, La Ceiba, and a detour to Roatan. Thus begins my epic journey:

On Wednesday, I started from San Ignacio in Belize on the western border with Guatemala. Given all the scheduling trouble with Belize-Honduras water crossings, I decided to make my way south by land instead. I intended to visit Placencia (a Belize beach town on the central coast), continue to Rio Dulce in Guatemala (the only big Guat mainstay I didn’t hit already), then cross by land into Honduras, and finally boat to Utila.

But intentions are worth little on the road and this trip was fraught with impulse decisions. I did NOTHING I planned. During a five minute stop at the bus junction to Placencia, I decided to keep moving south. Turns out it was a good decision: whale sharks–the big reason to visit this time of year–were decidedly absent. I instead went to Punto Gorda (bus $4Bz San Ignacio->Belmopan, $19Bz Belmopan->Punto Gorda), the sleepy southern entry/exit point for Belize.

Arriving at the hostel, I immediately ran into my friend Joanne in her signature electric orange Gallo tank top. We have been each other’s inadvertent shadows since Xela; over the past six weeks we have reconnected by chance five times! I am so happy we spent the time to get to know each other better over a delectable dinner of spaghetti carbonara way back in Antigua at meeting #2. She is a fellow blogger and I was delighted to find her on the porch reading my blog as I walked up. She told me she was planning to cross to Utila on Friday, would feel safer with company, and would I like to go. I stewed over the thought for the night. Usually my travel days are a solo affair but entering Honduras with a companion felt WAY better. I decided to forgo Rio Dulce and do the trip with Joanne for both my own comfort and as something I could give her.

We spent Thursday afternoon powwowing logistics. Mainland Honduras has a reputation for being the sketchiest place in Central America and by land there is no way to avoid passing through San Pedro Sula, the most dangerous city in the world with 169 murders per 100,000, averaging 3.3 killings per day. It’s mostly gangs and drug cartels, but there is also the occasional tourist who foolishly refuses to give up their SLR. Our strategy was to start early in the morning and move as quickly as possible. Electronics were tucked away, money was stashed in multiple pockets, water and travel snacks were procured. After doing our research, we came up with the Friday plan:

The route. Doesn’t look too bad….
  • 9:30 am: Ferry from Punto Gorda, Belize to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.($50Bz)
  • 10:45 am: Arrive in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. Transfer to private taxi to 2nd immigration office on the Guatemala/Honduras border. (50Q)
  • 11:30 am: Transfer to Maya Norte bus to San Pedro Sula. (about $10USD) Cross the border.
  • 2:30 pm: Arrive in San Pedro Sula Terminal. Transfer bus to La Ceiba. If we get stuck in San Pedro overnight, take a taxi and stay at La Hammocka. No going out at night.
  • 6:30 pm: Arrive in La Ceiba. Taxi to El Hotel Estadio and hunker in for the night.
  • 8:00 am: Taxi to ferry terminal 8km east of town.
  • 9:00 am: Boat to Utila. ($30USD)

How did it *actually* happen?

    • Leaving Belize, the exit station was plastered with PSA posters about human trafficking and how you have the right to seek asylum if you fear to return to your home country. Whoa. We paid our $37.50 exit tax and headed to the dock. The Punto Gorda ferry ($50Bz/$25USD), a small vessel seating only about 20, departed slightly late. The seas during the one-hour ride to Puerto Barrios were smooth. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, ate a peanut bar (the first of many that day), and felt the wind in my hair. We were on our way.
    • We arrived in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala and were immediately offered direct minibus service to La Ceiba (200Q/$25USD each). Simultaneously, we became acquainted with a fellow traveler, Doron, who became our companion and Spanish-speaking advocate. We made a split decision to go off book and travel direct as we thought it would save time. Daylight on a travel day is precious and the driver said we should reach La Ceiba by 4:30pm, which is astonishingly fast. (That should have been our first clue…) We hopped in the minibus and started chatting away, optimistic we might reach La Ceiba in time for the afternoon ferry. I only had Belize dollars on hand and with all the border crossings I quickly ran up a tab with my amiable and currency-versatile associates.
    • At the second Guatemalan immigration post, the driver kicked us from the shuttle and began loading our gear onto a large Maya Norte coach bus. This was the exact same cheaper option we had originally planned on doing, not the direct private ride we thought we had signed up for. He was essentially trying to charge us quadruple the going rate for transport to the bus stop. Doron expressed our discontent. “It’s not direct if there are TWO BUSES!” But in the end, getting ripped off a little was better than an escalated conflict, so we compromised and paid him 200Q ($7USD each, an outrageous price) for driving the three of us that first 45-minute leg.
    • We purchased continuing bus tickets (100Q/$13USD) from the newly-arrived legit Maya Norte bus driver and boarded at 12:15pm. It was a true comfortable coach, the likes of which I had not seen since Mexico. We crossed the Honduran border ($3USD entry fee) with ease; my border agent didn’t seem to like me even though I empathized that her visa stamp handle sucked and they should give her a better one. The ride flew by with reading, napping, more peanut bars, and excellent conversation about books, travel, history, family, and a little fundraising thrown in for good measure.
    • We arrived in San Pedro Sula at 3:30pm, found a connection to La Ceiba immediately ($7USD each), and were out by 3:45pm. Twenty minutes after departing the station, the bus was stopped by armed police. They had everyone step outside, separated the women from the men (this felt uncomfortable), and frisked all non-white men for weapons. Everyone was deemed clean so we continued on our way. Out of the city, the view from my open window was a beautiful rolling tropical jungle countryside.
  • We arrived in La Ceiba at 7:30pm, violating my rule of not arriving anywhere after dark. Our trio immediately found a taxi (50 limpera/$2.50USD each) and drove to the hotel Joanne and I had booked. We were ushered quickly in off the street; the hotel had padlocked gates, barred windows, and barbed wire fencing. There were no shops in sight that looked open and we were famished after a full day without proper food. Our hotel owner drove us ($1USD each) to the rooftop Expatriates Bar, which was hopping. We ate enormous plates of food (including the biggest fish sandwich I have ever seen!), cheersed our first Honduran beers, and listened to a house band play a mix of oldies and Island standards with SoCal/Tex-Mex Spanglish pronunciation. True to the name, white people filled the bar, ranging from us backpackers to a woman in her 60s wearing pearls and a white cardigan over her shoulders who must have arrived via private yacht. One older man in the audience was very into the music; he brought his own percussion section (“now he has a tambourine!!”), played along, shook his booty to Elvis, and sang karaoke. Such an unexpected first night! Welcome to Honduras…
  • On Saturday, after waking to find we were *indeed* in Honduras, our hotel owner drove us to the docks (50 Lmp/$2.50USD each) and I decided at the last possible minute to visit Utila’s sister Bay Island first. We took the massive proper ferry across to Roatan ($600 Lmp/$30USD one way) at 9:30am. Each ferry ticket came with a complimentary tablet of Dramamine. An usher offered industrial-looking barf bags as well. I ate the tablet, declined the bag, and had no problem with motion sickness on the crossing. Aboard we watched a perfectly serendipitous soccer match. Go Lilywhites!
Ferry to Roatan, first class A+ all the way!
Image from http://www.roatanferry.com/
  • After spending a few days in Roatan (more on this soon), I secured a spot on a Wednesday 1pm charter boat ($50USD), the Lady Julia, and made the final crossing to Utila. There are surprisingly no direct ferries between the two islands, so the options are charter boat, flying, or ferrying back to the mainland. Even charters that go often don’t run on a set schedule, so one must keep calling captains until you find one headed in the right direction. I had to push my departure an extra day because no boats were going on Tuesday, but in my flexible case it was a pleasure to stay a little longer. The crossing took nearly 3 hours and was a rocky ride. I came off feeling queasy, but finally in Utila. Success!
The Lady Julia, heading out of Half Moon Bay, Roatan.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Totals from Punto Gorda
Cost: $125.50 travel to Roatan + $50 charter to Utila + $13.50 hotel in La Ceiba = $189
Active travel time: 13 hours to Roatan + 3 hour charter to Utila = 16 hours
Mileage: approximately 290 miles to Roatan + 30 miles to Utila = approx 320 miles

All in all it was one hell of a trip. Long, with way too many transfers, but safety did end up feeling manageable. It was still most definitely a good idea to go with company. Now that I have finally made it to Utila, I think I’m going to stay for a while. (Especially knowing the trek to Nicaragua is another two-day trip in my future…) Advanced Open Water, here I come!

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2 thoughts on “The road from Belize to Utila: it can’t be *that* hard, right?

  1. Sure sounds like a good trip a little hectic though. We just took a ferry from Roatan to Cayos Cachinos which was an hour and that quite sapped me out. Though s look at the Cayos Cachinos reef was worth the journey.

    Like

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