We met some really nice people during the day's journey (3 Irish girls, 4 English girls and 1 English bloke) who were all heading the same way as us. As ever you can always rely on the Irish who dished out cheese rolls despite the cramped conditions on the bus, and booked ahead beds for us all at the Banana Republic hostel in La Ceiba. When we finally arrived in town at around 9pm, there were 2 taxis waiting...just right to take the 8 girls to the hostel. Not realising there was not another taxi in sight anywhere (this must be an extreme rarity in central america), me and Will from Oxford were left standing without a lift, not knowing if or when the taxi drivers might return. On seeing this and with some beer money to be made in mind, the bus conductor offered to give us a lift to the hostel for the same rate as the taxi. A funny sight for Lou and the girls as they unpacked their gear from the taxis to see a big bus pull up and drop us off. The hostel was completely full and we spent the night along with our new friends Laura, Ang and Will sleeping in overflow bunkbeds in a corridor outside the other bedrooms, talking about curry, Cheryl Cole and other unsavory topics.
The next morning we waved goodbye to the Irish girls who were spending some time in La Ceiba, and the rest of us caught the Island tours ferry to Utila, a big old boat complete with loud music, dance floor, disco lights, and a spanish dubbed version of Twilight inside for those of us not feeling the party boat vibe at this time of the morning
. Utila is one of Honduras' Bay Islands, located 29km off the mainland and surrounded by the warm, tropical caribbean sea. It's only 13km long and 5km wide and the entire island is surrounded by coral reef and abundant sea life making it one of the top diving spots in the world. As luck would have it we also found out that this weekend a tiny uninhabited island close to Utila would be hosting Sun Jam, a dance music festival held once a year that attracts DJs from around the world...good times. The crossing took an hour and a half and once on the island we all headed to Alton's Dive Centre - a really laid back place with on site accommodation built over the water on a wooden jetty, a rehabilitation pool for giant conchs and a rescued turtle, chilled out bar and hammocks, great dive centre and friendly staff. We signed up for a 12 fun dive package and after being told how fully booked the island was this weekend due to Sun Jam, found ourselves and the 4 English girls in a 4 bed dorm with 2 extra mattresses on the floor (and a promise that this would only be for one night). Hot.
Later that evening we found a small motor boat to take us out across the bay to Sun Jam at Water Caye. It was pitch black with one guy on the back steering and one guy on the front with a torch making sure we didn't hit a boat heading back the other way. It felt like being smuggled across a border all crammed into an oversized canoe with no light except from the moon and stars and huge bolts of lightening out at sea. The festival was wicked...a tiny sandy island only inhabited by palm trees and sand flies had been transformed for the night into something that Michael Eavis would be proud of. The toilets were aboard a barge tied to the beach which we had to walk along a plank to get onto (this got more difficult to pull off as the night progressed, and the novelty soon wore off as the porta-loos became as disgusting as ever)
. We drank our way through plenty of cheap rum and danced until 2.30 when we decided to call it a night. There were plenty of boats ferrying to and from Utila all night, and we just had to wait whilst 20 plus crates of water, 30 plus bottles of coke and 50 plus crates of beer were unloaded onto the beach for the long haulers before the ride home. Sunday felt like a sunday this week and we lounged around by the sea, swimming and sunbathing, and recovering for an early start diving the next day.
We spent the next 7 days diving, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming and chilling out in the hammocks on the jetty at Altons. The diving here is some of the best (and cheapest) we have ever done and we saw so much on every dive including turtles, moray eels, eagle rays, scorpion fish, barracudas, giant groupers, trumpet fish, trigger fish, christmas tree worms, lobsters and crabs (half the size of Lou), all types of soft and hard corals and some things that we have never seen before like the juvenile yellow-tailed damsel fish, spotted drum fish and scrawled file fish. The dive masters and instructors were really good people and during one surface interval a pod of pilot whales swam past the boat and we all jumped in to snorkel alongside them.
Evenings on the island were spent with new friends; eating fresh fish from the BBQ and drinking beers on the jetties at Alton's, Tranquila Bar or in the amazing Treetanic up in the town
. Treetanic took 14 years to build and is a maze of archways and tunnels completely covered in mosaics of mirrors, glass bottles, shells, coral and marble...you have to see it to believe it. Each saturday afternoon Alton's ran a free booze crooze aboard one of the dive boats and made a loop of the bay as the sun set. One evening it looked as if some bad weather was heading inland, and the owner of the dive centre bought us all a drink and declared there to be a hurricane party! It is extremely easy to see how people come here for a few days and end up staying for years, and we met plenty of people who had done just this. Towards the end of the week we began to declare we were "leaving the next day" and after a couple of beers this somehow transformed into "just one more day" and "just two more dives" and a list of excuses as to why tomorrow was a bad day to travel anyway. 4 days later than planned we finally purchased our tickets for the 6am boat during the previous afternoon to prevent us from being able to change our minds again. Good job too as at 3am we were still drinking knowing that our boat left in 3 hours time and it would have definitely turned into "just one more day" for sure.
The speedboat from Placencia across the gulf of Honduras was full of other backpackers and we all handed over our passports to the captain to carry out the immigration formalities while we waited on board. The 2 hour crossing was pretty exciting as the captain had to swerve logs, branches and other floating debris which had washed into the sea. When we arrived in Puerto Cortes our passports were collected again, this time by the Honduran 'officials' and we were left standing at the dock as we watched them disappear to the immigration office. The only people left behind were some dodgy looking locals waving thick bundles of cash around and offering bad exchange rates on our belizean currency, relentless taxi drivers offering the ride to the immigration office for $3 per person (regardless of the amount of people in a car), and of course the 30 or so passportless, confused gringos. After arguing over the greedy taxi prices and eventually being reunited with our stamped passports from immigration we climbed aboard a very packed collectivo with our bags under our feet, on our laps, or in some cases both, and headed for San Pedro Sula where we were hoping to make the connection with another bus to La Ceiba and the boats to the Bay Islands