As part of my master’s thesis I visited the island of Útila, off the northern coast of Honduras, for two weeks in December of 2016. This was a preliminary scoping trip, executed to better understand the area and the community I would be working with. My thesis is an ethnographic assessment of the fishing community on the Cays southwest of the island. Prior to this trip, it was an area I was completely unfamiliar with. And with any research project, scoping is a practical way to better understand your setting, so you can hit the ground running when you return for data collection.
So just to clarify: this was not a vacation, it was serious business.
A sharp ethnographer utilizes a combination of literature review and experience to understand the dos and don’ts of a foreign environment. And while the island life may seem like a tropical paradise—because it is—it can also become an instant nightmare. I certainly learned a lot about the history, community, and culture during this trip, none of which is discussed here; you will have to read my thesis for that. But I can provide a slightly entertaining list of survival basics in my 7 Rules to Surviving Útila.
Rule #1: Keep to the Right, in an Orderly Fashion, and Watch the Drainage
Once you step off the boat and make your way through a line of “tourist” flyers, you arrive in the hustle and bustle of the island, Útila Town. The town contains the municipal dock, the airport, and the vast majority of residents and businesses. So while it’s not necessarily a large town, it is dense with people and small vehicles. Here we have five standard vehicles: tuk-tuks, ATVs, golf carts, motorbikes (mostly what we call in America “dirtbikes” and an occasional scooter), and bicycles.
The tuk-tuk—essentially a three-wheeled taxi with no doors—is a relatively (at least, relative to the island) fast vehicle typically driven by a person with no fear; in fact, I’m certain no one driving on Útila has any fear. And frankly, I’m not sure what is more terrifying: walking on a busy road in Útila or taking one of these taxis. But this necessitates the first rule: get the hell out of the way. Just like traffic in the Americas, when you walk you should keep to the right—the far right. Furthermore, nothing is worse than the line of five tourists that needlessly walk side-by-side down the narrows of Main Street. If you choose to walk carelessly down these roads—where pedestrians do not have the right-away—you will potentially suffer the dire consequences.
But as much as you should keep to the right, and walk in a straight line, you should be mindful of the drainages. And don’t go splashing in puddles either, because like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.
Rule #2: Bring Sandals with Traction
When packing your warm clothes for the beautiful island weather of Útila, you’ll certainly be throwing in your favorite pair of American Eagle Flip Flops. Well don’t. And if you’re thinking of just purchasing a pair of five-dollar flip flops from Bush’s Market, forget it. It might come as a surprise to you, but the island is WET, and combining water and smooth surfaces with crap footwear equals disaster. Please review the following equation:
I had the pleasure of grasping the consequences of wearing sub-par footwear on the last day I spent on the Útila Cays (refer to previous photo for example of sub-par footwear). One step off the dock to the floor of my favorite watering hole and I fell faster and harder than Dane Cook’s career. Luckily my toe caught my fall against the wooden support of a chair, then turned into the stark colors of van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Which segues perfectly into:
Rule #3: When in Trouble, Ask the Locals First
Now I should preface this by specifying that this does not apply to Shark Attacks or any other serious injuries/illnesses. Simply put, the free clinic has strange hours of operation, and you had better have lempiras—the local currency—to visit the medical center. Much like second rule, I learned this from my own disgusting personal experience.
Coming from the dry state of Arizona, I had an unpleasant introduction to the tropical climate of Central America. Less than a week into my trip I obtained a large rash on my chest which proceeded to spread and elevate, with equal parts burning and itching sensation. The verdict is still out on how I began my own bacterial colony, but far removed from Útila Town I had the good sense to ask a few locals about my condition. Luckily, Elba Store on the Cays stocks essential medications and they’re generally inexpensive. Following the instructions of a good man named Dave, I took some medication, used some ointment, and bathed in the seawater for about 30 minutes every day—before my trip was over I was back to normal.
This goes for many local disturbances, including the dreaded sandfly or no-see-ums. You will undoubtedly become dinner for these feared beasts, which are single-handedly responsible for driving the first European settlers to the Cays, removed from the main island, in the mid-1800s. As the locals have told me, forget the DEET; the best way to combat them is baby oil or the local remedy sold at Bush’s Market.
Why you ask? Isn’t this a vacation resort with full amenities? Sure… if you plan on staying at Neptune’s. But if you have the good sense to adventure around Útila Town or the Cays, pack some essentials. Remember that this is an island: it’s wet and the sea breeze penetrates buildings. Most restaurants have what more closely resembles an outhouse, and like anything else on the island it is impossible to keep water out. Bring a small roll of toilet paper with you, because the roll in the bathroom has already absorbed all of the island moisture it can handle.
Sinks aren’t always an option either, since fresh water is a precious resource. And where you do find a sink, you will almost never find soap. So if you need to be clean I highly recommend you bring some hand sanitizer. I’m not a big fan of using the stuff—I consider myself a man of nature, germs welcome here, for what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But even I found myself in need of a little sanitization every so often on the island.
Plain and simple, you never know what kind of bathroom you will be walking into, so the rule of thumb is: bring wipes and hand sanitizer. A flashlight isn’t a bad idea either.
Rule #5: Bring a Raincoat
Boat access means you CANNOT drive there, and you CANNOT (or in some cases should not) walk there. The majority of people reside in Útila Town, but if you have any sense of adventure you will want to make your way to the beautiful resorts along the south shore of the island or, my favorite place to visit, the Cays. If you want to get to any of these locations, you’ll be taking a small boat called a Dory. Typically, it’ll be a pleasant ride heading west with gorgeous views of the south shore. But when you’re back on the boat heading east to Útila Town, the westward wind is going to provide a bumpy and wet ride.
Simple boat etiquette is sit nearest to the back, hold onto something, face backwards, and wear a damn raincoat.
You’ll get splashed more than the front row of the Shamu Show. So put on the hood, close it tight, and bring an umbrella if you have one. Wearing moisture-wicking clothing on boat travel days isn’t a bad idea, because you’re still sitting on a hard, wet bench the whole ride over. Jeans are a big, fat NO.
As a side note, you can get rides to and from the Cays with Mr. Donald every Monday-Friday for a tenth the cost of most water taxis. Find him at Morgan’s dock—just west of the municipal dock—at 11:00 a.m. for a 50 lempira ride. Just know, he won’t be giving you a ride back to town until 8:00 a.m. the next day.
Rule #6: DO Drink the Guiffity
Guiffity (pronounced gif-fa-tee) is a traditional medicine of the Garifuna people, a mixed-ethnic group forcefully removed from Saint Vincent and placed on the island of Roatán in the late 18th century. They brought traditional knowledge with them and continued to prepare this medication, which has been adapted by the local population. Today it is made with alcohol, and you can almost always find a bottle sitting at the bar—it’s the brown liquid with all the plants in it.
And something you’re guaranteed to find out on day one: if a bar sells a t-shirt, they have a t-shirt challenge. While these challenges vary, none compares to the challenge at the local favorite, Skid Row.
Unlike Rehab and Buccaneers, Skid Row’s challenge requires a proper combination of guiffity consumption and physical activities. Don’t let this detour you; if you haven’t taken the Skid Row challenge you don’t even deserve a shirt. Guiffity might not be the most delightful beverage on the island, but it is a first-hand cultural experience of a traditional peoples with both indigenous Caribbean and Western African roots. Truthfully, this is an opportunity you cannot afford to miss out on.
And speaking of drinking, the final survival tip is…
Rule #7: Do Not Take Your $600+ Phone to Tequila Tuesdays
This recommendation comes from my buddy Bogdan, and I think it is pretty self-explanatory.
That is all for my first blog post on the Útila experience. There are more pressing topics around my research to discuss, but it is important to first grasp the basics before doing any research. Scoping is an essential part of ethnography, even if you’re learning more about what not to do.
I can’t thank the people who facilitated this trip enough, especially the Miller family for providing their lovely home, a phone (which isn’t waterproof), and their connections. My wonderful fianceé Melissa was an essential part of the scoping process; she took notes, made connections, and was sure let me know when I got out of line. And finally, special thanks to the friends I made in Útila. You will not find greater people than these island dwellers. If you visit, be sure to go to the Cays and have a Salva Vida with Mr. Herman at Cay View.