Taking a breath underwater for the first time is an electrifying moment. Your mind and body are at odds screaming at each other while you sink deeper into the depths away from the safety of the surface. All you have is your confidence as the pressure builds and the light fades.
For so long I wanted to learn how to scuba dive after countless snorkeling trips around the globe. To be closer to aquatic life in their vast world without the limitation of a single breath was a dream come true!
Brad and I spent about three weeks on the Bay Islands of Utila and Roatán to learn how to scuba dive. Located on the northern coast of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea, the Bay Islands are known as one of the cheapest places in the world to get PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certified.
We completed our PADI Open Water and Advanced Open Water courses with Underwater Vision in Utila before heading to Roatán to hone our skills with Native Sons. Below I review our experiences with each company while comparing the marine life and vibe of each island.
Stepping off the ferry in Utila was like landing in a laidback oasis complete with swaying palm trees, dive shops, and thousands of hungry mosquitos. It's safe to assume every tourist you encounter on the island is there to scuba dive, whether to obtain a certification or improve existing skills.
I highly recommend having a few dive shops in mind before you arrive on the island. Most have dorms (included with diving) and private rooms (for an additional fee) which are located on site. The three most popular dive shops are Utila Dive Center, Underwater Vision, and Alton's Dive Center. Check reviews and compare prices to see which one is right for you.
Once you complete your certification you can go on fun dives with other shops. No need to stay loyal unless you want to! Most go to the same locations, so be sure to know the schedule before signing up to avoid a repetitive dive.
Utila is small and walkable, but tuk-tuks are available if you need a lift. More than likely you won't stray too far away from Main Street, the town's principal road. Souvenir shops, grocery stores, cafés, restaurants, fruit stands, and tour operators line both sides.
Looking for relaxing beaches where you can soak up some rays? Grab a few drinks and hang out under the partially submerged palapa tables at Chepes Beach (public and free) or catch a golden sunset while swaying in a hammock with a frozen cocktail at Bando Beach (private and 40 HNL per person). Both are chill study spots!
Travelers with salty hair walk up and down Main Street in search of affordable meals after tiring dives. Check out some of our favorite spots below!
• Lunch - A trip to Honduras isn't complete without trying baleadas. This tasty street food is made with a fluffy flour tortilla smeared with refried beans, crumbled cheese, and sour cream. Fillings include fresh vegetables, chicken, eggs, and avocado. Our favorite spot was La Casita. Be sure to smother your baleada with the creamy and spicy sauces!
• Dinner - For HUGE portions of freshly grilled fish and sides head to RJ's. The value is unbeatable and the atmosphere is lively. Arrive early to snag a piece of the decadent chocolate or coconut cake. Another great option for ceviche and seafood is Mario's Place. Pair your meal with one of the homemade condiments or add a kick with the delicious habanero salsa.
• Dessert - If you need an afternoon sugar rush, try one of the organic chocolate creations at Utila Chocolate Co. Two homemade scoops of velvety ice cream balanced the intense semi-sweet chocolate flavor of the brownie. Unique chocolate bar flavors, such as lemongrass, are also available for purchase.
Utila has a variety of dive shops with varying price points. Along our travels we met a few backpackers who recommended Underwater Vision for its program and facilities. As fate would have it, we met Dane, one of our instructors, during our time in Copán Ruinas!
Cost and Reviews
After a bit of research and negotiating, we chose Underwater Vision over Utila Dive Center and Alton's Dive Center even though all had stellar reviews. Plus our friend, Carla, who started her certification before us, liked the atmosphere at Underwater Vision.
The PADI Open Water and Advanced Open Water courses were $313 USD each (the cheapest of the three). Both courses included two fun dives which we enjoyed after the completion of our Advanced Open Water course.
Underwater Vision accepts payments via credit card, but be aware a service fee of 6% will be charged. Cash is accepted in either USD or HNL. There are two ATMs on Utila which only dispense HNL.
Brad and I opted to rent an apartment at Bush's Suites for $54 USD (including electric) per night next door to Underwater Vision during our stay on the island. The basic kitchen at Underwater Vision wasn't going to work for our needs. In the end our furnished apartment with air conditioning was more comfortable compared to staying on site.
Dorms with a fan are FREE throughout dive courses! During fun dives and days bordering courses, the rate is $8 USD per person per night. Rates increase to $12 USD per person per night without diving.
Suites and private rooms with air conditioning and hot water are also available. Private rooms start at $42 USD per night and suites at $82 USD per night with diving.
Underwater Vision has a beautiful stretch of water bordered by two piers. Lounge chairs, hammocks, and picnic tables are plentiful. Mingle with a drink at the bar or enjoy a meal at the onsite restaurant.
Make new friends by joining a game of pool or volleyball. Underwater Vision also has trivia and karaoke nights to bring everyone together on dry land.
We really enjoyed dressing up as a checkers board for the Halloween party. One of the games involved two diving instructors, each with a fitted snorkel mask full of beer, racing to be first by consuming it all through their noses! Crazy times!
The gear at Underwater Vision is decent. Fins, snorkels, buoyancy control devices (BCDs), weights, tanks, and regulators were in good condition. Always be sure to inspect your equipment before heading out on the dive boat.
Some of the wetsuits had torn underarm fabric. If you get cold easily, like I do, ask for a better wetsuit. Chances are you will be able to switch it without issue. Comfort is key to a successful and fun dive!
Classroom and Instructors
Underwater Vision has a variety of PADI courses ranging from beginner to advanced. Specialty courses such as rescue, instructor, and digital photography are available. There are over 40 options!
While looking at TripAdvisor reviews, Brad and I noticed Cynthia was a popular scuba instructor for her professionalism, positive attitude, safety, and by-the-book approach. She exceeded our expectations and really made our time at Underwater Vision phenomenal. Cynthia's patience, confidence, and knowledge put us at ease every time we followed her into the water.
Dane, our assistant scuba instructor, was equally superb. His approachable, fun, and easygoing nature helped us feel comfortable asking questions. We really appreciated his passion for diving and marine life. Dane and Cynthia made an unforgettable team!
PADI's Open Water course curriculum includes videos, worksheets, quizzes, exams, underwater skills, buoyancy control, navigation, emergency procedures, and equipment management. Upon completion of the four-day course, you'll be able to dive to a maximum depth of 60 ft (18 m)!
If shipwreck or night diving appeals to you, sign up for the two-day Advanced Open Water course. You'll build on your skills and descend to a maximum depth of 100 ft (30 m). Looking back, I'm glad we completed both courses back-to-back in order to unlock more dive sites around the globe.
Brad and I were fortunate to have fellow instructor and underwater photographer, Dorothee Feickert, take pictures of us during a training day. These candid shots (featured above) captured our whirlwind adventure perfectly!
The Bay Islands are situated along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The massive corals provide the ultimate habitat for diverse aquatic species. The visibility depends on the weather conditions. We had average clarity in October, which falls in the middle of the rainy season. Scuba diving is peaceful in the low current.
Brad and I encountered moray eels, butterfly fish, stingrays, smooth trunk fish, bioluminescence, string of pearls, puffer fish, lobsters, barracudas, parrotfish, jacks, filefish, Christmas tree worms, and a mesmerizing spotted drum. The Halliburton Shipwreck was also spectacular!
After two weeks in Utila, we rode the ferry to Roatán to explore some dive sites. Roatán is more expensive and touristy compared to Utila, but our stay in West End felt low key.
Although we never ventured outside of West End, colectivos (shared transportation) are available to get around Roatán. Always be sure to negotiate a rate before heading to your destination if you take a taxi. We paid 300 HNL ($12 USD) for a ride from the ferry terminal to our hotel. Some taxis try to charge $30 USD for the same ride.
The main road along the stunning beach has boutiques, eateries, bars, dive shops, and supermarkets. Watch out for expensive restaurants, which Brad refers to as land mines, with additional service fees and taxes.
You don't have to walk far to find a delicious meal in Roatán. A few street food stands set up for dinner along the main road if you are looking for budget eats. Here are my reasonably priced restaurant picks!
• Brunch - The mouthwatering menu at Sandy Buns Bakery is ideal for breakfast or lunch. Our hefty el cochinito (BBQ pork) and buffalo chicken sandwiches oozed with flavor and held us over the whole day; we didn't need dinner! Make sure to try the addictive sticky garlic sweet potato fries. The homemade buns elevate the sandwiches to heavenly perfection.
• Dinner - Roatán offers a variety of international cuisines, including Salvadoran. Devour a plate of papusas (thick corn flour flatbread) stuffed with refried beans and cheese topped with curtido (spicy fermented cabbage slaw) and tomato salsa at Pupuseria Salvadoreña. These papusas were our favorite in Central America!
Brad and I stayed in an apartment at Hotel Chillies across from the beach. The hotel partners with Native Sons dive shop (next door) and gives guests a scuba diving discount. Our dives were $35 USD per person per tank including equipment.
Snorkel gear was included during our stay. Ask for directions to the pier with the yellow submarine. Underneath is a fantastic snorkel spot to see angelfish, eels, scorpion fish, urchins, and sea anemones.
Native Sons dives three times a day at 9:00 AM, 11:00 AM, and 2:00 PM. The Roatán Marine Park covers eight miles with numerous dive sites. My favorites included Mandy's Eel Garden, Hole in the Wall, and El Aguila Shipwreck.
Our scuba instructor, Allen, was wonderful! He helped me overcome claustrophobia navigating the tight corals (Swiss Cheese) in Hole in the Wall and pointed out unique wildlife. We enjoyed identifying fish species in the guide book once we returned off the boat.
Native Sons has great equipment and staff will set it up for you on the boat before departure. During my first dive I had a sticky regulator and it was quickly swapped out for a new one. Overall our experience was top-notch!
The dive sites around Roatán are AMAZING! The crystal-clear visibility, gigantic corals, and colorful fish blew Utila out of the water. Scuba diving during low season was a blessing in disguise since we didn't have to compete with other divers at the sites.
We observed sea turtles, spotted moray eels, scorpion fish, blue tangs, sergeant majors, lionfish, angelfish, garden eels, crabs, shrimps, damselfish, indigo hamlets, groupers, urchins, and so much more! Roatán is worth the trip to see this underwater heaven.
In a (Coco) Nut Shell
Scuba diving is in a league of its own. Wildlife and ocean lovers will be transported to another world along the sea floor. Floating above dazzling fish and majestic corals while breathing underwater is indescribable.
Learning how to scuba dive has its challenges, but practice makes perfect. I feel more comfortable in deep water and continue to work on my buoyancy. Don't get discouraged while training and be honest with your instructors about how you feel. Conquer your fears and see the ocean from a new perspective!
Utila is an idyllic place to learn how to scuba dive with fellow backpackers. Underwater Vision will take care of you, no matter your learning pace. Roatán is breathtaking and Native Sons will cater to your interests. The Bay Islands of Honduras offer scuba divers a wonderful environment to learn, relax, and socialize.