After more than one month of cycling, we are all pretty excited to hit up a tropical island in the Caribbean and unwind. Postcards depict the Bay Islands with vivid images of white sand beaches, cerulean waters, and cold drinks and hammocks for all! But in order to get to Heaven, we have to endure a bit of Hell.
We board our ferry bound for Utila Island, expecting to enjoy a pleasant hour chugging gently across the Caribbean. But this isn’t a typical ferry. We descend into a dank and dim room, roughly square in shape. Although there are windows, the horizon is invisible when seated. After everyone is aboard, the door is shut and sealed, locking out any circulation of fresh air. Without a moment’s hesitation, a ferry attendant begins nonchalantly handing out barf bags. “It’s rough today,” he says, with a knowing smile on his face. Devon says, “I never get motion sickness,” and then on second thought, asks for a bag.
The ferry glides away from shore smoothly enough. But then, just as we are settling into the relaxing rocking of our voyage, the vessel hits open water and suddenly the mighty hand of Poseidon himself lifts us up and smashes us back down into the sea, hard. The boat is thrown and tossed about in such a stomach-flipping way that the ferry puts any former favorite carnival ride to shame.
Devon jumps from her seat with excitement and joins Peter and Logan, who are standing closer to the bow. Janell and Kat go pale-faced and tilt their heads down. Alyssa and Kate stay seated momentarily and then opt for standing positions. Devon is beaming with a wide-eyed goofy little kid’s face, exclaiming, “This is great!” every time the ship bucks and barrels violently over to one side.
Forty minutes later, Devon is seated, face green and skin clammy, eyes fixed straight ahead. Logan asks Devon for her barf bag so he can have it at the ready “just in case.” Alyssa is vomiting repeatedly next to Devon. Kat hasn’t brought her head up the whole ride. Janell is listening to Enya and practicing meditative breaths. Kate is standing, clinging to a nearby pole like a rag doll, before finally sliding down onto a seat in dizzy exhaustion. Peter is perched atop a metal bar, his face stern and resolute, expertly masking any signs of motion sickness.
We finally disembark on Utila, shaky and a bit delirious. But our welcome party is happily awaiting our arrival, brightening our spirits. Kate’s brother, Ben, and his girlfriend, Carrie, greet us with hugs, jokes and laughter and lead us to the Utila Dive Center, where Kat and Peter sign up for a scuba certification class. Our hotel is swanky, complete with hammocks, bar, and swimming pool. We devour pizza after pizza at the bar and Logan is presented with the baked potato he has been anxiously craving for days. (Thank you for dinner, Mary!)
The next few days is a tranquilo mishmash of sunbathing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and eating copious amounts of American-style food (French toast, waffles, granola and yogurt, all-you-can-eat salad bar, grilled animal flesh, nachos, bacon). Sadly, though, many of the commercial fisheries surrounding
Utila are in danger of acute decline, due to a markedly lopsided preference for satisfying market demand over adhering to fishing regulations. After learning this, we make a concerted effort to avoid the more threatened species of fish on our meal outings. There are a dozen or so restaurants along the sole road traversing Utila, and we become regulars at half of them, at least. As our party variously bands and disbands throughout each day, we somehow manage to dine at the same places but at different times, maintaining a steady stream of faithful patronage. Walking past one another, we’ll offer up neighborly waves and perhaps share some island gossip, and then continue on. It’s all very colloquial, in a Mr. Rogers-sort of way.
This lone road, which runs east to west along the south shore of the island, takes about 40 minutes to walk from one end to the other. It’s well-traveled during the day, seeing an interesting assortment of bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians, all-terrain vehicles and the occasional van or truck, all moving along at their respective speeds—which is to say, the walkers walking slow and the motor-craft going far too fast. There’s not much space and no lanes to speak of, so the prudent pedestrian soon learns to step quickly and watch the road ahead. Not one of us is run down during our entire stay, which seems almost miraculous, come to think of it.
Utila, along with the larger Roatán and Guanaja to the east, constitute the major landmasses of Honduras’s Bay Islands. Another 65 cayes round out this 125-kilometer long island chain, which is a mostly submerged adjunct of the Sierra de Omoa mountain range. Aside from a few notable humps—Utila’s Pumpkin Hill reaches 82 meters, and Michael’s Peak on Guanaja, at 415 meters, is the highest point on the islands—the chain is remarkably flat, almost disappearing into the horizon. All this, though, is arguably beside the point: Most come here to see what’s under the sea, not above it. The islands lie along what is the southernmost edge of a massive barrier reef (the world’s second-largest, in fact), and their waters literally teem with aquatic life. Turtles, dolphins, barracuda and hundreds of species of coral call the Bay Islands home, and titanic whale sharks frequent the plankton-rich depths off Utila’s north coast. Our stay was limited to that particular island, but the others all boast equally (if not exceedingly) impressive aqua-fauna. An afternoon spent snorkeling at any of the myriad reefs encircling Utila will yield sightings of the most flamboyantly colored, fantastically wrought creatures one could imagine—an entire waterscape stranger than fiction. Dr. Seuss may have seen one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish—but he couldn’t hold a candle to what Utila has to offer.
Kat and Peter go on a number of dives as part of their open-water diving certification, and the reef does not disappoint. Together they see spotted eagle rays and huge pods of bottlenose dolphins, as well as a dazzling kaleidoscope of fish and coral. On Thursday Kat’s friend Nick sails in from Roatán, and he joins the daily outings to the reef for diving. Days on Utila pass alarmingly fast when one dives: morning boats leave between 7 and 8 a.m. and return by noon; after a quick lunch break, the afternoon boats leave around 1 p.m. and don’t get back until 4 or so. The water’s pretty choppy at this point, and the pelicans and frigate birds normally soaring overhead have postponed their air-to-sea fishing acrobatics until the morn. Thus ends the day for the diver, waterlogged and pruney-fingered and smelling of brine.
Of course, the island adventures aren’t limited to purely underwater pursuits. Poor Kate becomes well-acquainted with the interior of her hotel room, as she is bed-ridden with a bad case of heat exhaustion throughout the majority of our island stay. Janell dutifully plays mother figure and tends to Kate’s health.
The others—Logan, Alyssa and Devon—decide to forego typical tourist attractions and venture instead on the road less traveled. They set out one day to ascend the wildly acclaimed Pumpkin Hill—apparently the only hike on the island, which practically no one ever climbs, because, why hike in the sloth-inducing heat when you can relax on the beach, snorkel and scuba? The trio, however, decides this might be a fun little jaunt, and embarks on a fruitless effort to find the most direct route to the summit. Alyssa starts the adventure off on a promising note when she asks a stranger for directions to “Pig Hill.” The stranger shakes her head, saying she has never heard of this hill and leaves Alyssa standing there puzzled. Logan and Devon offer no help, as they are overcome with laughter at Alyssa’s innocent slip of tongue. Soon, directions are found to Pumpkin Hill and the trio begins the long walk along what Devon dubs “The Road to Perdition.” The long, seemingly endless strip of pavement is blazing in the heat, with no shade anywhere in sight. The road finally opens up to a vast, scorching section of asphalt with no visible signs of a road or trail leading to their destination. At a police officer’s instruction, they dejectedly turn around and retrace their tracks all the way back up the Road to Perdition to where they missed the trail turn-off long ago. At this point, they encounter two very large, very loud local women puttering around the island in their golf cart. The women cackle wildly and deliver animated admonishments against the very idea of venturing through mosquito-infested territory by foot in this god-forsaken heat! After delivering their two cents, the riotous women zoom off in a cacophony of cackles and our flabbergasted travelers collapse to the ground in a delirious fit of giggles. They decide that perhaps their trek should wait until the next day and retreat back to the comfort of their hotel.
The following morning, Logan, Alyssa and Devon resolve to find Pumpkin Hill once and for all. They forge through heat, mud, and swarms of flies and mosquitoes. Their entrance into the swampy bit brings about a veritable feeding frenzy for mosquitoes and the three frantically coat themselves in DEET for good measure. After one long, hot slog, they finally crest the seemingly mythical Pumpkin Hill and take in a panoramic view of the island and surrounding Caribbean.
The tropical vista is pretty enough, but the hill is devoid of breeze and the travelers are weary from heat. The sweet thought of relaxing in the comfort of shade on the nearby beach beckons them away from the summit. They descend to the white sand shore, littered with washed-up refuse, and scour up and down for shade. No shade. There is no shade. In a wave of panic, the team becomes incredibly resourceful in a most pathetic way. They plant four sticks in the sand, and tie the corners of the bed sheet to each of the sticks. Voila! A makeshift fort! The three huddle under this scant supply of shade for a good couple hours, in a most comical end to their double-day journey. Needless to say, Logan, Alyssa and Devon spend the rest of their island stay occupying themselves with more typical tourist activities, like snorkeling, lounging and eating.
The group’s idyllic respite ends with a crushing dose of reality: Kat must leave us for good. She’s expected back in the states for graduate school, so her plans call for a more direct route homeward. Alas, no more seven-fold cycling synergy. We spend Sunday living it up island-style one last time before heading back to La Ceiba the following morning. Our teary goodbye involves lots of hugs and group photos, and many promises to keep in touch. We miss you, Kat. Cycles of Change will never be the same.
After an impossibly calm ferry ride (many of us took Dramamine; all of us expected the worst), we hop on our bikes and head west to Tela, another beachside city 100 kilometers away. Kate is still feeling under the weather after her debilitating bout of heat exhaustion, so she and Devon bus ahead to stake out our territory. The other four settle in for the long haul, riding along mostly flat terrain that occasionally cuts through neat rows of palm-oil plantation before crossing back into cattle pasture. Tela turns out to be unremarkable in every regard. Caribbean beachside notwithstanding, the place lacks any real charm and is decidedly less quixotic than our island getaway. That’s right—we’re jaded beach bums now, and only the best will do. Utila has spoiled us rotten.
We leave Tela Tuesday morning and ride the 60-odd kilometers to muddy, muddled El Progreso. Along the way we pass vendor after vendor selling rambutan (a red spiny-skinned cousin of the lychee) and nance, an astringent, grape-sized yellow fruit reminiscent of quince. During our ride, Kate also spots an odd spectacle: a kid riding his bike with a big blue live crab sandwiched between each of his hands and the handlebars—a daring feat, indeed. Perhaps the highlight of our stay in El Progreso occurs at the very beginning, right as we’re about to book a hotel: We see a lion! Nay, two of them! In the middle of a busy intersection…immured in a steel cage…being towed by a dinky circus van. It is at once shocking and hilariously absurd, and we share a good laugh at the big cats’ expense. Then we retire to our chambers, where, after a hot shower, a marathon of television (Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, Scrubs, 30 Rock) is to be watched in air-conditioned comfort. The trappings of modernity have a certain nostalgic appeal, we’re not gonna lie.
From El Progreso we take a bus into San Pedro Sula, and somehow Kate loses her helmet along the way. We suspect it bounced out when the back door of the bus momentarily flew open after a bump, but we can’t be certain. In any case, Kate is soon coiffed in an awesome “Star Sport” casco and we ride about 20 kilometers north to a cacao cooperative in Choloma. Our bikes will chill out here while we spend the next two days giving charlas near Omoa, where a group of cacao promoters has agreed to have us.