When we were planning our trip to Honduras, there was endless chatter regarding which of the two most popular Bay Islands was best (poor Guanaja got the short end of the stick). Roatan lovers told us Utila was dirty and filled with rude backpackers and Utila fans told us Roatan was pricey and boring. So naturally, we decided to go to both of these well reviewed places.
Roatan took us by surprise. A stunningly beautiful island, it is caught between several worlds. Cruise ships come in on the south side and its passengers head out to enjoy the beach or zipline through the jungle. Backpackers head to West End where they can dive, sleep and eat from one unpaved road. European package travelers and those with a bit more cash head to the jaw dropping beach of West Bay. And tucked away in small settlements all across the island’s East side are families struggling to top the poverty line. The island seems to juggle its different facets and audiences with grace, so far. Utila is in fact filled with backpackers. It is dirt cheap, has a strong hippie dive culture, a pulsing nightlife, and is dotted by postcard worthy cays along the southwest side. There is one major settlement, Utila Town, and the rest of the island is covered in shrubby forest and dotted by more upscale dive resorts.
So, as people ask endlessly on search engines, travel forums, and around the travel community, which island should you visit? Well, it depends what you are looking for.
If you’re going for beaches, head to Roatan. West Bay beach features amazing scenery, crystal blue water, top-notch snorkeling and surprisingly well handled development. It’s mostly lined by family resorts but features a few hostels and is an easy boat ride or walk from West End, the backpacker hub of the island. The island is long enough to feature many tucked away coves and beaches where you could be the only person around. Unfortunately for Utila, the easily accessible Chepes beach is unimpressive and the decent Bando beach charges an admission fee. And then there are the sand flies. There are insanely beautiful beaches in Utila- they simply lie on the cays. Which means paying for a two-way boat ride and in some cases (like Water Cay) a small admission fee. Totally worth the trouble, but still a hassle compared to the beaches of Roatan.
If you’re going to party, get thyself to Utila. Roatan certainly does have a party scene, centered mostly in West Bay. There are bars and clubs littered around the road and prices are very cheap compared to what you would pay in the states or the UK. An added bonus for divers is that the start times for dive trips are actually later in Roatan than in Utila! However, Roatan just can’t beat the nightlife in Utila. There are dirt cheap bars hanging over the water, crazy mosaic treehouses, a bar in the middle of the bush (named, aptly, Bar in the Bush), and an infamous annual 24 hour rave. Due to the concentration of people in one small area, every night of the week you will find a lively crowd out and about.
If you’re going for diving, go to both. Granted, we only did two dives in Roatan and three dives in Utila, but I would say that’s enough to get a taster of what each island has to offer. If I were the type to generalize (and I totally am) I would say Roatan has better coral and visibility, and I appreciate their 9am start times (compared to Utila’s 8am-hello, I was at Treetanic bar all night!). However, Utila has the big draw, and that’s whale sharks. Underwater enthusiasts flock to this little island from far and wide for the chance of a glimpse at one of these giant creatures. Unfortunately we didn’t see any this time around, but based on word of mouth advice if we were going back I’d try to make it around the full moon (seriously) and stick to sites on the north side.
If you’re a non diver and looking for plenty of activities, head to Roatan. Probably thanks in part to the burgeoning cruise ship industry, Roatan has no lack of activities and attractions that charge admission fees. From the Botanical Gardens to the Roatan Museum to submarine rides to ziplining through the canopy, Roatan has it all. For animal lovers there is a butterfly garden, an iguana farm, horseback riding on the beach, and the biggest draw of them all: dolphin encounters. In Utila, if you aren’t diving, you can do one of the following: listen to people talk about diving, sleep off your hangover, go snorkeling and watch people go diving, go to the cays to get away from people talking about diving, or go to the Iguana Breeding Station. So, if you are into real “attractions,” things are a bit limited. Even renting a bike and exploring, we found little of note, other than a far away mini golf course, a horseback riding sign, and Pumpkin Hill.
If you’re on an ultra tight budget, go to Utila. Lodging, food, and alcohol are noticeably cheaper on Utila. Even activities, like renting a motorcycle, was less costly on the small island. Diving prices remain quite similar between the islands, unless of course you go with the most low quality dive shop that ever existed on Earth.
Ideally, I strongly recommend you do as we did and visit both islands. Not only will you get to decide for yourself which is best, you won’t get bored as the islands complement each other well and have a distinctly different feel and energy. It won’t be cheap, as it will take over $100 in transportation costs to start and end in La Ceiba and stop at both islands, but your trip will be richer for it. Heck, If you’ve got the money and the time, do what we couldn’t and stop in Guanaja, the forgotten Bay Island, accessible only by plane.
Have you been to the Bay Islands? If so, which was your favorite? If not, which one would you pick?