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?
Honduras is one of the last countries I need to visit in Latin America. I’m dying to visit both islands. What an awesome writeup!
One last question, which island has more luxury accommodation?
I would think that Roatan does as it is much more upmarket. However Utila had some really nice isolated dive resorts that might be pretty lovely. As I said, I recommend both!
I stopped in Roatan last fall on a cruise. Our excursion with a local company, however, brought us to the sad-looking East side. Since most of my day was spent watching people living in poverty, seeing dead and abused dogs, and swatting sand flies while avoiding raw sewage, I wasn’t such a fan. However, West Bay did look gorgeous (we stopped at an overlook on our way East to see it), and Mahogany Bay (where the cruise ship docked), while touristy, was nice and had plenty of things to do.
I think if I ever return, I’ll either head straight to West Bay beach or stay in Mahogany Bay.
Utila sounds nice, but I don’t dive, so it may not be worth the trip…
It’s true, the east side was a bit shocking. West Bay beach seems like the perfect place to head with only a day. Or if you are a confident driver, rent a car or bike!
I’ve heard great things about Roatan, I’d love to check it out!
It really is an amazing island. Caribbean beauty at much better prices.
Both islands (Roatan and Utila) are really beautiful, however you can find more things to do in Roatan, which is the largest of the Bay Islands.
Getting to Roatan is very easy, you can get there by air directly from Houston, Atlanta or Honduras mainland, there is an international airport in Roatan. You can also get to Roatan in a Cruise Ship or ferry boat.
However, if you want to get to Utila you need to plan very carefully, either you take a ferry boat from La Ceiba or Roatan, or you can take a local flight that gets to Utila only on Saturdays, interesting, isn´t it?
I guess if you are looking to forget about modern life and enjoy a paradisiac beach destination, you better go to Utila and relax. But if you want to enjoy a beautiful island in the Caribbean with all modern facilities, you can go to Roatan.
Hi CJ, thanks for the comment and the info! I knew there were infrequent flights to Utila, but I didn’t know it was only Saturdays! I absolutely loved both islands, what a special place.
I’m from Utila, but reside in New York, so I may be a little prejudice with my views.
With that said, having been to both islands and many tourist destinations worldwide, it is in my humble opinion that Utila is for adventurous spirited, kind, sincere people with a personality that just want to be free to express themselves as a person, weather it is just for that little brief time they are on vacation, or they choose permanently relocate there.
Utila is about people and nature, not things, if you like listening and talking or doing neither, then Utila is for you. If you are looking for material comforts beyond the basics, then you will not like Utila much.
If you are looking to refresh your body and mind, then Utila is for you. You must like the salt water for what it is and what it offers. You must like yourself and feel good about being you so you can share and allow people to share a moment in time with you. There are no set agendas, you have to make your own.
The diving industry serves people looking to get cheap certification to experience the more upscale dive sites around the world. Most of the people that go to Utila for certification rarely returns. The people that go there on a vacation to explore and bring a curiosity of life and people with them, rarely leaves, or returns very frequently.
This can be seen by the real estate listing on the Island. These houses are not for locals nor can the locals afford them, they are people who found a way to recharge their batteries or escape all together.
The key to enjoying Utila is to start a conversation with your local bartender or store clerk or waiter, about what you want, and take it from there. They have a wealth of information, but they will not impose on you, you have to reach out a little, but once word gets around, and it does fairly quickly, you will have more friends helping you than you care for, and your adventure begins.
Utila is like anywhere else on the planet, use discretion and common sense to ensure your safety and your belongings. There are a lot of people passing through the place and not permanently located there. Try to associate with people that are stable and established there for a more accurate perspective of what life has to offer there.
Enjoy your visit, hope you like it.
Hi Richard… thanks for your insightful comment. I loved Utila but I agree with you, it’s not for everyone. It is a special place and I’m happy to have visited… and likely will go back again!
That brought a tear to my eye. You reminded me why I love Utila so much. Thank You!
Hey Alex! Thanks for the blog post. My coworker and I are heading to Honduras and your post was very useful. Where did you stay? We’re looking for cheap hostels where we can get the ultimate backpacker experience.
Hi Hannah! I actually can’t even remember the name of the place we stayed in Utila, but it was a guesthouse and not a hostel. Sorry I can’t be more help, but I don’t think you’ll have any problem meeting people in Honduras!
We stayed at Anthony’s Key Resort
https://www.anthonyskey.com/about/about-us.htm and it was amazing! on Roatan
I went there to see the dolphin show… looked like a beautiful resort!
I am a solo female traveler heading to honduras to finish my open water dives. So this was a very useful post! Will definitely go to Utila now to meet other likeminded travelers! I also loved the budget posts, very helpful! Thanks!
I only have 10 days (spring break)…wanted to dive in Utila and maybe go somewhere else, should I go to Belize(Ambergris Cayes?) or stay the whole time in the islands in Honduras??? thoughts anyone??
Belize is great but, I would suggest Utila for now. Get comfortable with diving while there. There are lots of great sites around the island & good shops to dive with. I was there approx 15 years ago and stayed at Utila Lodge (first rate but $$$) I went back solo 2 years ago and stayed at Rubi’s and used Parrots (also offers lodging) for my diving. Utila has remained a charming place with interesting people. Savor it.
Your blog was spot on for answering the questions I had about Utila versus Roatan. I lived in Belize for a year and have been to all the other Central American countries and want to get to Honduras soon. I have the same reading habit as you mentioned, reading guide books for places I have no immediate plans of visiting. Thanks keep up the great posts.
I’m so glad that was a helpful post, Maggie! I was looking for that info myself when I was planning my Honduras trip and it was hard to find 🙂
Love this post! I went to Utila the last week of June, they had their second Annual Dive Festival which was tons of fun. I recommend you to make it there next year if you have spare time for a cheap time there and you already the diving conditions 🙂 I definitely want to go to Roatan at some point so I will reference this post again and again when that time comes. It’s great that you got to see both islands and it’s true, planning with ferries and planes to get into and out of Utila was tough but it was worth the work to figure it out and go! They got the small 10-20 person jets that take you in on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays but it’s always a 2:30pm/3pm flight. The two travel agencies – WorldWide Travel and Morgan’s Travel – got all the info, too confusing on the Hondurian website. Great blog and reading more !
Thanks for the kudos! The Utila Dive Festival sounds awesome, I’ve seen it advertised in dive mags and such and it always looks amazing. I’ll have to check it out some year!
beautiful blog Alex… No doubt Roatan and Utila, both are beautiful Islands to visit. If you are looking at beautiful beaches and luxury then Roatan is the place to go to. There is plenty to do – whether it is a laid back vacation or an energy packed trip. You can choose from activities like snorkeling, dolphin swim, Nature park visit – there is plenty to choose from.
Agreed, and thanks for reading! However in the future please use a real name rather than a company name for comments… I like to keep things personal around here 🙂
I should’ve read this post before planning my trip, but I think now that I’m here on Roatan, I made the right choice.
If I didn’t spend so much ($400) on my last minute flight to get here from San Salvador, I’d split my time with Utila. If there’s enough people, you can get a direct speed boat from Roatan to Utila for $50 pp which saves you going back to the mainland.
For non-divers, and non-partiers, I think Roatan is the better fit, but it’ll cost you. I’m paying $60/night for a nice hotel room, but that’s about triple my normal budget for a private room.
A few activities I’m considering are half day fishing trip (today), snorkeling at the west end of West Bay on my own, and hiring a taxi to head over toward French Caye and eastern parts of the island.
I was surprised at the cost of some of the full day snorkel trips to other islands… starting at $150! I think my full day snorkel trip around Ko Tao was like $20 or $25 back in 2008, and it was super cheap in Bocas del Toro too.
This is a good update on this post, Dave! I took a catamaran ferry between Roatan and Utila for $50 when I was there, which at the time was the only choice other than returning to the mainland. A speed boat is definitely a nice additional option.
And yeah, we totally lucked out on accommodation in Roatan! I definitely recommend the snorkeling, and exploring the east side of the island!
It’s possible it’s the same catamaran service. All I know for sure is that it’s suppose to only take 2 hours to go directly from Roatan to Utila.
I decided to stay put on Roatan for the full week I’m in the area, and fly out.
I was just reading through this thread & noticed a mention of the catamaran service between Roatan & Utila. I’m sorry to say that Vern, the guy who did that run, had an untimely demise a few years ago now. Unless you arrange some sort of private charter, there is no regular boat which goes between the two islands. Huge bummer, as it was a great way to get between two very awesome places.
I heard that he had passed away! I’m sorry to hear that. Thanks for adding a note here for fellow travelers.
I went to Koh Tao last summer, and stayed on the remote East side of the island and loved it. I’m looking for great shore snorkeling with a similar atmosphere, where do you recommend? Guanaja or Roatan?
How long would you recommend on roatan island and utilia?! We scuba dive and like a bit of a drink atmosphere too 🙂
Hey Jaime! That is such a tough question to answer for someone else, of course 🙂 Personally I did a week on Roatan and five days on Utila. That was great for me, but if you have less time I’d do no less than four days on each island!
We have stayed on Roatan and recently in Utila. We were 11 days in Utila, 3 of which where spent on Pidgeon Cay off the end of the island. There’s a fairly long list of things we didn’t get to do, I’d plan on 14 days min if you can do it, that is if you like to explore all that there is to offer. PS Paradise Divers offers amazing deals that makes diving/travel very affordable. Many dive shops in Utila include the accommodation if you are doing a 10 dive pack.
Great tip! I’d love to return to the Bay Islands!
Great post!!! I`m heading to Honduras to dive beggining of May and I was wondering where to… based on your post, already decided: Utila! And it`s whale shark season!!!
Ah, you lucky duck! I will send lots of whale shark finding luck your way 🙂
I am heading to Utila in early May. Do you think 2 weeks there might be too long? I am not a diver yet but hoping to take the opportunity to learn and become certified.
With this in mind, is anyone able to recommend a diving school with accommodation that won’t bust the bank?
If you’re going to relax and learn to dive two weeks is great! If you get bored you can always pop over to Roatan for a change of scenery 🙂 I did not have a good experience with Parrot Dive Center, so I don’t recommend them, but I’ve heard great things about Altons!
Although Roatan isn’t exactly party central, West End Roatan has really grown into a young, fun diving spot. Haven’t been to Utila (yet), but can’t wait to go for some whale shark fun!
I definitely had a great time in West End, and loved the feel! Honestly I might even consider it more “my scene” than Utila, though I really enjoyed both 🙂
Thanks for this post. I have two beach homes only assesiable by boat rented on the south end of Utila. Prestocked with food and a chef that cooks for us for a group of 12 including teenagers. Were all excited to snorkel off our dock. None of us have been to Honduras and everyone wants to know what to bring to deal with sand fleas. Any suggestions? We will be there in August for 10 days.
That sounds like an awesome trip, Chris! The best solution I’ve heard for sand flies is baby oil — they slide right off you! Best of luck!
Ok, fine, I’ll go to both. Thanks for deciding for me that I should split my 2 week stay on the islands! (With hopefully a full moon on Utila for whale sharks)
Enjoy your stay, Martin! I think you’re getting the best of both worlds 🙂
I’m in love with Utila and have been several times, but Guanaja is out of this world. It is definitely the red-headed step child of the Bay Islands, but it practically untouched and is more beautiful than you can image. If you have the chance, head back for a visit! It’s definitely worth the trouble!
When I went to the Bay Islands I was SO BROKE I didn’t even consider anything that would involve a flight 🙂 These days I totally would! I love Central America so I’m sure I’ll be back sooner rather than later.
Hey do you recommend any places to stay in utila?
Hey Jake! It’s been so long since I was in Utila I can’t remember the name of the place I stayed, and I’m not sure I’d feel right endorsing somewhere after so many years anyway 🙂 I’m sure you could find more current recommendations! Best of luck and happy travels 🙂
Ok thanks you too!
Hi Alex! Great blog!
I have a question:
We are going on our honey moon to center of America, we have about 18-20 days (plus 2 days for flights to and from center of America). We were planning on visiting Costa Rica for 8 days and spend the rest of our time in Roatan.
We wanted to split the trip half for activities, traveling, extreme activities and such – that is Costa Rica, and the other half for beaches and diving – that is Roatan.
After reading your beautiful blog I was wondering:
Maybe we should spend the whole time in Roatan? Do you think We would enjoy the activities as much as in Costa Rica? Aren’t 18 days too long for Roatan?
Also, we heard Honduras is not that safe and we should check where to travel. Do you think Roatan is safe for tourists? Do you have recommendations for safe ways to travel?
I’m sorry for my English, it is not perfect:)
Thank you very much!
Hey Donna! What a fun honeymoon! Eighteen days might be a little long for Roatan, unless you want some serious beach or diving time. After for safety traveling in Central America, there is nowhere in that region that I wouldn’t go, however I would exercise caution in the major cities. Otherwise, I think reports of danger to travelers there are grossly exaggerated.
Have you considered making your trip Nicaragua and Honduras? Though I haven’t been yet (heading there in January I think!) Nicaragua has much of the same attractions and activities as Costa Rica but at a fraction of the price, plus it is next door neighbors with Honduras. You could easily travel overland and combine the two countries in one trip, ending with a week on Roatan! Let me know if that helps 🙂
You got my attention I’ll tell you that:)
Even though you haven’t been to Nicaragua yet, maybe You can tell me more about it? Compared to Costa Rica.
Maybe we will change our destination to Nicaragua instead of CR! We would have the activities in Nicaragua and diving+beaches in Roatan.
Do you think it has the same activities as CR? I tried to read a little bit about Nicaragua but I still can’t determine which place will be better for us. I don’t travel that much so I’m not really good with having decisions about our trip…
Thank you so much for helping us!!!
Hey Donna, I’m sure there are people much more qualified than I to speak on Nicaragua as, as I said, I haven’t actually been yet 🙂 I just picked up the Lonely Planet guidebook myself though and am super excited about all the opportunities — I recommend you pick one up yourself as well! Maybe take a Costa Rica and Nicaragua guidebook out of the library and give them each a test drive. Best of luck!
hi Alex, wonderful blog. I’m heading to CA to volunteer for a year in January so scooting through Mexico, Belize and Honduras for Christmas and New Years. Thanks to all the info in your blog I think I’ll head to Utila for NYE this year. thanks! Vanessa
Awesome, Vanessa! I’m sure you’ll have an awesome time 🙂 Enjoy!
Are all the activities do you remember if they were pricey or not?
Hey Sammy, which activities specifically are you referring to?
Great Post! I love the West Bay Pictures! We had such a great time there also. I’d love your input on anything I missed in my tips for Roatan travel!
Sounds like you had a great trip. I love Roatan! It’s amazing what nice easy access it is from the US, too.