Should I Stay or Should I Go?
We’re wrapping up our time on Utila and are starting to wrap up our thinking on the place as well, the good, the bad, and the in-between. We definitely love the people here. We love the low cost of living, the snorkeling, and the waterfront bars and restaurants. We love the Utila Cays, but of course they are boat access only (something I would certainly solve if we decide to stay here). We don’t really love the beaches, they’re just not that special. There are other detractors as well, trash comes to mind, and the noise in town. So, the good with the bad, that’s what you get in any place.
Those are some of the considerations for us. Our new friend Mamita told us that she was “island shopping” and when she found Utila she knew she had found the place. And that’s what we’re doing, island shopping. It’s kind of a big “purchase” so to quantify some of the important points, I put together a list of things to consider and discuss, for each place we go. I didn’t want to turn it into a number for each place (Island A adds up to 67 points and Island B is only 65, so we’re going to live on Island A), but I do want to have points of comparison, points of discussion. As we see more places this will likely morph, but the list below is what we’re starting with.
This must be the place!
Island Shopping List
- Personal Safety
- Petty Theft
- Emergency Preparedness
- Food & Drink
- Fresh vegetables and fruits
- Meats, other
- Coffee, Tea, Beer, Rum, etc.
- Housing & Neighborhood
- Cost & Quality
- Location (close to beaches, shopping, etc.)
- Sights / Sounds / Smells
- Beaches & the Sea
- Number & Types (Sandy, Rocky, Calm, Windy, etc.)
- Sand (beach and underwater)
- Water Clarity & Cleanliness
- Surfing / Paddle-boarding / Snorkeling
- Shore Fishing / Spearfishing
- People (Friendly, Welcoming, Laid Back, Locals and Expats)
- Public transportation
- Car/Motorcycle/4-wheeler/Golf Cart
- Natural Resource Protection
- Balance (over/under regulation)
So, for Utila, here’s where we are on these points:
Safety – this is a negative for us. We knew coming in that Honduras has a high crime rate, and along with El Salvador, they are the top two in murders per capita. But we were coming to the Bay Islands and nowhere near the high crime big cities and their drug problems. So, a few weeks ago, I would have said that safety has been a real positive, we felt very safe here. But then there was a rape of a tourist woman, 100 yards up the hill from our house. It was followed up by much local discussion that nothing will be done and the guy will never get caught or face consequences. There was also a robbery at knife-point (both crimes at night of course), but they actually caught that guy trying to get on the ferry back to the mainland the next day. Just last week, someone was begging the authorities to come and arrest/remove a guy from smoking crack on the street in front of her business. But nobody came all day long – it was always someone else’s job and the police did not show. So the pendulum swung in the other direction pretty hard for us. I should say that on an island this size, you hear absolutely everything, so we should be careful not to overreact vs. back in Colorado where we wouldn’t hear every last thing. But if there is poor enforcement (and that’s been a theme of conversations around town) this will get worse over time rather than better, and that’s a big deal. There is also no 911 service here that anybody seems to know about, you have to put the local clinic phone numbers in your phone and the police as well. If they will bother coming to help. Finally, the country had rioting after the recent election, quite bad at times, road closures have had an impact on what goods can be moved around the country. We have had some shortages in the islands because of it, but thankfully no violence here. Still, it’s not a great look for Honduras.
This box must be served!
Utilities – this is somewhere in the low-middle. We had the initial electrical problem/repair on our first day, and then electricity was solid for a couple months. Just this week we lost electricity for about 18 hours and that means no running water for us, so not so good at all. There’s also the issue of paying for electricity in advance with a little box that hangs on the wall. You have to pay for and punch in a new code every 10 days or so (whenever you get low on your kilowatt-hours) and hope the box communicates properly. This is frustrating because it’s very flakey, but it does eventually work. If you let it go to zero, your electricity turns off and that’s a big hassle nobody wants. It’s never gotten to that point for us (we have been below 5) but the threat is always there and you see the numbers ticking down day by day. This is the same system used all over Africa, probably many other places in the world too, but it’s new to me and I don’t like it. Tap water isn’t drinkable so you have to pay for and haul 5 gallon jugs of drinking water. Internet is on and off, reasonable when on, but worthless a lot of the time (down for a 24 hour stretch this week). They literally unplug it now when there’s a lightning storm because they got a direct hit last month. There’s a joke that says “I want to live where the rum is strong and the wifi is weak”. That’s fine until you start to upload and crop pictures for your blog! 🙂 It will be interesting to see how this compares with other islands. None of this was unexpected except paying for the electricity up front. Deb doesn’t mind that, nor does she mind the drinking water jugs, it’s just me. Maybe this is just normal for the islands.
Incredibly inexpensive meal but really, what is that fish?
Food & Drink – I should note that we buy and cook most of our food, with only occasional restaurant meals. But the quality of the food we see will also extend to the restaurants because that’s what they have to work with as well. That said, in my opinion the food is only average here. You can get fresh vegetables with a few limitations. The quality ranges from excellent (potatoes, tomatoes, onions, green beans, cucumbers) to terrible (molding broccoli and cauliflower, rotting anything, swarms of flies around the fruit). We have been very pleased with patastes and sapote, a local veg and fruit. Pineapples are excellent, truly excellent. As for meat, the chicken and pork are also very good. We never tried the beef because we were told it isn’t very good here and we’re just not that big on it anyway. The seafood should be good but we’ve been told more than once that many of the fishermen aren’t trustworthy. That means you could be getting barracuda when you paid for something else. Unless you buy a whole fish which would be fine if we had a fish cleaning table outside, but we don’t. We even heard that some local restaurants can’t be trusted, so we mostly just didn’t eat much seafood here. Prices for local foods are quite good though.
The main room of our place – living room, dining room, and kitchen
Housing & Neighborhood – our apartment here is quite basic, but it meets all our needs. After a while we get a little tired of cooking on a plywood countertop and boiling water for dishes (no hot water in the sink). We really don’t like that the salty tap water is rusting all of our utensils, especially our good knives. It is a very good place for the doggies, and the greenery around is beautiful. The location is noisier than it might be because our landlords are very motivated people, always working on maintenance or improvements. It’s hard to complain about that but it is noisy, as is the road. We are on a curve and local custom says that you must honk your horn before going around a curve. We mostly ignore the horns now, but they are there, from early morning through most of the night. But the place is pretty nice and we’re glad to not be in town which is surprisingly busy and noisy. When we were researching this place we read that there are only a few cars on the island and that this was the quiet choice as compared to other places like Roatan. Our experience is not a quiet one – the narrow streets with no sidewalks put you right next to all the engines and their noise and exhaust. The proximity from our place to town is actually very good, I would say just right – easily walkable but we’re not in the middle of it all. The open trash cans everywhere do stink and the ditches aren’t a lot better. The cost for our place is good at $550 a month; with work we could get something lower, but it would have its own issues to deal with.
It looks more peaceful than it is!
Beaches and the Sea – this is one of the real weaknesses of Utila. We’ve mentioned this before, there are only two easily accessible beaches for us, one public and one private, both small. Both are “serviceable”, but neither are great, and we didn’t come all this way for “serviceable” beaches. They both look beautiful in pictures, and they aren’t crowded like some beaches we’ve seen in SW Florida, but the up-close reality isn’t quite what we want. There are also grasses in the water in many places which don’t quite give the same ambiance as standing in and swimming around a white sand ocean bottom. Other beaches on the island are littered with trash and very few are swimmable. If you’ve been to the beautiful beaches of Florida, California, the Bahamas, the Caymans, etc. you will be pretty disappointed with these. There are some good snorkeling spots that we’ve enjoyed many times. We have to take care to avoid the sea urchins which can be very prevalent, so one of the best things here has this mark against it, but it is something we’re getting used to. No spearfishing is allowed in the Bay Islands (except spearing Lionfish with a permit), and the only line fishing is by boat.
We have to admit, this is pretty relaxing
People – We’ve talked repeatedly about the people we’ve met, we really have enjoyed everyone here. The tourists, expats, and locals alike have given us extremely positive experiences. It’s fun to talk with them and learn about their lives, and fun to talk about our plans. A couple of conversations we had with locals reminded me of a Jimmy Buffet story. He once said he lives his life 20 years behind the times, because everywhere he goes somebody says “you should have seen this place 20 years ago!”. We heard a bit of that here too, and expect to hear it some more as we travel. I won’t belabor the point, the people are a huge plus for Utila and Honduras.
Transportation – the transportation here meets all of our needs, but falls pretty short when we think about our wants. We love walking and that’s an adventure in it’s own right because of the narrow busy streets and no sidewalks. All the basics are within easy walking distance. We tried to buy bikes the first 2 weeks but we found no sellers. So we rented a couple of them for a day and frankly they were terrible. Rusted everything, crooked wheels, soft tires, sketchy brakes. That killed the idea of a longer term rental, we just decided to walk everywhere. The tuk-tuk taxis are plentiful and pretty cheap, so that’s great when you get caught in the rain with 4 bags of groceries. Bottom line, the needs are met, but the wants are lacking a little bit.
An ugly reality here
Environment – some effort goes into environmental protection here but not a lot. The reefs are getting more and more tourist traffic which means more people doing dumb things like standing on the reef and killing it. It also means more sewage, trash, etc. finding it’s way into the water and harming the reef. To show the importance of the natural environment to their students, the dive shops do have mandatory cleanup days for getting their dive master certifications, but the ocean trash on the beaches is discouraging to say the least. Some people are putting energy into saving the mangroves while others are mowing them down with impunity, to build vacation houses. There is a group working hard to save the Utila Swamper Iguana, an endangered species found nowhere else on Earth. But most of the environmental work is being done by non-natives – Honduras and Utila has work to do in this respect.
Weather – the weather has been oppressively hot and sunny, wonderfully cool and breezy, and everything in between. We’ve had at times days and days of rain and that hasn’t bothered us at all, so we know we don’t mind the rainy season (this has been a revelation and a valuable bit of info for the future). That may very well be because we don’t live on schedules, i.e. there’s always mañana. When the weather doesn’t cooperate with our plans, we make new plans. I know we’ve only had a small slice of time (we haven’t experienced a Honduran summer), but we have no complaints at all with the weather from October to December in Utila. In fact, it’s really been great.
Intangibles – the intangibles are the final factors in deciding whether a place is for us. The feelings we get are a blend, a melange of all the other factors listed above. This doesn’t happen overnight either. We have gone through our share of “We could live here”, “I couldn’t live here”, and “If we lived here…” conversations. I think you start to get an honest feel for a place after about 6 weeks there, which is why we won’t be deciding to move somewhere after a cruise stop, or a 2 week vacation. You have to really live there, not in a resort with umbrella drinks, but in the pulpería and on the streets with real people, feeling the heat, smelling the odors (many not pleasant), and seeing the way the community works. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great book called “Blink”, which describes how your instincts will lead you almost instantly to the right conclusion, and I got a “blink” feeling on this place pretty quickly. But I’d never make a call on a place to live in less than a month or two. Beyond that, I’d never buy a place until having lived there much longer, a year or so. You have to live through all four seasons: dry season, rainy season, dead-hot-and-muggy season, and tourist season. 🙂
We’ve said all along that we are looking for that place we never wanna leave. The summary on Utila is this: we don’t think this is that place – we think we can leave it. I don’t like to say never (as in never coming back) so we’ll keep it in mind especially as we get more experiences, more places with which to compare. We could see living here on a part of the island that is boat access only (read: quiet, peaceful, free) but of course that has it’s own issues.
So all that said, we really have enjoyed our time here, all the new experiences, good and bad, it’s been such a great adventure. Utila has been a dream in that it was our first real landing strip (literally & figuratively) in these adventures. We actually did this, we escaped all that gravity that is the U.S. of A., and are living in another country. I know this sounds silly to some people who’ve lived the ex-pat life, but I bet if they think back, they’ll remember the first time is different; this was certainly different for us!
So Utila may not be for us long-term, but we have wonderful memories here and wish our Utilian friends only the best in their lives here, or elsewhere if they choose to go. Hasta luego, Utila!
We do love Utila!
TODAY’S SPECIAL: “Should I stay or should I go?” by the Clash, of course!
So what’s next for these intrepid travelers? We’re going someplace that’s only 1 ½ hours away. I’m not saying how we’re getting there, you’ll just have to use your imagination. Send us your guesses in the comments section below – unless you already know, then please be quiet! 🙂
Final note: we’ll be out of touch for a couple of weeks or so while we get moved and settled, but we’ll see you on the other side.
Great and fascinating update. The balanced review was fascinating. And nicely organized writing. I feel that I can come to the same stay/go conclusion, based on the facts.
Curious if the next move will be mitigated by having less stuff, (boxes to ship), or have you accumulated more stuff?
Really looking forward to the next update, which will really be a travelogue!
Thanks for the encouragement Kevlar – we love your feedback!
As far as stuff goes, we have less now than we did (or at least fewer pounds of stuff). I bought a prescription swim mask just before coming here and it is so good, my non-prescription mask is staying right here when we leave. We have fewer products like sunscreen, toothpaste, and deodorant, which we had stocked up on before coming. We have 5 lbs less dog food to carry along. We are leaving 3 books and a couple of DVDs behind. Kindle books are coming with, but they don’t weigh much. 🙂
We bought a thrift store swimsuit, an inflatable diver down flag, a small Honduras flag, and a small tin of natural bug repellent. Oh, and a couple of drink koozies. Pro tip: in the tropics, bring your own koozies to the bar so you can enjoy a cold beer without having to chug it before it gets warm.
So my guess is we’re going to be 6 or 7 pounds lighter and a little less tightly packed. We realized on this trip that our XL size rolling duffels were a waste of money. They are so big, even when half packed, that they cause trouble on small planes. But if fully packed, they exceed size limits for flights in the Caribbean. We plan to downsize those when we get a chance to have US shipping again. Anybody want to buy them? 🙂
When we finally get to settle in Vieques (they are still without power), we will have several US parcel boxes shipped to us there (tools, clothes, a big variety of things).
It’s been awhile since I’ve read a post. Great to get caught up. Loved your summary and look forward to the next chapter. Cheers!
Thanks for catching up! We realize people have more to do than keep up with us! At least if our don’t have much time to read, this keeps you from needing to buy any books!
Another great post.. I like the taxonomy of things you looked at, and your analysis, which I am happy to say contained no spreadsheets :-). It will be interesting to compare this summary with your summary from the next location.. I think I would have the same list and probably much the same priority but maybe beaches would be pretty high high on my list.. Good reference to Gladwell, I’m happy you did not decide to use his other 10,000 hour benchmark 🙂 🙂
I’ve done the spreadsheets when trying to hire someone! It always came down to the "Blink" answer! Yes, beaches are really critical for us too. I’m looking forward to seeing how we tweak (or is that twerk?) our comparison points next time. Thanks for the interest and comments!
You guys are too young and healthy to settle down yet. Keep seeing new places. The only downside is you’ll start to create a fantasy place in your head that is a combination of the best of all the places you’ve seen. You’ve taken the effort to slim down your possessions so you can easily relocate, now leverage that state of being. Glad you’re slimming down even more with this jump. Only the must-haves will remain! Really enjoyed living in Utila vicariously, looking forward to the next location.
Hi Casey, our “settle down” plan is really a medium-term idea, while our dogs age. They will be 10-11 in a few months and we don’t know how long they’ll hang in there. But having a place to call home also probably means a place to trade pet sitting with a neighbor.
In that scenario, we’d like to be able to go places for 2-3 months at a time to do our type of exploring. Once the dogs are gone, if we don’t get stupid and buy a house 🙂 we’ll be very free.
Anyway, thanks for sticking with us as we report on real life down here. Sitting around the pool with umbrella drinks would get boring, right? That’s what I keep telling myself. 🙂
I’ve heard that Costa Rica is a nice place for expats, but direct flights from Tegucigalpa to San Jose alone are over an hour, and you’d still have to get from Utila to TGU.
That’s what I like, an engineer who does his research! 🙂 🙂 🙂 Have you considered a career change, working for Expedia? Haha! We’ll reveal in a couple of weeks, so hang in there!
While I also appreciate the absence of a spreadsheet, your selection criteria and evaluation values are not constant. Rather, they change over time. For example, the recent hurricanes made Puerto Rico a no-go.
Personally, I live in Colorado because a) there are no hurricanes, and b) tornadoes at 5000′ are fairly wimpy. Well, there are a few other reasons, but those two don’t vary over time.
You are correct Perry, but I couldn’t figure out the formula to take out this variation. I think it’s a third order polynomial. 🙂
Norm, Lizzy and I are in Costa Rica now (12/6/17) straight south of you. Life is good here, beaches are very nice and clean (west side), low crime, similar weather, high environmental IQ, sorta high cost of living but it’s not an island. Keep looking and come here after you have bounced around a bit.
Sounds great, except for the COL! Maybe we can meet you there one day.
Another fun read. Thanks for sharing, a great list and priorities. I trust you will find great experiences at your next home. Looking forward to a new post from a new beach.
Thanks David! We’re looking forward to the next thing also. We’ll let you know how it goes.
Hola Norm and Deb! I don’t normally comment since Norm is a great writer, and each blog is excellent. But this one was simply outstanding! I enjoyed your comprehensive "Island Shopping List." My list of two criteria seems rather sparse in comparison: (1) cold beer (2) water. In any event, you’re a 100 in my book. Keep up the good work.
Hola Amigo! Your list is longer than you think. To get cold beer, you have to have electricity and a fridge, and a brewery. To get water, you also need electricity as we have learned. You also need food, in the form of nachos or sub sandwiches to go with the beer. 🙂 Thanks for keeping up!
Thank you! You gave me all the information I was looking for. The only other question would be which side of the island is best? I see some shows where the one side looks less windy and stormy as the other.
Hi Catherine, thanks for asking. To answer the question, the winds are predominantly from the southeast but that never seemed to matter when we were there. It’s mostly a matter of what spots to go for a dive trip on any particular day (quieter wind & water makes for clearer water). As for which side is “best”, that’s a different question. Large parts of Utila are uninhabited, and others are inhabited but only accessible by boat. So the question comes down to whether you want to be in town, where there really is a hustle/bustle about, or away from town, which is very quiet but with the inconvenience of having to boat into town for supplies. That’s a personal decision.