Wild, Wacky Utila

I surprised myself when I lobbied for our first Honduran long weekend in September to be to the Caribbean Bay Island of Utila, one of Honduras’s 3 Bay Island. Roatan is the island of resorts and cruise ships, Guanaja is the “unspoiled” one and Utila fits somewhere in between, a haven of backpackers, cheap accommodations, shot challenges and, as we learned, a strange population of Baby Boomer American and Canadian expats who came and never left. Like most islands, it has a laid back, friendly vibe with just enough weird thrown in. Despite my island PTSD after living on the Galapagos, two friends we met there now own a hotel on Utila and invited us to come for a visit. The school also provides bus travel for a few trips for the expat teachers and the seasoned teachers all voted for Utila for the first trip. When I heard that the bus trip was 3-1/2 hours, followed by an hour boat ride, I booked our flights! Another couple from school decided to skip the bus ride so we enjoyed some cocktails in the airport lounge with Kathy and Kendall before boarding.

The plane had a strong fuel smell throughout the flight, which we learned was normal. The copilot was nice enough to crack open his window to try to get some air into the plane. The discomfort was worth it because 1/2 hour later, we landed in Utila, met up with Enno and Jerome and headed off in a tuk tuk to their hotel, Manurii. After some relaxing and catching up, we set off into town for dinner at Funky Chicken.

Funky Chicken is the perfect example of island weird. Its proprietor, Stuart, is a Canadian Boomer who brought excellent Thai cooking to Utila. The menu is based on what Stuart has available and feels like cooking that day. Enno and Jerome’s friend Kristin joined us so we ordered the entire menu to share – two appetizers, one papaya salad and two entrees. The food was delicious and the best meal we had in Utila. Stuart was a combination of friendly and unfriendly – he didn’t bother to greet us when we entered the tiny, 4-table restaurant until he finished his conversation and beer with another table, but then was welcoming and attentive. During the weekend, Stuart popped up all over town – at a bar after dinner on Saturday night, at another bar where we watched the Packers game on Sunday afternoon and later that night at a beach bar at the tip of the island. When Kathy and Kendall joined us at the beach bar and mentioned they had stopped by Funky Chicken to eat but it was closed despite the posted hours, I pointed to Stuart on the bar stool and said, “that’s because he is the owner!” When we told him he had customers wondering when he was opening, he laughed from his perch, raised his glass and said he wasn’t opening that night because he was getting drunk. A Facebook post from a few days ago indicates that Stuart has closed Funky Chicken and now is selling jewelry. A Canadian owner/chef of a Thai restaurant turned jeweler – no one bats an eye. Island weird.

Funky Chicken

Utila has one main drag, which was crowded with tuk-tuks, golf carts and pedestrians. Rarely could you get a glimpse of the ocean from the main drag as the storefronts, bars and hostels packed the shoreline. We spent the next two days relaxing and touring the island with our friends, one day via golf cart. The beaches were pretty and we enjoyed some nice snorkeling and a few beach bars. But as all of the teacher chatter revolved around the “shot challenges” the bars have, I was determined to do one, probably because I never went on Spring Break in college! I gleaned that Casa Dr. John, yet another expat Boomer with a big personality, was one of THE shot challenges, not to be missed. Enno and Jerome had not experienced Dr. John, so we went with them, two of their friends and Kathy and Kendall to visit the good doctor. This man is a marketing genius. He is (or was, the story, like most on Utila, is vague) a medical doctor from the US who came to Utila years ago and decided to stay and work as the first doctor on the island. At some point he ceased practicing traditional medicine (again, it’s fuzzy whether this was a choice and he may or may not still provide homeopathic remedies), but he fashioned himself into an island icon.

We arrived at the Pink Palace aka Casa Dr. John and found the good doctor chillin’ on the porch. He invited us to take a seat in the sweltering heat and we proceeded to visit for about a 1/2 hour. The conversation meandered and Enno and Jerome were able to talk some business and island talk. It quickly became clear that Dr. John was no fool and while interesting, we were more interested in getting on with things rather than swatting mosquitos and shooting the breeze (of which there was none). Eventually he invited us into the house. What a sight – every inch of the pepto-bismol pink walls had graffiti and more than one Dr. John icon was displayed (most complete with phallus). Kendall is an artist and had created a fantastic caricature of Dr. John that had him tickled pink. Dr. John carefully explained his shot challenge – we would each do 4 shots, in time to AC/DC’s T.N.T. (a short, dry rehearsal was required), and a videographer was needed so we could post the clip on his Facebook page. As I said, this man is no fool. None of us were really interested in 4 shots and he assured us that the concoction was weak (it was) and that he would only put as much (or nothing) in our cups (he did). Shot challenge completed, we then sang the required “We are the Champions,” bought our Dr. John attire and were released because another group was waiting for their audience.

Another must-see in Utila is Treetanic “the bar above the Jade Seahorse Hotel” that was created by an American artist. It was impossible to find a good description of the place or to understand what it was and even Enno and Jerome had a hard time explaining it. Matt and I are always up for anything art-related so we walked over to check it out. The site is a Guadí inspired, through-the-looking-glass, hallucinogenic trip. We arrived at the entry and saw a sign that indicated a small fee, but no way to pay it. So we started looking around the mind-bending wonderland and continued up the stairs.

Suddenly, a man popped up from behind a small wall. “You need to pay me,” he said in English. We readily agreed, despite both thinking he may just be a squatter, and handed over the equivalent of a couple of bucks. His eyes narrowed as he checked us out, “You’re from Colorado, aren’t you?” “Nope, Wisconsin,” we replied. He didn’t let it go. “Huh, you look like you are from Colorado.” “I’ll take that as a compliment because you think we look sporty,” I joked. “Nooooo,” he replied, in a way that made it clear he didn’t think much of Coloradans and wasn’t so sure about us. We turned to explore the crazy wonderland, but he was having none of that and began a meandering monologue. Being Wisconsin nice (despite his skepticism as to our origins), we politely listened and I tried to glean his story. He wasn’t too forthcoming, but we learned that Neil was from L.A. and was a former art teacher with rental property in L.A. that allows him to keep this property and practice his art. The entire time we spoke, he was surrounded by enormous spiders in their webs, which was fascinating and unnerving. At one point he politely noted that we were standing in the blazing sun and we both thought that he was finally going to let us wander, but he merely suggested we move into the shade and kept talking. Our release came when some other tourists (not Coloradans) arrived and Neil scurried to take their fee.

The site used to be a hotel and its meandering paths and bridges led to fairy-tale cabins, each with an art-related name and unique design. Above the cabins was a bar area that is still occasionally used when someone rents out the space. Everything is made with natural or repurposed materials and there are countless mosaics, nooks and crannies to explore along with gorgeous gardens. It was fascinating and we were awed by the creativity behind it.

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The next day, we got up early to fly back to San Pedro Sula. While islands still are not my top destination choice, my guess is we will be back to experience the weird and beautiful Utila again!

Sun, Sea and Palm Trees!

If you want to stay at Enno and Jerome’s amazing, remodeled hotel, contact them via their web page: https://www.manurii.com/

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