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/

Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands,  I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!

We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.

The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.

Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.

Hmmm

Hmmm

Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.

It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.

Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.

Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.

We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.

Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.

Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.

Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).

We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.

 

 

Cruel Side of Nature

Heartbreak

We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Under the Sea: Snorkeling Trip to Pinzón

A month ago, before our friend Jo returned to England, we went on a snorkeling day trip to Pinzón. While I enjoyed our bird watching trip to North Seymour island, Matt prefers snorkeling to bird watching and this trip was right up his alley because you cannot touch foot on Pinzón without a special permit. Instead this trip entailed 3 snorkeling stops around Pinzón and a visit to a beach on Santa Cruz. First step was taking a water taxi from the Puerto Ayora dock to the boat, the Contagious, which was no-frills compared to the boat from our prior trip. I was glad that I had popped dramamine before we set off as the seas were bumpy.

After about an hour and a half crashing through the waves, we arrived at our first snorkeling destination, a calm bay. Three penguins flopped into the water as we were disembarking but we never saw them afterwards. We jumped off the boat and started swimming. It was like we were in a fish tank. The water was crystal clear and everywhere we looked there were fish and more fish. While many fish were the same types we see at the beach near our house, they were much bigger in the deeper water.

Our guide (whose name escapes me) was a great guy who made sure we saw a lot. He swam with us and pointed out tons of things I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. He also stirred things up at times…

Next stop was in a deeper area with a stronger current. The fun continued.

I hate snakes. Eels are simply snakes of the water.

The show-off sea lion was more entertaining.

Then Jo called me over. I thought it was to see a sea turtle, which I had yet to see. I was wrong.

Eeks!

Eeks! White Tipped Reef Shark

Despite my fear, I followed this guy for awhile. Then I decided not to press my luck and went back to viewing tamer animals.

At this stop, Matt and I also had a baby sea lion playfully swim back and forth between us. Happily, we did not see it get eaten by a shark.

Frolicking Sea Lion

Frolicking Sea Lion

Our third snorkeling stop was equally spectacular. As I still hadn’t seen any sea turtles, our guide came and got me when he spotted some. He linked his arm through mine and we swam off after them. Fantastic.

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle

Then it was shark time once again. Our guide woke up the sharks for our viewing enjoyment. Who the heck wakes up sharks?!

Strangely, being in a group and with a guide made me feel safer. Maybe someone else would look tastier than I? Still, I could only watch them for so long. As we continued swimming there was suddenly this big shadow below me in the water. I instinctively glanced over my shoulder to see what large thing was above me just as a realized that I was seeing a HUGE manta ray beneath me. Matt said he reacted the same way.  We agreed that its wings were 12-15 feet wide. It appeared to float away. Unbelievable.

On the way back to Santa Cruz, we swung by Daphne to check out the animals on shore. Highlights were the masked booby and fur sea lion.

A fantastic trip and one I recommend to any snorkeler. Thank you Jo Browne for the awesome photos! An underwater camera is on the shopping list for our trip to the US next year…