And Sometimes Why. A Traveler's How-To and Log.

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Announcement: “Where I Went And How I Got There” is now “GreatDistances”


Hey travelers!  Big news!  We’re changing our name and web address to GreatDistances.com!

At the new address, you’ll find the same travel and photography-oriented content you’ve enjoyed here, updated for better design and readability/viewability, as well as a bunch of new posts too (for example:  you haven’t read my posts on my 2015 trip to Kenya yet, have you?).

As part of this transition, this will likely be the last post on Where I Went & How I Got There, which is a bit sad for me, honestly.  Though I started said site more or less just because it seemed like a thing to do while traveling, working on the site over the past few years gave me a vehicle for my writing and photography, and a reason to practice and improve on my skills in each.  We’ll continue to grow on the new site accordingly.

For now, this site (Where I Went & How I Got There) and the new site (GreatDistances) will continue to run concurrently as of now, as some of the images and links are shared between the two sites.   Clicking through links here might end you up over there, even – but it’ll all be fixed in time and narrowed to only the GreatDistances site.

For those of you with e-mail subscriptions, please sign up through the new site (see the sidebar for e-mail subscription form) so we can make a seamless transition – and don’t forget to find us on social media at Facebook, Instagram and Twitter too.

– Matt


10 Ways to Keep The Peace With Your Travel Buddy

Traveling with a buddy or significant other can be a Dickensian pursuit: the best of times, the worst of times (sometimes simultaneously). The fact of the matter is that constant exposure to anyone, even someone you care for dearly, can become supremely annoying surprisingly quickly.

You’ll likely be eating the majority of your meals together, possibly sharing the same room or even a bed each night, seeking out entertainment and activities together. It gets to be a 24/7 pairing quicker than you’d imagine.

Accordingly, you’ll have a front row seat for your buddy’s living habits, anxieties, expectations, energy levels, everything – and your buddy has the same level of access to your idiosyncrasies as well. It’s an intensely personal interchange (yes, even for couples that’ve been married for years).

Keeping the peace and enjoying one another can require effort, especially on longer shared trips. Consider these ten things to develop and maintain a positive relationship with your travel buddy:

1. Discuss expectations and align your travel style, budget and schedule.

Before traveling with someone new, it’s a good idea to speak on the topic of your expectations for your trip together, no matter how long or short it may be.

If you’re a cold shower/street food/local bus budget traveler, you’ll need to discuss your style and budget with your boutique hotel/Michelin Guide restaurant/car service travel buddy and consider what it may mean to pair off together for a trip.

Also, agree upon a type of itinerary that fits you both as well. If you move fast (1-2 nights in each place, overnight buses and trains, booking travel same day) and your partner likes to settle in (3+ nights in each town, plan each step), schedule will need to be discussed in order to find a rhythm.

Andrew and Emily of Along Dusty Roads.

Long term travel buddies: Andrew and Emily of AlongDustyRoads.com. Click through for their travel site.

2. Plan to spend time apart.

The number one thing that will drive a wedge between two travelers is if they spend every single moment of every day together. My stories may start to sound stale, your dietary restrictions may begin to grate on my nerves, etc. Split off for a few hours or even a full day and come back with some new energy. You don’t need to spend every waking minute together – in fact, it’s often just the opposite.

3. Share!

You have a clean pair of socks, and I’ve just announced that I’m down to crunchy repeats from last week. Help me out!

You know there’s only 10 minutes worth of warm water at the guest house. Let your buddy shower first, and don’t make yourself into a martyr when you wind up with the tail end of the hot.

I brought a jacket onto the overnight bus, and they’re cranking the AC (often for no reason). You didn’t manage to get warm clothes out of your pack before it got tossed into the hold. Time to turn my jacket into a blanket for two.

Oh, and give me a bite of that, it looks delicious!

4. Don’t keep score.

Splitting checks at restaurants and lodgings with your travel buddy will never get down to a zero sum game, but who cares. Try to be honest and forthright about the balance of cash spent, but don’t waste too much time on accounting. You pick up lunch, I’ll buy the bus tickets. This is far easier and faster than trying to produce exact change at every transaction, especially in countries where breaking the equivalent of a US $10 bill is of equivalent difficulty to splitting the atom.

5. Be flexible.

Choices will have to be made along your route, and you won’t always get exactly what you want (same goes for your buddy). Try to look for the best in any given situation and be ready to shrug things off if they’re not ideal, and remember that sometimes inconveniences and reactionary planning leads to good things. Your route and schedule is just a rough outline and should always be considered as such.

Unexpected delays.  Somewhere south of Flores, in Petén, Guatemala.

Unexpected delays. Somewhere south of Flores, in Petén, Guatemala.

6. Followers: don’t complain. Leaders: be sensitive to others’ needs.

If you are a person that would rather follow than lead, know that if you choose not to participate in the decision making and route planning process, you don’t have a right to complain when you don’t get what you want. On balance, if you’re a domineering travel leader and planner, be sensitive to what may be your buddy’s comparatively understated needs.

7. Check in with one another throughout the trip.

And are my habits annoying you, or are the choices I make of restaurant/lodgings bothersome? Maybe we should talk about it and iron things out. I like to think that if I approach my buddy in the spirit of truth, we can work through whatever needs discussion. It’s a lot better than letting wounds fester.

8. Travel at the pace of your collective health.

If your buddy is complaining of injuries, is falling ill or is exhausted from long travel days, you might need to take care of them or slow down a bit. Don’t push it out of fear-of-missing-out. Health comes first.

9. Know that each new stop can mean a new perspective.

There’s no reason you can’t start a bit fresh with one another in each new place you visit. Let the slate wipe itself clean (as best you can) when you pack the bag and move from A to B. This works better than you’d imagine, and it’s fairly automatic.

10. It’s not a war crime to part ways for days at a time, or longer.

I’ve seen travel buddies split ways for multiple days or even weeks at a time on trips, only to reunite later at a set date at another destination. If you’re so exasperated that you’re about to strangle your buddy (or them you), consider this slightly more drastic option. It’s better than pretending like nothing is wrong and potentially damaging a friendship. If you plan to propose days (or longer) apart, make sure to approach your buddy with sensitivity to their feelings – this might not have been something they were planning for.

Ah, good days with good buddies.  Playa Zipolite, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Ah, good days with good buddies. Playa Zipolite, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Remember, the goal of traveling with a buddy isn’t “to put up with one another at all costs” – it’s to enjoy yourselves and to share experiences in a positive way. Act accordingly!

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Two Current U.S. Passports At Once?

There are times when carrying one physical U.S. passport booklet is just not enough. Sometimes you need more than one, especially if visa application processes require shipping your passport booklet off.

Though the U.S. State Department doesn’t really advertise it, U.S. citizens can legally have/carry two passports simultaneously, and you don’t have to be a dignitary nor a government employee to obtain a second passport booklet – you just have to make a (fairly basic) case to the State Dept that you actually need a second passport.

Friend and fellow traveler Kathy Watts of travel site Wherever With You is a dual-passport carrying U.S. citizen and wrote about how to get a second U.S. passport on Outside Online.

Click through for the full article “Can I Really Have Two U.S. Passports?” on Outside Online (or click here if you don’t yet have your first U.S. Passport!).

FEATURED - SJDS Sunday Funday


Why I’m Not Going to “Sunday Funday” in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Yes, I’m in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua on a Sunday. And no, I’m not going to attend “Sunday Funday”. What’s not to love, and why am I not going? Happy to share. But first…

What is Sunday Funday?

San Juan Del Sur’s “Sunday Funday” is a full day of binge drinking, splashing about in hostel pools with other backpackers in various states of undress, drunken dancing to DJs, and forgotten walks home. Sort of a Central American answer to Thai “Full Moon Parties”.

I’ve been told it’s a very fraternity party-like celebration largely populated with a crowd in their early twenties. It takes place on Sundays.

Sounds great! Why don’t you want to go?

Here’s why:

#1. The price of admission to Sunday Funday is disproportionately expensive in comparison to other activities in Central America.

Admission to Sunday Funday, which is a 3-hostel “pool crawl”, is $30 US, which includes:

  • Admission to three San Juan Del Sur hostels that have pools
  • Transport between those hostels
  • Zero included/free drinks
  • Free tank top (call it a “vest” or a “singlet” as you like)

Note: your ticket price is halved to $15 US if you choose to stay at one of the participating “Sunday Funday” hostels in San Juan Del Sur (Pelican Eyes, Naked Tiger, PachaMama), but that means staying at a party hostel on it’s biggest party day of the week! Not worth it to me. Also – if you plan to take advantage of this savings, book your hostel bed at least a few days prior – PachaMama, for example, reached capacity prior to Sunday when I was in San Juan.

$30 US admission for a pool party is an incongruously high cost that’s out of sync with nearly every other activity I’ve done in over five months in Central America.

Amazing activities in Central America are largely inexpensive by comparison. For example:

  • $15 US: transport and surfboard rental for a full day of surfing on Playa Maderas, near San Juan Del Sur.
  • $23-30 US: Sea turtle tour in San Juan Del Sur. People were seeing THOUSANDS of sea turtles on the beach at the time I was in SJDS.
  • $25-30 US: Motorbike rental ($20-25 for rental, $5 for fuel) for a full day of zipping around the dual volcanoes of Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.
  • $25-30 US: Volcano boarding Volcán Cerro Negro in León, Nicaragua.
  • $45 US: Canopy tour (ziplining) in Monteverde, in Costa Rica.
  • $50-60 US: two-tank scuba dive in the Corn Islands, Nicaragua or in Utila, Honduras (meaning $25-30 each tank).

Super-low budget: I also climbed a Guatemalan volcano for $0.50 US through independent means!

Again, drinks are NOT included in Sunday Funday admission – it’s a safe bet that during a 12-hour day of drinking that you’ll put away at least 12 drinks, and buy a number of beers for friends as well – so let’s just call that an estimated $30 US additional.

This puts you at a projected entertainment cost of $60 US for the day (or $45 if you stay at a participating hostel). No, it’s not necessarily a huge sum of money for those interested in spending it – but it’s an expensive day for those of us that are traveling long term, on a budget.

#2. San Juan Del Sur area beaches are emptier on Sundays than they are any other day of the week.

While the crowd is hanging out at Sunday Funday, they’re not on the beach. Sunday is the best chance you’ll have all week to get a little more space on the sand or in the sea (which can be helpful for beginning surfers, no doubt). Take full advantage.

#3. Want to have a drink? There are no shortage of other bars and parties in San Juan Del Sur.

SJDS is a tourist-oriented party town. Drinks are everywhere, as are surfer babes/dudes with tans and defined abs. You don’t need to pay admission to access either of the two.


The free tank top is, in my opinion, the tramp stamp of Central America freebie shirts.

#4. I admit it, I’m too old for this shit.

I know this is a party for people in their early 20s that have recently discovered party culture and the many joys of alcohol. As a 34-year-old, I’m not in the target demographic anymore, and I’m totally at peace with that.

#5. This is “being a tourist” at its worst.

Sunday Funday, in my mind, represents trashy drunken backpacker culture to the max. Yes, I like to let loose from time to time, but I don’t relish being party to events that include pukey, shouting half-naked backpackers pissing in the gardens of local people’s properties every week. It’s embarrassing.

More: I’ve long rolled my eyes at extremes and excess of backpacker party cultures in otherwise poor and/or developing countries, in places like Vang Vieng (Laos) and San Pedro La Laguna (Guatemala) where the party culture stands in stark contrast to the culture/customs of the local community, or worse, has more or less obliterated it.

Given, San Juan Del Sur seems a little more at home with its tourist culture (and will happily take your tourist dollars – it’s one of the most expensive places I’ve been in Nicaragua), but that doesn’t make it ok to act like your party life exists in a bubble and doesn’t influence local communities and economies.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America trying to learn Spanish, learn about the culture, make friends and make a good impression. Why screw that up now?

#6. It was difficult to get my travel buddies interested in Sunday Funday for the same reasons as the above.

Anything can be fun with a good group of friends – and frankly, if good buddies wanted to team up for Sunday Funday, I would have gone – but the vast majority of the people I befriended along the way in Central America just didn’t want to go, primarily due to the cost of the event and availability of other great activities in the area.

What I’m going to do with my Sunday:

I’m going to surf Nicaragua’s beautiful Pacific Coast for two days instead of getting drunk at Sunday Funday, all for the same cost as I would have spent for Sunday Funday admission alone.

POSTSCRIPT: OK, so I went to Sunday Funday anyway

On Sunday, my friends and I surfed Playa Maderas during the day. The waves weren’t the best, but we had a nice time anyhow. After riding the shuttle back to town in the late afternoon, we agreed to step out for a drink together.

Despite misgivings about Sunday Funday, we were all still a bit curious, and figured we’d see if we could get into the last portion of the party for free just to see what was going down. We approached the door of Pacha Mama Hostel, and the dude working the door just waved us in – no wristbands, no tank tops, no entrance fee, no nothing. Go ahead, dudes.

There’s a good reason for this free admission: people like to sell beer, especially when it’s marked up beyond prevailing prices for no particular reason. Then they like to sell even more of it.

My experience: the music was loud but not terrible. Some people seemed to be having fun dancing and hanging out. A number of people were wandering around making out with one another, some more successfully than others. Body shots were poured and taken. The MC of the event stood on the bar from time to time and called out party things that made the crowd say “woo”. In the streets, there was your garden variety of loud drunken conversation, people attempting to clandestinely piss on walls or behind shrubs, a bit of drunken crying, a bit of puking.

LOOK AT HOW GOOD OF TIME I AM HAVING AT PACHA MAMA.  Cigarette butt-covered floors, coked up making out backpackers, shirtless sweaty bros, overpriced beers and me!


While at Pacha Mama, I spoke with a few other Sunday Funday attendees and asked them to tell me about their experience and their feelings about the event.

Some shrugged and weren’t really impressed. Said it wasn’t really worth the cost nor time expended.

Some said that they had more enjoyed the daytime portion of Sunday Funday at the prior two hostels/pools (and that the views were quite lovely), but also told me that the group transport arrangements took them away from these locations too soon.

A few people said they had “the craziest, most amazing time” that day, which is fair. A few of those people later told me in hushed tones that they’d snorted a fair amount of coke that they (importantly) didn’t have to pay for, and made out with a number of people as well. Ok.

My perspective? This is just another backpacker party, not a “bucket list” item, and I wouldn’t plan a Nicaragua / Central America travel itinerary around it.

What do I think you should do with your Sunday in San Juan Del Sur? Whatever you want. It’s your trip after all – enjoy it however you like!

I’ve been amazed by the number of people that, in heartfelt defense of Sunday Funday, have sent me hate mail about this post, including pretty nasty personal attacks. I guess that’s what happens when your editorial blog post hits #1 on Google SEO for “Sunday Funday San Juan Del Sur”, well above Sunday Funday event promotion pages.

You’re allowed your opinion, I am as well. Thanks for reading and enjoy your Sunday.

Other blogs that talk about Sunday Funday with varying opinions of the event:

Note: prices of Sunday Funday admission are already out of date on some of these links as of November 2014, and times/places may be out of date by the time you read this as well.



Day of the Dead: Matagalpa, Nicaragua

Is Dia de los Muertos celebrated in Nicaragua?  Yeah, but if you’re expecting sugar skulls and catrinastyle skeleton face paint, you’ve come to the wrong place.  This ain’t Mexico.  It’s Nicaragua, and Nicaragüenses celebrate a bit differently.

In 2012 (two years prior to my visit to Nicaragua), I witnessed the celebration of Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico – a joyful, raucous affair observed on November 1st and 2nd, complete with brass band after brass band and dancers circling on the streets, plenty of mezcal for those that cared to imbibe, sand paintings (tapetes) and decorated altars (altars) dedicated to those that had passed on, markets full of colorful flowers, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and other food items to be left for the dead, and multiple visits to the cemetery where graves had been adorned with offerings, and where families often stayed late into the night eating, drinking, talking and singing around the graves.  Add a healthy dose of modern Halloween costumes and associated revelry, and you’re there.  It’s quite an affair, and it’s a ton of fun.

Out in the street for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca.  2012.

Out in the street for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca. 2012.

Mexican DDLM is well-known and well-documented.  But Nicaraguan Dia de los Muertos hasn’t received anywhere near as much attention on the internet and in travel guidebooks (in fact, information is pretty minimal!).  Curious to know more, I started inquiring to locals and other travelers – where was the best place to witness/celebrate DDLM in Nicaragua?  I was rewarded with more shrugs than tips.  Locals seemed somewhat confused in why I would be interested at all, and most travelers really couldn’t help me.  Hmm.  From what I was gathering, there just wasn’t that much going on anywhere – or at least nothing like what I had seen in Mexico.  And that’s fine and understandable – the holiday has Mexican origins, after all.

Still, there had to be SOMETHING going on, right?  I was going to at least try to find out.  Since I couldn’t find convincing evidence that one city would be better than another for DDLM, I didn’t change my itinerary, and found myself in the northern city of Matagalpa.

a mural of political heroes in Matagalpa.

a mural of political heroes in Matagalpa.

On November 2nd, 2014, I made a visit to the city cemetery in Matagalpa.  The front desk of my hostel seemed confused when I asked how to best get there.  “The cemetery will be really busy right now”, they told me, strangely attempting to dissuade me from going for some reason.  Other travelers from the hostel opted out of joining me for my cemetery visit, citing rationale that they believed this wasn’t something to go look at – they thought it was more of a personal/familial day, not for their eyes.

Naturally, I wasn’t hearing any of it, and went anyway, taking a taxi to the cemetery entrance.  As expected, DDLM in Matagalpa was by no means off-limits and was quite a friendly and accessible place to be.

Vendors were selling flowers at the gates.  Families were repainting/maintaining graves, arranging and planting flowers around each unique grave.  People were smiling, enjoying their Sunday with their loved ones.  Kids were running around playing games amongst the graves.   Dress was casual.  There was all kinds of food available for sale in the cemetery.

I wandered freely and photographed as I wished.  Below are some of the results of a couple of hours of meandering.

Passing time with the passed.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.





Dia de los Muertos bros.  Matagalpa, Nicaragua.









Dia De Los Muertos cemetary maintenance crew.  Matagalpa, Nicara

A relatively simple, but pleasant celebration method, no?

My expectation is that Dia de los Muertos is quite similar in other cities in Nicaragua – not a party by any means, but a reason for family to get together, pay respects to the dead, and take care of some grave maintenance in the meantime.

Have you celebrated/witnessed Dia de los Muertos in Nicaragua?  Relate your story or your favorite city to visit for the goings-on below in comments and we’ll try to build up a little more information on the topic to share with others.  Thanks!

FEATURED - How To Choose A Dive Shop

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TRAVEL TIPS: How To Choose a Dive Shop

I love scuba diving, but every time I go scuba diving in a new place – either for an increased level of diving certification or simply for fun dives, I have to go through the same tedious routine of picking a dive shop/resort with which to dive.

It’s a time-consuming pain in the ass, but it’s worth the effort every single time – because when you pick right, you not only increase your chances of staying safe, but also your overall level of enjoyment while diving.

My priorities for picking a dive shop in an unfamiliar place:

  • SAFE DIVING above all else.  Priority number one!
  • Diving with skilled (and fun) divemasters/instructors that know and love the area well
  • Access to the best dive sites in the area
  • Good/fair prices
  • Potential free and/or discounted lodgings

My process and decision structure for picking a dive shop is below, in FOUR EASY STEPS!

As for me:  I’m a certified PADI Rescue Diver and have diving experience in Thailand, India, Belize and Honduras.

Koh Tao, Thailand.

Koh Tao, Thailand.

Step #1:  Research area dive shops prior to arrival at your diving destination.

If you’ve got friends that have visited the place in which you plan to dive, ask them if they had a good or bad experience there with their dive operator.  Note the names of the shops, and follow up on sites like Tripadvisor for positive and negative reviews from other divers.

Now, pick a few favorites from what you’ve learned.  I usually start with the negative side of things in order to eliminate less reputable dive shops.  Any diver’s first concern should be the safety record of a given dive shop – so if divers didn’t feel safe with their dive operator, you’ll hear about it in their reviews, generally to the tune of the below:

  • Poor maintenance of dive equipment and boats, and/or notable equipment failures
  • Overcrowded boats
  • Willingness to take divers beyond the depth limits for which they are certified (as in, taking an Open Water diver beyond 18m depth), or on specialty dives (wreck, night, nitrox, etc) for which divers are not qualified
  • Impersonal service and lack of attention to diver complaints about the above

Safety violations like these are a huge black eye for any dive shop and a reason to possibly eliminate them from my list of possible dive operators to work with.  Another bad sign is if dive shops in question allow divers to touch corals and wildlife while diving.  This generally means they’re not a particularly careful organization.

Once you have a few favorite dive shops picked out, check their websites for pricing and start e-mail or phone conversations to make sure their prices and terms are clear and current (often times websites are out of date) and that they respond to potential clients well.

Make a list of three to four favorite dive shops based on this process of elimination (or maybe less – sometimes there’s only one or two shops at your intended destination).

I do all of Step #1 before traveling to the diving location.

Divers resurface in Utila, Honduras.

Divers resurface in Utila, Honduras.

Step #2:  Upon arrival on location, visit your preferred dive shops in person.

I recommend a solid multi-hour scout of dive shops once you arrive on location.  At minimum, visit three of your now-preferred dive shops to talk to the owners/instructors and to ask a bunch of questions, like these:

What is the TOTAL COST of diving with a given dive shop?

Every dive shop seems to do their price breakouts a little different, so make sure you understand all costs before you sign on with anyone.  Questions to ask:

  • Are all taxes included in listed costs of certification courses and/or fun dives?
  • Does diving in said area incur reef fees?  Are they included in listed costs, or are they additional?
  • Is all equipment (regulator, BCD, booties & fins, wetsuit, mask, snorkel, tank itself) included in listed costs?
  • Is there a discount for using your own equipment?
  • Anything else we haven’t talked about?

Have the person in the office write out an EXACT price of your certification course or fun dive package given your scenario.  No surprises this way!

How many dive boats does the dive shop have, and how many do they send out each day?

Some dive shops only send out one boat a day.  Others send out multiple boats in the morning and afternoon (and sometimes for night dives as well).  Greater frequency of boat departures provides greater flexibility to you as a diver, and can help expose you to a greater variety of dive sites.  It isn’t critical that a dive shop have multiple boats, but it can be nice.

Does the dive shop have the ability to segregate advanced divers from beginners?

If you’re a beginning diver, this won’t matter much to you.  But if you’re an Advanced Open Water Diver or at a higher level still, you may want to visit deeper and/or specialized dive sites that the beginners won’t be able to access.  Separate boats means more flexibility, and potentially more enjoyment.

What dive sites will you be visiting in the coming days?

Most dive shops have a whiteboard calendar with listed/projected dive sites and an area for divers to sign up for dive boats.  Ask to see the board and make note of what dive sites they’ll be visiting, and how frequently (a cellphone photo works well for this).  If the dive shop doesn’t have listed boats for the next few days out, ask why.  It could be a weather concern, or equipment problems – or even just a clerical oversight.

How many other divers are currently diving with the shop, and are they completing certification courses, or doing fun dives?

If there are few other client divers at your dive shop, the dive shop will be less willing to send boats out – after all, fuel is expensive.  On the other hand, if there are TOO MANY people at your dive shop, it may be harder to secure your place on a given dive boat if boats are small or limited to one per day.

Also – if everyone at a certain dive shop is a student completing a certification course, said shop might not be a great place for you as a fun diver, as the shop will likely send their boat to known sites that are good for teaching and skill acquisition instead of those known for interest, beauty and wildlife alone.

I prefer to dive with shops that have a moderate level of activity, and a mix of fun divers and students.

Can I see the dive equipment you use as well as the boat(s)?

While scuba equipment will look a bit alien to a beginning diver, it’s still worth eyeballing it.  If they won’t show you the equipment room, or if the equipment is noticeably falling apart, that’s not a good sign.

Take a look at the boat as well.  Is it a boat you’d like to ride?

Is there free or reduced-cost accommodation available for divers through the dive resort?

Some dive resorts can throw you a room or dorm bed for cheap or free if you sign on for a certification course or a certain number of fun dives.  Others don’t have it.  Ask around, you might save a few bucks.

Can I meet the person that would be my course instructor and/or dive master?

This isn’t always possible – but when it is, it’s very helpful to speak in person.  After all, your relationship with your instructor and/or dive master will be an important part of your comfort and enjoyment while diving.

Can you throw in some free fun dives with a certification course?

In places like Utila, Honduras, dive shops were regularly throwing in two free fun dives with each certification course.  Might as well ask (and/or negotiate), worldwide.  You might get something for free!

The dive boat I did my rescue diver course from in Belize.

The dive boat I did my rescue diver course from in Belize.

Step #3:  Talk to other divers in the area.

Chances are that if you’re in a beach town or on an island (or near a lake for that matter), there are other divers there for the same reason.  Strike up a conversation and ask a few questions, like these:

What dive shop are they diving with?

And do they like it, or have reservations?  A strong personal recommendation could be quite helpful in an unfamiliar place.

Did the shop offer them discounts and/or free or reduced cost accommodations?

Might as well ask!

What are the best dive sites they’ve encountered nearby?

Make note of the names, and compare them to where the local dive shops are planning to visit over the next few days.

Plus, figure out how deep the notable sites are.  No use in getting excited about a dive site at 25 meters depth if you’re only certified to 18 meters (of course, you could always up your certification to go deeper).

And thank them, of course.

You might end up on the dive boat with these folks.

Step #4:  Make the call.

I usually gather information and then sleep on it before picking a dive shop.  But if you don’t have the time to do so, just make a call that you feel comfortable with, based on the below:

  • General reputation and safety record of dive shop via conversations and research
  • Price – diving costs, with a balance against potential free/discounted rooms and other incentives like free fun dives
  • Accessibility of great dive sites, and frequency of boat departures to preferred sites
  • General gut feeling is important too!  You know what’s right (or you should, anyway).

And remember, the whole goal of this exercise is to guarantee that you have the most fun you can when you go diving.

Do you have something to add that I’ve forgotten?  If so, please comment below.  Thanks for reading!



UTILA, HONDURAS: Diving, Drinking and Disappointment

It’s easy and relatively risk-free to write about a place you loved.  It’s not exactly cake to write about a place that disappointed you.

I spent ten days on the island of Utila, Honduras in October of 2014, spent too much money and wasn’t all that impressed.  I admit – it’s a cheap place to get your scuba diving certification – but is it a good and cheap place to go in general?  I didn’t really think so.

My major Utila complaints, which I’ll expand on below:

  • There’s nothing to do on Utila but scuba dive during the day and drink hard at night.
  • A lot of diving and drinking quickly wrecks a backpacker’s daily budget.
  • Food is kind of expensive and not that tasty on Utila.
  • Utila is far from the prettiest or most pleasant place I’ve ever been.

I await your hate mail.

This is where Utila, Honduras is.  At the red thing.

This is where Utila, Honduras is. At the red thing.

Here’s what’s cheap and advantageous in Utila:
If you’re traveling in Central America, you’ll hear about Utila as the storied cheap place to scuba dive more cheaply than anywhere else in the region (and as cheaply as anywhere else in the world), as hear tales of cheap and/or free lodgings and a backpacker-centric vibe.  And I admit – all of these things are in Utila, yes.

For example, diving costs:  completion of a PADI Open Water Diver certification (4 day course) or Advanced Open Water certification (2 day course) costs about $300 US at any given dive shop – competition is intense between the myriad operators in tiny Utila Town.  A lot of dive resorts even give out free accommodations with certification courses or packages of fun dives.  Fun dives usually run about $25-30 US per tank.

This pricing is not only competitive on Utila, but worldwide.  It’s by no means a bad deal.

Just as an example:  here's the public price list as of October 2014 for Parrots Dive Center on Utila.  Make sure to ask if tax and reef fees are included in the cost of certification and/or fun dive packages.

Just as an example: here’s the public price list as of October 2014 for Parrots Dive Center on Utila. Make sure to ask if tax and reef fees are included in the cost of certification and/or fun dive packages.

THE CHEAPEST DIVE SHOP ON UTILA:  upon research/visit in October 2014, only one dive shop really stuck out as a bit less expensive than the others – Paradise Divers, a popular spot for Spanish-speaking divers, which offered certification courses at around $250 US.  Accordingly, Paradise’s facilities and accommodations appeared just a bit less shiny and new than others.  I did NOT dive nor stay with Paradise so I cannot comment beyond this, though.

AND IN FULL DISCLOSURE:  I went diving with Bay Islands College of Diving – but you certainly don’t need to follow my lead – I think you should visit multiple Utila shops before choosing your dive operator (I certainly did)!

A few pictures from my time diving on Utila:

Heading toward a dive site, and a small island too.

Heading toward a dive site, and a small island too.

naps on the way to the first dive site of the day.

naps on the way to the first dive site of the day.

in progress.  no wetsuit for me.  and yes, I know my snorkel is on the wrong side.

in progress. no wetsuit for me. and yes, I know my snorkel is on the wrong side.

They saw a hammerhead shark.  I didn't.

They saw a hammerhead shark. I didn’t.

but we all saw dolphins running alongside the boat that day.

but we all saw dolphins running alongside the boat that day.

unloading the boat after a dive.

unloading the boat after a dive.

Another unique thing about Utila:
Another key thing that Utila boasts that many other places can’t:  diving/snorkeling Utila’s north side means that you may stand the chance of seeing whale sharks – the world’s largest fish, sometimes reaching 30-40 ft (9-12 meters).  This is one of the places you can see them for an extended season each year (dive resorts may tell you that they can be seen ALL YEAR, but they have money to gain by saying so!), and that’s not necessarily common.  I’m dying to see whale sharks myself, and haven’t yet.

But… If you’re on a backpacker budget, Utila isn’t as cheap as you’d think.
This’ll seem like I’m nit-picking at first, but bear with me.

Examples of non-diving costs on Utila:
Prices for food in restaurants – say, a desayuno tipico (typical breakfast), or a set menu lunch – don’t vary considerably between establishments on the main road of Utila Town.  You can expect to pay around 80-100L for breakfast, 80-150L for lunch, and 100-200L for dinner.  Prices are slightly higher than I generally prefer to pay in Honduras, and though they’re not exactly runaway costs, little things like this add up if you’re on an extended trip (and yes, I know things just cost more on islands in general!).

Don’t expect a wealth of back alley comedores nor taquerias to save your budget either – there just aren’t a lot of them on hand.  And yeah, there’s a bit of street food available, but living off tacos (20L each) and baleadas (simple ones for 12L) alone will be tough if you’re diving every day.

The biggest problem for me was that I just didn’t think the food here was good QUALITY for its price.  Nothing blew me away, and I was on the island for a week and a half scouting hard for food that DID blow me away.  I was regularly disappointed at meal time and ended up just eating simple foods for as cheap as I could find them for the most part.

One of the cheapest lunches I had on the island.  70L (a little under $3.50 US) for a bit of fried fish, plantains, rice, beans and salad.  Decidedly not from Shoneys.

One of the cheapest lunches I had on the island. 70L (a little under $3.50 US) for a bit of fried fish, plantains, rice, beans and salad. Decidedly not from Shoneys.

Let’s say you have a kitchen in your accommodations and want to cook instead:  bad news – food in grocery stores isn’t all that inexpensive either – and there’s not really a “cheap” grocery store either – prices are nearly fixed between shops.  On the extreme high end of food costs, I saw a box of cereal for $9 US, and smallish plastic bags of pasta for $4 US.  Yikes.

Friends on the island that were staying for long, multi-level dive certification courses complained to me how they couldn’t really save a lot of money by shopping and doing their own food prep.  Bummer.

Roughly $8.00 US for cereal.

Roughly $8.00 US for cereal.

$4 US for a smallish bag of pasta.

$4.00 US for a smallish bag of pasta.

Also of note:  transport costs to the island:  Taking the ferry to Utila from La Ceiba costs around $25 US each way, which is a somewhat considerable expense for a budget backpacker.  It’s not a disastrous amount, but it’s still a cost worth mentioning for travelers that’ve been chicken-bussing and dorm-ing their way through Central America.

Utila Princess posted prices (current Oct 2014) for transport from La Ceiba to Utila.

Utila Princess posted prices (current Oct 2014) for transport from La Ceiba to Utila.

Swedes buying tickets.

Swedes buying tickets.

The little one goes to Utila.  The big one goes to Roatan.  Same dock.

The little one goes to Utila. The big one goes to Roatan. Same dock.

The ferry ride to Utila can be pretty bumpy.  There was a lot of passenger puking going on, and a lot of plastic bags being handed out accordingly by staff.

The ferry ride to Utila can be pretty bumpy. There was a lot of passenger puking going on, and a lot of plastic bags being handed out accordingly by staff.

For your ease of use, here’s the Utila Princess daily ferry schedule, current October 2014 (it comes and goes twice daily, and takes about an hour for transit):

  • Depart Utila for La Ceiba: 6:20 am
  • Depart La Ceiba for Utila: 9:30 am
  • Depart Utila for La Ceiba: 2:00 pm
  • Depart La Ceiba for Utila: 4:00 pm

But here’s the REAL budget killer:  there’s not that much to do on any given day aside from DIVE AND DRINK.
Dive during the day, drink hard at night.  No exceptions, and nothing more to do.  I know this sounds like a fantasy to some, but I think it’s pretty limiting routine that can destroy modest travel budgets.

Here’s what you should expect insofar as a daily budget if you do the daily Utila dance, which goes like this:

  • $60-70 US:  go out on the dive boat for a 2-tank dive (meaning two immersions in the water and a surface interval).
  • $0.00 US:  a day of diving often means your accommodation is cheap or free, so we’ll say that’s zero bucks per day.
  • $10-20 US:  eat at least two meals in modest restaurants.
  • $10-15 US:  go out with friends (or new acquaintances, whatever you want to call them) at night for a battery of drinks in one of the local bars ($2+ per drink, and you may drink 4-5 or more).

This not-unusual daily budget breakout means spending $80-105 US in one day – double or triple many backpackers’ anticipated budgets.

I know, I know – it’s not necessarily THAT MUCH MONEY on the grand scale.  But the thing is – remember – Utila is a place that, in my opinion, is NOT THAT TERRIBLY INTERESTING, and NOT REALLY THAT PRETTY.

Here’s one way to spend your drinking money in Utila:  several bars offer “challenges”, which mean slamming four shots of terrible-tasting alcohol, sometimes performing a physical activity like running about or spinning.  For the cost of 200 Lempira (just under $10 US) you get the shots – and should you complete your nasty drinks, you are awarded a t-shirt, which many people wear around the island like a badge of courage.  I admit, I did two of them, including that of dive bars La Cueva and Skid Row.

Skid Row’s challenge pictured below, as executed by myself and Rob of travel blog The Seafaring Canuck and our unsightly beards.

Get it?  GET IT?

Get it? GET IT?

First, take three shots of "guifity", a horrid combination of rum and herbs.

First, take three shots of “guifity”, a horrid combination of rum and herbs.

Then, spin in circles ten times in the street while avoiding passing motorbikes and tuk-tuks.

Then, spin in circles ten times in the street while avoiding passing motorbikes and tuk-tuks.

Now, run around Skid Row's pool table ten times, CLOCKWISE, without touching the pool table.

Now, run around Skid Row’s pool table ten times, CLOCKWISE, without touching the pool table.

Take one more shot afterwards (for a total of four) and feel like this.

Take one more shot afterwards (for a total of four) and feel like this.

Then, pick out your t-shirt or tank top.

Then, pick out your t-shirt or tank top.



winner of the "Skid Row:  Just Dirty Enough" tank top.

winner of the “Skid Row: Just Dirty Enough” tank top.

Utila isn’t that pretty compared to other beaches and islands I’ve visited in other parts of the world.
I know, I know – Utila is supposed to be the rougher-edged Honduran bay island, and Roatán is supposed to be the pretty one.  Fine.  But Utila still isn’t that pretty.

Utila Town itself is a somewhat nondescript hodgepodge.  It’s not decaying in a particularly scenic way, it’s not historically preserved, it’s not shiny and new.  I wasn’t attracted to this place and didn’t find a lot of local interest or drive to photograph the city.  Along the main road, more buildings are abandoned and/or boarded up than you’d imagine.

And while I don’t need a pristine, Disneyland of an island, I was just hoping for something with a bit more character.


Utila Town waterfront property.

Utila Town waterfront property.

Palm trees and power lines.  A METAPHOR PERHAPS?  I DON'T KNOW.

Palm trees and power lines. A METAPHOR PERHAPS? I DON’T KNOW.

What’s more, the traffic on the few roads of Utila Town favors motorbikes, ATVs and tuk-tuks to the point where pedestrians are often left cramming themselves against walls or into doorways to avoid passing vehicles, which maintain right of way and often nearly clip pedestrians regardless of how full the road is.  It’s incredibly irritating.  Oh, and there are no other options for places to walk other than this motor vehicle-dominated road.  UGH.

swerving out of a near miss at high speed on Utila Town's main road.

swerving out of a near miss at high speed on Utila Town’s main road.

mixed media traffic.

mixed media traffic.

A large-ish sand crab hides in one of the gutters that you might have to lean into while avoiding traffic.

A large-ish sand crab hides in one of the gutters that you might have to lean into while avoiding traffic.

The beaches in Utila are low grade by anyone’s standards (even if the water is usually quite clear and warm once you’re in it).  Along the bay of Utila Town, there’s not really a good beach to speak of.  Some dive shops and other businesses offer nice docks on which that you can sit on the sun (which is great after a long day of diving), but if you like REALLY NICE BEACHES you will be HIGHLY DISAPPOINTED here.  I prefer beaches in places like this.

The one easily accessible beach that I saw:  Chepes Beach, to the west of Utila Town, is reachable by tuk-tuk or via a long walk, but kind of an apology of a beach as far as I’m concerned.

Something that helps a bit with this issue:  you can take boats to nicer beaches.  Water Cay is a small, uninhabited island to the east of Utila where I whiled away a nice afternoon in the sun with friends.  My transit there (with said friends) cost me $12 US in a small boat.  There’s a nicer restaurant called Neptune’s that you can also visit that has a sandy patch in front of it as well – it’s only accessible by boat, though (free and operated by the restaurant – I’m not sure about schedule, though).  Here’s a friend’s trip report to said restaurant/beach.

Here’s are some pretty pictures that I shot on Utila that will probably step on the above text a bit.  But then again, what am I supposed to do, post up a bunch of repulsive, poorly composed photos?  DON’T MAKE ME DO IT.

Pico Bonito (2436 m) viewed from near Water Cay.

Pico Bonito (2436 m) viewed from near Water Cay.

Pelicans sitting in a conifer on Water Cay.

Pelicans sitting in a conifer on Water Cay.

Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on Utila at a whopping 243 feet (74 meters) high!

Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on Utila at a whopping 243 feet (74 meters) high!

Ceiba the dog.

Ceiba the dog.

Pico Bonito National Park, as viewed from Utila, Honduras.

Utila isn’t really that pleasant.
In my experience, the majority of the locals here were either very icy, or completely tired of tourists (even in low season, when I visited Utila).  I can’t blame them – this place attracts a party crowd that probably doesn’t give a shit about them either, and comes and goes with perceived impunity.  THIS ISN’T TO SAY THAT THERE AREN’T GOOD PEOPLE ON UTILA – I MET PLENTY – it’s just that a considerable percentage of the locals could take you or leave you.  This kind of burnout is pretty normal in touristic party spots worldwide, but that doesn’t mean I need to get used to it or make allowances for it.

Example:  people like the owner of the grocery store across from my dive shop seemed to HATE me.  As far as I know, I’m a pretty pleasant dude, and I certainly don’t need to get brow-beaten for doing something like buying food and drinks from a store.  I started making my purchases elsewhere as a result, and felt a little less welcome on the island than I had before (not that I ever really had a warm feeling about the place).

More:  the mosquitos on Utila are some of the worst and hungriest I’ve encountered, and I can say this after spending five weeks in lowland Amazon jungle in late 2013.  These things gave my ankles polka-dots, and seemed to have a specific affinity for biting my hands – especially the tasty area BETWEEN MY FINGERS.  Ow.  Of course, mosquitos are less of an issue if you’re in a pretty, amazing place.  But again, I don’t think Utila is that pretty nor that amazing of a place.

And more:  Utila’s airport is rumored to be a place favored by Columbian drug planes for stopovers on the way north, and (probably) accordingly there’s a bit of a slimy drug-culture vibe on the island.  Cocaine (and other things like MDMA) is readily available and the party culture is happily putting it up their noses.  This is all fine and well until you have a 30 minute spitting-close-talker conversation with a coked-up dive instructor and the young backpacker he’s fucking as of that week (I take it that this is one of the perks of the job, as dive instructor pay is not good), and afterwards neither can remember who you are, what you talked about, or what country you’re from.

They:  “What part of Canada are you from again?”

Me:  “The United States.”

So nice to meet you again.

A lot of the people I met on Utila quietly didn’t like Utila that much either.
I thought I was the only one with this distaste at first, but then multiple other divers and travelers I met confided in me that no, they didn’t like Utila much either, and they didn’t think the diving there was as good as they had hoped, and they were pissing away too much money on boring food and too much drinking once the sun had set.  Not exactly an endorsement.

Ok, I get it – you didn’t like Utila that much.  What about the nearby island of Roatan?
I don’t really know – I didn’t visit Roatan, so I won’t speak to that.  Fair!


There are a few GOOD reasons to go to Utila:

  • You want to get dive certified, or want to quickly blast through your Divemaster or PADI Instructor course for prices that are competitive worldwide.
  • You enjoy diving and drinking every day.
  • You love extreme humidity and mosquito bites, and hate good beaches.
  • You’re not picky about food.
  • Your budget is $80-100 US per day or more (this can be lessened if you’re not diving every day, but I don’t see a lot of point in being in Utila if you’re not diving most days).

Are you trying to talk me out of my trip to Utila, Matt?
NO.  Do whatever the hell you want.

If you’re passing through northern Honduras on a bigger trip, there’s no reason not to visit one or more of the Bay Islands of Honduras.  However, if you’re planning a single-destination trip for vacation, natural beauty and diving, consider looking elsewhere.

Utila COMPARED:  would I rather get my Open Water diving certification (or beyond) in a place like Koh Tao, Thailand?
A comparison, just for fun:  when compared to Koh Tao, Thailand (another small island that’s about as diving certification-centric as it gets, and price-competitive), dive certification on Utila is more or less EQUAL in price.  Upon research in October 2014, dive shops in Koh Tao were offering PADI Open Water certification for right around $300 US, and include free lodging on dive days.  It’s the same!  Divemaster and PADI Instructor courses are similarly competitive on price in Utila.

With that said… I would have to say YES, I’d prefer Koh Tao if I was getting started in diving.  And in fact, I did complete my PADI Open Water Diver certification in Koh Tao, way back in 2011.

Though it’s by no means perfect, Koh Tao is just a bit of a prettier place, Thai food beats Utilian food any damn day of the week, Koh Tao has a couple of accessible modest beaches, and I thought the dive sites near Koh Tao were better and more filled with life, at least when I was there a few years ago.  And remember, the cost of diving and living are more or less the SAME in both Utila and Koh Tao.

But to be fair, Koh Tao’s local population definitely exhibited a bit of the tourist burnout that Utila’s did too – and there are certainly prettier places in Thailand, but Koh Tao isn’t ugly, either.  Can’t win ’em all!

Did I have a good time in Utila in spite of myself?
Yes, of course.  What am I, a complete idiot?

I met good people, threw back too many drinks, ate a bunch of forgettable food and had fun doing a bit of diving.  But the only reason I stayed on Utila as long as I did on wasn’t for diving, or drinking, or whatever.  It was because of the friends I made.  Friends like the people below.








Thanks for reading.  If you’re looking for more information on travel in Honduras, check out my previous posts on Copán and crossing the border from Guatemala to Honduras.