Welcome to The Iguana Station

During my freshman year of college, I spent Spring Break in Utila, Honduras. Utila is one of the Bay Islands located in the Caribbean. It is so small that there is no real airport on the island. Instead, I flew to the nearby island of Roatan. Before I left, an overeager escalator chomped at the airport through the sole of my right sandal. I arrived in Roatan with only a few straps and a bit of rubber under my heel.

volunteer in Honduras

The moment I landed, I knew I was in a completely different place. The airport was small and open, for the breeze to flow through. Flowers and plants were everywhere I looked. I took a bus to the nearby docks to board a catamaran for the trip to Utila along with the other students. Like Roatan, Utila was bright and lively. I soaked in the beauty as we made the short walk from the pier in Utila to the small apartment where we would be staying. After settling in, we were defintely ready for bed.

wishy willy

The next morning, I met the other volunteers at the Iguana Station. We were given a run-down of the daily routine we would follow for the week. In the mornings, we rose early and had breakfast. We then slathered our bodies with a cocktail of baby oil, bug spray, and sunblock to combat the sand flies, mosquitoes and sunburn. When every inch of exposed skin was coated, we walked up the hill to the station. The volunteers split up for volunteer duties, such as cleaning, feeding the iguanas, and running the tour.

Iguana station

The main concern of the station is the endangerment of the swamper iguanas, a rare breed found only on the island. Many locals hunt and eat the iguanas. To combat this, the station workers rescue and breed them. On special field trips, lessons are taught to local schoolchildren about preservation. I was lucky enough to teach this lesson; however, the PowerPoint was in Spanish. Most of the children on the island are bilingual, so I frequently had to ask them to translate the words. I still get a laugh remembering the first time I did this.

I gestured to the screen.
“Can you read what that says out loud for me?”
They dutifully rattled off the words.
Feeling foolish, I amended my request, “Can you read that out loud in English for me?
They giggled but repeated the words, this time in English.

cleaning up Utila

Teaching the lessons was my favorite part of working at the station. Afterwards, I spoke with the children about their lives on the island. They were cheerful and inquisitive, and amused by my constant need for translation and my complaints about the heat, which they said was “not even hot yet.”

At feeding time, I went to the marshes to gather small crabs to feed the iguanas. This was a messy, tedious process which involved kneeling in the mud and poking sticks into the crab holes. When they scrambled out, we would grab them and drop them into buckets. We also chopped up hibiscus flowers to create a “salad” for the iguanas. The iguanas may have preferred the crabs, but I was not a fan.

Iguana lunch

Every evening, after our work was through, we explored the tiny town of Utila. We bought groceries (consisting mostly of beans and rice) and cooked occasionally, often eating out. The local food was plentiful, and there were “imported” restaurants as well. At The Pizza Nut, the owner made pizzas to order. They took a long time to cook, but were delicious. One night, I fell asleep while waiting for my meal. Accustomed to the fast pace of American restaurants, it was strange to wait for over an hour for a meal to arrive. However, every meal I ate in Utila was worth it.

The experiences were worthwhile as well. We climbed a mountain to watch dozens of bats fly out from their cave at dusk. They were so many of them that we had to duck or they would fly into us or get caught in our hair. Somehow, unlike the crabs, I did not mind the bats. During breaks, we also went snorkeling, swimming, and hiking across the island.

beach in Utila

 

The last night in Utila, all of the volunteers went to a local bar to celebrate. I spent most of the night beating the others at the game of Checkers painted onto the bar and trying not to think about having to leave the island.

As the catamaran took us back to Roatan to catch a flight home, a storm rocked the small boat. I was rolled in a tarp (to keep off the pouring rain) under a bench for the entire four hours. When I arrived home many hours later, I was still faintly green. Despite the ruined shoe and seasickness, that week was one of the best experiences of my life. I would recommend Utila to anyone looking for volunteer opportunities, or just a unique vacation spot.

 ~ Anna Sandy is a creative writing major at the University of Memphis. She traveled to Utila in March of 2011 with the College of Charleston’s Alternative Spring Break program. Her passions are books, travel, and any sort of dark chocolate-covered fruit. 

Roatan restaurant guide

I have been getting many requests on restaurant recommendations in Roatan, so here you are. The food served at most restaurants in Roatan tends to have both Western and Caribbean influences, catering more to the tourists visiting from North America and Europe. They charge in USD at comparable US prices. However, if you venture out to shacks, street food and some fast food places, the cuisine is more local and priced for the natives too.

Also, being on the island, ingredients are harder to source and therefore everything is more expensive. For 2 lunch entrees, a juice and a dessert at San Pedro Sula, I paid about $5. In Roatan, no meal was under $50 for two people.

Honduras is famous for rum so a safer bet is to order cocktails rather than wine. Even the local beer is quite popular and available for $2-3 at most places.

Udurau Restaurant located at the Turquoise Bay Dive and Beach Resort is a charming British-Caribbean style establishment. Udaurau meaning fish in Garafuna language. The menu reflect this rich cultural heritage and offers fried snapper in spicy coconut sauce with rice and boiled vegetable. Every piece of fish is fresh, flaky and cooked to perfection.

Beachfront Restaurant at Mayan Princess Beach and Dive Resort – Beautiful patios with excellent beach views. The lunch buffet is a good mix of local dishes (salads, fish, rice) as well as western (pasta, pizza, burgers) and elaborate banana, cheery and chocolate desserts. Everything tastes fresh and the servers are very friendly. The adjacent bar is also very fun and they have live entertainment on weekends. Try the Monchilala cocktail, made with coconut milk and a combination of different liqueurs, drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Geo’s at French Harbor – You will need to drive out to this family run Italian-Caribbean restaurant. They offer large plates of seafood including crabs, lobsters, shrimp and clams. Get a picnic style table on the patio with the backdrop of the water. The Mojitos here are really good. It’s a bit on the pricey side.

Street shack (random ladies at West End) – Best Baleadas and tacos can be found on the street carts and random shacks. Baleadas are typical wheat flour tortillas stuffed with meat or eggs, cheese and salad. The ladies will make them to order and charge you $1-2.

The Mayan at West Bay – Upscale and romantic date night restaurant located midst of high end resorts, where you can get the best ceviche on the island. The mixed ceviche causes a delightful salsa in your mouth with chunks of lobster, conch and shrimp flirting with lemon juice, onions and chili peppers. They also have ample steak and seafood preparations. Save this for a special evening.

Thongs Thai restaurant at West End – Known for the best food on the island, Thongs is a small family run establishment overlooking the water that serves authentic dishes with some island flavor. No one has left unsatisfied walking out of here.

The Blue Marlin at West End  – the place to be on Thursday nights. Locals and expats flock here for live karaoke by the harbor. The bar is packed and you will hear many languages being spoken late into the night.

Mucho Bueno at West End – Located next to Thongs Thai, Mucho Bueno (or very good in Spanish) offers live reggae music on the weekend. It is also located by the water in the bustling night life area of West End. Generally, there is no cover charge at any of the bars and clubs. You can also carry your drinks around bar hopping as long as they are in platic containers.

Comida de Honduras

The cuisine of Honduras has influences of it’s neighboring Central American countries. Honduras was also a Spanish colony that included African and British settlers, so combines elements of foreign lands. It’s location makes it rich in vegetation with thick forests, vast farmlands and opening to the seas. Therefore, the food contains a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, potatoes, beans, rice, meat and seafood.

The most popular dish of Honduras is Baleada. Eaten for breakfast, lunch and snacks, it is a thick wheat flour tortilla with a mashed bean spread, then filled with a choice of scrambled eggs or grilled chicken and crumbled queso fresco (fresh cheese) and chimol (a chopped salad of tomato, onion and bell pepper). You will find local ladies selling “comida typica” by the streets on their little carts, but Baleada is also available at practically all restaurants.

The Garafuna people have been using sweet potato to make bread for centuries. The Garafuna are descendants of Carib, Arawak and West Africa. They grate the sweet potato on a heavy stone grater, make a powder, sift it, soak it and then roast it on a flat skillet. The resulting bread has a crunchy cracker like texture and is eaten as a side with almost every dish.

Seafood is abundant on the island and here you will find lobsters, crab, conch, shrimp, snapper and octopus. Ceviche of each of these and sometimes mixed ceviche is a popular appetizer throughout Central and South America. Every chef has his/her own technique when preparing ceviche, using lemon juice, chili peppers, onions and cilantro. Here it is served with home made plantain chips.

Caribbean influences on the cuisine are also widespread. Sauces made with coconut, cream, paprika or garlic are served over fried fish and served with a side of rice and beans.

Salads in Honduras are very simple yet fresh and delicious. Chopped lettuce, onions, tomatoes, green bell peppers and watermelon are cut up are served individually. Baked potatoes, french fries and boiled vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, green beans) tend to make their way as sides into practically every plate.

For dessert, rice pudding with a hint of cinnamon, banana bread pudding and flan or caramel custard are quite popular. Cherries and chocolate sauce are used to garnish practically everything.

Up close with nature in Roatan

The island of Roatan off the coast of Central America is a green and blue paradise as seen from the sky. It is 35 miles of thick vegetation surrounded by turquoise blue waters. While most people come from around the world to dive and snorkel at the hundreds of dive sites around the island, there are also several opportunities to get up and close with the land animals, which is a fun experience for the entire family.

Watch your step at The Iguana Park at French Cay – The Arch family has been running a 12 acre farm for over 28 years which protects the island’s iguana population from getting poached. Over 2k iguanas roam free and visitors can get up and close with them. Watch your step because the iguanas take over the grounds, specially during feeding time. For $5, you can tour the grounds, watch Green Iguanas and Hammo Negro Iguanas as well as Monkey Lalas, Jesus and Blue Head lizards.

Face to face with monkeys and birds at Gumbalimba Park – Along with a vast area of botanical gardens with over 200 colorful plant and tree species, the park is also home to an animal preserve. Here you can get Capuchin monkeys to jump on your shoulder or pet a free-flying exotic Macaw. Other native animals include lizards, iguanas, rats and birds. The insectariam at Fort Gumba has thousands of butterflies from around the world that are unique in colors and designs.  Some even look like cats, dogs and tigers.

Kissed by a Dolphin at Anthony Key’s – Anthony’s Key Resort and the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences offer opportunity to swim, dive or snorkel with trained dolphins. The dolphin encounter is just in waist deep water where you can touch, hug and kiss a dolphin. The trainers work one-on-one with each dolphin to teach them to respond to signals and perform tricks and dances for the audience. Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals and a lot of fun to watch. It’s definitely a must-do in Roatan.

Here’s a video of Mr French performing some jumps for us.

Divers welcome

It is not a well-known fact but the secret is out. Roatan, Honduras is home to the second largest coral reef in the world. The entire 33-mile wide island is surrounded by a shallow reef with thousands of marine life that divers and snorkelers can enjoy. The reefs begin in as little as 20 to 40 feet of water with delightful drop offs up to 100+ feet.

View from the patio at Turquoise Bay

While most divers head to Australia, Roatan is a relatively inexpensive destination to consider in Latin America. Roatan is the largest and the most developed amongst the Bay Islands. From southeast US, it is only a 3-hour direct flight. Many charter flights operate from Canada and Europe that bring in groups of divers every week.

If you are a novice when it comes to the open seas, it’s easy to get lessons and be certified within a couple of days. The Turquoise Bay Dive and Beach Resort located at the East End of the island has one of the largest dive centers. Here you can train in the private swimming pool overlooking pristine, secluded beaches and then head out with capable and certified instructors. Subway Watersports take divers in groups of up to 10 people for day and night time dives to private dive spots. Here you will find amazing pristine dive sites with drop offs, canyons and the Caribbean’s biggest variety of coral and sponges.

Learn to dive in the resort's pool

After a therapeutic day of enjoying the underwater world, you can return to the comforts of resort. Turquoise Bay is perhaps the most upscale accommodation for divers one can find in the entire Caribbean. It is located right on the beach and offers a lot of privacy. The rooms are simple but spacious. Many of them have balconies overlooking the calm blue waters.

The one restaurant at the resort serves scrumptious buffet style meals. The menu has influences of English and Central American cuisines. A good variety of seafood, meats and vegetables are served that would satisfy the palate of any diver. Also, unlimited food and drink packages are offered on their web site.

Enjoy fine dining all inclusive packages

Guests can enjoy swimming pool, internet access, lush gardens, beach hammock and kayaks at their own leisure. It is a great place to unwind and reflect on the sea creature you spotted during the day. Due to it’s remote location, the night sky as seen from the resort is spectacular. If you are a star gazer, make sure to bring your telescopes along. Turquoise Bay was featured in World’s Best Diving Resorts in 2011.

Beautiful sunset & night skies