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Unadulterated Escape: Sandy Cay

The Bay Islands are a prime tourist destination in Honduras, yet Utila retains a sense of quiet unlike its bigger brothers, the islands of Roatan and Guanaja. There are admitted transportation concerns; Tegucigalpa’s truncated runway is widely regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous landings, planes swooping over a mountain range with under five minutes to screech to a halt at the end of a ragged strip. Upon touching ground, passengers invariably roar, congratulating each other on their survival and clapping for the pilots. A fraternity of risk.

The largest jets allowed to fly into Tegucigalpa are American Airlines 747’s, your best bet on affordable fares departing from the United States. From Tegucigalpa to the coastal city of La Ceiba, board the regional airline TACA, an acronym that wry expats break down to “Take A Coffin Along” or “Take A Chance Airways.” This one-hour trip will cost about $60, with the third, final connection from La Ceiba to Utila running at approximately $30. The Utila flight departs from the mainland only once daily and holds a maximum of eight passengers, so book reservations early.

The actual planes for the last leg of the trip are Soviet-era recyclables, often still labeled in the original Russian decals. Before take-off, a burly man lumbers on board to assess the distribution of weight, directing passengers in a strategic game of musical chairs until nodding to himself, pounding the dented metal of the cockpit, and jumping onto the tarmac. There is no structural barrier between the pilots and the passengers, offering a free view of the co-captain cracking his window open to smoke a cigarette as the tiny plane putters over the Caribbean.

The landing strip in Utila amounts to a short stretch of combed sand. A group of islanders huddles in wait for the plane, which also airlifts supplies for a grocery storefront and rudimentary medicine for an on-site health clinic. A man named George Jackson, an icon of local tourism, greets you there, wearing cut-off jean shorts and a tank top unapologetically screen-printed “BOOBS Man.”

Islanders speak a drawling English, facilitating conversation with George, who manages Sandy Cay, a private tropical island about a half-mile off the eastern harbor of Utila and a forty-minute ride in George’s green dory. There are several cays off the coast of Utila but most of the locals, including George, live on Pigeon Cay, a dense collection of clapboard homes that creak above stilts. George mans his dory with gusto, charging into the waves so that the surf sprays up–all wondrously disorienting for urbanites who started their day walking through metal detectors at an impersonal mega-airport.

Once you arrive at the cay, George walks you through the property, revealing a wood-framed house with two bedrooms (one with two single beds, the other with two queen beds), two bathrooms, a fully furnished kitchen, and a wide living room with eight single mattresses. In total, the house accommodates six to fourteen people, easily meeting the needs of two families or a group of friends. Electrical power is obtained via solar generator, but there is no television, air conditioning or stereo system. Two large tanks store rainwater, which trickles down to the outdoor shower, heated by the sun. Visitors rent the entire island at a flat rate of $100 per night, a bargain only explained by taking into account the effort of actually getting there.

Before George leaves you on the island, he will ask what kind of fish you would like for dinner. Leave it open-ended and he will bring the day’s freshest catch, filleting it for you right on the dock. During a four-day stay, you can sample red snapper, barracuda, tuna, and swordfish. Those willing to brave the smell of Diesel fumes before dawn can also join George for several hours of deep-sea fishing. Early risers are sometimes rewarded with sights of the rolling, spotted backs of native whale sharks.

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, begins at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and flowers along the Central American coast to the Bay Islands. Divers staying at the Cay may prefer to make day trips to the main island, where $70 pays for a day of training at the Bay Island Dive College, while $250 will secure four days of open water diving and scuba certification. The less extreme explorer can drift along the coral in the calm waters surrounding the Cay, using the more rudimentary snorkeling equipment available in the house.

In water no deeper than eight feet, you will see schools of rainbow trout, lone barracuda, and sand dollars skirting a maze of grooved brain coral, yellow finger coral, velvet elkhorn rods, and laced sea fans. With water wings and a snorkel mask, wading children can blow bubbles at darting sunfish and frogfish. Pelicans paddle nearby, swallowing their catches in single, gluttonous gulps. The Utila Spiny-tailed Iguana, endangered despite efforts of a conservation project that began in 1998, can be spotted sunning on fallen palm trees. And from mid-October to late November, sea turtles shimmy along the moonlit beach to lay their eggs in the sand.

You will need little more clothing than a bathing suit, a tee-shirt, and a travel outfit for your stay, so devote the rest of your packing to meal-planning. A well-stocked cooler means fewer trips for George, as well as more purchasing freedom since supplies are limited on the island. Bring along an olive tapenade and crackers for a snack, a stack of tortillas and cheese for a lunch of quesadillas, and Tostitos and salsa to tide you over until the seafood dinner. Upon request, George will provide fresh chunks of whitefish, which you can turn into ceviche by cooking it in the acid from squeezed lemons, and then baking it in the sand. Eat at the picnic table on the rear deck area to enjoy an uninterrupted view of the sun setting on the water.

At the end of your stay, rays streak the horizon as George drives your party back to Utila to catch the early morning flight. Whether you have a ticket or not, you have to elbow your right to board the rickety plane that transports you back to the life of to-do lists and deadlines that you almost forgot.

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