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The Travel Blog: Utila – Land of Lizards
I have a rucksack full of iguanas on my back writes Ruby Lawrence

Title Utila – The Land of Lizards

I have a rucksack full of iguanas on my back and I’m walking along a Caribbean beach. If you’d told me I’d be doing this a few years ago I would probably have laughed in your face in disbelief.

Each iguana is wrapped up in a pillow case; they all obligingly stay perfectly still while I splash through the shallows in my walking boots. (It’s very easy to forget you have iguanas in your backpack - I later reach in expecting to pull out my lunch and am reminded by the wriggling of one critically endangered reptile that there is more to this mission than a peanut butter sandwich). As bizarre as it may sound, this is the norm for a volunteer working at the Iguana Research and Breeding Station on the West Caribbean island of Utila. The station aims to preserve one very special animal – the Utila Spiny Tailed Iguana, found nowhere else on earth than this tiny island.

Bundling up wild iguanas into pillow cases and carrying them around in rucksacks may sound cruel. However, the aim on this particular expedition is to catch pregnant females (who lay their eggs on the beach, like turtles) and bring them back to the safety of the station where they are free from poaching or predation. We give the precious hatchlings a better shot at survival. Back at the station the iguanas are housed in a range of cleverly designed cages, along with an eclectic mix of other island species such as curly haired tarantulas, boa constrictors and mosquito fish, to name but a few.

Two of the other volunteers and I are led through the rivers and tropical jungle of Utila by the legendary Mr Osgood. Born and bred on the island, Mr Osgood has had an array of jobs in his time including, ironically, iguana poaching (in his early days) and also head of the Utila police force. He now turns the skills he used in his hunting days to the aid of the Iguana Station and is, without doubt, the best person you could ever meet at catching iguanas. Our aim of the day is to catch three, we are two down and one to go.

Having spotted a big, fat female up a tree Mr Osgood concludes she’s too high to reach with the pole-and-noose method. Instead, he gives the tree what he calls “a good shaking”. The iguana comes flying out like a bolt of lightning and speeds into the ocean, followed by an equally nimble Mr Osgood who has her neatly in his hand in matter of seconds. With a big, booming laugh he announces that we have our three lizards and would we like to go for a swim. The delicious sea beckons invitingly, and we don’t even bother taking our clothes off. They’ll soon dry on the way home in this 36 degree C heat. With all the (rather fun) iguana catching work behind us we spend the remainder of the trip bobbing around in the shallows catching the sun and procrastinating over what to eat for lunch.

If there’s any criticism of the Utilian style of life it would be that it’s so relaxed it’s almost sedated. Being here is an experience equivalent to taking a massive chill pill. The most pressing decisions to be made are ones like; shall I go scuba diving or snorkelling at the weekend? Beach party or local street food tonight? Talking of food, don’t be surprised when your pizza takes an hour or more to arrive on your table. Customer service is non-existant.

Sure, it has its problems, but Utila is a world apart from crime-ridden mainland Honduras in terms of safety, despite being just an hours ferry ride away. It is part of a group of islands called the Bay Islands, whose native people are English speaking and have an astoundingly diverse history. Many locals will tell you they are directly descended from 19th century pirates and they are probably right. The islands were used as a base mainly by Spanish pirate fleets in the 1800’s, including the infamous Henry Morgan (John Steinbeck’s novel ‘Cup of Gold’ was based on this buccaneer’s life).

Pirate references pop up everywhere on Utila. Captain Morgan’s Dive Centre rises proudly up in the centre of town, displaying skull and crossbones all over the shop front. La Pirata Bar looms opposite – I was warned within ten minutes of stepping foot on the island never to go there, “locals only”. It’s true that the locals and the tourists have their own hang outs, probably governed mostly by music taste. Bad reggaeton is all you’ll ever hear booming out of La Pirata, whereas the more western bars such as Tranquila play a wider range of music which appeals to the backpacker crowd. The longer you stay on Utila the more you realise what a bizarre and sometimes surreal mix of cultures this
tropical island harbours. I don’t think I have ever met such a wide range of nationalities in one area, not just visiting but living here. Irish, English, Honduran, German, American, Belgian . . the overall effect is very refreshing. No matter where people are from they are united by a common fondness for this odd yet addictive place.

The Iguana Station itself offers pleasant accommodation and facilities to its volunteers. Yes, you may find a tarantula under the sink, but the shower is good. Most importantly, for a low price which sets it apart from many volunteering ‘holidays’ on the market these days, volunteers are absolutely crucial to the project. Without them it simply couldn’t exist. You know that the work you are doing is both worthwhile and appreciated. For me as a gap year student with a love of wildlife and sunny places it’s an ideal set up – an exotic location, work experience and an affordable price.

Well, Mr Osgood is telling us it’s time to go. An hours trek through tangled jungle lies between us and lunch back at the station. We squeeze the water out of our boots and happily head back, our bags full of some very lucky iguanas.

Find the Utila Iguana Research and Breeding Station online. Flights to San Pedro Sula, Honduras from £600.

Ruby Lawrence is a young writer based in Durham. 

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