Livingston: Guatemala’s Caribbean treasure
In a country where most visitors flock to see rainforests and Mayan history, a unique history of slavery and exile makes the town a hidden Caribbean treasure of Livingston Guatemala.
The only way to get to the town is by boat, but once you get there you will see a culture which is different from any other part of Guatemala.
The allure of Livingston
Livingston is a town of around 18,000 people on the narrow north-eastern coast of Guatemala. It sits on a corner of land where the Rio Dolce flows into Amatique Bay on the Caribbean, and is not connected to the rest of the country by road at all.
Its remarkable Garifuna culture gives Livingston a deserved reputation for unique music and food, as well as a generally relaxed atmosphere.
These three very different communities have been pulled together in Livingston by a remarkable combination of history and geography.
The Garifuna people trace their history to the mingling of native Amerindian people and Africans on the Caribbean island of St Vincent.
The native people originally migrated from the mainland and they eventually intermarried with shipwrecked or escaped African slaves. They were tough people, and fought off at least one attempted invasion by the French, who colonised several other nearby islands.
Britain took over St Vincent in 1763 as part of a treaty with France, and wanted to remove the Garifuna to bring African slaves to farm the island. The Garifuna resisted this and forced a peace treaty, but were defeated in a second war in 1796. They were exiled and eventually ended up on the coast of Central America.
Their language survived with them and is one of the few remaining offshoots of Island Carib, which was effectively wiped out by colonial activity in the 20th century.
The upshot is a strong sense of identity among the Livingston’s Garifuna people and a unique culture which has earned recognition from UNESCO.
Maya culture in Livingston
Livingston is much more than just Garifuna culture, with the strong influence of the native Maya people mixing in to create something really special.
The cultures really merge in the downtown area, where you will experience a colourful whirl of different styles and sounds.
Livingston’s music and dance
If you enjoy music and dancing then you will probably enjoy the frenetic beats of Livingston. From the beach-side disco to street music, the town throbs with a real energy.
Livingston is a great place to enjoy the traditional style known as punta. Traditionally driven by Garifuna drums and maracas, punta is different from anything you will find elsewhere in Central America.
Drumming in general is something you can enjoy in Livingston, with performances in many of the restaurants and bars along the main street.
Food and drink in Livingston
The food and drink of Livingston can be a real treat, thanks to the influence of the Garifuna people and their special history.
One example is tapado, a thick and warming seafood broth made with coconut milk and often served with rice. It can include crab, ocean fish and shrimp, as well as vegetables like yucca or plantain.
If you enjoy a strong drink you might want to (carefully!) try the local home-made specialty, called gifiti. It is based on rum, but will have many ingredients as varied as anise, ginger and coco plum and allspice. No two bottles are likely to be the same.
Along the river to Livingston: Guatemala’s unique journey
Getting to Livingston can be an adventure in itself because, even though it is not on an island, the only way to reach the town is by boat.
River boats travel from the town of Fronteras, which is often referred to as Rio Dolce, and you can stop and visit caves or hot springs along the way. This part of Guatemala is dramatic enough that it was used to film scenes in ‘The New Adventures of Tarzan’.
The other water routes to Livingston are from other towns on Amatique Bay: Puerto Barrios to the east and Punta Gorda to the north.
Punta Gorda is in Belize, so if you do not have the correct visa you will need to visit the immigration office in Livingston, Guatemala, when you arrive.
Exploring the coast from Livingston
You can use Livingston as a base for visiting sites on the Caribbean coast, either by taking a boat or by hiking.
Playa Blanca is a white sand beach halfway along the coast towards Puerto Barrios, and is nicer than the beaches of Livingston itself.
A little further along the coast is Siente Altares, or Seven Altars, a sequence of seven natural pools formed by a waterfall.
Overall, Livingston is one of Guatemala’s cultural quirks, and is very different from the rest of the country. The influence of the Garifuna in this relatively isolated town combine to make it a journey well worth making.