Descendants of shipwrecked slaves from Nigeria; Jerry Garcia’s rumored Caribbean seaside bungalow hideout; warrior dances (see video below) and turtle shell drums; echoes of an accented
pigeon pidgin English that smacks of Jamaica; and a remarkable coconut seafood soup called tapado.
This is Livingston, home of the Garifuna. This is the other side of Guatemala.
Who Are the Garifuna?
No story puts a finer point on Guatemala’s diversity and complicated history than the one tracing the arrival of the Garifuna in Livingston.
The Garifuna (or Black Caribs, as they are sometimes referred to) trace their roots back to St. Vincent, an island in the eastern Caribbean. In 1635, two Spanish slave ships from Nigeria shipwrecked there. The slaves mixed with the locals indigenous Caribs and a new culture defined by both West African and Caribbean features and traditions emerged.
In the late 18th century, the British deported the Garifuna population to the island of Roatan (Honduras). The Spanish also got involved, moving Garifuna populations further along the Honduran coast to Trujillo and into parts of Belize. In the early 1800s, Garifuna moved from Belize into what is now Guatemala and set up the town of Livingston.
Almost two hundred years later, the Garifuna continue to maintain their traditions and speak their own Arawak language in Caribbean coastal towns in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
An older Garifuna man explained to us:
When I was a kid, it was all Garifuna people here in Livingston. Each time a Guatemalan arrived by boat, we’d go down to the dock for a look. Guatemalans, they were a novelty.
Then, Guatemalans began to arrive during the war. This area was safe; there was no fighting here. Guatemalans sold everything in their villages and used the money to buy up buildings from people like my parents and set up businesses.
I blame my parent’s generation for selling our buildings, but the current generation won’t invest in our future; they want everything immediately.
When you arrive in Livingston by boat, you’ll notice all the shops and restaurants that line the main streets are owned by Guatemalans (and a few Chinese). The Garifuna have been relegated to the side streets, the edges of town. They live along the shore.
But it’s the Garifuna culture that sells in Livingston. All restaurants offer tapado – a Garifuna coconut-based soup chock full of seafood and shellfish. A few offer Garifuna music and dance demonstrations to boatloads of day-trippers.
Rasta Mesa in Livingston
We dropped by Rasta Mesa, one of the few Garifuna-owned places, one late afternoon after a visit to the local cemetery on the edge of town. A restaurant-cum-cutural center, Rasta Mesa features evening shows to educate travelers on Garifuna culture and music, while at the same time passing on traditions to children in the Garifuna community. The owners have plans to expand their project into an organic community farm and a Garifuna cultural education center. It’s not your typical business plan.
In the evening, a group of Garifuna musicians gathered with bongo drums, conch shell horns, turtle shell drums and maracas. Some kids got into the action, dancing and singing away.
The best way to describe this scene? Watch the video below…and make sure you catch the warrior dance at the end.
Watch the video of Garifuna music and dance
Jerry Garcia’s Footprint?
The same man who waxed long about the changes in Livingston over his lifetime shared another little nugget: Jerry Garcia once owned a house (Casa Garcia, of course) on Livingston’s Caribbean shoreside and played with local musicians. He also gave our storyteller his first guitar and sponsored his education at the University of Illinois.
While we haven’t been able to confirm any of this, we still enjoy the image of Jerry Garcia jamming with a group of Garifuna musicians in this little town on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala.
Myth becomes truth, stories become reality. In Livingston, you’re never really sure what to believe.
That’s part of its charm.
Travel Information for Livingston, Guatemala
How to get there: Livingston is only accessible by boat. Take a boat from Rio Dulce ($10-$12) or from Puerto Barrios ($5).
Where to stay: Hotel Rios Tropicales on the main road across from the municipality has simple rooms with hammocks outside in a cute courtyard. Perhaps most importantly, it has the strongest wifi signal in all of Guatemala. A double room with shared bath is 100Q ($12). Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-794701558
Where to eat: A lot of the restaurants offer the same menu. Here’s our “best of” list from the week we spent in Livingston:
- Best Tapado: Antojitos Gaby has excellent and inexpensive tapado (65Q or $8). The bowl is loaded with seafood – fish, crab, mollusks, conch, sea snails and shrimp – and is more than enough for two people to share.
- Best Grilled Prawns: Restaurante Tiburón Gato, on the main strip, serves up delicious grilled giant garlic prawns.
- Best Shrimp Quesadilla with Roasted Tomato Salsa: The menu at Tilingo Lingo doesn’t list this dish, but you can ask for it from Maria, the self-proclaimed “only Mexican in Livingston.” Absolutely delicious. Also on the menu: Indian food (Maria lived in Calcutta for a few years), pizzas, burritos, and stand-up Turkish style coffee. Tilingo Lingo is located at the end of the main road near the coast.
- Cheapest Breakfast: Restaurante Bahía Azul offers a typical “chapin desayuno” of refried beans, eggs, fried plantains, bread, coffee and juice for 15Q ($2).