By Richard Brown
Livingston has a bad rap. If you stay at Río Dulce, 40 kilometers upriver, most tourist spots will tell you Livingston is worth a three-hour visit and no more. They’ll tell you to walk the main street, have a look at the locals, order a tapado, and then get the hell out. Odd for a Caribbean town with as much culture, history, and consciousness packed into every square block as anywhere else in Guatemala.
Livingston is a mostly Garifuna small town. The Garifuna are descendants of kidnapped West Africans brought to the New World on European and American slaveships who somehow escaped or survived shipwreck, and the Carib Indians who gave them shelter. At dawn on Garifuna Day, November 26th, people begin to gather at the docks and beaches. Colorful, half-sunk bamboo rafts and small motorboats carrying palm fronds and people in bright African dress approach the shore. Drums, maracas, and conch shells pick up quick rhythms to greet them. People dance; some have been dancing all night in the beachfront disco that regularly slings happy, heart-pounding Caribbean Afrobeats til it’s light out.
Some get emotional as the boats’ captains make landfall like messiahs, beaming placidly under their crowns and embracing the audience. The event represents the seaward exile imposed by the British military after it put down a Garifuna and Carib revolt on the islands of Saint Vincent, which hang over Venezuela at the edge of the Caribbean Sea. The main island of Saint Vincent was notoriously difficult to conquer. The French took Martinique and other nearby islands and wiped out most of their Carib population in the 1600s to make room for sugar and cocoa plantations. But even in 1719, Saint Vincent’s Carib and Garifuna population repelled a French expeditionary force sent from Martinique. The British invaded in 1723, and Caribs and Garifuna defeated them as well. After decades of imperial incursions and small settlements, a series of bloody, definitive wars broke out around the time of the American and French Revolutions. In 1796, the Caribs and Garifuna finally surrendered to the British. To maintain order, the British could not allow free people of African descent to live on the same island as their imported slaves. The Garifuna were hunted down and around 5,000 were sent hundreds of miles on rafts and small boats to the British-controlled island of Roatán off the Honduran coast.
Many, if not most, drowned along the way. The island could not support such a large population, and soon the Garifuna diaspora embarked on treacherous journeys on improvised rafts to seek new homes in Central America. Indeed, landfall was a happy and sometimes miraculous event. They allied with the Spanish in their battles with the English and the French, and so were permitted to form communities along the Central American coast.
Through a harrowing history of flight and battle, Garifuna culture survived the Caribbean genocide that all but extinguished Carib, Arawak, and other major indigenous cultures. Today it has a significant presence in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico, adapting uniquely to each environment. The Garifuna have even maintained their language, which may be the closest living relative to Carib, today extinct. It is blend of indigenous, West African and European languages. It’s spoken widely in Livingston and is written on its walls. Virtually all Garifuna in Livingston speak Garifuna and Spanish, and many speak English as well; English-speaking Belize, just 15 miles from Livingston, is home to a large Garifuna community, and economic marginalization has led to several waves of migration to the US.
Garifuna religion, too, is a blend of traditions. Some in Livingston practice Roman Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Rastafari, while strong syncretic currents maintain practices with both African and Amerindian roots, like ancestor worship, spiritual medicine called dugu, and voodoo-like ritual. Man’s close relationship with the natural environment, especially the sea, is fundamental to Garifuna cosmovision.
Garifuna culture is accessible to tourists. Several community-based organizations are trying to encourage tourists to come to Livingston (La Buga, in Garifuna) to diversify the local economy beyond fishing, plantation work, and remittances from the US. The place has a lot to offer.
Livingston has incredible music, from the irresistible beats of the beach-side disco to its street music. And the dance tradition is ridiculous. Try dancing with Blanca, an instructor who offers classes and runs a homey bar with Rastafari murals, and she will burn you with pretty much every part of her body, but especially her hips. The dance style is frenetic and physical, influenced by Afro-Caribbean rituals for communing with spirits. Blanca’s bar is open all day and it, like the town, is relaxed; kids and chickens feel right at home.
Even the street vendors have a different rhythm. Henry, a local who runs a street stand selling jewelry and guifitti, lives off of what tourists buy from him. When we asked to buy on a Sunday, though, he told us “No way, it’s time to hang with my family,” and pointed us to another vendor. (Guifitti is a collection of spices, seeds, and twigs that’s soaked in white rum to create a traditional spirit that’s known as a powerful aphrodisiac and a cure for all sorts of ailments. Its flavor usually carries notes of anis. Since it’s a blend of over 20 different ingredients, each bottle, which can be refilled for years, is unique.)
Near Blanca’s bar is Las Tres Garifunas, a restaurant run by Raquel Alvarez and small collective of women who offer fascinating tours and cooking classes. Livingston’s food should be world famous. Its signature dish, a seafood soup called tapado, has a bombastic but mellow flavor that is more than the sum of its considerable and supremely fresh parts: crab (whole or halved), an ocean fish like colorado or bonito (whole, mouth and eyes open), shrimp (head: on), and yucca or plantain stewed in a slightly sweet coconut milk and spice blend.
A different kind of cooking class takes place at Buga Mama, a restaurant with a spacious bay-side deck. The restaurant is run as a school for young people from nearby q’eqchi maya communities and all proceeds go to this end. Estimates of the number of q’eqchí speakers in Guatemala range from 500,000 to over a million, spread primarily over the northern provinces of Alta y Baja Verapaz, Petén, Izabal, and El Quiché. As a small elite continues to consolidate its grip on Guatemala’s best land in these provinces to raise monocrop plantations, q’eqchí communities are suffering. At Buga Mama, the waiters, chefs, and hosts are students whose practice there will help them pursue well-paying jobs in the tourism and hospitality industries. Despite a new crop of students every two weeks, Buga Mama is known for its exceptional cuisine. The author of my exquisitely balanced yellow coconut curry was a 17-year-old girl with serious skills.
Livingston’s beaches aren’t what they used to be. Locals explain that sea level rise has cropped them to a fraction of their former length. They’re also covered in plastic debris from all over the world brought by ocean currents and the cargo ships that dock in nearby Puerto Barrios. But next to Livingston are the extraordinary Siete Altares cascades. A short hike along a river through tropical forest, home to an incredible diversity of birdlife, leads to blue-green pools fed by waterfalls. Not much further along are forest altars where Garifuna and q’eqchí shamans practice ancient ceremony.
Livingston is easily worth a stay of several nights. It offers colorful hostels, a sprawling, eccentric Moorish-style hotel, and cheap ocean-front hotels on plastic-free beaches. It’s safe for tourists, as the community is small and sees potential for cultural preservation and economic stability in tourism. It’s remote, but worth the journey.