Why we chose to spend some time in Livingston
Guatemala on the whole we found to be full of interesting Mayan history and culture and tourists are sucked in the country to explore its ancient ruins, volcano treks and to spend time in its gorgeous colonial cities. However, Livingston, (on the East coast of Guatemala) was unlike the rest of our experiences in Guatemala. It is somewhat of a tourist spot due to its unique blend of Guatemalan-Belizian culture and the presence of over 20,000 Garifuna’s (descendants of shipwrecked African slaves) gives the town a unique Caribbean vibe.
Many travelers access Livingston via the 45 minute ferry crossing from Punta Gorda, Belize or via the famous ‘Rio Dulce’ (which translates to ‘sweet river’ yet it definitely doesn’t taste sweet). Livingstone is a small town, with a strong community feel and although tourism is a major component of its economy, it feels far away from this and we actually only saw a handful of tourists during our couple of days in Livingston.
Trip Planning for Livingston
Like most places on our travels, we set in stone the bare minimum before arriving as we know how our minds can change on arrival/depending on the people we meet en route/what is going on in the area.
However, we did book a B&B in advance as we knew it only had 3 rooms and we really wanted to stay there. Casa Nostra, owned & run by the loveliest American guy called Stuart was our choice. We usually try to stay clear of Western run accommodation as it is obviously best to give back to the Guatemalan’s directly, however, with amazing reviews and we had heard he is a very philanthropic guy, we decided to go for it.
Stuart was exactly what we had heard from reading reviews….he was so open about telling us his story from being a workaholic for years in the States to now running his own very successful restaurant (which was unfortunately closed for renovation during our stay) & B&B. He also does a great deal for the local community and we spoke to many locals who spoke highly about him!
Our room had a cute little balcony overlooking the water..
Livingstone (as far as I am aware) is only accessible by boat. However, it is a beautiful journey along the Rio Dulce (sweet river for non Spanish speakers) so we took the 2 hour boat journey from the other end of the river where we stayed at an amazing hotel called Tortugal (just outside of the town of Izabal) the previous night (our 4 person dorm was like a jungle style version of Harry Potter dorms which really excited us die-hard Potter fans!) It also made us realize that being a Harry Potter fanatic is relatively unique to us Brits as our fellow European, Aussie & American travelers didn’t quite seem to appreciate the Potter resemblance in the way we did!
The boat stops a few times en route from Izabel to Livingston, firstly to see the ‘Isla de Pajaros’ (island of birds), it brushes past a well kept colonial fort and then stops at some extremely smelly hot springs (smelly due to the sulphur which makes them hot!)
Garifuna Cooking School (Rasta Mesa)
20 mins after arriving we were ready to explore! Stuart recommended us to visit a local Garifuna ‘community’ cooking class. He warned us that although the class was great and a hands-on cooking lesson, live performance and opportunity to get involved with some dancing at the end, the guys running it were likely to try and rip us off, it probably wouldn’t start on time and they could be stoned! All of the above was correct but despite this we had so much fun!
We made a kind of ‘Tapado’/coco-nutty fish stew with plantain dumplings and deep fried banana fritters. I asked for the official name of the dish and a recipe but they said they were yet to come up with the right name and a recipe couldn’t be given as it alters each time it is made!
However it was one of the tastiest meals I have ever eaten and the picture below definitely doesn’t do it justice!
Absolutely everything was made from scratch, even the coconut milk! We firstly broke into coconuts using a thick blade to smash through the shells. It was so tough and after 10 minutes of trying with mine I had to give up, a bit embarrassed by my lack of accomplishment. Our instructor then took it off me and smashed it open with one clean hit! However, check out his arms in the picture below…
We then used this machine to grind the coconut, again, I was rubbish at doing so (much harder than it looks) and had to get our instructor to help me who polished it off with minimal effort.
The coconut shavings were then mixed and pressed with hot water (which takes ages and a hell of a lot of effort) as these chicas are doing below:
Eventually pourable and amazingly tasty. Despite this, I really can’t imaging we would ever make our own coconut milk in the future, it is a lot of effort!
To make plantain dumplings it is a fairly arduous process too. Firstly, you need to use a massive grater like this to grind down your green, completely unripened plantains. They are tough to grind and you need to grind down a surprising amount for each dumpling. We dipped our fingers in to taste the mush, thinking it would taste like sweet banana but we were extremely disappointed to find it was bland and bitter!
This is Sam, working with our Garifina ‘Nona’ to make the plantain dumplings into balls, ready to cook! She was over 50 and had incredible, silky skin. She claims it is from all the coconut she eats!
We then deep fried the fish and put it into the coconut milk. Along side this we placed the plantain dumplings inside and Sam patiently (beer in hand of course) waited for it all to cook up!
Garifuna dancing & performance
After our amazing meal, we were serenaded by the Garifuna family and a bunch of little girls who entertained us with their music and dancing for an hour or so:
They got us up and dancing for each song, it was so tricky and we figured that we just don’t have the natural rhythm to follow their steps!
Such a fun & entertaining evening and I even found myself a new Guatemalan boyfriend….
Livingstone Walking Tour
Another one of Stuarts recommendations was finding a Garifuna chap named Brian who could show us the less touristy areas of Livingston and give us insight into the daily struggles of Garifuna living here. Stuart instructed us to look out for a small ish guy with a striking white scar on his lip, describing him as a sort of ‘phantom’ but if we hung out on the main street for long enough we would find Brian!
After searching for Brian for around 30 minutes, we finally thought we found him after asking a local policeman who pointed to an elderly chap drinking coffee in a roadside cafe. However, after giving us a hugely friendly greeting, it turned out this wasn’t the Brian we were looking for and taught us to study lips a little harder. A few minutes we found the real Brian (chilled out little Rasta guy) and we were soon off on our walking tour of the ‘hood’ of Livingstone.
Brian taught us an amazing amount about the Garifuna community, much of which was upsetting and some facts almost harrowing. HIV is a major issue in the Garifuna community, and a big reason for this is that men go out and cheat on their wives with prostitues who carry the virus. Their wives have no idea of what is happening until they fall ill and have no money to buy the medicines needed to slow down the effects of the virus so die pretty quickly after contacting HIV from their cheating husbands.
On a brighter note, along the way we met this cutie and managed to with hold the urge of stealing her and taking her home…
We also chatted to this grandfather & grandson that Brian introduced us to. A very sad yet cute story that he only has weeks left to live but his little grandson stays by his side to keep him company
So there is our story of just over 24 hours in Livingston. I feel that the couple of guide books I read about Livingston really didn’t do the place justice or mention much about the cool stuff you can experience here. Overall it is a very fun place and nothing like the rest of Guatemala that we have visited in the sense of its unique cultural identity 🙂 xxxx