On the northeast of Guatemala just before the famous Río Dulce enters the Amatique Bay, there lies a town that has a strong Afro-Caribbean influence which came about due to a shipwreck that occurred on the faraway Caribbean island of St. Vincent, carrying a mixture of African slaves and native Indians, where these people then came ashore and mixed with the local Caribbeans – these are the Garífuna people.
Later when the British invaded St. Vincent and defeated them, the Garífuna people were deported and now live along the Caribbean coast across Central America. Some of those deported found Livingston, where they then settled at.
To commemorate this occasion, a 3-days festival of dance, music, food, culture and traditions is celebrated annually around the National Day of the Garífuna/ Garifuna Settlement Day, which is November 26. During this period, the Garífuna from all over the region, including Belize to as far from United States, comes to Livingston, Guatemala, to join the festival where they sing, dance and drink continuously for days – I happen to be in Guatemala at that time and was lucky to have heard about it. So, I made my way up North from Antigua to join in the fun!
We arrived somewhere in the early evening and started to ask what events are there before we hunt for accommodation. It was not long before we found one with the help of a local.
There wasn’t much going on at that time. Just a lot of people hanging around the main street where you can find mama shops (sundry shop), restaurants and a small amount of street vendors selling a variety of snacks, so we entertain ourselves and rested in our room for a while after exploring for a bit.
And I found Coconut bun! mmmmmm~ was so happy to see this. But sadly it is not the one that I expected, like the one in Singapore where there is sweet shredded coconut meat inside.
In the late evening when we went for dinner, we could hear music all around us and some of them have already started dancing. Found this street side eatery run by , I assume, a family where a elderly woman was making something sort of like a bun, 2 other younger ladies behind the wok and more. Tasks were split up, but together they serve delicious meals under a tent. All I felt at that time was a strong sweet simple love vibe. Though they may seem busy and do not wish to be bothered, but when I asked for a picture to be taken, I could see a twinkle in their eye. That scene impacted me instantly, putting a smile on my face as I pressed down on the shutter button.
Not sure if it was the meal or the “hot” Afro-Caribbean man who was opposite in the open space dance floor doing his thang, showing off his sleek dance moves, that got my friend drooling, but I am sure it was the food that did for me! Good view anyway. Watching dance while having dinner, which we joined in as well after our meals.
It felt like club-hopping but the difference is that you dance everywhere, even on the way to “another location”. Like I said, you dance as you move, so there is really no one location, but the entire Livingston town.
As much as we would like to party all night, our body did not allow us. I was dead tired after all the dancing & drinking. Not much, but enough to make me feel sleepy. And all this started and happened on the eve of Garífuna Settlement Day itself, before the real party even starts. Anyway, we retired to bed early that night as they said that the party is all day long, and we planned to catch the sunrise next morning.
Managed to wake up for it but were confused with the directions given. Ran around like a headless chicken trying to figure out NSEW, where exactly is the direction of sunrise. After walking back & forth a few times, we missed the sunrise… Moving on, having told that the party goes all day without break, we tried searching for the party but did not find or heard anything that sounds like it.
We then reached the beach where people were gathered. Some Garífuna ladies dressed in colourful clothes and hats, like those that I have seen on Discovery Channel before, were waving flags while facing the sea where a group of people can be spotted sailing towards the shore on traditional canoes.
I went to Livingston only with the idea that there would be 3-days of party going on in the Northeast. So these ladies dancing to the sound of drums, waving towards the sea, were all very confusing to me. And the group of people out in the sea, why are they going around in circles?
Then I learned that all these were actually an reenactment of the first settlers arriving in Livingston in traditional costumes and such. Now this makes sense.
The entire duration that took for the settlers to finally reach the shore was pretty long, and so we went away to grab breakfast at a street side vendor by the pier which we arrived at the day before. Fancy some grilled pork wrapped in piping hot tortilla with hot coffee early in the morning at 7am? You can have it all here! There is no difference in day and night – or so it seems to me.
Now that the “settlers” have arrive, we went to join them where they were dancing & singing along while strolling the streets of Livingston, like a parade. There were many things going on on the main street, including a man that was promoting some beverage that was said to help “get you in the mood”. Of course we tried! Isn’t that a fun part of exploring? People can be seen holding bottles of rum or any other liquors, which they happily offered us some, smiling & dancing like no one was watching.
But I am sure that there is definitely someone watching them because, I am one of these “someone”./ The way the ladies move their hips that were out-of-the-world huge! was just… I noticed as I stood behind some and started to move uncontrollably like them. Or at least I tried. Then I felt so ashamed afterwards :X
By 9am, I think we were already having our 3rd can of beer. This is how the festival would be like for the entire week I guess.
Explored the beaches, which was nothing special. A little too dirty to swim in. The wind was pretty strong as well, and there were constant waves. A bunch of kids were having so much fun jumping around a bamboo boat floating on the wavy sea, tied to a tree ashore. Was so worried for them that they would fall off and get swallowed by the crazy waves. But at the same time, I so much wanted to join them right then.
On the way to the beach, we met 3 very well-dressed kiddos. They were cute and so we sat and spoke to them for a bit, and they introduced themselves as brothers. Look at most 5yo to me, and after chatting for a while, asked if we have money. We said no and asked what did they need it for. “To take a taxi” they said. Suggested they walk instead since they didn’t have any money but were ignored and REFUSED to talk to us after we reject them. How bizarre! After walking a little further away, a taxi drove past which the 3 brothers flagged down. We watched them struggled to climb onto the seats that were too high for their tiny body. There was then a lot of commotion going on in the taxi before the brothers jumped out of the car and slammed the door shut looking dejected. Again, they sat on the side of the road. Think, waiting for the next one to come and try their luck. Needless to say, the driver refused to drive them for free as they would have wished. It was all like watching a live comedy. HA!
Welcome to Livingston indeed!
When to go?
We heard that there is nothing much going on here in Livingston on usual days, except during this festival week which is celebrated annually around the Garífuna Settlement Day, November 26. So make sure to visit if you are in Guatemala during this period. The entire experience was really interesting, especially the reenactment of the first settlers, getting to know about the history, and joining the Garifunas on this special occasion.
Where to stay?
This I am not sure but am sure that the locals will help you out – which was the case for us. Someone approached us upon arrival asking if we need help with accommodations and what was our budget before recommending several to us. After all the bargaining, was offered a clean enough 3pax room with en suite bathroom for Q130 + Q10 tips for the gentleman that helped us.
What to eat?
Seafood! And the grilled fish that we had under the tent was honestly delicious. We were the only foreigners when we entered the eatery that we dined at. It was filled with only the Garífuna people. And aren’t we all about eating where the locals eat?? A plate of grilled fish with plenty of rice and plantains (as shown below) cost Q35.