Between Jungle and Sea in Guatemala’s Caribbean Hideaway

In the curious seaside hamlet of Lívingston, neither the Central American clichés, nor the English-sounding name, conjure the Guatemala we expect.

By / November 2022

No roads lead to Lívingston. Only boats, buoyed by the Caribbean Sea or the Río Dulce river delta can take you there. After traveling north around the Manabique Peninsula, a skinny spit of land that obscures the town like a secret, visitors arrive to find both cultural and natural richness that stems from the town’s place in Central America’s ‘Mayan Caribbean’—and a commitment to sustainable tourism.

Lívingston’s differences—its oddities and exceptions—allured me. Having visited the current and former capitals, Guatemala City and Antigua in the country’s interior, the tropical locale promised the chance to explore and relax.

The town bewitched me as soon as I stepped onto the dock. Looking south from its minuscule port, I noticed a triple horizon: the Manabique; the mountains behind the mainland town of Puerto Barrios, from where I had ferried in; and the taller distant peaks inside nearby Honduras. Boats bobbed in the warm water. Cranes glided occasionally overhead. An iguana scampered into the bushes from the water’s edge. The warm air, heavy with humidity and the languid pace of those passing by promised the slowed-down atmosphere I was hoping to find.

Founded two centuries ago, the town’s name stems from Edward Lívingston, the US statesman and legal genius who over the 1820s published the Lívingston Code, which liberal-minded Guatemalans in that day admired highly.

Yet the town’s founding population were Black Caribs known as the Garifuna, slave-descended deportees, who landed there, in the machinations of the imperial Caribbean, after a convoluted odyssey of expulsion from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. A regional ethnic group, Garifuna communities also live on in Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua and were Lívingston’s majority until fifty years ago, when rising numbers of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayans, fleeing the country’s four-decade civil war, sought safety in the country’s ‘hinterlands.


A mural depicting local Garifuna culture in Livingston, Guatemala. Photo by Will Fleeson.

While Lívingston’s surrounding Izabal region is among Guatemala’s poorest and most distant from public services, the town had for decades drawn a drip, and now more like a gush, of foreign visitors. Many are foreign backpackers in search of a tropical hideaway without the prohibitive costs the Caribbean has long enjoyed (and suffered) elsewhere. In Izabal, a bridge opened in 1980 that connects Río Dulce town to the rest of the country’s infrastructure. The development has carved real and figurative inroads toward Lívingston, linking opportunity and disruptive change.

Among these changes is the threat of losing Guatemala’s Garifuna culture. The anemic local economy has compelled ambitious Garifuna abroad, especially to the United States, where a robust diaspora lives today. As in Guatemala, Garifuna communities outside the country often face similar problems of poverty, migration, and lack of opportunity.

In spite of or because of that threat, UNESCO in 2008 recognized Garifuna music, dance, and cuisine as a globally significant culture. Other champions of the arts, including US-based musicians, are keeping up the fight to make Garifuna creativity vibrant, and relevant, in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Tastes of local dishes like tapado—a seafood stew, usually served in a coconut broth—hint at the richness of the Garifuna culture it came from. My experience with the dish, and the work required to get past its bones-and-all presentation, left spots of the yellow broth spattered all over the front of my shirt. I also tried guifiti, an artisanal rum that draws its spicy flavor from the herbs and roots soaking in every batch. It reminded me too much of cough syrup, so after one good-faith sampling, I left it aside for lighter liquids.

The Garifuna waiter told me he’d sojourned in Belize, the United States, and elsewhere, always working or looking for work. He seemed to represent Lívingston and his community in miniature: proud, hard-working but hard-pressed, and open to the world beyond his shores.

Livingston’s essence can also be observed through sustainable tourism, with a focus on nature. Local authorities have chosen to focus on concentrations of natural abundance, especially its biodiversity. The surrounding jungle provides shelter for a host of tropical life, while the town’s position between the sea and a freshwater river delta sustains nearly 500 species of birds. The broader Izabal region is so biodiverse that some nature advocates call the region the “biodiversity wonderland of Guatemala” and the “Conservation Coast,” as much for current protections as the need to advance conservation efforts into the future.

Of the numerous non-profit groups active in and around the town, Ak’Tenamit enjoys a high profile. Predominantly comprised of members from the Q’eqchi Guatemalan tribe of Mayans, the entity provides education and vocational training—with tourism a major focus of the jobs their students learn in tourism, restaurants, and related business. In one example, the group partnered with local authorities of Plan Grande Quehueche, near Lívingston, to make the village an eco-tourism destination, offering visitors the chance to attend indigenous ceremonies, learn about the Mayas’ pre-Columbian cosmovision, and take in traditional Mayan dances and music. A deeply Central American identity lies behind Lívingston’s Caribbean feel.

I learned about the group’s work while enjoying lunch at Buga Mama, a waterside restaurant Ak’Tenamit owns and operates. The teenage waitress was one of the non-profit’s trainees. In this way tourists can assist, one bite at a time, in sustaining Lívingston’s longevity and the livelihoods of its native sons and daughters.

The group likewise promotes awareness of climate change and its impacts on coastal communities like those in Guatemala.

One of their partners, the International Center for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), approaches environmental concerns through a women-first lens, such as the impact of natural protection zones, or lands that are not yet protected, and their impact on the lives of local women. Related industries, such as logging, can have a dramatic effect on the land, water, and soil of local farms, which may be worked, owned, or otherwise needed by local women. The non-profit, headquartered in Washington, plans to roll out a globe-spanning Inclusive Conservation Initiative—which will include participation from Ak’Tenamit—in early 2023.

To see and hear more of Lívingston’s dance and music, visitors can plan their stay around the 26th of November, when Garifuna Settlement Day takes over the town and surrounding, commemorating the Garifuna arrival to Central America’s east coast, where their survival continues, however challenged by rough economics and the pull of opportunity elsewhere.

Thinking back on Lívingston—its vibrancy and isolation—I wonder how long the town can stay as it is. Forces much larger than Guatemala are pushing changes on its Caribbean coast, and the rise in tourism may signal, paradoxically, a weakening of the town’s essence. Whatever its future, a return trip, and perhaps even a Garifuna or Mayan dance—may be what draws me back to a corner of Guatemala I never expected. I hope that a boat will still be needed to get there.


Will Fleeson is a writer based in Washington, DC.