In 1635, a Spanish ship transporting slaves from Nigeria to the New World capsized, and its African survivors took refuge on the nearby island of St. Vincent. Cut off from the rest of the world, the former slaves began to intermarry with the local indigenous people, and over time a new and distinct Afro-Carib ethnicity emerged. The Black Caribs, as they were referred to by the British, developed a unique language, called Garinagu, or Garífuna in Spanish, that blends Arawak, French, and several tribal West African languages including Swahili.
Starting in the mid-1700s, the British began attempts to conquer St. Vincent, but their incursions were fiercely repelled by the garífuna with support from France. After finally defeating the garífuna in 1796, the intolerant British rounded up the Black Caribs and sent 2,000 of them to Roatán, the largest of the Honduran Bay Islands. Left to die, many of the garífuna migrated to mainland Honduras and Nicaragua, where there are still sizable garífuna communities today. Others left Central America to seek economic opportunities in the United States, where there is a thriving population in New York City. In 1800, a small group of garifuna slaves was sent from Honduras to Belize to harvest timber. These settlers escaped their bondage and crossed the Bay of Amatique to a small piece of mostly uninhabited coast in Izabal, Guatemala. It was here that they established Lívingston in 1806.
Today, a visit to the waterside town of Livingston will make you feel as if you have left Guatemala altogether. Descended from the original group of shipwrecked African slaves, this maroon community of garífuna people has preserved its unique language and traditions for centuries. Also called Buga (meaning mouth, for its location on the mouth of the Río Dulce), Livingston is a truly fascinating spot, though some visitors aren’t impressed by its somewhat dilapidated feel. During the day, smooth reggae music fills the streets, and big-boned women sporting boisterously colorful dresses gossip and sell pan de coco late into the afternoon. After the sun sets, a strip of rickety seaside bars cranks up the volume, and local youth shake their booties until dawn.
The garífuna culture is misunderstood by most Guatemalans, who rarely encounter dark-skinned people and are confused by their origins. Blatant racism against them is uncommon, mostly due to their small and isolated population. Many non-educated Guatemalans are oblivious to the garífunas’ existence; however, various inaccurate myths concerning witchcraft and voodoo practices crop up occasionally. Garífuna culture holds music in high regard, particularly punta, a blend of African and Caribbean beats that you’ll hear nightly during any visit to Lívingston. Performed by a trio of drums, punta is a chaotic, fast-paced rhythm that’s perfect for the shaking of hips. One of the best places to experience garífuna music and culture is Café-Bar Ubafu on Calle Principal, a lively place where men and women attack the dancefloor each night.
Accessible only by boat, exotic Livingston makes a good base for day trips to the white beaches of Playa Blanca or the waterfalls at Siete Altares. Most visitors stop by before heading through the Río Dulce gorge and stay just long enough to try some tapado, a rich seafood soup of coconut milk, plantains, and shrimp or snapper. But Livingston is worth a few days by itself, especially around the Día de Garífuna on November 26th. On this day, enthusiastic locals dance all night and rise with the sun to reenact the arrival of the first garífuna people to the shores of Guatemala, a moment in which the country’s diverse cultural tapestry was further enriched.
This article was originally written by author Eric Larson for Qué Pasa, a magazine based in Antigua Guatemala.