Monday, September 10, 2012

Travel Tales: Livingston, Guatemala

Livingston, Guatemala, seems to me like a little piece of Jamaica transported to eastern Guatemala. I has an ambiance that is quite different from the rest of the country. And, because there are no roads to Livingston, I imagine it will retain its unique personality long into the future.

Rio Dulce

The best way to arrive in Livingston is via a boat trip along the Rio Dulce from the town also named Rio Dulce. Actually, it's not much of a town - it's more like a small village tucked under both ends of a very long bridge that crosses the river.
El Castillo de San Felipe
Inland from the village there is a lake that the real pirates of the Caribbean used as a hideaway from storms and the authorities. Those same authorities built El Castillo de San Felipe in 1652 to keep the pirates from looting the area.
It did slow them down, at least until 1686 when the pirates captured and burned the fort. (I've always wondered exactly how one goes about burning down a fort composed of rock.)

Dugout canoe surrounded by lily pads
It seems like half of the people of Rio Dulce are employed selling tickets for the boat rides down the river to Livingston. We didn't see much to entertain us in Rio Dulce town, but there are lots of sailboats anchored nearby. Some friends stayed at a resort on the river and loved it. We stayed one night and enjoyed watching the river traffic for a couple of hours, but that was probably more than enough.
The $10 boat ride from Rio Dulce to Livingston turns into a tour of the area. The river runs through the beautiful Pacque Nacional Rio Dulce and the views are fantastic the entire way.

The local Mayan people get around with dugout canoes. There are no roads in this area - nor electricity. The river is their road.
Mail is delivered via the tour boats to the locals living in homes built along the river.
The jungle comes right down to the banks of the river. We saw a couple of places where they had just begun construction of new homes. The cleared trees became wood for the building while the bushes and leaves seemed to be turned in to the mud under the house - a foundation of sorts.

As I sat in the tour boat and watched the jungle going by on both sides of the river, it was easy to understand why this area is so sparsely populated. I can't imagine trying to travel over land and through that jungle, even with a big machete.


As we neared the eastern coast, the land leveled out and there were a lot more buildings. We were arriving in Livingston. The mouth of the river is quite wide and the many fishing boats makes it obvious how the town is supported.


Our boat driver/tour guide dropped us off at the dock in front of our hotel. What a treat! Everyone else had to haul their luggage along the streets to their hotels.
Hotel Casa Rosada was great. We had our own little bungalow with a shared bath, but no one else was there to share it with!
They have a great little patio with beds in the middle. This was something that I had been wanting to do at my house, but I'd never seen it done and wasn't sure about digging up the tiles. Now I knew just how to do it!
We dropped our luggage off at our bungalow and took off to explore the town.
Livingston has a population of about 6,000 but quite a few of them must live outside of the main part of town, because it just didn't seem that large. Nothing else is nearby, so anyone living within five miles or so is probably included in that count.
Livingston is populated mostly by Black Caribs. They are descendants of a shipload of slaves from Nigeria who were shipwrecked near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.
When the British colonized that island, they shipped all the Garifuna, as they were called, off to another island off of Honduras. From there, they spread along the eastern shore of what is now Central America.
I knew that history, but I didn't quite expect Livingston to feel like it had been transported from Jamaica, Bob Marley music and all.
As soon as we neared that downtown area, we were approached by a Garifuna guy who introduced himself as Polo. The Lonely Planet had warned of hustlers, so we figured he was the first. But we visited for a few minutes and then went on our way - no sign of any kind of hustling.
Downtown Livingston has only one road. It starts at the dock on the south side of town, goes up and over the hill for three or four blocks and down the other side to end at a 12" drop-off on the beach at the north end of town. We never could figure out why it just ended that way, but we called it the road to nowhere.
Many of the people speak Spanish and Garifuna and Belize English, so it was hard to remember that we were in Guatemala. I don't think there were many "Guatemalans" in town until the civil war problems in the rest of the country twenty or so years ago drove some of them to seek shelter here from the violence.
We didn't see much of the usual Guatemalan handcrafts, but this painted furniture was all over town, so it must be the local craft.  

Over the next few days, we ran into our friend Polo many times.  He had lots of interesting stories to tell.
It seems that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead used to have house on the beach on the north side of Livingston. When Polo was only seven years old, Jerry took him in off the streets, gave him his first guitar and taught him how to play.
Many years later, according to Polo, Jerry took him north to Illinois and paid his way through college.
Before writing this, I tried to confirm that Jerry Garcia had lived in Livingston. I found lots of references of this on the internet. It turned out that every single one of them had heard the story from our friend Polo. So, who knows? He's been spreading the same tale for many years.

By the way, here's a photo of my patio at home that was inspired by the one at Casa Rosada. It has really grown up and filled in a lot since I planted it, and I love it more every day!
Thanks for reading!
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  2. I met Polo as well. I was on a bicycle tour through Central America in the fall of 2009, and landed in Livingston on a ferry from Punta Gorda, Belize. I sat on the steps down by the water as my riding partner went up into the town to get our passports stamped. Polo approached me and started talking. He was a very likeable guy. He told me the stories he told you, and also said he was a musician and that Garcia had invited him to tour with him in California once. Thinking I would trip him up, I asked him what towns in California he played at (I am a native Californian). He named several towns that I knew were small enough that someone from Guatemala probably wouldn't have heard of them, so it really made me wonder (Lompoc, Oxnard). I later tried to verify his tale, but like you, I never could. He was certainly an interesting and likeable fellow though.