Guatemala’s coastal borders with the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea could not be more different. La Costa, refers to the fertile lands between chains of volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean. It is coarse, black volcanic sand continuously pounded by the raging Pacific. By contrast, Guatemala’s narrow coastline on the Caribbean side is a tropical jungle opening where the Rio Dulce, or ‘sweet river’ follows its path to the sea. (Part II click here)
Where the river meets the salty ocean stands the Garifuna town of Livingston. This is a corner of Guatemala so unlike the rest of the country, it is hard believe you are not some island far, far away. The remote location and lack of connecting roads have helped to preserve this completely separate culture. Descendants from the Black Caribs of St. Vincent (Nigerian slaves mixed with Carib locals and consider themselves a separate race) the Garifuna people brought their own language, music, delicious seafood based gastronomy and some still practice an Afro-Carib religion know as dugu.
Livingston is still a small community, though a few roads have been paved and virtually any car you see will operate as a taxi (20Q to anywhere). The main strip from the public dock is packed with Western style restaurants and a few hostels. Shops there are clearly targeting tourism with all kinds seaside souvenirs such as giant conch shells, carved coconuts and sea stars as well as traditional Garifuna ailment cures and natural oils. The waterfront on the river side is lined with small hotels, perfectly positioned to invite in the fresh breeze on balmy, humid days. (See accommodations below)
The beaches around town are generally not nice. Most people will take the popular full day tour to Playa Blanca or White Beach. Living up to its name, this white sand, sparkly blue sea water is a bit of an anomaly for Guatemala. There is a 20Q charge to use the beach, money goes to cleaning up large amounts of sea trash that washes unto the entire coastline. Better yet, make your way to Siete Altares (Seven Altars). A cool, freshwater river waterfalls into pools beneath the soaring jungle. Hike up the pools through a series of makeshift paths to bathe, relax and jump off the rocks. 20Q entrance fee.
A lancha departs at 9am taking the group to Siete Altares first for a brief swim before dropping everyone off at Playa Blanca for the day. A sandwich is provided for lunch and the lancha returns at 3:30pm. Entrance fees not included.
Unless you’ve never seen a white sand beach before, skip the tour (and the crowds) and make your way to Siete Altares by land. It’s a long but straight forward walk from Livingston that affords you looks into how people really live and work. Distinct architecture, alternating concrete palaces and thatched huts, abandoned homes reclaimed by the jungle, makeshift shops, a colouful cemetery and plenty of characters along the way. Follow the paved road past the Mayan village where it’s hard not to marvel at how different and separate these two groups of people are.
When the road ends, cross the hanging bridge and keep walking along the black sand coastline another half an hour until you see the pier.
Depart early so you can avoid the midday heat and drink lots of water 🙂
Return trip: Walk back to the bridge where there is often someone willing to drive you back into town for a fee. We paid 20Q for 3 people.
Everyone we spoke with assured us that this is a very small and tranquil community. We never felt unsafe walking about.
- There is only one luxury option in Livingston.
Villa Caribe is tucked perfectly into the edge of the peninsula. It can easily pass as an all-inclusive with its waterfront location, on-site restaurant, elevated suites for the best views and the golden ticket, a huge palm tree rimmed swimming pool.
Prices start at US$115per night based on double occupancy and includes 2 breakfasts and 2 dinners. email@example.com +(502)2223-5005 ext.116
- Backpacker Budget
Most backpackers head straight to Casa de la Iguana. Unfortunately it is not by the water so it can get scorching hot but they have a large range of options. Share a private room for 3 at 120Q, a dorm bed for 50Q or spend the night under the stars for 20Q They pride themselves on being a party hostel, in fact, some of the on duty staff were simply “too f*cked up to help”. Happy hour is 6-8pm… or all the time. +(502)7947-0976
- My choice
Casa Rosada. Simple and rustic bungalows with a fan, mosquito nets and separate bathroom and shower areas. Clean and well maintained with an excellent little restaurant that serves 3 course meals and attracts guests from all over Livingston. Very quiet and relaxed. Selling point: long pier over the water complete with a rancho and hammocks to laze the day away.
160Q per bungalow (we paid 180Q for 3 of us to share) +(502)7947-0303 www.hotelcasarosada.com
High Season in Livingston is June, July and August. Prepare for fully booked accommodations and rising prices.
We went in April and it was absolutely perfect. Hot sunny days with a cool ocean breeze, few tourists and NO mosquitos!
Personal Recommendations for Food
– Across from Hotel Delfin, on calle (street) Marcos Sanchez Diaz is a little tienda (store) without a name. The matriarch of a friendly local family cooks up delicious and filling chicken or fish empanadas for just 2Q each (less than 25centUS). It can literally fill up two grown ups for less than $1.
Just ask for empanadas de Vilma and send our regards 🙂
– Restaurante Margoth
The most authentic TAPADO in town as vouched for by locals. Tapado is a Garifuna dish made with coconut milk, plantain and includes fish, crab, shrimp, octopus and lobster; all still whole and in their shells/skins/tails 90Q One of the most delicious meals I’ve ever tried. Totally worth the splurge.
– Breakfast at Casa Rosada
30-35Q Pick from traditional eggs and beans or fresh fruit and big pancakes. Real coffee for 10Q (not the unfortunate instant crap they serve at most places throughout Guatemala).
There are only two options.
- Puerto Barrios
Whether you are coming from within Guatemala by road, or boating into the country from Honduras or Belize, all trails meet in Puerto Barrios. Head straight to the dock (where 12th street meets the water). Lanchas leave every half hour to an hour. 35Q for the 45 minute ride into Livingston. (Larger and much slower ferries also depart here twice a day).
2. Rio Dulce
Lanchas from Rio Dulce leave twice daily, 9:30am and 2pm. 125Q one way for a 2 and half hour journey through the extraordinary jungle canyon (A lot more on this trip in Part II, coming next week.)
Take the morning boat. Waters get a lot choppier in the afternoon making the beautiful journey a little hard to enjoy.
From Guatemala City:
Litegua offers Central Americas most modern and efficient transit system. The buses are large, clean and safe. First class busses include free water, AC, and your own personal TV/gaming system. Fares range from 80-125Q depending on class and route to/from Guatemala City (6-7 hours)
The Puerto Barrios station is just a short walk/taxi ride from the dock.
April and I invited April’s dad along on his very first backpacking trip!
We spent 4 days in Rio Dulce and Livingston plus another 4 exploring the ruins of Iximche and the colonial city of Antigua. Watch our adventure coming up on our next post.
Part II of the extraordinary guide to the Caribbean: Rio Dulce and Lago de Izabal
~ An Extraordinary Story by Karina Noriega ~
Check out the Cost Breakdown for Travel Through Guatemala
I need to go somewhere tropical right now… I miss it.
I grew up in Guatemala so if you need any tips about this country, just let me know.
What would be your suggestion for a hotel that would not be a far commute to Playa Blanca ?
I saw the G Boutique on Lake Izabel that looks lovely but just wondering what is closer to the close that is clean and enjoyable.
Any feedback welcomed..
Looks so beautiful. Can not wait for our visit.
What an amazing looking place, I love those little rock pools, and a turtle right on the beach in the day time is pretty special.
It is a magnificent place. Worth seeing for sure! It was amazing to see the turtle, even under these sad circumstances.
Looks like you had a wonderful time! I was really glad you put the exchange rate info when talking about the empanadas! It helped me put all of the other prices into perspective!
I appreciate reading articles where the exchange rate is provided so I make a point to always include it. It was an amazing adventure. Thanks for taking the time to read my article.
Great shots! I love that Quetzal tattoo!!! So fricking coool!!! 😀
Thank you. I designed the tattoo myself. I am impressed that you recognized the bird. Have you been lucky enough to see a Quetzal in the wild?
Yes, I ate one when I was little. They taste like
hahahah! This is probably the most horrible thing you could say. Im impressed with your smart-ass-ness 😛 I’m just glad you didn’t say “Nice Phoenix” <- using 'douchbag' accent. p.s. Please don't Quetzals. Even if they tasted like bacon wrapped Filet Mignon!
I’ve considered visiting Guatemala and now I’m all the more inspired. I especially love the photos of the pools. Count me in!
Glad you enjoyed the article. I have written a lot about Guatemala (as I was born here), so feel free to check out my other work and if you have questions, fire away.
That tapado looks amazing! It’s making me want to travel to Gautemala asap 🙂
Valeria @ romenewyorklondonworld.com
The tapado was delicious and very, very messy to eat as the shells were still on every single crustacean. If you enjoy playing with your food, this is the meal for you! I loved it!
This sounds amazing – reminds me a lot of Costa Rica actually from your snaps. ANd I love hearing that you felt safe – I think safety in Central America is really all based on streets smarts and common sense a lot of the time. Guatemala’s definitely on my list – thanks for the great tips and comprehensive guide 🙂
I completely agree with you. You need to be smart to travel safely anywhere in the world. It is all about awareness of your environment and intelligent decision making! Guatemala should be on your list. It is a spectacular country. Glad you enjoyed the article.
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That brought back happy memories of visiting15 years ago!
So much has changed in the last 15 years. You should come back and enjoy Guatemala all over again!
The Siete Altares look absolutely amazing! I would love to spend a day swimming and jumping of the cliffs there! Sounds like a fantastic area–I think we need to get to Guatemala sometime soon!
I agree, you should come to Guatemala! There are so many more beautiful places to see. This one gem is just the tip of the iceberg!
Thank you for this detailled article! I’ve never been to South America, but I definitely want to go!
It is a common misconception that Guatemala is in South America but it is actually considered Central America. You should make a point of coming here for sure. It is a beautiful country.
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Loved reading your info and now we know Livingston is our June destination. We’d like to start in La Cieba, Honduras. Do you have a suggestion on the best way to get from La Cieba to Livingston? Do they accept American money? Do they speak English? Thanks!!
You may not be able to find a direct bus from La Ceiba but I can’t really tell you where best to find a transfer. Most accept US money but you will get terrible exchange rate so I don’t suggest it. English is basic and normally sales related. Always exceptions though 😀