Livingston started out with a bang and ended with a white flag, waved by Whohn Brose. The lancha ride we took through the beautiful jungle canyon was a great start to a two-and-a-half-day stop in the unique Garifuna and Guatemalan town that is Livingston. All in all, tranquil scenery and extremely friendly people made for a mostly enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, our time was slightly soiled by a misrepresented hostel situation—replete with wasps in our room and a manager that was too drunk to count change when we settled our bill—as well as a two-day power and water outage.
To be fair, things weren’t all bad. Our first night in Livingston we visited a family-owned empanada comedor for some 2Q (~0.30 cents USD) cheese empanadas. While the food was certainly delicious, it was the company that really made our experience special. The owner sat at our table with us and let Whit practice her Spanish, while also telling us about the town and how they’ve always had a steady stream of visitors that find them via word of mouth alone. They were delightful people, and they even helped to hail us a tuk tuk so we wouldn’t have to make the 20-minute walk back to the hostel in the torrential downpour.
Livingston is an old port town where the Guatemalan jungle meets the Carribbean sea. This time of year, it’s hot and humid during the day, with storms rolling in after the sun goes down. The rain is unlike any we’ve experienced, and the expression “raining buckets” felt quite literal during the cooler evenings. The town is not accessible by road, and can only be reached by boat via the Rio Dulce or the Carribbean coastal waters. This makes for a laid-back, off-the-beaten-path kind of vibe, with a surprisingly multicultural feel for how small and isolated the town is.
What makes Livingston truly special is its Garifuna community and their preservation of historical and cultural traditions. The Garifuna are descendents of shipwrecked West African slaves and indigenous peoples of the Carribbean. During our time in Livingston, we were very fortunate to experience a cultural immersion and tapado cooking class through a local organization called Rasta Mesa.
Tapado is a traditional Garifuna dish comprised of seafood, bananas, vegetables, rice, and hand-pressed coconut milk. It’s hard work—cracking and shredding coconuts, squeezing the shreds into warm water to extract their creamy milk. It’s delicious when it all comes together, though. And who knew that green bananas taste kind of like potatoes once they’ve been cooked?
Making tapado with the warm and hospitable family at Rasta Mesa was made infinitely better by the sweet and playful children running around and trying to tickle and climb all over us. A visit to Rasta Mesa isn’t like your typical structured and process-oriented cooking demonstration. You are literally a guest in their home, and the entire experience feels exactly as such.
Before we ate, we were treated to a drum performance and lesson in which we were all participants in traditional Garifuna music making. After scarfing our tapado (seriously, so good) we were whisked away into singing, dancing and drumming into the late hours of the night. The celebratory atmosphere cannot be overstated, with children of all ages sharing their impressive dance moves and musical abilities.
Did we mention this entire experience was done at night with nothing but candlelight? It’s no schtick, either. Our first full day in Livingston, we woke up to a citywide power outage. This didn’t pose much of an issue on the first day, because most places in town had a generator to run on. Our Garifuna tour guide assured us that most outages only last a day, and that the power should be up and running the following morning.
Fast forward to our second full day and we were sans power and running water yet again. Things were a bit more difficult this time around, with less generators running around town and a dirty layer of sweat, sunscreen, and bug spray building on our skin. Livingston is a small town, but our hostel was about 20-35 minutes outside of Livingston proper on foot, depending on where in the town we were coming from. Two hot days without a shower and an average of 16,000 steps per day made for a sweaty and cranky Whohn Brose. Luckily the power came back on later that afternoon.
We hailed the occasional tuk tuk while in Livingston, but we also found early on that many were unwilling to make the full trip to where we were staying due to the state of the road further out. This was made all the more obvious when our hostel manager called for two tuk tuks to transport seven of us hostel guests to the Garifuna cooking class. Rather than send two tuk tuks, one taxi (which is really just a car with a handwritten sign in the window that says, “TAXI”) with four available seats showed up outside the gate. We tried to communicate that we needed more seats, but our driver was insistent on making it work. Make it work, we did—if you can call it that. We are legitimately concerned about his bumper even now, days after the fact.
Our last night in Livingston was the real kicker. Looking toward an early morning and a long day of travel to our next destination, we decided to head to town for dinner and a trip to the panaderia for the following morning’s breakfast. We also needed to check the boat dock to make sure the lancha schedule we had been told was accurate and that we could head for Puerto Barrios at 6:30 a.m.
Finally showered, we began getting our things together to head into town when Whit noticed what looked like a wasp flying near the light in our room. John grabbed some deet juice and gave it a spritz, with neither half of Whohn Brose remembering that wasps send out distress calls to their wasp amigos when under duress until about four or five more showed up. Realizing we needed to be delicate with the situation, and also eager to bail ASAP, we spritzed ourselves and the general area with bug spray and watched the crowd disperse while a couple casualties writhed on the ground and eventually ceased movement. That was Whohn Brose’s cue to bounce.
Walking into town, we assured ourselves we could make it through one more night and that, come morning, we would be out of our increasingly agitating hostel situation and on our way to Panajachel. Things seemed to be calming down with our uneventful veggie burger dinner and sans-incident panaderia stop. That is, until the dogs came.
Throughout our three-and-a-half weeks in Central America, we’ve become quite accustomed to the striking volume of stray dogs that populate the streets of every place we’ve visited (with the exception of Caye Caulker, as the owner of Wish Willy’s BBQ runs a spay and neuter program on the island). For the most part, these dogs have made us feel a mixture of “Aww cute!” and “Aww poor thing.” Never once had they made us feel unsafe. Then, two scrappy and gnarly-looking strays engaged in a coordinated pursuit of our panaderia goodie bag.
Whit, completely disinterested in keeping their company and contracting rabies, urged John to toss them the pastries so we could GTFO pronto. John, unwilling to surrender the baked goods he’s grown to love so much, began making noises and trying to shoo the dogs away. Nevertheless, they persisted. This went on for a while, until one of them dropped out at the lancha dock and left his dog buddy to his own devices. Unfortunately, this didn’t make the other one any less aggressive in staying on our heels and attempting to nip at the bag. On top of it all, there wasn’t a tuk tuk in sight.
It took about 15 minutes, but at a certain point in our walk home we were finally able to ditch the four-legged straggler. Tired, sweaty, and with heart rates slightly elevated, we trudged along the decreasingly lit road in hopes that the wasps we left in our hostel room earlier would not continue to pose a problem upon our return. Then more dogs happened.
At this point, our last day in Livingston was starting to feel like a cruel joke. Every 20 yards or so, we would happen upon a new set of glowing eyes and bared teeth, standing in the middle of the road and barking us down until we were out of sight. Still no tuk tuks. Some dogs felt more aggressive than others, but all the dogs felt way more menacing than they had at any point since landing in Mexico. We never thought we’d be so happy to see the front gate of our hostel property.
We’ll spare you the beligerent details of our attempts to pay our balance with the hostel manager, but let’s just say he needed a little help staying on track while calculating our change and counting it out to us. Whohn Brose caught a much-needed break when we returned to the room to nary a wasp. We packed our bags in record time, set an alarm for 5 a.m., and crawled under the mosquito net, which would now serve to also ward off any wasps that might be lingering in the treehouse walls, to fall asleep to the not-so-soothing sounds of our drunken hostel mates.
Whohn Brose has stayed in two hostels now—both of which were radically different experiences—and we can’t say we feel like the hostel demographic. We like to think of ourselves as the easy-going, open-minded, down-for-anything types, but in reality that ship has probably sailed. Give us a private room with our own bathroom, as well as some strictly-enforced quiet hours, and we will be golden. Give us rowdy and inconsiderate free spirits in the process of “finding” themselves, and we will probably opt for an Airbnb instead. Maybe that’s what happens when you finally end up finding yourself.
Fortunately, our exit from Livingston was mostly without incident. It was a sweaty walk, with 55-liter backpacks and still no tuk tuks, but it felt good to leave our bad attitudes at the hostel as we headed toward the beautiful sunrise coming up over the Caribbean. One of the two dogs that had cornered us the night before ended up following us for half the trek, though we felt much better prepared to deal with his antics this time around.
We took it as a good sign that our friend from the empanada comedor on our first night was standing up on his balcony as we passed on the street below. He waved us goodbye and wished us luck on our travels—a happy resolution to a rollercoaster of an experience in Livingston. Everything since then has been smooth sailing, and we are optimistic that great things are in store for us the next three weeks on Lake Atitlán.