I’ll be honest: I didn’t plan to visit Livingston when I arrived in Guatemala. Nor, indeed when, after a few weeks of travelling, I arrived in Rio Dulce, the nearest transport hub. By that stage I was at least aware of Livingston’s existence, but there are plenty of other things to do around Rio Dulce and I only had a couple of days in the area, so it wasn’t top of my list of options.
But after just one night contending with the dripping humidity and suffocating lack of breeze in my jungle eco hotel, I needed to feel the wind on my face and inhale some fresh air. So the next morning I arranged a boat ride and chugged downriver through the picturesque Rio Dulce Gorge to Livingston.
In this post I’ll explain what I found when I got there, what there is to do in Livingston, and whether or not I think it’s worth a visit.
There are also lots of lovely photos that should give you a good sense of what Livingston is like, so read on and enjoy the views!
Where is Livingston?
Livingston is a small, quite ramshackle town in the Izabal department on Guatemala’s Caribbean (eastern) coast. It sits at the mouth of the Dulce River where it meets the Gulf of Honduras, about 20 miles as the crow flies from the nearest main transport hub of Rio Dulce Town (also known as Fronteras).
Overlooking the Amatique Bay and surrounded by jungle, there are no roads leading to Livingston: the only way in or out is by boat, either downriver from Rio Dulce Town, northwest along the coast from the Guatemalan port town of Puerto Barrios, or internationally from Honduras or Belize.
Introducing Livingston Guatemala
When I first arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Livingston. It’s a very different sort of town from the dramatic architecture of Antigua Guatemala or the cute and colourful Isla de Flores. Instead, Livingston feels a bit rougher around the edges – a little run down, far less touristy, and more ‘real Guatemalan life’.
It’s a small town, bordered on two sides by the sea with narrow strips of white sandy beach which aren’t much to write home about, and a small selection of restaurants and accommodation, some of which have sea views. In the middle of town, the two main streets meet at a crossroads, with smaller side streets branching off.
There’s poverty here, some parts of Livingston are quite shabby, and life can clearly be challenging. I saw several police officers as I walked around, which made me feel both reassured, and also faintly alarmed that so many appeared to be needed.
But not once did I feel threatened or unsafe. Livingston has a relaxed, Caribbean vibe and friendly and welcoming people. On a warm, sunny day, sitting in a bar overlooking the sea, with upbeat music playing and a cold Gallo beer in hand, I reckon it’s a pretty nice place to be.
A brief history of Livingston Guatemala
Prior to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the area around Livingston was sparsely occupied by Indigenous Caribs. When the Spanish arrived, they established a trading post, but after numerous attacks by pirates they were forced to move it further up the Rio Dulce to Lake Izabal, where they built the Castillo de San Felipe for protection. The trading post at Livingston was abandoned to the pirates for the next two centuries.
Stories of when the town of Livingston was officially founded disagree – some say it was re-established in 1802, others say it was in 1831 when a sea captain from Haiti named Marco Sánchez Díaz landed with his crew and set up camp. Either way, the town is named after an American lawyer and politician named Edward Livingston, who served as Mayor of New York and then US Secretary of State from 1831 to 1833.
Livingston served as a port town, where ships could dock and restock before moving their cargo up the Rio Dulce to Fronteras and into the rest of Guatemala. Separated from the rest of the mainland, it also became a haven for people fleeing oppression: the Garifuna escaping the British in the 18th century and the Q’echi Maya escaping the Guatemalan army during the Civil War.
It remained Guatemala’s most important eastern port until the construction of Puerto Barrios at the end of the 19th century, after which its prosperity declined. Today, however, its fortunes have been somewhat turned around by tourism; other important industries in the area include agriculture, palm oil and cattle ranching.
Most guides to Livingston will talk about how it’s particularly special because it’s home to Guatemala’s only Black community, the Garífuna people – and a great place to experience the Garífuna culture.
Although there is some dispute, most accounts broadly agree that the Garifuna are descended from a group of trafficked slaves who were shipwrecked on St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean in the 1630s. Their descendants married local Caribbean people and lived on the island until they were evicted by the British and French at the end of the 18th century.
They made their way to other parts of Central America, mainly Honduras, Belize and Guatemala, and settled up and down the coast, with most remaining in Honduras.
Plenty of reports will tell you that the majority of people in Livingston are Garifuna, but that is not true. In fact, while Livingston is still a big cultural mix of Garifuna, Q’eqchi Maya, Ladino (Spanish Guatemalan) and others, the black Garífuna make up only only 1% of Guatemala’s population (about 8,000 in total) and only 9% of the town’s population (according to the 2002 census). They suffer a lot of prejudice and discrimination as a result.
However, they still have a huge cultural influence. Garifuna music (known as punta) and Caribbean-influenced food are plentiful, and I highly recommend giving both a try while you’re in Livingston.
What I did in Livingston Guatemala
To visit Livingston, I took a boat downriver from my riverside eco-hotel, Hotelito Perdido. The journey took about 45 minutes, travelling through the Rio Dulce Gorge and passing other lodges, private houses, a pelican colony and even a shipwreck along the way.
I arrived in Livingston at about 10 am. My scheduled pickup was not until 4 pm, so I had about six hours to explore. I hadn’t made any plans, so I walked up the main street for a bit, went into a few shops, and headed down to look at the nearest beach, where I found a band of Garifuna musicians drumming and people dancing. After watching them for a while, I went to get a drink and something to eat at the popular Buga Mama restaurant.
Street Photography in Livingston
At first I was very nervous about getting my camera out. I only saw two other tourists and felt like I would stick out like a sore thumb, especially in a town where the poverty is quite apparent. But after I’d had my lunch I realised I still had several hours to kill, and I couldn’t just walk around aimlessly all afternoon. I needed to be brave.
So I got my camera out and started looking for things to photograph. I did attract some stares, but they were not threatening – just curious. And as I relaxed and became more confident, I found that if I politely chatted to people they were very friendly, and almost everyone was happy to let me take their picture.
Here are just a few of the people I met.
I spotted Pacaria and her 10-month old baby Alexander looking out of an open window and watching the world go by. Maria, meanwhile, was selling souvenirs in a shop. I chatted to her for a bit and bought a pretty beaded bird ornament before asking for a photograph which she happily agreed to.
After wandering along the main streets and down several side alleys, I headed to the docks. Here I found some fishermen with fish laid out to dry in the sun; others were cleaning a fresh catch, yet more were sifting and sorting some tiny dried fish, while egrets stalked nearby hoping for a stray bite.
Pedro Rivera, above left and below, is drying his catch on the wooden boardwalk. He told me this fish is called ‘raya’, and it will take two days to fully dry in the sun. Afterwards, he’ll ship it to Guatemala City where it will sell for Q15 (about £1.50) per pound.
Later I also spotted him and his wife sorting small sardines. They hold up handfuls and then scatter them back onto the pile, allowing the breeze to carry away any loose bits.
I also met security guard Willy, below left, and washerwoman Kimberley, right. Willy told me his unform is very hot and heavy and it makes him sweat a lot, but he’s used to it. Kimberley was doing laundry in this open-air public washing basin. This is a big pool of water with individual stations around the edge where local women can come and wash their clothes by hand. It was fascinating watching the women work, and made me very grateful to have a washing machine!
Other things to do in Livingston in Guatemala
There isn’t a huge amount to do in Livingston, but here are a couple of other options:
Wander round the docks and watch the fishermen
As you might have gathered from the photos above, this was one of my favourite things to do in Livingston. I spent a good hour just wandering up and down, exploring the different side streets, docks and piers with my camera, watching the fishermen working. They were all very friendly and happy to let me take photos, asking nothing in return except a large bottle of coca-cola after their thirsty work, which I gladly bought them.
Experience Garifuna culture
Livingston is the best place in Guatemala to experience the Garífuna culture, from trying the Caribbean-inspired food, to enjoying the music.
Casa Nostra Restaurant is probably the most popular restaurant in Livingston, serving both Guatemalan and Garifuna dishes. Try a Coco Loco, a coconut drink where the top is cut off a coconut and a large serving of rum is poured in, or Tapado, a rich seafood soup made with coconut milk and plantain.
Or visit La Buga Pizza, which is something of a town social hub, with a fun vibe and live Garifuna drumming on Fridays and Saturdays.
Philip Flores, below, is a bit of a local Garifuna legend. He’s been interviewed a few times by journalists and told me he has a YouTube channel and over 1 million views on Instagram. While he’s something of a character who hangs around and likes to chat to tourists, the owner of my hostel told me not to give him any money!
Hike to Siete Altares Waterfalls
Not actually IN Livingston, but a 1.5 to 2-hour hike (about 5 km or 3 miles), Siete Altares is a group of seven waterfalls and freshwater pools, all set against a rainforest backdrop. You can swim in the pools, but it’s a good idea to have water shoes as some of the rocks are quite sharp.
To get there, follow the beach path north out of Livingston and along the coast; sadly the beaches you pass are not terribly clean, but the falls themselves are pretty. It’s also advisable not to hike there alone, as robberies have been reported. Opening times are 6 am to 4.30 pm and entry costs Q20.
Where to stay and eat in Livingston
I didn’t stay overnight in Livingston, but I did meet a few other travellers who were staying. Here are a couple of recommendations for places to eat and stay.
Buga Mama restaurant was recommended to me by the owner of my hostel in Rio Dulce. It’s right by the pier where the public boats dock, and it has a huge open air (but covered) terrace which is a nice place to enjoy the sea view. They serve a fairly generic menu of touristy snacks, international dishes and so on, but the food was pretty good. It’s also a social enterprise where they train inexperienced young locals to work in hospitality, so it’s a good place to spend your money.
Casa de la Iguana
If you prefer more of a party vibe when you travel, the Casa de la Iguana hostel could be the place for you. As well as being a hostel with dorms and private cabins (some with private bathrooms), the place has a lively bar open till 1 am.
Hotel and Restaurant Casa Rosada
Fronted by colourful murals and with a welcoming and friendly vibe, Casa Rosada offers cute cabins with shared bathrooms, and enormous garden, and seafront dock. The onsite restaurant serves delicious and generous portions and vegetarians are catered for.
How to get to Livingston Guatemala
How to get to Livingston from Rio Dulce
The only way to get to Livingston from Rio Dulce town (aka Fronteras) is by boat. Public boats cost Q50 (about £5) per person and go twice a day in either direction, usually around 9 am and 2 pm. They take about an hour to make the journey, stopping along the way to drop off and pick up passengers at the riverside hotels. If you miss the public boat you’ll need to go private; this boat from my river eco hotel about halfway along the river to Livingston cost me Q100 (about £10).
How to get to Livingston from Guatemala City, Flores or Antigua
If you’re coming by road from anywhere else in Guatemala, you’ll first need to get to Rio Dulce town, and then get the boat as above.
For more information about Rio Dulce, check out my separate post Rio Dulce Guatemala: Is The ‘Sweet River’ Worth It?
How to get to Livingston from Belize or Honduras
If you’re arriving in Guatemala off the back of a Belize itinerary, you’ll need to travel to the port of Punta Gorda. From there you can get a boat to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala (they run three times a day), and from there another boat to Livingston. There are also direct boats from Punta Gorda to Livingston, but they only run on Tuesdays and Fridays. Find out more about boats from Belize here.
From Honduras, the best way is to get a bus from La Ceiba across the border to Puerto Barrios, and from there you can catch a boat to Livingston.
Is Livingston worth it?
Most people who add Livingston to their Guatemala itinerary do so for one of two reasons: either they are passing through from Belize or Honduras, or they are visiting the Rio Dulce area. That’s why I went, and while there wasn’t much to do, I thought it was an interesting town, very different from the rest of Guatemala, and a fun place to hang out for a day and get away from the jungle humidity of Rio Dulce.
I don’t think I would recommend making a special trip just to see Livingston, but if you’re passing through it’s worth stopping to check out, and if you’re backpacking in Guatemala and head to Rio Dulce, taking the boat down the river and wandering around the town is a great way to spend the day.
Where to next?
Looking for more on Guatemala? Why not try a few of these?
- Cerro Quemado in Guatemala: The Volcano Where People Talk To The Gods
- A Surprise Review Of Eagles Nest Yoga Retreat in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
- Visiting San Andres Xecul, Guatemala: Home Of The Famous Yellow Church
- The Colourful Market In Solola Guatemala: A Photo Guide
- The Thrilling Volcan De Acatenango Hike In Antigua Guatemala
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