Home of the Garifuna people, Livingston is more like Jamaica than anywhere else in Guatemala. Complete with their own language and culture, these descendants of escaped slaves really know how to kick back. The reggae is fierce here, as is the incredible seafood. You will also have the best banana pancakes of your life.
Even though there are two distinct schools of thought on this little Caribbean town, you should come and draw your own conclusions. One school says Livingston’s a tourist trap, with too many drugs and hustlers and thieves. The other school says it’s an awesome anomaly of mixed cultures, music and history, right on the beach. I think that if you have good weather, Livingston is a wonderful place to spend a few days. If it’s sunny you can relax, hike, swim, eat, drink, and relax some more. Don’t be fooled though, this place is not a resort town. It has a gritty edge.
You’ll meet other backpackers coming from Livingston in your travels. Often their advice on where to hear the best music and eat well is the best. I advise you to listen. The specific information I’m providing here was almost all received through word of mouth. Not much of this stuff is in the guidebooks, and in a lot of ways this is all still somewhat secret. Only pass it along to the other backpackers who you deem worthy.
The only way to get to Livingston is by boat, furthering the illusion that you are, in fact, on a tropical island. Lying halfway between the Belizian border to the north and the dusty city of Puerto Barrios to the south, it could take anywhere from 45 minutes to eight hours to get to Livingston. If you have time, take it.
No matter where you are coming from, you’ll be dropped off at the main dock at the foot of the main street of Livingston. To get to the center of town simply climb the very steep road in front of you. You’ll see the entrance to Hotel Tucan Duga, Livingston’s only luxury resort, to your right halfway up the hill, and then you’ll be in the center of town.
Click here for a hand-drawn map of Livingston that will open in a new browser window.
If you’ve had a long day and want to sit and have a drink before looking for a place to stay, there are several street cafes to people watch from. I recommend the Bahia Azul for a leisurely drink, to match the leisurely service.
From Puerto Barrios, about a five hour bus ride from Guatemala City, there are speedboats leaving regularly to Livingston, as well as the slower moving ferry. The main dock is located at the end of a long dusty road from the bus terminal. Ask anyone to point you in the right direction (ask for the “Muelle Municipal”), or get to the bottom of 12 Calle yourself.
There are two ferries to Livingston every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. When I was just there, they left from Puerto Barrios at 10:30am and 5pm, returning from Livingston at 5am and 2pm. The trip take ninety minutes and costs approximately $1.50 or Q15. Make sure to check the schedule, as they have a reputation for changing without notice.
A much faster way to get there, once you actually leave the dock, is by speedboat. Each speedboat leaves whenever it is full, usually around 15 passengers. Sometimes this works out well, and other times you’re just praying for more people to show up. The guys will try to charge you more than the locals, but just don’t take it. They’re not really expecting to get away with it anyway. The ride to Livingston takes about 40 minutes and should cost you about $4 or Q25. If you’re in a hurry, you can get a “private” boat to take you right away for $25 or Q150. Same deal from Livingston to Puerto Barrios.
From the town of Rio Dulce, 4 and a half hours by bus from Guatemala City, you can grab a snack and a boat from the dock at the nameless restaurant under the bridge. You’ll most likely be lead here anyway by friendly boatmen looking for a fare. Getting to Livingston by speedboat, with a few additional stops to look at wildlife and hot springs, should cost you about $10 or Q80. It takes at least two hours, depending how long you stop along the way.
Since there are a lot of interesting natural wonders and photo ops to visit along the way, you might also want to consider hiring a private boat to take you at your leisure. It shouldn’t be more than $20 per person, and often it is much less if you bargain. This trip down the Rio Dulce is definitely worthwhile, however you do it. I would recommend using this longer route on the way to Livingston, and then taking the quicker route back to Puerto Barrios.