The majority of travellers pass by Livingston on their way to Honduras. Other than that, Livingston isn’t one of the most popular tourist destinations in Guatemala. Partly because it is hard to get to and slightly out of the typical backpacking itinerary. But is Livingston worth a visit? Are all the stories about dirty beaches true? Should you give this Caribbean town in Guatemala a go?
I spent a month in Livingston as a volunteer, therefore I had all the time in the world to explore and make my own mind. I probably know a little bit more about the town than the usual backpacker staying there for one night. The travellers I met there also had very split opinions. Some loved it, and some hated it and ran away the next day.
So what is the truth about Livingston, and what can you expect if you decide to travel there?
Is Livingston worth visiting?
I definitely think Livingston is worth visiting if you are looking to experience a different face of Guatemala. Livingston is the only place in Guatemala where you can experience Garifuna culture and fascinating town dynamics.
Livingston is a different kind of Caribbean. Not what you would imagine when thinking of ‘Caribbean coast’. The beaches aren’t to die for, and although Garifunas are being used to attract tourists to the area, they are very much marginalised.
This town is real and for real travellers. Unpolished, raw, rough around the edges. You have to be prepared for the uncharted territories, enjoy discovering other cultures and not be scared of meeting a very simple life face to face.
Also, before judging, try to understand. I had a guest in a hotel complaining that she was ripped off on a tuk-tuk ride and decided to dislike the town because of it. Isn’t this the case everywhere in Latin America? Are you blaming people that sometimes earn a little over 100 euros a month that they are trying to make as much money as possible? Yes, for them, we are privileged gringos. And it doesn’t matter how tight your budget is. You are still privileged. You could travel outside of your own country and see the world. And if you are on a tight budget – haggle and ask for the price upfront.
There are many wonderful things about Livingston. To start with – the journey there (especially if you are coming from Rio Dulce) is breathtaking. I read an opinion that this journey is not all that – I couldn’t disagree more. I was mesmerised by the beauty of the river. The lush jungle surrounding its banks, numerous hostels and restaurants sat on the water and gorgeous lake – you couldn’t ask for a better journey to your destination.
There is also few great trips and activities you could do while in Livingston. Like hiking to the Siete Altares or a day boat trip to Playa Blanca – a truly outstanding beach. In fact, it is one of the best beaches in Guatemala.
I admit the beaches in town are littered with plastic bottles, bags, shoes and all other possible rubbish. It’s heartbreaking seeing this, especially that more commercial beaches in the area are kept clean. So it definitely has something to do with the lack of investment and lack of sense of ownership from the local community.
Livingston is a town of extremes. You will meet extremely kind people eager to tell you about the town and welcome you to the community. You will witness the very simple way of life, where women gather and wash the clothes by hand on the street, and people try anything to make some money in every possible way to support their families.
The town centre doesn’t boast cute and quirky restaurants or colourful buildings, and I only found one place where I could have a drink, and I didn’t feel completely out of place (apart from my hotel, of course). But it has this special vibe which I really enjoyed. I have never been to a place like this, and my Guatemala experience wouldn’t be full if I never visited Livingston.
From the yummy and extremely sweet granizadas served from small trollies where the ice is crashed by this old school machine, to colourful tuk-tuks and ladies insisting on braiding my hair. Every single time I passed by. From eating Tapado (probably the best seafood dish I ever tasted), to having a crazy disco party on the beach in the Garifuna part of the town.
As you venture into the streets, you will be hit by the heat and humidity. Tuk-tuks will pass by honking their horns, you will pass the stand where you can get an awsome carrot or banana cake, kids will run on the street and boys looking like they’re 14 will be working in shops, carrying the cases of soft drinks freshly delivered to the shops and if you are a girl, no matter your age – asking where you are from with this cheeky smile on their face. Nearly everyone will say good morning or hola. People will smile at you, and police will be standing on the crossroad navigating the traffic. Like it was a New York or something. This place has a very special kind of charm.
If you are looking for this perfect beach destination, a dream-like Caribbean town, waterfront full of stands with coconut water and fancy cocktails and perfect white sand beaches, don’t go to Livingston. But if you are looking for some truly authentic experience, understand more about the Garifuna culture and chill in one of the best waterfront hotels I ever stayed in – you should definitely go to Livingstone.
Things to do in Livingston, Guatemala.
One of the best things to do in Livingston is visiting Siete Altares and Playa Blanca. You can visit Siete Altares independently, but Playa Blanca can only be reached by boat on an organized tour. If you decide to do the latter, the boat will also stop at the Siete Altares.
Siete Alateres is located around 3 km from the town of Livingston, and it is a series of freshwater pools and waterfalls formed by nature, surrounded by the lush vegetation of the Caribbean coast. Some call it a mini Semuc Champey. After seeing Semuc, I would say that nothing compares to it, but nevertheless, these natural pools are definitely worth a visit while in Livingston. I would say that this is one thing you cannot miss whilst in the town. It is a magical and tranquil place where you can spend a day relaxing and swimming in the refreshing water. You will really appreciate it after a hot and sticky walk around the town.
The best way to get to Siete Altares is to get a tuk-tuk from Livingston town centre for Q5 and ask them to drop you off at the bridge of Quehueche river (el Puente de Quehueche). From there, you continue walking by the beach for around 20 minutes until you will see the sign for Siete Altares. You will have to pay Q20 entry, and from there you can enjoy your day walking along the river and swimming in the pools. The pools close at 4 pm.
Playa Blanca is said to be one of the best beaches in Guatemala. It is a private beach that can be only accessed by water, and this is where you will be able to enjoy paradises like white sand and turquoise sea beach. It is a peaceful beach where you can relax, swim in the warm Caribbean see, play volleyball or enjoy some seafood lunch.
To get to Playa Blanca, you will have to arrange a day trip from your hotel. Those trips will include a morning visit to Siete Altares so you can combine both attractions in one day. The trip to Playa Blanca costs Q100, and you should be back in town just after 4 pm. The restaurant on the beach is great but on the pricier side, so pack a lunch if you want to save some coins.
Livingston is the only place in Guatemala where you will be able to experience the Garifuna culture.
But who are the Garifuna people?
In 1635, two Spanish ships transporting slaves from Nigeria shipwrecked at the shore of St. Vincent. They then mixed with local populations of Arawaks and Caribs, and as a result, a new Garifuna culture merging West African and Caribbean traditions began.
Since the late 18th century, Garifuna were continuously deported and moved first to the island of Roatan in Honduras and then further into the Honduran and Belize coast. Eventually, Garifuna moved from Belize into what is now Guatemala and set up the town of Livingston.
Head to the town and take a walk towards the beach where most of Garifuna live. If you are lucky, you will come across some drummers and dancers.
The best way to find out more, get the real feel of the culture and ask all the questions is to book a day walking tour. You will be guided by one of the most famous Garifunas in town, and he will be very happy to tell you all the stories and give you in-depth information. You can also book a Garifuna cooing class at Rasta Mesa. And of course, you have to try the traditional Tapado – a coconut seafood soup which is absolutely delicious!
But the Garifuna experience is not to be easily found.
As you walk down the main busy streets of Livingston, you will notice that most businesses are owned by Guatemalans (Ladinos and Mayas). Only as you move towards the beach, you’ll see that this is where the Garifuna presence is more prominent. Yet one couldn’t help but notice that somehow isolated and out of the tourist track.
I have heard a complaint from one of the older Garifunas that they are being used to attract people to the town, yet as tourists arrive, they are being swept away into the Playa Blanca boat trips and are hardly ever sent to this part of the town. However, the way I see it (it may be controversial and I might get beating for it) is that there isn’t enough happening to attract tourists to that part of the town.
I understand the recent lockdown and lack of tourists caused by the pandemic didn’t help. But I had many travellers asking where they could see the drumming and Garifunas playing music and generally learn about their culture. When I sent them to the beach and the areas where Garifunes have their restaurants and bars – they returned saying nothing was happening there. It happens at times, but in my humble opinion – not enough.
There are tonnes of people offering tours, hair braiding and so on. But I believe that if the younger folks from the community organized themselves a bit better – they would have more chances of winning over the tourism competition. The Rasta Mesa restaurant where you can attend famous Garifuna cooking classes looked very closed from the outside. You can still book a class, but it isn’t marketed at all.
Yet as I mentioned, the area was very badly hit by the pandemic. I hope that once there is a bigger influx of tourists, this part of the town will reinvent itself, and Garifuna culture will stay one of the most exciting things a traveller could experience in Livingston and Guatemala as whole.
If you haven’t arrived from Rio Dulce, I highly recommend checking it out! It is a gorgeous river surrounded by tropical vegetation. I took this trip twice and enjoyed it, all the same, both times! The town of Rio Dulce is set on the top of Izabal lake, and you will find great restaurants and bars on its banks.
The boat ride from Livingston to Rio Dulce cost Q100 one way; therefore, I do recommend making it at least a couple of days trip. You could stay in one of the river hostels like Casa Perico or Hotelito Perdido. Both hostels are beautifully set and offer a true eco-experience, with Hotelito Perdido priding themself with producing their own bread, yoghurt and the best chocolate I have ever tasted! It is a great, rustic and off-grid experience.
If you are visiting this region, I would say that both Livingston and Rio Dulce are must-see!
Where to stay in Livingston, Guatemala.
One of the best things about Livingston is Hotel Casa Rosada. And I am not saying that only because I have spent a month there. I truly mean it. This hotel is special. Spectacularly set on the bank of the river boasting a great water deck and hammocks and incredible sunrise.
Its loft dorms are fantastic. What better than waking up to the all colours sunrise and enjoying the ocean view without leaving your bed! The magic of this hotel attracts great travellers, and I made friends with people with whom I stayed in touch for the rest of my trip in Guatemala.
The food there is second to none – but make sure you make a dinner reservation before noon.
There are few other popular lodging options in Livingston like Casa Nostra or Casa de la Iguana – but as usually I’m careful with strong hotel recommendations, this time I am telling you (LOL) – book a loft dorm in Casa Rosada, and you will not regret it!
How to get to Livingston, Guatemala.
The best way to get to Livingston from Guatemala City is by taking the Litegua bus to Puerto Barrios. This journey can take anything between 6 to 9 hours, depending on the traffic and the ticket costs Q125. Once in Puerto Barrios, take a taxi (Q15) to Muelle Municipal (Municipal Dock) and take a boat (lancha) to Livingston for Q50. From there you can take a tuk-tuk to your hotel.
To get to Livingstone from Antigua, you have two options. One is to take a chicken bus to Guatemala City and the Litegua bus to Puerto Barrios. See above ‘How to get to Livingston from Guatemala City’. The second option is to book a direct shuttle which is a little more expensive but definitely faster and will take you directly to Rio Dulce. From there you can take a boat to Livingston for Q100. I used the local company, and it was recommended to me in my hotel. It’s a great and reasonably priced shuttle, and you can contact them on [email protected] or on their website here to request the price and timetable.
To get to Livingston from Flores, you will have to book a shuttle. There is a way to do it with public buses, but you would have to face multiple changes, very uncomfortable busses and long journey for just a fraction of savings. Trust me, the only reasonable way of getting to Livingston from Flores is by taking a shuttle. The shuttle will take you to Rio Dulce, and from there, you will be taking a direct boat to Livingston. Book yours from the Los Amigos hostel or any tour company in the town. You should not be paying more than Q175 for a shuttle. A boat from Rio Dulce to Livingston costs Q100.
To get to Livingston from Rio Dulce, you will have to take a boat from Melle de Rio Dulce directly to Livingston for the price of Q100. The journey lasts a little under half an hour.
Is Livingston your last step in Guatemala before moving to Honduras? You are not the only one so let me tell you how to get to Honduras boarder from Livingston.
How to get to Honduras from Livingston by land
In order to get to Honduras from Livingston, you have two options. You can travel by the first boat at 5 am from Livingston Muelle Municipal to Puerto Barrios. From there, you will take a chicken bus to Corinto, which leaves from in front of the central market in Puerto Barrios, a few meters behind the Litegua bus stop. It is a bumpy ride with many stops, but you are probably familiar with the Guatemalan chicken bus experience by this time.
The other option is to take a private shuttle also from Puerto Barrios. It is more expensive and doesn’t leave every day, but if you have a lot of luggage, this could be a better option than the chicken bus. Ask in your hotel reception in Livingston, and everyone should be able to connect you with Roberto – the shuttle owner.
Once you crossed the migration and Honduran border, you can take a bus to San Pedro Sula, Cortes or Omoa in Honduras from in front of the border. Change the money on the Guatemalan side as you will need them for the bus, and there is no exchange point once you have crossed the border.
That’s it, folks. Here is the story about Livingston and all the reasons why you should definitely consider visiting. If you were wondering if Livingston is worth a visit, I hope I helped you make up your mind. And if you visited, please let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below.
Until then, happy travels!