So much love, so much hate. The divided views of Livingston.
For the haters let me change your mind, for the undecided let me sell it to you.
Daggering, twerking, aggressive grinding in the nightclubs. Family cookouts, community farms and group sing alongs. Livingston is just too incomparable to not appreciate.
A Guatemalan town like no other. In fact, a town unlike any in Central America. Situated on the Caribbean coast at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, Livingston is a mix of Garífuna, Afro-Caribbean, Maya and Ladino culture. A place that combines a laid-back way of life of fishing, cooking and traditional music alongside a love of partying and big celebrations. I ended up spending two months here and only have fond feelings for the place. Wait, is that Stockholm syndrome?
Either way, I urge you to go and absorb it for yourself.
How to get to Livingston
Inaccessible by road the Livingston experience starts by boat from down Rio Dulce, across from Puerto Barrios or over from Punta Gorda in Belize.
Arriving from Rio Dulce: Q125 – 1.5 to 2hrs
If you have come from Semuc Champey or Flores you will probably approach Livingston from Rio Dulce. This township is a haven for boats from across the world and is home to various expats for this reason. You can catch a Lancha (boat) from the dock for about Q125 per person. They will usually stop, or at least slow down, at the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, a Spanish Fortress built to ward of pirates.
On your journey you will stop at some hot springs before continuing downstream to the highlight of the Rio Dulce; the jungle canyon. Impressive cliffs tower over you, covered with thick jungle set against the backdrop of wild animal calls. It is stunning and peaceful and you feel slightly like you’re in the opening scenes of an action movie. Aside from just getting to Livingston, you can do activities in and on the Rio Dulce. There are hot waterfalls to visit, kayaks to rent, boat rides to take, Ayahuasca retreats and chilled accommodation along the river. I stayed at the very relaxed Roundhouse and hear Hotelito Perdido is pretty popular.
Puerto Barrios to Livingston: Q35 – 40 minutes
I first did this at around 10 pm in total darkness on some choppy seas with what turned out to be my new boss. Lanchas are not the biggest boats but the ride is pretty fun. In daylight, you should have a fairly smooth ride. When I eventually left Livingston I caught a 5am boat, leaving as the sun was rising across the water which made up for that bumpy first journey. Puerto Barrios is not the nicest place in the world but you shouldn’t need to be there for more than an hour.
Punta Gordo to Livingston:
If you are coming from Belize then make your way to Punta Gordo and get a ferry to Livingston. These run daily and twice on Tuesdays and Fridays. When you get into Livingston walk up the hill straight in front of you and get your passport stamped at the office on the left.
Getting off the boat:
You arrive at a fairly unassuming dock, usually surrounded by young locals trying to ferry you to various hostels. These guys are for the most part really friendly and are just trying to earn a dollar from the hotels and hostels so don’t be worried. Chat to them and make some jokes or tell them you have a reservation and they will leave you alone. As mentioned the immigration office is 150m up the hill on the left; if you don’t need it then head to your chosen accommodation. It is a small town so you won’t get lost and more than likely you will have one of the guys from the dock walking you, at least you tried to say no ay?
Accommodation in Livingston:
You have several options in Livingston. Budget hostels, boutique private rooms and hotels all are within a 10 minute walking distance from the dock.
Casa de la Iguana
A slight bias here as I worked at Casa de la Iguana for 2 months but it is a great hostel.
Some of my best memories were forged in the months I stayed here. Casa de la Iguana gave me my first hostel work experience and cemented my love for Guatemala and Livingston, in particular.
Advertised as a party hostel this is not for everyone and more than once we did have people complain who didn’t understand there would be music going until late (sometimes this was our lack of explaining).
Built almost entirely from wood, and situated on what appears to be a swamp infested with crabs, Casa de la Iguana is a gem of a hostel along the Central America route. The amenities were basic but recent developments include new toilets, a swimming pool made from an old boat and new decking area. You can personally thank me for the individual fans installed on the previously sweltering dorm beds. Sleeping options include 6 person dorms, private rooms and entire cabanas with the best room being your own private tree house.
Chilling at la Casa
Generally, daytimes at the hostel are relaxed but don’t worry about being bored. There are a number of tours you can embark on in the area; Siete Altares, Tiger Cave, fishing and cooking courses. If you are chilling at the hostel then lay in a hammock, play some cards or cool off in the pool. The pool is a dream as Livingston is super hot.
At around 7 pm the amazing local cooks prepare a homestyle meal. The meals varied with BBQ chicken, fish, chickpea burgers and even a Sunday Roast on the menu. Everybody sits on a big table and eats together whilst talking about the day and getting to know the new arrivals. Once dinner is finished the chaos begins. Music blares and drinking games passed down from previous workers take place until the early hours. It can get pretty lary. Nudity is common, things get broken. Between the 5 funnel beer bong, the wheel of misfortune and the disgusting Guafiti shots both the bar and your head are a mess in the morning.
I got to meet some of the staff who used to work there, at an even crazier time with a previous owner, but things got pretty… interesting… whilst we were there. The tab system certainly encourages drinking but staff are generous with shots and the night always remains in good spirits. Some nights the mood is a little more subdued. Some nights the crowd don’t want to party. On those nights we usually played a non-drinking game which kept people entertained.
The other side of the coin yet equally as shiny, Casa Nostra is a truly great place to stay and I would highly recommend it. I’d particularly recommend it for those not looking to party at Iguana. I think you would be pressed to find a genuine negative review about Casa Nostra or about its owner Stuart.
I regularly frequented his place for breakfast overlooking the bay (order the plantain hashbrowns), to introduce someone new to their famed Topado or just to pop in for a beer and chat to Stuart. During the many hungover days in Livingston, we would call Casa Nostra and order half a dozen pizzas which always aided recovery and are definitely the best in town.
All of the bedrooms have 2nd-floor balconies overlooking the river with options for A/C and private bathrooms. The grounds are really nice with areas for you to sit out on the grass by the water. Eat and chill, read a book, use the kayaks and just relax.
The appeal here really comes from Stuart and his hospitality. If you take a look at some of the TripAdvisor or Airbnb reviews you will see almost all of them highlight how great of a host he is and how amazing the food is. Regardless of where you stay in Livingston, make sure you visit Casa Nostra at least once.
This hostel always seemed to be the rival for us at Iguana. I never went in there or met any of the staff but generally, those looking for a bargain ended up there. You could get a private room for 2 with a shower for 80Q just don’t expect luxury (not that Casa de la Iguana is luxurious either!) As always, check the reviews.
If none of these places sound like your cup of tea then there are more options to look at here.
There are a lot of hotels in Livingston, no big glamourous hotel chains but local places with pools, clean rooms and a relaxed atmosphere. Casa Rossada was where I used to go swimming and they were always friendly, there was also Hotel Villa Caribe and Lelo’s Place. I don’t want to step on any toes as I never stayed in the hotels so do some reading first to see what suits you.
My ‘go to’. My ‘on the go’. A hungover snack. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. The empanada.
Not just any empanada. A Tienda empanada from just outside Iguana. Was it because of the proximity? Probably, but these things hit the spot every time and at 30p (40c) a pop? Hard to go wrong. Whether I was walking into town, emerging from a late shift or just hungry and bored the empanadas at the Tienda were always there for me. As were the friendly family who ran the place. You could get Chicken, cheese, and occasionally fish, all fried right in front of you on the side of the road and served in a styrofoam tray with chilli sauce. Heaven, minus the styrofoam maybe.
Before Casa Nostra was in its current spot it resided in a smaller building just down the road. Upon relocation, the original establishment was turned into one of my favourite places to eat in Livingston – Lelo’s Place.
Lelo’s place has a few rooms available with the restaurant out the back, you can sit right by the water to enjoy a very peaceful meal.
The Patacone snacks (fried plantain) with a variety of fillings; steak, refried beans, guacamole, fish were always my favourite starter. Mains were usually seafood or chicken often with a slight experimental twist. They even serve fried ice cream! The cocktails were excellent and the setting is perfect for late nights or early mornings.
Stuarts – Casa Nostra
I’ve already mentioned it but Casa Nostra did some of my favourite meals in Livingston be it the pizza to the Topado or the plantain hashbrowns. This place cannot be missed. For those unfamiliar with Topado, it is a seafood stew in a coconut broth and a staple Garafuni dish. I learnt to cook Topado with Mega G and highly recommend the class.
This one we discovered about halfway through our time in Livingston. Go up the main hill from the dock and on your left, you will find your average fried chicken street vendor. Unidentifiable pieces of chicken seasoned and fried with a generous portion of chips (fries) for very little money. Hard to really tell but I don’t think it ever made us ill.
Long Beach Disco And Disco Playa 8
The whole week has been counting down to this. Every Saturday the unassuming end of Main Street becomes a thriving hang out.
Little more than a waterfront shack, Playa 8 pumps out music as locals get down and sweaty. Next door, a slightly more built up dwelling with a 2nd-floor bar and waterside decking does the same. The upstairs bar is a good place to start if you’re not quite ready and the decking areas are a good place to cool off after emerging from the dance floors. Inside, whilst I maintained an offbeat two-step, not knowing what to do with my body, the dancing locals got pretty intense with daggering, twerking and grinding. Between the two buildings, people congregate, sit on benches, eat full meals (which always confused me) and take a break from dancing. Everybody has fun, we never had any trouble and sometimes you can hitch a ride back up the hill in the back of a pick up which saves tired legs the long walk.
What to do in Livingston
Siete Altares (Seven Altars) is a series of small waterfalls and cascading pools located about a 1.5 hour walk from Livingston. The walk itself is nothing spectacular as almost all the beaches in the area are covered in litter and trash that has washed up. Head north out of Livingston and walk along the main path until you reach a rope bridge and from there it is 30-45 minutes along the coast following the signposts. The path curves off into the jungle where a gatekeeper greets you. Entrance is Q25 and then you are just free to head into the jungle following the stream.
Go during the rainy season if you can- as there will be a bigger flow of water which will make it more impressive; calling them waterfalls is probably a bit of a stretch at the best of times..
The only remotely nice beach in Livingston is Playa Blanca. It can be reached by boat as part of a tour (which can also include Siete Altares and saving you the 1.5hr walk). There are a few operators, such as Happy Fish, up the main hill in town or you can arrange the tour through your accommodation. The beach is privately owned and is kept pristine with plenty of chairs and picnic benches. There’s a volleyball court and hammocks for once the lunch goes down and if it hasn’t yet so what, Mum’s not there to stop you. Guatemala isn’t famed for its beaches and Playa Blanca will not be very memorable if you’re heading to Mexico or Belize but it is a nice spot to chill out and read a book for the afternoon.
Rasta Mesa Cooking Class
Absolutely one of my favourite things to do in Livingston. A real insight into generations of living whilst passing on knowledge and love for the land and planet. With a mission to educate through art, culture and agriculture Rasta Mesa is a mini Garífuna cultural centre. A typical class starts with a walk through the town to hear its history followed by a tour of his sustainable garden. Here he grows a variety of fruits, vegetables and plants all fed by a self-built drainage system. Nothing is wasted in this garden and everything plays its part. With his children and family running around playing and laughing we carefully observed how to make the local dish Topado before having a go ourselves. A humbling experience and great day.
Should you go to Livingston?
Absolutely. Go and actually stay there, don’t just pass through. Stick around until the weekend and experience the club. Visit Mega G and learn about the culture, hike to Siete Altares, eat food at Stuarts and Lelo’s and party at Iguana until you need to be on a boat in 30 minutes and can’t find your shorts.
Getting to Honduras
Livingston is often a stop off point for people heading to Utila, Honduras. You can organise private transport from Iguana or any of the hostels. This usually involves catching the early boat to Puerto Barrios. Once there the driver will meet you and take you across the border. At this point we switched drivers and cars leaving us a little confused but it was all fine in the end.
HOT TIP: Utula, Honduras is one of the cheapest places to learn to scuba dive in Central America.