Friday, February 25, 2011

The Livingston Turnaround

The ferry from Puerto Barrios takes about an hour and a half and costs about $2.75.  Faster lanchas are available for a few quetzales more.  Given the choice between the slow boat loaded with cinderblocks, rice, whiskey and all of the other things which only get to Livingston by water versus the fast lanchas slamming from wave crest to trough its no contest for me.  More boat ride for less quetzales seems like a good deal.  Watching the tropical coast slip past covered with palms and dotted with the weekend getaways of Guatemalas rich and famous while breathing the rich salty air and being gently rocked by the warm carribbean sea keeps the vacation pace in low gear.

The guidebooks refer to Livingston as a different sort of Guatemala populated by afro-caribes who arrived on these shores from St. Vincents.  While that may have been the case at some point in time today it is a pleasant beachside town at the mouth of the Rio Dulce with primarily spanish owned businesses paying lip-service to the Garifuna by way of Bob Marley posters on the restaurant walls and reggae on the muzak.  It looks a lot like any other tourist venue in Guatemala with mayan ladies in traditional garb hawking souvenirs from streetside stalls albeit here they include carved wooden boats and drums and rastafari t-shirts.  Or how about a nice big tortoise shell?  I'm hoping it was natural causes. The main street through town is dotted with restaurants, bars, hotels, and tiendas and with few cars and a fairly courteous scooter contingent its pedestrian friendly.

Hospedaje Dona Alida was my home in Livingston.  A short walk from the main drag all of its concrete structures are layered into the hillside above garifuna beach. All rooms are oceanfront with balconys and cooling breezes.  My single with private bath cost $20/nite.  Clean, good beds, unheated shower (nothing here is cold unless its in the fridge), laundry service available at reasonable pricing, credit card acceptance, hammocks, lounging areas, and friendly hosts, it gets two thumbs up on the schmaltzy scale. There are much fancier digs available but none with better views.   It is steamy, sweltering, and probably hot enough to boil a monkey's bum here as soon as you're any distance from the water but on the rare occasion when I have a good internet connection US reports are wintry so let's bake some more and try to forget what lies ahead.

I expected a lively musical scene but it was on vacation, too.  Saturday night there was a brief performance of garifuna drumming and dancing in front of Dugu bar, just up from the docks, which ended shortly after the hat was passed for the performers.  Had I been better acclimated (I'd arrived by ferry from Puerto Barrios that afternoon),  I might have found my way to the actual garifuna part of town where it was rumored a bar did have live music.  According to a local garifuna hustler I met, the spanish speakers arrived during the civl war when it was a remote refuge with little conflict in the immediate area.  My guide to garifunology said he'd been conscripted into the Guatemalan army and spent his portion of the war as an ambulance driver.   When the injured mayans were left to die he said that he and other conscriptees would dress them in dead soldiers uniforms and take them to the army hospitals where they would be treated and released.  He claimed a lot of other things including residency in Livingston by Jerry Garcia who he said paid for his education in the US.  How much truth or fiction lies in any of this will have to wait for better internet connections and fact checking at some later date but for the price of a beer it was an interesting yarn.

Tour operators in Livngston advertise lots of different packages but most require a mnimum of six and although I put my name in for a possible snorkeling excursion to the Belizean Cayes no one else had an interest and I settle for a trip to Playa Blanca, Guatemalas only white sand beach, located about a half hour north of Livingston.  Seven of us pile in with Captain Rone (like "timmay" but with an o) and his mate at 8:30 and once the captain collects our Q100 apiece he can afford to gas the boat after which we slide out of Livingston on a glassy sea and zip up the coast for a stop at Siete Altares.  Leftovers from the era of active local volcanos these natural pools make great swimming holes.  The cool waters of the stream are in sharp contrast to the steamy jungle as we hike the seven falls and although its only ten-ish when we return to the lancha to continue northward icy cervazas are not without merit.

Playa Blanca is a beautiful caribbean beach with no infrastructure beyond a hut which sells water and beer, an outhouse, and a couple fellows who provide plastic chairs and straw mats included with your Q10 admission.  Unspoiled for the time being it is as paradiasical a setting as you're apt to find.  When the shadows start to lengthen we hop back in the lancha which bucks and slams it way back to Livingston over the afternoons waves

Livingston has a couple of student manned eateries where local kids get practical training in the hospitality industry.  Cafe Buga Mama (don't say it out loud) serves up a wonderful vegetable curry which healed an upset tummy I'd been traveling with for a day or two.  While the students service skills are still being polished they do a very respectable job at a reasonable price and the profits go back into the program.  Hotel Rosada is a very cute place with thatched guest houses right on the water.  They have a wonderful restaurant as well although somehow my spanglish ordered (by number) tuna sandwich appears as a tasty vegetarian omelet when delivered by the abuela who took my order.  Hey it could have been a pile of the dreaded leaden steaming tamalitos the locals like.

How many mornings does it take to get tired of waking up to the sounds of gentle surf and tropical birds?  Trick question but don't fall asleep with your balcony door open unless you want to wake up looking like you've got a case of the mosquito measles.  Nothing a little calamine and some anti-malarials won't cure I'm sure but after almost a week its probably time to think about returning to civilization.

 Carefree carfree Livingston calle (don't look under the bridge)
 Working waterfront
 View from room 5 at the Dona Alida
 Siete Altares
 Shrine where the Q25 entrance fee to Siete Altares is collected
 Rare Guatemalan white sand beach, perhaps 25 people this weekday
 Bob watching the indians sell food and drink
Delicious tuna sandwich

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