Livingston, Home of The Garifuna People of Guatemala.

 „Como se cuenta en las historias que ahora nadie cree -ni las abuelas ni los niños-, esta ciudad fue construida sobre ciudades enterradas en el centro de América. Para unir las piedras de sus muros la mezcla se amasó con leche. Para señalar su primera huella se enterraron envoltorios de tres dieces de plumas y tres dieces de cañutos de oro en polvo junto a la yerba-mala, atestigua un recio cronicón de linajes; en un palo podrido, saben otros, o bien bajo rimeros de leña o en la montaña de la que surgen fuentes.“

(As told in the stories that nobody believes now—neither grandmothers nor children—this city was built over buried cities in the center of America…)

– Guatemala, Leyendas de Guatemala, Miguel Ángel Asturias

Dawn

 

I am navigating in the dark. Time passes slowly when sailing with one knot and those final moments of night seam interminable. I know there is land in front of us just a few miles away, I can see it on the chart. The shores of Guatemala are so close I can scent the dry smell of earth and ancient mysteries. In the dark I can make out nothing more but the contours of mountains, a darker shade of black under the night sky. 

Two miles from land dawn begins to break with the speed of a flower blooming, and the most beautiful view gradually unfolds before my eyes. No more sea but mountain. Dark old cloud-eating mountain. The back of a sleeping monster in whose veins flows the blood of trees and forgotten animals. Green hills on the bank of a river, a home of herons, water lilies, and ghosts.

There, on the shores where the river meets the sea, under the lush chest of the mountain, men built a small town.

 

Livingston

 

Livingston , Guatemala. Hotel and docks.

Livingston , Guatemala. Hotel and docks.

 

Before heading up river to Rio Dulce, we spend a couple of days here dealing with customs and immigration, a lengthy but smooth process, and take advantage of our free time to explore the town. 

Public Laundry, Livingston Gatemala

Public Laundry, Livingston Gatemala

Livingston is a busy fishermen village where people and goods arrive solely by boat, as there is no land roads leading in and out of town.

Residential area in Livingston

Residential area in Livingston

Fishing boats and lanchas stop on the main docks to fuel, bring supplies, or pick up passengers for Rio Dulce or Puerto Barrios every few minutes.

Fishing boat at anchor

Fishing boat at anchor

As we walk up the main street where small negocios offer fresh fruits and vegetables, pan de coco, tortillas, and pretty much everything you need, we notice a bizarre mixture of people.

A young Queqchíe mother with daughter, Livingston , Guatemala

A young Queqchíe mother with daughter, Livingston , Guatemala

 

 

Ladinos with cowboy hats and checkered shirts are walking slowly down the street, indigenous Queqchíes and Quiché women with long black braids, bright-colored laced shirts and long pleated traditional skirts are sitting on the side of the road surrounded by a bunch of small kids. But what make Livingston a truly unique place within Guatemala is its Garifuna community, black Caribbean men and women with dreadlocks and Jamaican hats who make up the majority of the local population. 

 

A Garifuna girl, Livingston Guatemala

A Garifuna girl, Livingston Guatemala

 

Los Garifuna

 

In Livingston we met the „black indigenous people“ of Central America. Their identity was formed, in the 17-th and 18-th century, in the midst of destructive experiences, exploitation, and displacement. Their story begun with a shipwreck.

In 1635 a slave ship loaded with African men and women destined for the plantations of the colonies in the New World wrecked near the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. The survivors found refuge on the island among a community of Carib Indians who had escaped the colonization in South America and lived free of European oppression and exploitation on the island. The two peoples’, traditions, music, and spirituality blended giving birth to a new ethnic identity: the Garifuna people. 

Polo Martines, a friend

Polo Martines, a friend

Later in the 17th century, French settlers joined the island community in a peaceful coexistence. But when English colonists came and started appropriating land, war started between the British and the Garifunas supported by the French. In 1796 the massive British troops won the war and exiled the Garifunas to the Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. There, the Garifunas established new communities and fishing villages which spread to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. 

Garifuna child, Livingston, Guatemala

Garifuna child, Livingston, Guatemala

Today, Livingston is home of the largest Garifuna community in Guatemala, with population of 14,000. Here we met Polo Martinez. He takes us for a tour around the Garifuna part of the village. Extremely bright and knowledgeable person, Polo introduces us to their history and culture, music, language, and traditions. In exchange for the tour he asks for a bag of rice and some used books, in English.

Polo, leading us around the Garifuna neighborhood.

Polo is leading us around the Garifuna neighborhood.

The Garifuna people of Livingston are with no exception multilingual. They speak, along with English and Spanish, their own Garifuna language, a mixture of Arawakan, Carib, Spanish, English, and French. What is most fascinating about this language is the division of its vocabulary: women use different concepts and words than men. 

An old  Garifuna woman in her house, Livingston, Guatemala

An old Garifuna woman in her house, Livingston, Guatemala

Another friend we met on the docks while waiting for wind, Liverio Gamboa, tells us more about the local community and its struggles, mixing English and Spanish in a most innocent way. He is a curious-looking individual: black skin, white beard, long dark dreadlocks rolled under a red hat and blue eyes.

Liverio Gamboa, a friend

Liverio Gamboa, a friend

„How come blue eyes?“, I ask him.

„That’s the problem, he smiles, I told you. Who knows where these eyes came from…“

As the afternoon wind picks up and we are ready to sail up river we say good-by to Polo and Liverio. They will be there if we return.

„And remember, Liverio adds, somos el único pueblo que no ha vio combate. Aquí la gente muere de vejez.“

Mira with a Garifuna kid. Picture taken by another kid

Mira with a Garifuna kid. Picture taken by another kid

 

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Playa del Carmen: Mayan Ruins and Sea Turtles

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August 18.

We pick up the anchor and leave Isla Mujeres heading south.  (The windlass suddenly doesn’t work, so Ivo has to bring the chain and anchor up by hand.) Our destination: Rio Dulce, Guatemala, a hurricane hole famous among the cruising community. Lots of boats spend the unstable summer months here as Rio Dulce is one of the most protected anchorages in the Caribbean and storms rarely visit this pace. The distance we have to sail is about 450 nautical miles, at least 4-6 days of sailing depending on the wind and if we don’t stop at night.

But we have to be mad not to stop, we are sailing parallel to Riviera Maya, keeping close to shore, and on our starboard side are some of the most beautiful Mexican beaches and resorts. Why not spending some quality time in a five-star ultra luxurious resort (or somewhere near it) for free?

 

Hotel Pool, Playa del Carmen

Hotel Pool at a 5-star resort, Playa del Carmen

 

After a few hours of uneventful sailing we drop anchor just south of the crowded Playa del Carmen after the last hotel right in front of the beach. There is not a single anchorage here, so we are hoping for calm winds and seas at night. The next day we explore.

 

Fata Morgana anchored off the beach, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Fata Morgana anchored off the beach, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

 

For the first time we leave our boat anchored in front of a beach, alone, in a country notorious for its high crime rate. There is no dinghy dock here, so we paddle to shore and finally Viktor brings the kayak back to the boat and swims to shore with a bag full of shoes. Thus we don’t have to worry at least for the kayak. We head to town.

 

Viktor after swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes.

Viktor after swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes.

 

Once a small fishermen village, today Playa del Carmen is a major tourist destination with modern gated hotel complexes and condominiums, downtown area with shopping plazas and boutiques, internationally recognized chain restaurants and bars, and luxury department stores.

 

Public Beach at Playa del Carmen

Public Beach at Playa del Carmen

 

From here we go to Tulum to check out the ruins. If we had a good detailed chart or/and a cruising guide explaining how and where to clear the reef breakers, we could have sailed to Tulum, a few miles south of Playa del Carmen, and anchored just in front of the God of Winds Temple perched on the edge of a bluff, facing the sunrise. But we don’t have a guide and the chart doesn’t show any depths beyond the reef, so we take the bus instead.

 

Mira in Tulum

Mira in Tulum

 

Tulum, City of Dawn, is one of the last Mayan cities and one of the best preserved Mayan sites. (Maya did not have to pay admission because of her name. Joke. Because kid under 13 enter for free.) We are impressed by the size of its territory and the number of individual structures: temples, palaces, frescoes, platforms. But the hundreds of tourists invading the ruins inevitably spoil the entire experience. At some point we just want to run away from there. Plus, we are getting worried for Fata.

 

Tourists at Tulum

Tourists at Tulum

 

We get back at the boat in the afternoon to find her undisturbed, quietly waiting for us. The next day we spend walking around the coast. South of the last hotel and sandy beach is a rocky deserted shore where we notice at least twenty recent sea-turtle nests. Suddenly, we spot a coati digging in the sand. The animal runs away and hides in the bushes as we approach. There is blood and turtle eggshell. He’s been eating recently hatched baby sea-turtles! We find two survivors and keep them in a bucket covered with sand, like Suzy did back at Loggerhead Island. We plan to release them on the beach around midnight.

 

Ivo with a baby green turtle

Ivo with a baby green turtle

 

It’s midnight, full moon. Ivo and I paddle with the kayak to the beach to release the two baby turtles. One is dead. The other one swims away. And then, we see a huge green turtle just finished laying her eggs, exhausted, covered with sand, heading back to the Caribbean Sea. I can’t resist and snap a picture. She tolerates us, ignores us, and disappears in the black waters of the night. We are overwhelmed. Was it a dream?

 

A green sea-turtleheading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

A green sea-turtle heading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

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Isla Mujeres, Mexico

 

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Isla Mujeres, The Island of Women, is a small stretch of land, once populated by Mayan goddesses. About 4 miles long and less than half a mile wide, it is the eastermost point just off the Yucatan peninsula in the Quinana Roo province, across from Cancun; here Mexico wakes up. The northern half of the island bordered by vast fine sand beaches, is the tourist area: hotels, colorful negocios, street vendors, bars and restaurants, on both sides of the busy main street, everywhere vacation people chilling, having fun. The southern half of the island is occupied by las colonias where the locals live tranquilos in small brick houses of all colors.

 

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We really love Isla Mujeres, its colors, people and laid back atmosphere. We explore the island, north and south, walk around the beaches and the east wall, shop in Cherdaui, a huge store in the residential area where we can find anything we need and even more things that we don’t need, including green sausages, freshly made pastries, and tons of ridiculously cheap tacos. We pretty much eat tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and sometimes for snacks in between meals) every day.

 

Pastries in Chedraui

Pastries in Chedraui

 

We spend a week anchored in front of the charming El Milagro Marina using their dinghy dock with 24 hour security and internet for free. This is one of the best marinas we have seen so far, with excellent facilities and friendly staff. But the anchorage holding is very poor, it’s covered with sea-grass, and we drag our oversized Rocna anchor three times during some very strong squalls. Good thing that pretty much all boats drag together in the same direction during the squalls, like a synchronized dance, so we don’t bump into each other.

 

El Milagro Marina, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

El Milagro Marina, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

 

One day, we take the kayak to check out the floating plastic island not far from the anchorage. The artist, Richart Sowa, who, using recycled plastic bottles, built the small island and a two-story house where he resides, did it as an ecologiacal project hoping to demonstrate that garbage can be transformed and reused without harming the environment. You can read more about Joysxee, the floating plastic eco island here.

 

Eco Island, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Eco Island, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

 

We also check out Poc-na Hostel with Steve, Julie, and Mike, very cool young travellers we first met in Key West, then in Cuba, and now here, in Isla Mujeres. (Check out Mike’s blog here.) This is probably the coolest hostel in Mexico! There is cheap drinks, live music, and a beach party almost every night in the hostel’s backyard and the crowd is, of course, bare-foot, bearded backpackers from all around the world.

After a week, it is time to move on. We didn’t plan to stay so long in Mexico at all, we were on our way to a protected anchorage in Guatemala where many boaters spend the hurricane season. So we never even cleared immigration and customs, officially we’ve never been to Mexico.

 

More photos from Isla Mujeres

 

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El Perro Azul

El Perro Azul

 

 

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Traveling in Cuba. Viñales

 

 Cruisers traveling in Cuba

 

We came to Cuba by boat and that made it very difficult and expensive exploring the country by land because of the many restrictions on boaters and the high marina and transportation costs.

 

In Cuba, it is forbidden to just drop anchor anywhere you like, leave the boat and go to the mainland. (One more reason why Cuba is unique in the world of cruising.) On the north coast, you can drop anchor only near some of the many tourist-populated cayos and resorts, but you can then only visit the cayos, by law you cannot set foot on the mainland and explore the nearest village. Plus, there must be at least one adult on board at all times if you are anchored out, you cannot leave the boat unattended. The concern, I guess, is that a bunch of not very patriotic Cubanos might grab the opportunity (and the boat) and sail off into the sunset (or rather into the Gulf Stream and north).

 

If you want to explore the interior of the country, your only option is to leave the boat at one of the marinas, which are not many in Cuba, pay 20 dollars per day for a 40-feet boat ( $0.50 per foot per day), and find transportation to where you want to go. Here is the tricky part: transportation. From Havana to all main cities,  Santiago, Trinidad, Camagüey, Holguín, etc., you can get an air-conditioned tourists-only bus for about $100 per person one direction. Or you can rent a car (maybe air-conditioned if you are lucky) with or without a driver, between $90 and $120 per day. You can try to move around by cheap local bus, which is actually an old truck and people pile up in the open-air trailer under a canvass. We wouldn’t mind doing this, to us it sounds like fun, but it would take days to get anywhere, and we would still have to pay for the marina, $20 per day, so it is not worth it. Same problem with hitch-hiking…

 

We really wanted to visit Trinidad, a spectacular UNESCO heritage mountain village with spectacular colonial architecture in the south, but we calculated that for our family of four it would cost us over a thousand dollars to leave the boat for a few days in Hemingway marina, get on the tourist bus and pay for hotel or a casa particular in Trinidad for a couple of nights. So we didn’t visit it this time, we might sail there some other day.

 

Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

A photo journal.

The only place we visited in the country’s interior was Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province, less than two hundred kilometers west of Havana, thanks to Harley and April who we met at Marina Hemingway: it was their idea.

 

Harley and April aboard El Karma

Harley and April aboard El Karma

 

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway … stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway ... stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

Cooling off the car

 

For two and a half hours we look out the car windows. The countryside is charming: fresh green mountains, plains, little neat villages. None of the madness of the big city.

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Viñales is a small model-village in the mountains, a national monument since 1978 and a UNESCO heritage site since 1999. It is a main touristic destination, and so we were not very pleased to find here crowds of visitors, buses arriving every half an hour.

Main street and church in Viñales

 

The main attraction in Viñales are the two caves where runaway salves,  Cimarróns, lived in the 1800s. After entering in the first cave, we decided not to enter in the second… There is an entrance fee of $5 per person, the cave is in fact a few meter long corridor complete with fake snakes and frogs and a small restaurant at the entrance. Even if the cave is not big and impressive, its history is a fascinating one. The fact that this cave was the home for runaway slaves in the 1800-s was the most thrilling for me.

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A bunch of street artists ambush the cave exit and perform a  Cimarrón dance for inevitable tips.

 

Performance in the cave

Performance in the cave

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave's houses in Vinales Valley

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave’s houses in Vinales Valley

 

The caves are located in Palenque near Viñales, in a deep green valley surrounded by tall granite mountains and thick vegetation. It is an awe-inspiring landscape.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

 

Looking up

Looking up

We get a bunch of very cheap and very sweet bananas from a local farmer on our way back in Viñales.

Bananas 24 for $1

Bananas 24 for $1

 

Back in Viñales, we hide from a torrential tropical mountain rain, enjoying a glass of cold beer on the terrace of a small restaurant. In Cuba there are two kinds of beer: Bukanero and Cristal. We like Cristal a lot better, but they didn’t have Cristal and served us Bukanero instead…

 

Una cervesa por favor

Una cerveza por favor

As we are sitting in the restaurant enjoying our cold beers, a car pushed by three people passes down the road. Poor people, having car problems in the rain. Oh, wait a minute, this is our car! Our driver, Erie, a very timid always smiling guy, was supposed to wait for us at some corner, but I guess he had a bad day with that car…

 

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

We managed to get back to the marina without anymore car problems on the way back, listening to old 80-s disco hits and enjoying, once more, the unspoiled Cuban countryside.

House near Palenque

House near Palenque

 

The history of the Caribbean runaway slave, el Cimarron, is a fascinating one. 

 

As the sugar production (sweet gold) was booming in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the 1700-s, black young women and men, African princes and princesses, were piled up on ships and brought to the islands to work the sugar cane plantations. The slaves lasted for about a year in unimaginable conditions, and so more ships with „fresh meat“ were arriving weekly. For the slaves, the only hope was to escape. But escaping was not easy and most of the times the runaways were caught and brought back to be killed in public as an example, or died from dehydration and exhaustion in the unforgiving tropical wilderness of the island. But some succeeded, some made it to the mountains, to the caves, to freedom. They formed small communities, away from the cities and the plantations, life as close to nature as one can only imagine. Nature was mother, doctor, protector. The caves were home. The Cimarróns were free, multiplying, organizing.

Inspired by the French Revolution, a black avalanche descended from the mountains in 1791 upon Le Cap and Port-au-Prince in the then French colony of Saint Domingue. Sugar fields burned with black smoke for weeks, heads of planters and their entire families rolled on the streets, boats, this time loaded with white refugees fled to Cuba and America.

In Cuba, the emancipation took longer, freedom for all didn’t come until 1886. The history repeated itself.

I have read two remarkable books (in Spanish) which I would recommend to everyone interested in the subject of the runaway Caribbean slave.

One is  Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave. Historia de un Cimarrón. It is the detailed and personal testimony of Esteban Montejo as told by himself in 1966, when he was 103 years old, and as such it is also a valuable historical document.

The other is Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea, La isla bajo el mar, a beautifully written historical novel full of romance and intrigues, giving a poetic account of the Haitian revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti). 

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