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How to Experience an Unexpected Side of Belize

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On November 19 every year in Belize, the Garinagu celebrate Settlement Day.

Ashlea Halpern

On November 19 every year in Belize, the Garinagu celebrate Settlement Day.

On your next trip to the Central American country, get immersed in Garifuna culture.

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It’s 6:45 a.m. and more than 100 people are gathered on the beach in the small fishing village of Hopkins, Belize. Men pound away at drums while women in peplum dresses sing and dance barefoot to the pulsating rhythms. All eyes are trained on the Atlantic, waiting for the boats to come in.

This is a typical scene from Garifuna Settlement Day on November 19, during which costumed revelers in small towns throughout southern Belize reenact the arrival of the Garifuna people some 218 years ago. When two boats finally appear on the horizon, they’re filled with Garifuna men and women wrapped in cassava leaves and carrying stalks of sugarcane. They disembark amid great fanfare, then lead a flag-waving parade through the streets. The march ends at a Catholic church, where participants hold a mass in the Garifuna tongue. 

An estimated 17,000 Garifuna people, or Garinagu, reside in Belize today; they comprise just 6 percent of the population. (More live in Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States.) Despite the parade hullabaloo and a 2001 proclamation from UNESCO declaring the Garifuna language, dance, and music masterpieces of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the culture is woefully endangered. 

Some ambassadors believe tourism could go a long way in helping to save it. Though Settlement Day happens annually, here are other ways to immerse yourself in all things Garifuna during a trip to Belize throughout the year. 

Women and men arrive on boats during the re-creation of the Garifuna people’s settlement in Belize.

Learn the history

As you’ll discover at the Luba Garifuna Museum in Belize City or the Gulisi Garifuna Museum in Dangriga, the history of the Garinagu is a long and heartbreaking one, but ultimately a story of resilience. 

Here’s the abridged version: A nasty storm hit the Lesser Antilles in 1635, capsizing two ships carrying slaves from West Africa. Survivors scrambled ashore in Saint Vincent and eventually mixed with the local Arawak and Red Carib tribes. The 1700s rolled around and in came the Spanish, French, and British colonizers with dollar signs in their eyes. (Saint Vincent was rich in sugarcane and they wanted the land.) A messy war ensued and Joseph Chatoyer, chief of the Garifuna, died in battle in the 1790s. More than 4,000 Garinagu were subsequently exiled and many lives were lost in the treacherous passage to Honduras. For those who survived, the honeymoon didn’t last: The Spanish were already eyeballing the land and weren’t above a little ethnic cleansing to get it. 

So the Garinagu, under the leadership of Alejo Beni, loaded up their dories and paddled until they reached Belize. The Garifuna Settlement Day reenactments depict the moment the Garinagu arrived in 1802—only to be turned away (twice) by the superintendent of Belize City. They were granted asylum on their third attempt, but only because one of the women was pregnant. This refuge came with a caveat: Stay in the south, the uninhabited no-man’s-land bordering Guatemala.

Explore the language and culture

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Though the Garinagu were out of imminent danger, racism was rampant. Within a decade of their arrival, individuals were required to obtain a permit before traveling to Belize City. Like America’s own laws in “sundown towns,” any Garifuna caught in town between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. could be arrested.  

“Belize was populated by the Creoles, who were descendants of African slaves and British slave masters,” explains Dirk Francisco, tour guide and co-owner of J&D Tours and Transfers in Hopkins. “They believed they were superior to the Garifuna people.” 

Francisco didn’t learn about his own Garifuna heritage until he started university. “Growing up, I lived in a community that was predominantly Creole,” he says. “Because of the stigma, I shied away from my culture.” But the more he learned, the more curious he became. “I started to realize the uniqueness of my identity,” he says. “There was no written history, so I talked to elders instead.”

Now Francisco is eager to school other young Garinagu on their ancestry. There is only one Garifuna-language school in Belize, based in Dangriga; most kids learn the language at home. Unfortunately, some parents are choosing not to teach it. 

“In the 1960s and ’70s, some nuns punished our Garifuna children for speaking their language in school,” says Sebastian Cayetano, founder of the Luba Garifuna Museum and co-founder of the National Garifuna Council. “People’s reaction was to hide their culture—and we are paying a dear price for it today.”

Though Garifuna history is taught in Belizean schools, old stereotypes die hard. “Discrimination remains a legitimate problem for many Garinagu, although it manifests itself in more subtle ways,” says Cayetano. “We are often skipped over for jobs or political appointments, even when we’re qualified.” 

The celebration of Garifuna Settlement Day, which was recognized as a national holiday in 1977, is a step in the right direction, says Cayetano, especially when Belizean banks and government entities raise the Garifuna flag in a show of solidarity. It’s a meaningful gesture, he says, because the colors in its three horizontal stripes are so symbolic: “Black represents our African heritage and 200 years of struggle under the Europeans; white is for peace; and yellow is for hope.” 

At Queen Bean, travelers can learn to cook Garifuna recipes.

Eat the food

One of Francisco’s newest offerings via J&D Tours is a Garifuna Culture Culinary Experience, designed to honor the traditional foodways of the Garinagu while simultaneously introducing travelers to their staple dishes. The outing starts with a fishing excursion, followed by a cooking lesson and lunch. Sometimes guests prepare meals in the home kitchen of local Garinagu; other times, in a restaurant kitchen.

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The most popular dish is hudut: green-ripened plantains boiled, mashed, and served with a fish broth made of coconut milk, boiled okra, garlic, habaneros, and fresh herbs. At Queen Bean in Hopkins, travelers help Garifuna cooks Marilyn Dyanne Martinez and Victoria Yolanda Bermudez strain the coconut and mash plantains with a large mortar and pestle. 

To sample a Garifuna breakfast, look for beach vendors ladling gwetu into tall Styrofoam cups. The viscous porridge is made with green plantains, condensed milk, coconut milk, nutmeg, and ginger. Another notable stop is Herbal Healers Tea Bar & Gift Shop, opened in 2013 by Krishna Castillo and Desiree Baptist. Castillo was born in Hopkins and learned about the medicinal properties of indigenous plants from a young age. The shop specializes in Belizean organic teas, local wine, bitters, and herbal salves. 

Feel the music

Music is Garifuna’s best-known export, popularized on the world stage by late musicians Paul Nabor and Andy Palacio. It has three main components, says Cayetano: the gayusa, or choir; the dancers; and the drummers.

The best place to learn about Garifuna music is the Lebeha Drumming Center in Hopkins, where co-founder Jabbar Lambey has been teaching local kids since 2002. Travelers can observe their practice or sign up for an hour-long lesson in punta. The drums, which are hand-carved from mahogany and covered in deerskin, are tuned using ropes—another skill Lambey is happy to demo.

“Garifuna is a great culture—the music, the food, the art,” says Cayetano. “We need Garifunas to preserve it, cherish it, and pass it on to their children.” 

For him, it is the lyrics in a Palacio song, “Ámuñegü (In Times to Come),” that ring most poignant: “Who will make cassava bread with us in times to come? / Who will sing Garifuna songs with us in times to come? / Who will speak with me in Garifuna in times to come? / Who will do the good dance with us in times to come?” 

The overwater Big Dock Ceviche Bar at Jaguar Reef in Hopkins serves up snacks, drinks, and live music by local artists every Saturday.

Practical Info

When to go

Time your visit to coincide with Garifuna Settlement Day (November 19) and the weeks leading up to it. The festivities include parades, pageants, and drumming competitions.

How to get there

The quickest way to reach southern Belize is by hopping a 20-minute flight on a small Cessna operated by Tropic Air or Maya Island Air from Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport to Dangriga Airport. From there, it’s a half-hour drive to Hopkins or 2.5 hours to Punta Gorda. Goldson direct to Punta Gorda is one hour. (Land transfers are also available but can take upward of five hours.) 

Where to stay

For an immersive experience, book a room at the Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco Cultural & Fishing Institute on Kalipuna, a private island at the north end of Hopkins Village. The four-room inn is owned and operated by local Garinagu. Host Uwahnie Melanie can arrange Garifuna-centric activities for guests, including drumming lessons and fly-fishing with a folklore-dispensing elder in a traditional dorey.

If Garifuna-owned accommodations are all booked (sometimes they’re reserved a year in advance, especially in November), park yourself at the Almond Beach Resort at Jaguar Reef. The four-star hotel offers contemporary rooms with private plunge pools and serves Garifuna dishes in its restaurant. 

>>Plan your trip with the AFAR Guide to Belize

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