Am I in Africa or the Americas? “Venturing into Belize’s Afro-Caribbean Garifuna Festival”


From time to time we will feature a Guest Blogger and this month we feature Elaine Lee. Elaine Lee is the author/editor of “Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure” published by Eighth Mountain Press. She is a freelance travel writer who work has appeared in numerous national magazines and webzines. She co-hosts a monthly travel radio show and has appeared on numerous local and national radio and TV shows. Elaine Lee is also a practicing attorney in the San Francisco/Bay Area. Several years ago, she traveled solo around the world and continues to travel regularly. She has visited 56 countries.  

We hope you enjoy her adventure to Belize and if so, drop her a note and let her know.


 “Am I in Africa or the Americas?” It was a question I asked myself often during the African heritage pride festivals that I attended in Belize, Central America. Commonly known as the Settlement Day Festivals, the Garifuna (gah-REE-foo-nah) people of Belize commemorate their arrival on the southern Caribbean shores of Belize on November 19, 1823.

The celebration starts at dawn when boats filled with Garifuna people row into shore loaded with drums, tools and cooking utensils, much like their ancestors did 191 years ago. With their heads and bodies wrapped in leave-laden vines, the boaters wave palm fronds and banana leaves to symbolize the cassava that sustained their ancestors during their arduous boat trip. An explosion of drumming, dancing and chanting from the welcoming crowds heralds their landing. The disembarkation shape shifts into a percussion-led procession, a program, feast, parade and a massive bacchanal.

Delving into this Garifuna cultural extravaganza was one of the most exhilarating, educational and authentic “roots” experiences that I had ever encountered in my 22 years of globetrotting.

To fully appreciate how the celebration came to be, we need to trace the pilgrimage of the Garifuna people. Though shrouded in myth, legend and conflicting historical facts, the general consensus seems to be that in 1665, two slave ships filled with primarily Nigerian captives, shipwrecked off the coast of the British colonial Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Some say that the wreck was the result of a mutiny by the Africans. The survivors swam to freedom and rapidly became an integral part of the Carib Indian society. The merging of races, cultures and languages resulted in a new population of black Caribs, known today as the Garifuna people. By the mid 1700’s the Garifunas were thriving in their new home, as evidenced by their increasing population and wealth.

Witnessing their success, the British tried to obtain by trick, persuasion or purchase, the fertile lands belonging to the Garifunas, which they planned to use for the harvesting of sugar cane. The Garifunas refused to give up their land, so in 1763 the British launched a war against them that lasted for 33 years. The British ultimately won in 1796 and proceeded to destroy the homes, canoes and crops of the Garifuna. The remaining 4,300 Garifuna were shipped to a neighboring island, Balliceaux, where half of them died of yellow fever. Due to their war-like tendencies in 1797, the British decided to deported them to Central American where supposedly the Spanish needed help with their farms…they were thinking if we send them war-like people there they will disrupt things and maybe we can take advantage of the disruption and get the Spanish land in Central America at a later date. It is estimated that about 4,300 survived the ardous10 day journey to arrive on  Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. Many of the Garifuna people found the Honduras to be inhospitable and decided to migrate to Belize. On November 19th, 1823, the first large group of Garifuna from Roatan Island landed at the mouth of the North Stann Creek, located in the town of Dangriga. The date of this mass landing has been celebrated every year since 1941, when entrepreneur and civil rights activist, Thomas Vincent Ramos, launched the commemoration.

As the largest group of people in the African Diaspora that was never enslaved, the Garifuna have retained much of their African heritage. One of the most striking examples of the retention of the culture is evidenced in their language. Theirs is the only one in the African diaspora that is completely devoid of European words language. It is a mixture of Indian and African words and idioms. Interestingly enough in 2002, the United Nations designated the Garifuna language to be a world heritage treasure. Most Belizean Garifuna people speak their native tongue as well as English, Belize’s official language. There are also communities of Garifuna people in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Los Angeles, California and Chicago, Illinois who  speak the traditional language as well. Their current population is estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000.

When I told a fellow travel writer friend of mine that I was interested in traveling to Central America, she enthusiastically encouraged me to time my visit to coincide with the Belizean Settlement Day festivities. Following her advice, I made my way via plane, bus and taxi to Hopkins Village, one of the rural hubs of Belizean Garifuna society. On route I encountered numerous Garifuna, Afro-Belizeans as well as European tourists embarking on the same migration.

The village’s opening ceremonies were held under and around a large thatched roof open-air pavilion located on a sandy beach just south of the main road that leads to the village. When I arrived, community members were schlepping ice for the makeshift beverage and snack bar and bustling chairs from the nearby church and school, while the staff from the regional radio station was busily dragging cables and speakers to set up their sound system. They were eager to broadcast the part of the event that would feature the participation of Paranda musical legend and traditional religious leader, Paul Nabor, (who died in October at 2014 at age 86) who was on route from the neighboring coastal village of Punta Gorda. Paranda is a genre of Garifuna music, which combines traditional African drumming styles interlaced with a touch of Latin/Spanish rhythms. Its instrumentation is totally acoustic, primarily consisting of wooden drums, shakers, scrapers, turtle shell percussion and guitar.

The evening’s festivities were launched by a cadre of drummers pulsing out their powerful rhythms from their crudely constructed drums. The momentum and intensity of the music steadily heightened as people readied themselves to welcome and honor their Garifuna royalty. A group of 8 elder women joined in a circle dance; the tempo and sinuous undulation of which had distinctive African origins. The dancers, as well as most of the other women present, wore traditional style African garb made of printed cotton material, long skirts, short sleeved hip length tops with a cinched waist, accompanied by cloth head wraps.

When the car drove up carrying Paul Nabor, the crowd erupted in jubilation. Surprisingly, there was no speech, no introductions, nor an official welcome. He walked through the circled crowd of about 100, as if parting the Red Sea, sat down amidst the drummers and began playing his guitar and singing. I could see the pride, pleasure and reverence in the eyes of the spirited onlookers. Most of the locals enthusiastically and loudly joined him in song and vigorous rhythmic handclapping, relying heavily on traditional African call and response patterns. Witnessing this kaleidoscope of colors, movement and rhythms was completely captivating, so foreign, and yet so familiar. Flashing back to memories of similar scenes in rural parts of Africa, the Caribbean and Mississippi, I found myself thinking again, “Am I in Africa or the Americas?”

It was becoming increasingly difficult to tear myself away, but I knew I would have to leave within the hour if I going to meet up with John Rodriguez, the proprietor of the guesthouse where I was staying. He had offered to let me tag along with him to attend the Punta music and dance festival in the neighboring city of Dangriga.  I hated to miss out on the remainder of the Hopkins village extravaganza, but I couldn’t dare pass up the opportunity to see how the “city” folks launched their Settlement Day festivities.

Only 16 miles away but worlds apart, the Dangriga event was a massive open-air festival that was held in a fenced field/stadium, nestled between the town’s farmer’s market and the Stann Creek River. There was a huge stage, sound system, stage lights, food booths, music vendors and bleachers. The $10.00 entry fee seemed somewhat steep for the average Dangrian, but nonetheless there were at least a 1,000 people there. The scene actually reminded me of dozens of outdoor concerts I had attended around the United States…that was until the music, singing and dancing started. It was at that moment I knew, “I was not in Kansas anymore”. Punta music, Belize’s national music, is said to be a mixture of Garifuna percussion, pop, salsa, calypso and reggae blended into a highly danceable idiom. Stylistically, it reminded me of a fusion of merengue, calypso and Caribbean zouk.  It was the most engaging and unique mixture of African, Latin and Caribbean music I have ever heard.

I was soon blessed with the opportunity of seeing a performance by Honduran singer/songwriter/dancer Aurelio Martinez, who I suspect from the crowd’s spirited response, to be the reigning Punta king. His astonishing dancing prowess, his remarkably strong, textured and melodious voice, his radiant smile and his amazing stamina were unpatrolled. He sang with such joyous exuberance and danced with such speed and precision that he had every eye in the place locked on him in blissful mesmerism. For the entire length of his 90 minute set, he showed no signs of windedness or fatigue. It was truly mind-boggling.  Punta style of dancing is amazingly erotic. It embodies the simulation of sexual seduction without the crassness you see in music video popular among American teens. It is a primordial celebration of life, where gyrating hips move in circular motions in such a deep connection with the highly poly-rhythmic drumbeats that the dancer actually appears to be forcefully entwined and propelled by them. With Aurelio and other skilled dancers I saw, their movements were so silken and sharp that it was as if they had ball bearing in their hips. After leaving the concert, Mr. Rodriguez and I visited several neighborhood street parties, each of which was replete with live drumming, dancing and drunken celebrants. He referred to almost everybody that he introduced me to, as his cousin. I was welcomed warmly. Because of my generic appearance, most people assumed that I was a Belizean visiting from the United States. I had the wonderful opportunity to sample and savour a wide array of traditional Garifuna food such as Dani (cassava root grated, boiled and sweetened and wrapped plantain leaf), beans cooked in coconut milk, Falmoa (a dish made with boiled vegetables, tubers, fish and coconut milk), green banana fritters, Sere (Fish Soup), Hudut (mashed plantains) and tableta (a dessert made of coconut, ginger, and brown sugar). Of course, the food looked and tasted completely West African.

Making our way back to Hopkins Village, I sat in the car joyfully savoring the reverberations of the rich cultural smorgasbord of experiences I had indulged in that evening. That was until we hit our first of many big potholes on the last stretch of the dirt road leading to Hopkins Village. The suddenness of it jerked me out of my exhaustion laced stupor and back to the reality of my next big challenge, how I was going to get myself up in only 3 hours to witness and hopefully participate in the Settlement Day festivities, which were scheduled to begin at 6:00 a.m. Thanks to the noisy residents of the guest house, I was corralled me to wakefulness at the appointed hour for yet another day of festivities.

Part homecoming, part ritual, and part frivolity, the three day Settlement festivities give family, friends, communities and visitors the opportunity to delve into the rich authentic cultural experience of the world according to Garifuna. It is blessed opportunity to peek into the window of a world previously unbeknownst to me and one that is rapidly unraveling. Because of my cultural immersion by the end of my visit there, I was no longer asking the question “Am I in Africa or the Americas? Because I had come to understand that Africa is alive and well in Americas and in this African American heart.

Later that evening, I met a Garifuna couple at the guesthouse that had recently arrived completely exhausted from the Settlement Day festivities. They told me that they were heading to the island of Caye Caulker the next morning in order to get back to work. I later learned that the Austrian tourists were heading there also. I had been torn about whether my next stop should be Ambergris Caye, the larger, more beautiful and upscale island or Caye Caulker; the more laid back, backpacker and party scene. I decided to ride the horse in the direction it was going and joined the caravan to Caye Caulker. We were up again at 6:00 a.m. readying ourselves to walk to the center of the village to catch the 7:00 a.m. bus to Dangriga, the 8:00 a.m. express bus to Belize City and the noon water taxi to Caye Caulker. It turned out that everybody else had the same idea, so the 7:00 a.m. bus was full. There we sat in front of the pool hall-cum-bus stop, in a collective stupor, propped up against our backpacks dreaming of steaming hot coffee and the next bus.


We made it to Caye Caulker a bit behind schedule but no worse for the wear. Caye Caulker is a tiny, quaint island only four miles long and less than a mile wide. It has no cars or paved roads; the main means of transportation are bicycles and an occasional golf cart. Its main drag is a waterfront promenade lined with lovely restaurants, outdoor adventure outfitters, gift shops and all manner of lodging. Being a long distance swimmer, I opted for a motel on what the guidebooks and fellow travelers called, the “beach side” of the island. After settling in, I decided that laying on a sandy beach, snorkeling and swimming would be the perfect antidote for a half-day of traveling and two back-to-back days of Settlement Day festivities. As I sauntered to land’s end, what a rude awakening awaited me…I saw sun seekers sprawled out on their towels atop broken cement piers that jetted up from the shoreline. Not my idea of a beach! I saw a small patch of sand next to a bar and wondered why no one was sitting on it. As I started to squat down, I soon learned why it had been abandoned by humans…it was fully inhabited by nipping little sand flies, as were most of the beaches I visited in Belize. The sea floor of the shallow area was covered with sea grass, which I hate. I managed to swim out past it only to find that the current was too strong for me, so I sulked back to my room, unpacked and moved on to Plan B; exploring the island.

As I walked along the main drag, in the distance I noticed a brown Belizean man grilling over a half steel drum. As I drew closer, I could see a dozen or so lobsters sizzling away over the coals. After greeting him, I asked him how much they were and he said, “Free”. I asked him again and he said, “free” again…so I asked him how I could go about getting one, and he told me to go across the street to inquire inside the club. Peering into its cavernous interior, I did not spot anyone, so I decided he was just joking with me. I proceeded to go to a nearby Internet café to check my email, but I couldn’t get the lobster off of my mind. About an hour later, I made my way back to the lobster fest, and it turned out that all but ½ of one was left and that they really were free. The owner of the club was in one of his regular generous moods and was simply sharing his bounty with the community. He offered me a free drink to enjoy with my piece of lobster, potatoes and veggies.

Later that evening, he confided in me that he was making a lot of money in real estate in Arizona and enjoyed sharing his good fortune, particularly with solo travelers. He was a gregarious, friendly young man who never charged me for another drink for the remainder of my 3 days in Caye Caulker. Within hours, I was an honorary member of the Oceanview Bar and Grill family. I was behind the bar helping serve drinks and popcorn and schmoozing with the locals and tourists. It turned out that the Oceanview was the liveliest spot in town, which is no surprise considering their brand of hospitality and penchant for creating instant communities. During that evening, I met the island’s mayor, several local business owners as well as people I had met in Hopkins Village. My days were filled with sea adventures in and around Belize’s huge barrier reef (the second largest in the world). We swam with stingrays and sharks, snorkeled, visited neighboring islands as well as a manatee reserve. My evenings were filled with majestic sunsets, dancing, partying, karaoke, bar hopping and helping out at the Oceanside Bar and Grill.

                                  THE SAN IGNACIO REGION

Whenever I travel I always corral fellow travelers and locals into helping me plan the next leg of my journey. I informally tally the polls and make my plans. The consensus in this case was that my next stop needed to be the Cayo District of the western mountain region of Belize. It was there, I was assured, that I would see a wide array of Mayan ruins, jungles and rivers. Additionally, I was also advised to visit the Tikkal ruins in Guatemala, the largest uncovered Mayan city in Central America, which was only an hour’s drive from San Ignacio, the capital of the Cayo District.

After taking the water taxi to the mainland, I traversed 72 miles across the small country of Belize by bus in search of San Ignacio. We had a mid-way rest stop in the town of Belmopan and I coyly followed a couple of locals to a group of food vendors peddling their products on the side of the road. I followed suit and bought some lusciously moist and custardy tamales that were stuffed with chicken, onions and green peppers. An hour or so later, as we approached the city limits of San Ignacio, a young schoolboy, about 8 years old, ventured back to my seat and asked me if I needed help finding a place to stay and I said yes. He offered to help me. Upon disembarking the bus, a friendly rotund gentleman approached me to ask if I needed help finding a place to stay and the young boy looked at me and nodded. Interpreting his gesture as a green light, I said yes. After a couple of stall outs, he whisked me away in his raggedy circa 1975 Toyota station wagon to E & J guesthouse, whose proprietors, John and Helen Lamb, warmly and eagerly greeted me.

After shuttling my things into my room and feeding me a snack, John whipped out a stack of brochures, spread them on the table and enthusiastically proceeded to tell me, in his challenged English, the “must do” adventures to experience during my stay in San Ignacio. He said that the favorite spots for most of his guests were Actun Tunichil Muknal, Tikkal and Xunantunich. Other than Tikkal, I had never heard of the places before, so I got the name and prices and decided to do a bit of research on my own. I grabbed my daypack and my faithful guidebook and made my way to Eva’s, which was supposedly THE adventurers’ hub. Chocked full of hardy travelers and local travel info, I read up on dozens of excursions Eva had mapped out on her walls as well as talked to other travelers, including several guys I had met in Caye Caulker. Afterwards I came to the conclusion that Mr. Lamb had the best suggestions and the best deals. After wandering around the uneventful town, I headed back to the guesthouse to make my excursion arrangements.

The next morning at 7:00 a.m., I was on route to Actun Tunichil Muknal, i.e., the Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher, a sacred cave that the ancient Mayans used for human and food sacrifices to the gods of the underworld from 900-1200 A.D.  The Lonely Planet guidebook described it as “the most adventurous and incredible tour you can take in Belize.” I found it to be one of the most exhilarating, fascinating and physically demanding adventures of my life.

After a 90-minute drive on the freeway, down dirt roads, through a factory farm and over a corn field,  (i.e., no road), we arrived at the edge of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve to park the truck, drenched ourselves in bug spray and launched our journey. I was a guest of Pacz Tours, one of only two companies allowed by the government to take people into the cave.  The cave was rediscovered in the 1970’s but not fully explored until Belizean archeologist, Jaime Awe, led an expedition there in the early 90’s. Actun has only been open to tourists since 1998 and I wonder how much longer it will remain that way, considering the fragile nature of the artifacts in the caves as well as the arduous and potentially dangerous journey required to access its inner recesses.

The 45-minute hike to the cave’s entrance took our motley crew of 8 through jungle trails and three thigh-high creeks. After arriving at “boot camp” we had our lunch, were given an informational lecture and were fitted for our head-lamped hard hats. Much to my surprise, we had to swim through a 25-foot pool of water to get to the actual entrance of the cave. It was an ideal precursor of the unusual events that were to unfold. It turns out that the 2-mile “hike” to the sacred chambers was a trek through an intricate labyrinth of trails, pools and streams. On several occasions we had to climb up narrow passageways, pretzel our bodies through remarkably small openings and scurry over yards of broken boulders. This trip was not for the faint of heart or weak of body. To add to the drama our guide, Ramon, instructed us at one point to turn off our headlamps and he guided us hand in hand for 20 yards in the pitch-blackness through one of the few flat-bottomed creeks.

Through much of our inner earth journey, we were surrounded by enormous shimmering rock formations jutting up from the ground and hanging from the ceiling. The magnificent stalactites and stalagmites ranged in length from 1- 20 feet. The most spectacular display was located in a huge, circular, cathedral-like area right below the entrance to the hallowed chambers.

After climbing up a long narrow metal ladder to the upper ledges, we were instructed to remove our shoes. Slowly we proceeded along an extremely narrow rocky path behind Ramon. We came into a huge open flat area strewn with dozens of broken ceramic pots. We had to be careful not to step on them because many were right next to the path. Further ahead we saw what appeared to be skeletons. One of our group members stated in a rebellious voice, “I will go no further – this is holy ground, not designed for gawking tourists.” I suggested that we stop and say a prayer for the people whose lives were sacrificed here. Ramon led us in a quick acknowledgement (he had obviously encountered this before) and onward we proceeded on our journey. Our concerned comrade remained behind.  I thought it probably wasn’t a coincidence that my camera stopped working at that point.

As we snaked our way around another corner, we came to another open area with more pots and even more skeletons. I counted 14, appearing to range from infants to adults, some with flattened foreheads and some with teeth filled with jade plugs; signs of Mayan beauty. There were remnants of hundreds of pots, mostly shards but many partial pots and a few whole ones. The researchers and tour operators had been very careful not to move or reposition things. It was like walking into a living museum.

Ramon told us of the mythology and rituals practiced in that exact spot over 800 years ago, opening a window into the lives and deaths of his ancestors. It was truly unforgettable experience to behold this slice of history. To preserve the memory, I hope to locate a copy of the 1993 National Geographic Explorer documentary film titled, "Journey through the Underworld,” about an expedition team that explored Actun Tunichil Muknal.


On day two in the Cayo District, Mr. Lamb made all the arrangements for me and 2 other guesthouse dwellers to take a day trip to Tikkal, Guatemala.  While we were waiting for his son to take us to the border to meet the tour, he presented us with a proposition. He offered to keep our valuables for us while we took our tour or we could keep them and risk losing them in a possible tour van hijacking. Guatemala’s stark poverty had propelled many young men into a life of crime, finding tourists to be easy targets because most do not have guns and the vans are easy to overtake. The dirt road portion of the highway to Tikkal is full of enormous potholes, which require drivers to slow down to maneuver around them. When they slowed down the bandits often make their move.                                                                                               

So there I stood at the precipice of a major decision; do I leave my deceased parent’s wedding band and my personalized cartouche from Egypt with a virtual stranger or take the change of losing it possible thief? I had two minutes to decide. My fellow travelers and I turned our valuables over to Mr. Lamb and his son, Emil, carted us away.

When we got to the border, Emil pointed out our van driver, who was waiting for us on the Guatemalan side. Once we made eye contact and waved, Emil told us to meet him back here at 5 p.m. and he would drive us to the guesthouse. No sooner did Emil leave the parking lot than moneychangers swarmed us, pleading for us to change our American money for Guatemalan quetzals. . They were sorely disappointed to learn we only had Belizean dollars. Despite my noblest effort, neither my currency converter nor I could figure out the exchange rate from Belizean dollars to Guatemalan quetzals. I was so nervous and flabbergasted from the commotion, I couldn’t think straight and neither could my travel companions. So we finally gathered ourselves together and decided to exchange only a few Belizean dollars. We estimated the amount we would need to get through customs and figured we would worry about the rest later.

By the time we made our way through the interminable Belizean and Guatemalan customs lines, we felt completely overwrought and it was only 8:00 a.m. We looked with envy at the groups of well-heeled tourists who were being sheparded past us by their high-priced tour guides.  We finally met up with our driver, who we discovered could not speak a lick of English and I, only a lick of Spanish. Somehow we managed to get our plans together and headed off for Tikkal. The road appeared to be recently paved and we felt relieved as we jetted down the highway. About an hour later the highway ran out and the infamous dirt road appeared. Even though Tikkal was only 90 miles away, it took us almost 3 hours to get there because the poor road conditions. Luckily we made it to the nearby city of Flores, robber-free to pick up a paved road again as well as our tour guide who was waiting at a bus stop with his young daughter. Mario was short, thin, wiry Belizean of African and Indian descent who spoke impeccable English at a remarkably fast clip. My brain could barely keep up with the non-stop flurry of words. He was so full of facts and figures that within an hour we all had a glazed looks on our faces from being on overload. He said a short day trip was not enough time to fully appreciate Tikkal, so he had to talk and move fast in order for us to get the basics.

The scooplet on Tikkal is that it is an ancient Mayan city, built and inhabited from 700 B.C. until 900 A.D. and stretched over 2 ½ million acres. During its heyday, in the 6th century, it had over 100,000 inhabitants.  We actually visited Tikkal National Park, which encompasses 222 square miles of the city and is home to its most striking palaces, temples and pyramids; the tallest of which is over 144 feet high. Most of the structures are adorned with steps, making it easy to access them.  The massive abandoned city is nestled in a rainforest, replete with not only hordes of tourists but also with wildlife such as, howler monkeys, wild turkeys (which had glorious iridescent feathers), parrots and toucans. It was a truly remarkable experience and well worth the inconvenience of getting there. As agreed, Emil was there waiting for us when we traipsed across the border and happily Mr. Lamb graciously returned our treasured valuables when we returned to the guest house.

My last day in the Cayo Region was less of a blockbuster adventure than my previous two days but most interesting nonetheless. I got a chance to hike to the Xunantunich, the Stone Maiden, one of Belize’s most impressive Mayan sites. It is home to 25 temples and palaces, including the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize, the pyramid El Castillo, which measures 130 feet high. I was struck by the intricacy and cubism of the carvings, many of which were clearly telling a story.  During its zenith period from 600 to 1,000 A.D., Xunantunich had over 10,000 residents. It is located 8 miles outside the city limits of San Ignacio.

After visiting there, Mr. Lamb took me into the mountains to visit a gallery and workshop of a friend of his who makes traditional clay Mayan jewelry, plates and pots. I particularly liked his merchandise because so many of the patterns he used reminded me of African art. I bought lots of necklaces for my friends.

Afterwards, I picked up lunch, jumped on the bus and headed back across the country to Belize City’s Airport for my flight to El Salvador and Costa Rica. 


 During my 10 amazing days in Belize, I managed to manifest one of the most culturally rich, exciting, affordable and action-packed escapades I’d ever created. Belize provides the traveler with a wide array of choices from cultural immersion, history, nature, adventure, photography and volunteerism to just being a party animal or lounge lizard.

 Written by Elaine Lee, Esq. (copyright 2004)