Garifuna Settlement Day, November 19th – Hopkins, Belize

Belize is filled many cultures, including Garifuna. During November, Garifuna communities throughout the country prepare for November 19—the Garifuna Settlement Day. It’s a national holiday and is celebrated with a re-enactment of the Garifuna arriving by boat in Belize. The celebration continues with drumming and food. Dangriga, Seine Bight, and Georgetown are all Garifuna Villages.

Hopkins, where I live, is also Garifuna village. Garifuna is the name given to those who are descendants of West Africans and Arakwaks. Stories are told of ships from West Africa filled with people who were bound to become slaves heading toward the Caribbean. Their ships wrecked near the island of St. Vincent, which allowed them to escape slavery. The survivors made their way to the island and inter-married with the Arawaks. Together they blended their cultures and created a new language and people called Garifuna.

Despite living in St. Vincent and declaring themselves free, the British wanted to enslave the Garifuna. When the Garifuna refused, the British sent them out to sea, to die. Many Garifuna ended up along the Caribbean coast, including Honduras and Guatemala. According to legend, the Garifuna arrived in British Honduras, now called Belize, on November 19, 1802. The Governor of British Honduras first refused to allow the Garifuna to come ashore. But after refusing them twice, he let them land the third time, where they established fishing villages on the coast of southern Belize.

For the re-enactment in Hopkins, it used to be that dories or dugouts, would go out to sea before the sun. Slowly, they would make their way back to the beach. Today, motor boats are used. On shore, a white man pretending to be the governor of British Honduras waits for their arrival. Villagers and tourist also wait on the beach, keeping an eye out to spot the Garifuna “lost” at sea. There is no set time or schedule, for the day. Sometimes even the location changes between the Catholic Church field and the pier. One just goes out to the beach and asks around as a large crowd builds at dawn. Usually around 6amish that the first boats are spotted out in the sea.

There is no narrator for the re-enactment because “everyone” already knows the story. Tourists ask questions and those on the beach eagerly answer their questions. Tourists are welcomed but this re-enactment is for the Garifuna, to remind them of their arrival. It’s not made glitzy for show or tourists. In real life, it was not a glamourous experience—quite the opposite. These people at sea did not expect to live and their experience was not a pleasant one. No special programs or signs are made. This is the real deal, and understandably, it may be the first time someone has saw something like this, and are “disappointed” that it’s so “simple.”  In other words, this is an authentic cultural experience.

Hours pass and tourists re-apply sunscreen. The beer companies set up their tents early and the hot crowd typically finds themselves enjoying a beer before breakfast. Finally, someone spots the boats, only specks, out on the horizon. The boats with their passengers make their way to shore, only to be refused by the governor. They go back out. Women, men, and children dress up and cover themselves in sea grass and leaves, to remind people of the hardships of the sea.

Many people in the boats and on land are dressed in the traditional Garifuna clothes—full skirts and dashikis, of yellow, white, and black. The Garifuna colors are symbolic, black representing the color of their skin, yellow the color of their food (cassava), and white for peace. Upon landing, the crowd cheers and the Garifuna dance their way to the Catholic Church, where eventually a bishop arrives from Belize City to bless them and say a prayer. (There is only one bishop and he must go to Dangriga and such before, but there are usually updates of “just left Belize” or “he arrived in Dangriga,” as the schedule is fluid.) The Church cannot hold the large crowd, so many gather around the Church, where they keep the doors and windows wide open for everyone to join their celebration of survival. After leaving the Church, many return to the area around it under tents to continue celebrating with food and music.


Traditional Garifuna Food & Music

UNESCO declared the Garifuna language a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity” in 2001, along with Garifuna music and dance. The Garifuna closely identify with their food and music. It is an important part of who they are and their culture. Their music style is known for its distinct drumming. The smaller drum is called the primero and the large one is called the segunda. The primero leads and the segunda follows. Drums are hand-made from local woods and tuned individually, covered with deer skin, and the drummer beats his until it becomes leather.

The traditional music is called piranda and punta. The late Andy Palacio is considered the “Elvis of Belize,” as he experienced world-wide acclaimed success in response to his music. His album, Watina, whom many consider his masterpiece, was originally recorded at Sandy Beach Women’s’ Cooperative in Hopkins. Palacio died in 2008 at age 47.

To continue in Palacio’s tradition, the Garifuna Collective keep the piranda music alive. Most of the members of the collective are from Hopkins and have their individual recording contracts as well. Many return to Hopkins for cultural activities leading up to November 19. In Hopkins, every Sunday the community gathers around Maude Park to listen to drumming and enjoy traditional foods.

Like music, the Garifuna closely identify with their food and drink, including fish, chicken, cassava, bananas, plantains coconut milk and rice. The national dish of Belize is stew chicken, rice and beans-different from beans and rice. (Rice and beans is mixed together and beans and rice is stewed beans served separately from rice.)

There are several traditional dishes Garifuna make. Darasa, is the Garifuna version of a tamale. It is made from green bananas and can be made with fish or chicken. Bundiga is seasoned fish with grated banana and coconut milk-gravy. Hudut is a coconut milk fish soup served over mashed plantains. Hudut is my favorite of the Garifuna dishes, but I must warn you-a nap is in order after eating this filling dish. Fish cooked in coconut milk is called serre.

Cassava bread is extremely labor intensive and takes two-days to make, and served at most meals. I think it tastes like a potato if it is just peeled and put in a soup or something. But cassava bread tastes more like a cracker, to me. Cassava chips are some of my favorite. I eat them just like you would potato chips and they are nice and salty.


Where to go for cultural dishes in Hopkins?

La Runi Hati, which means moonlight or moonrise beach in Garifuna, is the only restaurant in Hopkins that serves cassava fries.  Marva, the owner and chef, is unique in that she is also the only restaurant that serves fish fajitas for $5US/$10BZ. She has the coldest beer in the village and makes a pina colada from scratch. Be prepared to wait as it takes about 15minutes to make. She serves all the local dishes as well.

Tina’s serves all the local dishes, but usually only features one of them as her daily special for $6US/$12BZ. If you call her in advance though, you may place an order for your favorite.

Innie’s serves all the local dishes every day and on Monday nights has live drumming. If you are only in town for a few days and want to try a local dish, go here, as they serve several of the local dishes daily and charge about $10US/$20BZ. They also have “fish tea” -fish cooked in its broth with several vegetables.

Belfuna Women’s Cooperative-Belfuna only prepares one or two menu items for lunch only, but they are delicious. Raquel serves up hudut, boil up, and black dinna for about $5US/$10BZ. Late afternoon, she makes creole bread and Johnny cakes.

Virge’s Kitchen-Cooking runs in the family as Virge and Tina are sisters and serve up some of the best food in Hopkins. If Virge has conch soup on the menu, get it!  She makes it with coconut milk, spices, and lots of vegetables for $5UUS/$10BZ. She also does a nice fry-fish and traditional dishes as well for about $6US/$12BZ.



This post was written for by Leslie Sorrell, and posted with her permission.


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