Belize Part 2: Punta is like hula dancing on steroids

By Bob Schulman

Tourists are welcome to get into the swing of things at the settlement celebration. If you’re lucky enough to be vacationing in Belize on Nov. 19, you’ve got a probably unexpected treat in store. That’s the country’s Garifuna Settlement Day, an annual holiday celebrated by thousands of local folks dancing in the streets to the Garifunas’ booty-shaking punta music You’re welcome to get into the swing of things at punta-livened parades, parties and sing-alongs in bars.

So, what’s a Garifuna? Arguably – there are several versions of the story – their origin goes back to the 1630s when a Spanish slave ship from Nigeria sunk off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. It’s said a good number of the slaves somehow got out of their chains and swam to the island, at the time mainly the home of Carib Indians.

A century of intermixing went by, and the offspring of the ex-slaves and the Caribs became known at first as Black Caribs and later Garifunas – the latter believed to be from Garinagu, a local name for the Black Caribs.

Punta dancers liven up parades. Meanwhile, French settlers and the English crown slugged it out for control of St. Vincent in seemingly endless battles. The Brits won, and in 1797 they deported the Garifunas (who’d been chummy with the French) to Roatan, one of Honduras’ offshore islands. There, politics raised its head, and the Garifunas wound up migrating to the Honduran mainland, where they got on the wrong side of a civil war. Many were forced to move again, this time to spots in neighboring Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

The first dugout canoe of the Garifunas arrived in Belize on Nov. 19, 1832. Thus, the settlement holiday.

One of the country’s largest settlement celebrations draws merry-makers from across Belize to the town of Dangriga,  site of the Garifunas’ landing 135 years ago. Located about half-way down the country’s Caribbean coast, the usually quiet little city goes bonkers during a week-long festival leading up to Settlement Day. Among highlights of the week are round-the-clock carousing and parades to the booming drums and blasting brass of punta music, the crowning of Miss Garifuna and an annual bike race.

Shoppers at a Belizean roadside supermarket. Photo by Bob Schulman.The big day on Nov. 19 kicks off with a re-creation of the Garifuna landing in dugout canoes full of authentic cargoes of cooking pots, drums, cassava roots (from a woody shrub used to make a tapioca-like dish) and young banana trees. After that, the paddlers are joined by throngs of spectators for a lively procession down Dangriga’s streets followed by a special church service and then partying and dancing  through the night.

Normally home to about 10,000 people, the city – known as the cultural capital of Belize – swells to as many as 35,000 during the celebration.

A tip to tourists planning a trip to Dangriga for the settlement fest: Book early, because the town only has a half-dozen hotels. Another 17 hotels (starting at $28 a night at the Funky Dodo Backpacker) are some 8 miles down the coast at the Garifuna village of Hopkins.

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