Traveller’s guide: The Guianas

Guyana, Suriname and Guyane are the smallest nations in South America, yet these former colonial enclaves have much to offer the visitor

The home of South America's only Test cricket grounds, the world's most culturally diverse nation and the launch site for exploring the Cosmos: the Guianas comprise a trio of fascinating countries clinging to a corner of the continent. Guyana, Suriname and Guyane also contain more than their share of nature, from rare creatures to spectacular waterfalls. "Those three little gobs of Empire," was how Evelyn Waugh succinctly summarised the Guianas. While Portugal laid claim to the biggest and most powerful part of South America in the shape of Brazil, and Spain claimed almost all the rest, three other European powers – Great Britain, the Netherlands and France – squabbled over the north-east shoulder of the continent.

Their former colonies are known as Guyana, Suriname and Guyane, with the latter still officially part of France (and appearing on euro notes, the currency that circulates there). They feel like Caribbean islands that have been washed away; plantain, yams and okra enliven the Caribbean staple of pork and rice. A journey to and through them can be more testing than most – a form of time travel, to an era of adventure.

However, if you seek sun and sea, you're in the wrong place: they possess not a single decent beach between them, not least because the slothful rivers that rupture the coastline spread sludge along the seafront.

Most British travellers will find Guyana (guyana-tourism.com) the most approachable and enticing. Its sleepy capital, Georgetown, is the dilapidated gateway to a land largely unscathed by man. Going west, the coast road ends at Parika, where you board a boat to travel along a river the colour of milky coffee to Bartica.

To delve deeper, you need help from an adventure operator, to be led safely to a lost world of mountains, savannahs, rivers and waterfalls. In Georgetown, the road to the Suriname border passes through Success, Paradise, Profit and Whim. It leads to a corner of South America that is forever Dutch, though enriched with all manner of ethnic origins – from West Africa, former colonies in today's Indonesia and even a corner of Indochina. In Suriname (suriname-tourism.org) the Dutch, with their tradition of draining swampy land, have built a new Amsterdam in the shape of Paramaribo. The Unesco-listed capital is not twinned with Manhattan, but it should be – because in the 1667 Treaty of Breda, Suriname was shrewdly swapped by the British for New York. The capital has some fine wooden architecture such as the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, plus synagogues, Hindu temples and mosques. At Fort Zeelandia, the Suriname Museum (surinaamsmuseum.net) tells the story of the ultimate melting pot. The city presides over a land split between the (relatively) populous coastal strip and an almost untouched interior, where mountains soar in a very un-Dutch manner.

Across the border in Guyane – French Guiana – satellites depart the Earth from the spaceport in Kourou, a location chosen for its proximity to the equator and the ocean. The latest incarnation of Guyane (tourisme-guyane.com), as Europe's tropical launch pad, is at least more savoury than a previous manifestation: for a century from the 1850s it was a penal colony, whose main facilities were the transportation camp at St-Laurent du Maroni and the convict settlement at Iles du Salut, whose inmates included Captain Alfred Dreyfus and Henri Charrière, author of Papillon. If a tropical paradise with a grim past takes your fancy, the Iles du Salut have an auberge (00 594 32 11 00; ilesdusalut.com; €235 double, full board).

In common with some other South American countries, crime is a problem in all three nations – especially in the capitals. Nevertheless, the Guianas comprise the ultimate antidote to mass tourism – and this is the ideal time to start planning. They are at their best from January to April when the sultry heat is softened by the breeze from the Atlantic and pierced by the song of tropical birds.

The wild side

The Guianas comprise a paradise for adventurers. A significant proportion of each country is protected with wildlife ranging from big cats, giant otters and anteaters to tiny golden frogs. The bird-watching is amazing, too.

In Guyana, the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development (00 592 225 1504; iwokrama.org, full board at the field station from US$140/£93 double, including forest-user fee), occupies an area one-quarter the size of Wales. Unlike Wales, it has healthy populations of jaguar, primates and many birds. The Iwokrama Canopy Walkway (00 592 227 7698; iwokramacanopywalkway.com), an hour away, is up to 30 metres high and gives unparalleled access to life in the trees; admission G$3,600 (£13). It is near the Makushi village of Surama, which organises its own community tourism activities: US$148 (£99) buys the Surama Sampler tour with one night's full board accommodation and guiding; suramaecolodge.com.

Ranches on the Rupununi Savannah all have unique features: Karanambu is home to Dianne McTurk's giant otter rehabilitation project (karanambulodge.com). Dadanawa is a remote, working cattle ranch where there is a good chance of seeing large mammals and Harpy eagles. Rewa (facebook.com/RewaEcoLodge) is another good place for viewing wild cats, anaconda and arapaima – one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. At Caiman House Field Station (rupununilearners.org), you can take part in research into black caiman. Rock View Lodge (rockviewlodge.com), near Annai, offers wildlife painting and photography, birding and access to Surama and Iwokrama; double rooms cost US$250 (£167), all inclusive.

In Suriname, two reserves protect nesting sites for five species of turtles: Wia-Wia, with accommodation at Matapica beach, and Galibi, with lodging at Warana Lodge (tours and accommodation to both through Stinasu, 00 597 476597; stinasu.com). On the Coppename estuary, Coppename Monding Nature Reserve protects shorebird colonies, mangrove and other swamps, but most significant is the Unesco-listed Central Suriname Nature Reserve (CSNR), covering almost one-10th of the country. The van Blommesteinmeer, or Brokopondo reservoir, one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, is also a great place for wildlife.

A large proportion of Guyane is occupied by the Parc Amazonien de Guyane (parcsnationaux.fr). Together with neighbouring reserves in Brazil, it makes up the world's largest protected tropical forest. Other Guyane reserves include Amana, north of St-Laurent, where marine turtles nest.

On the river Maroni, JAL-Voyages (00 594 316820; jal-voyages.com) runs boat tours lasting four or five days from St-Laurent to Maripasoula, price €575.

Ben Box

Ben Box is author of Footprint's Focus Guide: Guyana, Guyane, Suriname (£5.99). See footprinttravelguides.com

Guyana

If you choose only one of the trio, make it Guyana: mainly English-speaking, cricket-loving and home to award-winning El Dorado rum. Georgetown, the "Garden City of the Caribbean" on the east bank of the Demerara River, has wide streets lined with flowering trees and drainage canals. It has some fine 19th-century buildings. St George's Anglican Cathedral (1889) is reputed to be the world's tallest wooden building. See also the Gothic-style City Hall (1888) and the Public Buildings (1839), on Brickdam, which house Parliament. An imposing tower marks Stabroek Market (1881).

Outside the capital, life revolves around the rivers, highways through the jungle and savannahs. "Guiana" means "Land of Many Waters" and best-known of these are the Kaieteur Falls on the Potaro River. At 228m, they are almost five times higher than Niagara, and carve a deep horseshoe in virgin forest. At Orinduik (25-minute flight from Kaieteur), on the Guyana-Brazil border, the Ireng River pours over steps and terraces of jasper.

Rainforest Tours (00 592 231 5661; rftours.com) runs organised trips to both. A one-day tour, including flights, entry fees and lunch, is US$270 (£180). An overland tour for a minimum of three people, lasting five days, is US$795 (£530). bb

The Guianas: a brief history

In the 17th century, the countries now known as Guyana, Suriname and Guyane were part of the wild coast of South America. Until the 19th century, the British, Dutch and French all played colonial musical chairs for a foothold in this corner of Spain and Portugal's domain. Early European settlers made incursions to the jungly interior. However, they were forced to retreat to the coast, where most people now live, by hostile Amerindians, unnavigable rapids and because the plain was the most fertile land. African slaves were imported to work the colonists' sugar plantations and after the abolition of slavery, indentured labourers were brought from India, Java and China. In Dutch Guiana (Suriname) many Jews arrived from Europe and Brazil, while immigrants to (French) Guyane have included Haitians and Hmong from South-east Asia. This influx has relegated the indigenous peoples to less than 10 per cent of each country's population. The mysterious interior, still covered in virgin forest, was imagined to be the site of El Dorado. While gold is mined (not in the quantities dreamt of by Sir Walter Raleigh and often illegally), it has been botanical exploration that has revealed the wealth of these three countries. Ben Box

Getting there and getting around

The former colonial powers still hold the keys to accessing this corner of South America. The best gateway in terms of fares is Georgetown, Guyana (if booking online, make sure you don't buy a ticket to George Town in the Cayman Islands). On an airline such as Delta via New York, you can fly for around £700 return. An approach via Barbados or Trinidad may prove more alluring, not least because it avoids US immigration, but will cost £100-£150 more. Even so, this is still likely to be cheaper than flying to either Cayenne (on Air France via Paris) or Paramaribo (KLM via Amsterdam). Reflecting the fact that these flights are aimed at a domestic market, fares are high, £900-£1,000 return.

In each country small planes serve outlying communities. Trans Guyana Airways (00 592 222 2525; transguyana.net) serves Guyana. In Suriname, Gum Air (00 597 498760; gumair.com) and Blue Wings (00 597 434393; bluewingairlines.com) fly charters. In the French territory, Air Guyane (00 594 293630, airguyane.com) flies to four destinations.

Wilderness Explorers (020-8417 1585; wilderness-explorers.com) offers organised trips of the Guianas from five to 16 days, costing from £606 for a five-day River and Rainforest break to £5,658 for a 16-day Rewa Wildlife and Fishing Expedition. Trips cover general highlights to the most specialised of birdwatching and other activities. A 13-day package to the three Guianas costs £2,152.

Journey Latin America's 18-day Coq of the Rock tour departs once a year and costs £3,998, including flights from the UK (020-3432 9261; journeylatinamerica. co.uk). The only interconnecting road runs from the Brazilian border at St-Georges de l'Oyapock through Guyane and Suriname to Charity in Guyana (there are no roads to Venezuela). It is broken by ferry crossings at the two borders and across the Essequibo.

Minibuses zip between towns, recklessly and with music blaring. Road travel is best and most expensive in Guyane. Most inland roads peter out after the mining or other towns which they serve, except Georgetown to Lethem on the Brazilian border, which takes 16 hours and costs US50 (£33) by minibus. Apart from ferries across rivers, travel on the many rivers is best arranged by a tour company.

Staying there

Community tourism has been instrumental in the development of tourism in Guyana. In Suriname communities are closely linked to tours run by companies such as METS (00 597 477088; surinamevacations.com), for instance at Awarradam, Palumeu and Kasikasima. In both countries, purpose-built lodges offer activities which include visits to the forest and local communities.

In Guyana, options include: Timberhead in the Santa Amerindian reserve (doubles from US$300/£200 all inclusive, 00 592 233 5108; timberheadguyana.com), or Baganara Island on the Essequibo river near Bartica (doubles from US$348/£232; 00 592 225 4483; baganara.net).

In Suriname, the Danpaati Eco Lodges are on an island in the Upper Suriname river (doubles from €150 per night, longer packages available, 00 597 47 1113; danpaati.net).

In Guyane, outside Cayenne, most accommodation is in gîtes; the Comité du Tourisme de la Guyane has a list.

All three capitals have a wide range of hotels and guesthouses. By Georgetown's sea wall, the Pegasus, right, has been the landmark hotel since 1969 (00 592 225 2856; pegasushotelguyana.com; doubles from US$150/£100). For the budget-minded, Rima Guesthouse (00 592 225 7401; doubles US$33/£22) is popular.

New to Paramaribo are Best Western Elegance (00 597 420 007; bestwesternsuriname.com; doubles from US$120/£80) and Marriott Courtyard (00 597 456 000; marriott.com; doubles from US$110/£73), while the long-standing Torarica is one of the best (00 597 471500; torarica.com; doubles US$149/£100). Albergo Alberga (00 597 520050; guesthousealbergoalberga.com) has affordable doubles from €24.

In Cayenne, most are in the centre, but the suburb of Montjoly has some good places. The Accor group and Best Western are represented. An example of a city hotel is Central Hotel (00 594 256565; centralhotel-cayenne.fr; doubles from €68 room only). Ben Box

The Guianas

Guyana

Population: 750,000

Capital: Georgetown

Area: 10 times the size of Wales

Suriname

Population: 500,000

Capital: Paramaribo

Area: eight times the size of Wales

Guyane

Population: 275,000

Capital: Cayenne

Area: four times the size of Wales

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