Guyana's jungle lodges

Guyana's interior is pioneer country. Those who go are rewarded with elegant places to stay, says Sarah Barrell

It's 10.30am and the shop assistant is already sweating. The transaction isn't a tough one. I'm an easy mark, armed with American dollars and a consumer's hunger for one of the traditional Berbice chairs on sale, complete with planter's arms and chintzy upholstery, but the simple act of breathing here induces a sauna-like glow.

"So you been to Berbice then?" says the salesman with a slow West Indian drawl. I explain that I haven't visited the former sugar plantation town in Guyana's interior, which produces the eponymous chair. "But I am going down the Essequibo River," I offer. "Into the interior and the Amazon."

He draws a sharp breath through his teeth. "Big trip," he says. "I never seen that part of me country. Never left the coast."

Most of Guyana's 750,000-strong population haven't visited the interior of their country. Much of it is uninhabitable, carpeted in rainforest and only navigable by boat, prohibitively expensive 4x4 vehicles or canoe. Inaccessible it may be, but Guyana offers plenty of inspiration for the pioneer tourist. And there is a surprising number of stylish places to stay. We're not talking Ian Schrager-design here but old colonial ranches and plantation houses that remain the same, and under the same owners, as decades before. And in a country where tourism is in its infancy you have these places to yourself. Imagine taking an African safari in the 1920s, staying as a guest of the local British expat, and you have a sense of what "life in the interior" can be like for the adventurous traveller.

Bordering the Caribbean, Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname, the country enjoys a varied ethnic mix unique to Latin America, and has a dramatic colonial history that includes lengthy periods of Dutch and British rule. With more money and more commitment from the government and outside investors, the place could be a hub for specialist tourism, from holidays exploring the country's sugarcane history, to sports fishing on its various Amazon tributaries.

For food alone the country is a must-visit, with cuisine that mixes Amerindian, West Indian, British, Dutch and even Chinese and Indian culinary traditions - the latter two having arrived with indentured workers during British rule. But Guyana is a long way from neatly packaging its colonial history in tidy museums and organised tours. Since independence from the British in 1966, the economy has been in gradual decline and the locals have been leaving in droves. Today, tourism mainly caters for returning Guyanese diaspora.

So why come here? Because no one else does. In a country that has to import more or less everything to survive, wildlife is the one resource it has in unspoilt abundance. A handful of tours are beginning to help the adventurous traveller enjoy these riches, and bring their much-needed wealth. Most tours begin or end at the country's stellar sight: Kaieteur Falls, the largest single-drop falls in the world.

Getting here involves travel in a style fitting for this former British colony, by privately chartered plane that puts down on top of tepuis (table top) mountains, where 30,000 gallons of water per second tumble 741ft to the forest floor.

Rare wildlife may be abundant in Guyana - jaguar, harpy eagle, giant anteaters - but tourists are not. Travelling deep into Guyana's interior we see not one other group. The country is ours for the exploring; by boat along the Essequibo River, by foot or 4x4 on dirt tracks into the jungle and savannahs where former cattle ranches, sugar plantations and an Amerindian village guesthouse provides us with beds for the night and expert nature guides during the day.

That Guyana was the setting for Conan Doyle's Lost World seems fitting for a place that no one seems to be able to locate on a map. When asked, most British friends failed to place it within the right continent, mistaking Guyana for an African nation. Once here, the place refuses to be pinned down. It's in Latin America but English, not Spanish, is spoken and the slow pace of life is more akin to the West Indies.

Each place we visit along the river is distinct from the next. At Surama, an Amerindian village located where Guyana's rainforest meets its sun-bleached savannah, our host is the village Touchau (chief) who speaks Macushi Indian and takes us for a dawn nature tour in a dugout carved from purple heart wood.

Further south, we are met by Dianne McTurk, a Scottish colonial descendent who runs a giant river otter rehabilitation centre, with a lodge that wouldn't look out of place in East Africa. Back upriver, our last stop before Georgetown, the capital, is Shankands, a Caribbean plantation house-style lodge set in manicured grounds along the Essequibo. From a whitewashed porch, seated in one of those elegant Berbice chairs, I watch an impromptu game of cricket between a group of Guyanese expats and the Amerindian staff. Their chatter is momentarily drowned out overhead by a squawking pair of scarlet macaws.

Where am I? Armed with a rum and coconut water I decide, for a moment, it doesn't really matter.

The author travelled as a guest of BWIA (0870 4992942, bwee.com) and Reef and Rainforest Tours (01803 866965, reefandrainforest.co.uk). BWIA offers daily flights from Heathrow to Georgetown, (via Barbados or Trinidad) from £883 return.

Reef and Rainforest Tours offers comprehensive 14-day tailormade wildlife tours of Guyana starting at £2,300 per person, including return flights, accommodation, transfers, transport, most meals and guided activities. These tours are often combined with beach breaks to nearby Trinidad and Tobago.

For general information, contact Wilderness Explorers (020-8417 1585; wilderness-explorers.com), a Guyana-based tour company with a London office, and the Latin American Travel Association (020-8715 2913; lata.org)

1 Georgetown

WHAT IS IT? Guyana's crumbling former British colonial capital, settled by the Dutch in 1620.

WHERE IS IT? Between the mouths of the Demarara and Essequibo Rivers, on South America's Atlantic coast.

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? Its distinctive 19th-century wooden architecture that mixes European Gothic and Renaissance styles with Caribbean colour and flair.

MUST SEE? St George's Cathedral, at 143ft, one of the tallest wooden structures in the world. Stabroek Market with its four-faced clock tower.

MUST DO? Stay overnight at Cara Lodge (00 592 225 5301, carahotels.com) an elegant old wooden hotel, favoured by Mick Jagger when he's over for the cricket.

2 Timberhead Eco Lodge

WHAT IS IT? A wooden eco-lodge built in the local style of longhouses on stilts that feels like your own little treehouse.

WHERE IS IT? On the banks of the Pokerero creek in the centre of the Amerindian Reserve of Santa Mission. It's also surprisingly close to Georgetown.

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? It is a real slice of life in the rainforest, but with all home comforts and delicious Amerindian/Carib food after a day spent exploring the jungle.

MUST SEE? The wildlife. The region is home to more than 800 bird species, and you might spot some spider monkeys too.

MUST DO? Plunge into the Ribena-coloured river, rich in essential oils which leach out of the trees on the banks - you will feel like your hair has been naturally conditioned.

3 Shanklands Rainforest Resort

WHAT IS IT? A Caribbean "plantation house" style lodge (00 592 226 8907, shanklands.com).

WHERE IS IT? High up on the Essequibo River's cliff-like banks.

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? Staying in your very own colonial style gingerbread cottage with jalousie windows and wrap-around balconies.

MUST SEE? Sunset from the private jetty, as it turns the river and jungle from flaming orange to bloody red.

MUST DO? Take a guided tour of a jungle trail that takes you into the thick of the forest, and learn about the medicinal plants and abundant birdlife.

4 Baganara Island Resort

WHAT IS IT? A resort on the Essequibo River (00 592 226 0605; baganara.com).

WHERE IS IT? A quick hop on a plane, or a one-hour drive or cruise from Georgetown.

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? A great place to recover from the wilds of the interior with a gorgeous beach and great food.

MUST SEE? The abundant bird life. Don't miss a tour with bird expert Andy Narine.

MUST DO? Take a ride over the river rapids and visit Kyk-Over-Al, a stone fort built by Dutch settlers in the 17th century.

5 Kaieteur Falls

WHAT IS IT? The largest single-drop falls in the world.

WHERE IS IT? Deep in the heart of Guyana's Amazon.

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? Watching the winding 400ft-wide Potaro River take a sudden 741ft plunge to the Amazon floor.

MUST SEE? The thousand-strong flock of starlings making a near suicidal swoop in and out of the falls.

MUST DO? The five-day hike and 4x4 trip through Kaieteur National Park, to the top of the table mountain on which Kaieteur sits.

6 Iwokrama Canopy Walkway

WHAT IS IT? A jungle canopy nature walkway built by Canadian conservation groups in association with the local Amerindian community.

WHERE IS IT? Deep in the rainforest in central Guyana.

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? Wildlife-watching 30m above the jungle floor.

MUST SEE? With luck, jaguar along with red-howler monkey feeding in the treetops.

MUST DO? Take a dawn or dusk hike out to the walkway when wildlife is most active.

7 Iwokrama International Centre

WHAT IS IT? A wildlife reserve and conservation research centre, with guesthouse. Contact iwokrama.org.

WHERE IS IT? Within one of the world's last four pristine tropical forests.

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? Resident biologists to take you on jungle nature tours.

MUST SEE? Abundant wildlife, including spectacled caiman, jaguar, bushmaster snake, and a huge variety of bat species.

MUST DO? Row out to see the Amerindian petroglyphs, submerged in the river.

8 Rockview Lodge

WHAT IS IT? A former cattle station, now a dairy farm and wildlife retreat.

WHERE IS IT? In the southern Rupununi, a short bumpy drive across the savannah, from Surama. Contact (00 592 226 5412; rockviewlodge.com).

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? Lovely grounds, a rustic stone pool to swim in, and local leather craftsmen to watch.

MUST SEE? Take an early morning hike to see the rare cock of the rock bird flash its scarlet feathers in a courtship display.

MUST DO? Help flame-toast and shuck cashews to make delicious "peanut" butter.

9 Essequibo River

WHAT IS IT? Guyana's main waterway, it runs from the Atlantic to the Amazon.

WHERE IS IT? Running north to south, dividing Guyana in half.

WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? The Essequibo offers wildlife watching trips through some of the most pristine parts of the Amazon.

MUST SEE? Caiman, arapaima (the world's largest freshwater fish), and on the jungle- fringed banks, spider monkey, howler monkey, jaguar, the elusive harpy eagle plus hundreds of tropical bird species. MUST DO? Take a dawn boat ride on one of the river's many small tributaries.

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