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On the trail of the unexpected in the land of the giants

World-class wildlife, swathes of untouched rainforest and historic cities. Donald Greig finds much to recommend about a trip to Guyana and Suriname

'Clap your hands and sing, and they will come! They need to know that they're appreciated. You'll see. Clap your hands and sing!" So shouted Simone, the most ebullient guide I've ever come across.

She was as irrepressible as a leaping dolphin, which was appropriate since it was the river dolphins of Suriname, spotted not too far from our boat, that we were being urged in a spirit of evangelical adoration to entice towards us. "Sing what?" we asked. Anything at all was the answer – but they do like Abba.

We were a group of 10, mostly tour operators and me, recently emerged from an intense week of "familiarisation" in the Guyanan rainforest. That morning, we had flown by light aircraft from the Guyanan interior up to the coast, and from there onwards to Paramaribo, the Surinamese capital.

The warm breeze and open space on the Suriname River were a blessing after the smothering dankness of the rainforest and, though hesitant at first, we soon drummed up a cacophony of claps, whoops, whistles and any old tune in our quest. Suddenly, the dolphins were all around us, leaping like trained performers, riding the bow wave and clearly loving the adulation of their audience. It was thrilling and reaffirmed in a delightfully innocent instant our collective support for this relatively unexplored corner of South America.

The river dolphins, similar to bottlenose dolphins, are known locally as profosu and are on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) most at risk list. Bubbly Simone told us that until about two years ago they had been hunted, but there's now a concerted effort to protect them. River police patrol the waters; fishermen look out for them, and tourists come, which in turn is helping to fund research and demonstrate that there is greater value in conservation than in killing.

Guyana and Suriname are relatively new to today's British travellers. Guyana may have been British once and English may still be the main language, but tourism here is in its infancy. Suriname, meanwhile, has been popular with the Dutch for some time (it was, after all, a Dutch colony in the 17th century and Dutch is still spoken), but the British are only just beginning to discover the country. Beyond their capitals, which are historic and architecturally noteworthy, they offer vast swathes of untouched rainforest with a mix of world-class wildlife and bird watching, adventurous river trips, rainforest treks, and community-based tourism in Amerindian and Maroon villages – the Maroons are the descendants of the 17th- and 18th-century west African slaves who were brought to Suriname and later escaped into the forest, where they have lived ever since.

Guyana is particularly known for its "giants", be they fauna or flora or simply spectacles of the natural world such as the immense Kaiteur Falls, which is five times the height of Niagara. Here, we lay on our stomachs and peered over the edge at the swirling mists far below.

Nature in all its wacky forms showed its hand, convincing me that there are few creatures as strange and outlandish as the giant anteater, which we discovered complete with baby on its back on the glorious savannah of the country's northern Rupununi area. Here, too, on night-time river trips, we came face to face with caiman, the world's largest alligator, eyes glowing devilishly red in the torch beam just above the water line. And it was also here that we struck wildlife gold and saw a jaguar on the river bank, staring back at us, remarkably unperturbed by our whispered gasps of astonishment.

Birdlife is no less engaging: more than 720 species have been identified in Suriname and 814 in Guyana. We saw about 60 of them (enough to make one of our group, from the RSPB, comment that he would be the envy of his colleagues). Our guide led us through the rainforest at one point to a spot where we craned our necks and stared through binoculars at the massive nest high up in the canopy. It was empty, but not for long. An audible beating of wings was followed by a tumble of leaves and shaking of tree tops, and there for all to see was a young harpy eagle. The largest raptor in the Americas, it can grow longer than a metre, weighs up to 9kg and has a wingspan of more than six feet. Now I'm no twitcher, but that's one impressive bird.

Guyana's national bird, the cock-of-the-rock, is bright orange (truly Tango'd) and stands out among the myriad greens of the rainforest, but had it not been for our guide we wouldn't have had a clue where to go to find it. Indeed, the involvement of local people at the community-owned lodges is half the pleasure of travelling here and infuses any visit with an honest intimacy. At the award-winning Surama Lodge, about halfway down Guyana, the villagers' hospitality warmed our hearts, while at Rewa, further south, local schoolchildren treated us to a delightful performance of songs and poems.

Nowhere is the "home-stay" experience more keenly felt than at Karanambu, the home of Diane McTurk, where we took meals in Diane's house, a large structure made of traditional materials with a thatched roof. Diane is known for her work with orphaned giant river otters. We met Philip while we were there, who had come off worst in a scrap with other otters. "He's not handsome at all," said Diane.

From Guyana it's an easy hop across to Suriname, where we found the dolphins playing on a stretch of river just to the northeast of Paramaribo, offering an easy mix of city visit and wildlife watching. Paramaribo is a buzzing, zesty place of exotic allure, home to about a quarter of a million people (more than half Suriname's population) whose ancestors were either transported as slaves or came later to work the plantations. With Creole, Indonesian, Hindustani, Amerindian, Maroon, Javanese, Chinese and Europeans all intermingled, diversity is revealed in unexpected ways, no more so than in the position of the city's synagogue slap bang next door to the mosque, indicative of a cross-cultural understanding that sees Jewish and Muslim festivals being celebrated by all.

Just down the road is the splendid Roman Catholic St Peter and Paul Cathedral, the largest wooden building in South America, built in 1887 and restored with the help of money from the EU, and replete with unpainted Surinamese cedar interiors.

The old town of Paramaribo is a Unesco World Heritage Site and lives up to its rarefied status. Fort Zeelandia, the centrepiece of the early architectural legacy on the banks of the Suriname River, was built by the British in 1651 around a trading post previously established by the Dutch. Next to the fort is Independence Square, a lawn of sorts where parades once took place but which today is used regularly for local celebrations. The Presidential Palace, all gleaming white arches and balconies, overlooks the square. Originally the home of the Dutch governor, its grounds have since been turned into a fantastic Palm Garden with about 1,100 trees, some 300 years old. And just round the corner is Waterkant, a tree-lined street of white-painted clapboard houses which reminded more than one of us of the architecture of the Deep South.

The plantations, which were established in the 17th century, are still there in name if not function. We visited the Johann and Margarita Plantation, which had belonged to a German coffee-grower who named it after his children. At the top of the jetty we were surprised by an inquisitive parrot and equally friendly capybara (an oversized cousin of the guinea pig) grazing on the scrub next to an airy riverside café. The plantation today is home to a Hindustani community and, native wildlife aside, feels – and smells – more like Asia than Latin America.

Paramaribo is an intoxicating shot of cultures and nationalities, enchanting but also perplexing. John Gimlette, in his recent book Wild Coast, sums it up when he says: "I spent my first day falling in love with Paramaribo, and then the rest of the time wondering quite why." How had it ended up with square coins, he asks. And why is the newspaper called The Times of Suriname and yet is published in Dutch? On top of all that, I asked our guide, why they drive on the left? The story goes, it's because the first car to reach Suriname came over the border from Guyana, previously a British colony, where, of course, cars are right-hand drive.

Beyond Paramaribo the flat river plain extends about 100km inland rising not much above two metres. For a taste of rainforest with a touch of comfort, the Bergendal Resort and Activity Centre is just the place, surrounded by wilderness on the banks of the Suriname River about an hour's drive to the south. Besmirched from a week of rainforest living, we gratefully made the most of our comfortable cabins and hot showers.

We also threw ourselves with gusto into the activities, zip-wiring through the trees and across the river, canoeing up tiny forested creeks, and mountain-biking at dawn, not to mention a restorative immersion in the infinity pool with its view across the river. We took evening drinks on the pontoon, ate heartily, and sank into chairs in the open-sided foyer to watch an energetic show of local music and dance.

Even with such comfortable trappings, though, the jungle wasn't far away and the performers found the end of their routine eclipsed by the unscheduled arrival at reception of a pink-toed tarantula. It was an unexpected but fitting finale to a trip that had been punctuated by cultural incongruity and chance encounters with wildlife.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Wilderness Explorers (020-8417 1585; wilderness-explorers.com) can tailor visits to Suriname and Guyana in co-operation with a variety of UK tour operators. For example, a nine-night tour taking in both capitals, eco-lodges in the Guyanan interior and a plantation visit in Paramaribo costs $4,332 (£2,630) for two sharing a double room. International flights via Amsterdam or Barbados, visas and departure taxes cost extra.

Further Information

Bradt Guide to Guyana by Kirk Smock, £14.99 (bradtguides.com).