10 mins

The spirit of Guyana: South America's best-kept secret

Unspoilt Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s tallest waterfalls and a haven for giant species – we visit a land where community-benefitting projects are thriving and wildlife is flourishing...

Kaieteur Falls, Guyana (Shutterstock)

We heard them before we saw them. Strange chattering, barks and snuffling noises that I couldn’t place as I scanned the bird-rich waters of the lake that surrounded us.

For a moment, I thought back to the stories I had been told of spirits in Guyana’s lakes and forests. Then we saw the bobbing heads of a family of giant river otters looking at us, shouting half indignantly as if questioning our presence.

Behind them, five black caiman were crossing the lake in a flotilla. Herons and egrets flanked the shallows and banks, while jacanas padded across floating vegetation.

The high branches of the trees surrounding the lake were alive with yet more birds as well as three different species of monkey: howler, brown-bearded saki and brown capuchin.

Down below, eagle-eyed kingfishers scanned the waters intently, before dive-bombing for fish and I marvelled that I had never seen such a concentration before. The wildlife was so prolific that it was hard to know where to look next.

Land of giants

Guyana is known as the land of the giants, and with these huge lily pads, it's easy to see why (Sarah Marshall)

Guyana is known as the land of the giants, and with these huge lily pads, it's easy to see why (Sarah Marshall)

I’d only arrived at Guyana’s renowned Karanambu Lodge in the south-west Rupununi region a few hours earlier.

It had been on my travel wishlist for years, ever since I had seen coverage of its work in rescuing and rehabilitating giant river otters.

This was all down to a remarkable woman, the late Diane McTurk. Although she passed away in 2016, her family still run the lodge and the Karanambu Trust, working to protect the habitats here while also ensuring local communities benefit.

Giant river otters roam Guyana (Shutterstock)

Giant river otters roam Guyana (Shutterstock)

Three rescued otter cubs were being raised at the Lodge during my visit, so when we took an outing along the Rupununi River and saw a family group of nine in the wild, it was all the more special – even when they were shouting at us.

Having preserved most of its rainforest, Guyana – known for its biodiversity – often gets called a ‘Land of Giants’ as it is home to many ‘giants’ of the natural world.

One of its most celebrated species is the giant water lily known as Victoria amazonica, the leaves of which can grow to three metres in diameter. It flowers at sunset and we pulled up to a tranquil spot just as dusk fell.

A new flower opened in front of us, its colour a pure white, unlike the surrounding pink lilies. At this stage the flower is female, and it gives out a strong odour which attracts beetles.

A new flower opened in front of us, its colour a pure white, unlike the surrounding pink lilies (Simon Chubb)

A new flower opened in front of us, its colour a pure white, unlike the surrounding pink lilies (Simon Chubb)

As we sat in the boat sipping rum punch, we watched as dozens of beetles flew in to feed. Once pollinated the lily changes sex overnight and the following day the flower opens a different colour.

Darkness had truly fallen as we headed back to the lodge, our torches catching the light of caiman eyes.  Fish were splashing and jumping everywhere around us, a reminder that the rivers here hold at east 400 species.

They were certainly lively and I started with shock as a fish jumped into the boat. As we proceeded, several more jumped in and we threw them back into the water.

Grassroots

Rewa Lodge (Simon Chubb)

Rewa Lodge (Simon Chubb)

While Karanambu is run by a family who originally settled there in the 1920s, many of Guyana’s eco-lodges are owned and operated by local Amerindian communities. Rewa Lodge is one of these and has garnered many accolades among lovers of wild places.

Set on the confluence of two rivers – the Rupununi and Rewa – the only way in is by boat. On arrival, I was greeted by Rudy (Rudolph Edwards), one of the managers and the community’s current Tashao or chief.

The village is 800m from the lodge and has a population of around 300 people from five different tribes, but mostly Makushi. From the 1960s to 1990s this village used to hunt and trade in wildlife, but by 2000 the area had lost much of the once abundant nature.

Around that time, Rudy started to hear about how wildlife tourism could provide a sustainable future for the community. By 2003, they had planned to open an eco-lodge and got some help and advice from a couple of lodges which had already opened.

However, there were still many hurdles, including convincing everyone that the tourism venture would work.

The arapaima gigas is the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world and is found in Guyana (Shutterstock)

The arapaima gigas is the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world and is found in Guyana (Shutterstock)

“The communities in the area were used to trapping and poaching. We had to stop taking wildlife and convince others not to,” said Rudy.

The world’s largest scaled freshwater fish is found here, the arapaima gigas, an ancient dinosaur of the deep that grows to over 2m in length and breathes air.

“We said no harvesting of the fish and it worked. But after five years we were struggling as there were no jobs yet and no benefit.”

By 2005, the lodge had opened although the next challenge was how to attract customers. “We didn’t know marketing.” It had just two customers in its first year, but it has now grown to 200 a year.

This is true grassroots tourism, with the community running it and benefitting. Rudy took me to see the nearby village, where a newly consecrated church, a health centre, nursery school and primary school were all funded through the lodge.

“We didn’t know our environment was so beautiful and that people from other lands would want to see it. Now we understand the true meaning of tourism.”

Wild web

Rainforest excursion by boat (Sarah Marshall)

Rainforest excursion by boat (Sarah Marshall)

Wildlife continues to increase, with jaguars now sometimes seen hunting for turtle eggs on the sandy beaches that fringe the river.

There is a limited catch and release programme with the arapaima fish that fishermen from around the world pay a lot of money to come and do.

We took a number of boat excursions to different spots where we walked on jungle trails.

One took us to a lake where we watched the sun set as the giant lilies exploded into a riot of colour, and Rudy told us of the sand monster that reputedly lives in a neighbouring lake.

The next morning we took a boat on another lake that’s home to over 400 arapaima fish and we kept catching glimpses of them as they popped up to the surface of the inky water to breathe.

Hear the call of howler monkeys in Guyana (Shutterstock)

Hear the call of howler monkeys in Guyana (Shutterstock)

Later that day, we took the boat upriver past sandbanks covered in clouds of yellow butterflies. As we chugged past one sandy beach, several terns made it clear they were angry at our presence, threatening to dive-bomb us until we moved far enough away.

Further on, a capybara with a baby sat at the water’s edge startled to see us. A closer look at offshore logs would reveal sunbathing turtles of various sizes, while ospreys and other raptors sat sentinel in the treetops.

The weather was changeable – brilliant sunshine had us slapping on extra sun lotion and then few minutes later would come a downpour of warm rain.

Eventually we pulled into the bank and took a woodland trail, leaves crunching below our feet. We could hear spider monkeys moving in the trees, while in the distance howler monkeys called.

The goliath bird-eating spider is the largest arachnid in the world (Simon Chubb)

Stopping at a mound, Rudy crouched in front of a hole and prodded the entrance with a long twig.

To our surprise, a huge spider appeared, hoping for a tasty meal. “This is the goliath bird-eating spider,” Rudy announced.

“They don’t usually eat birds, but they can if they get the opportunity.”

The largest arachnid in the world is an opportunistic feeder but it must have been disappointed to find itself being stared at by beasts it couldn’t eat.

Back at the boat, our boatman had been busy fishing and had caught four peacock bass. We headed off back down the river as the sun started to set.

To our surprise, the boat pulled into the base of a large, steep sandbank. We got out and were met by the sight of a team from the lodge making a fire and setting out camp chairs.

Drinks were served as darkness fell, and a bright moon bathed us in its light. Meanwhile the bass were barbecued and we ate to a soundtrack of jungle noises and a frog chorus.

Flying the nest 

With the success of community-based eco-tourism, others are looking to see if they can move into low-level tourism too, and Rewa helps advise them.

At the village of Warapoka in north-east Guyana, we were the first official tourists – even the paint on the walls of the guesthouse was still not dry.

As with so many places in Guyana, just getting there was an adventure, with an internal flight over rainforest as far as the eye could see, followed by a three-hour boat journey passing houses on stilts, fishermen and myriad exotic birds.

Eventually, we turned off the Waini River into a quiet channel, fringed by mangroves, and overhung with trees. As we rounded a bend into bright sunshine, the village of Warapoka came into sight, distinguished by the large granite boulders scattered around it.

We were met on the jetty by members of the village committee and walked the short distance to the guesthouse where a lunch of fish, okra, beans, plantain and rice awaited, all from the village, as was the accompanying lime juice.

A harpy eagle (Shutterstock)

A harpy eagle (Shutterstock)

“Even the coffee is from here,” said Jeremy, head of the tourism committee, explaining that the community is pretty much self-sufficient.

However, what they don’t have is much in the way of employment, and so they are hoping that tourism will bring some much welcomed revenue and jobs, and help keep young people here.

They are fortunate enough to have two harpy eagle nests within walking distance of the village, and another a boat ride away.

The largest eagle in the Americas, the harpy is an increasingly threatened species, and to see one is a real coup. Unfortunately we were not to be lucky on this occasion.

However, in Warapoka, it was the exposure to the everyday life of the Warrau people that was to prove interesting.

There has been a settlement here for over 1,000 years, and shell middens around the village are an indication that shellfish were once found here. 

Today, cassava is the staple, and taking an early morning walk around the village we spotted a woman making cassava bread over an open fire. 

Pauline shyly smiled at us when we asked if we could watch, and she explained the laborious process involved in taking cassava root to flour.

Warapoka’s Tashao, or chief (Simon Chubb)

Warapoka’s Tashao, or chief (Simon Chubb)

We bumped into one of the older women of the village who introduced herself as Aunty Irene, and explained that she is in her 70s and has nearly 100 grandchildren.

“You are welcome in our community. I like to meet people, to talk to them – come and see me at my home.” When we asked where she lived, her answer was, “Under the mango tree.”

Later that day, we found the right tree and Aunty Irene’s home. She showed us how to make a hammock in the traditional way with fibres from a local tree, rolling them on her thigh to make cord.

Then she showed us a candle made of beeswax and explained this used to be the main source of lighting in the village.

The conversation turned to myths and legends, and of the spirits, jumbies, that used to coexist in the village when Irene was young.

“We used to hear them at night. But those times are over now. Maybe the jumbies are going further into the bush.” She gave a rueful smile.

Taking the fall 

Guyana looks like a lost world cloaked in fog (Sarah Marshall)

Guyana looks like a lost world cloaked in fog (Sarah Marshall)

While Aunty Irene had seen many changes in her community, Guyana had been a step back in time for me.

Around 80% of the country is rainforest and that, combined with the long boat journeys, rich wildlife and lack of commercialism, gave a feeling of true exploration and adventure.

Other than the small party I was travelling with, in 10 days I’d only met two other visitors. But Guyana is home to one of the world’s great natural wonders, and I was heading there next, for my final stop. Would this be where all the tourists were?

Set within the Guiana Shield, a huge ancient plateau, Kaieteur Falls is one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls.

One legend has the name Kaieteur coming from Old Kai, a chief who sacrificed himself to the Great Spirit Maikonaima by canoeing over the waterfall to save his people.

It is a 55-minute flight from Georgetown, provided the weather is behaving, and so makes a popular day trip. Cloud masked my view of the falls flying in, and the pilot headed straight for the airstrip.

There, a few dozen visitors had either just arrived too, or were hanging around waiting to fly back out. We waited until most people had left and then set off to explore.

A spectacularly colourful cock-of-the-rock (Shutterstock)

A spectacularly colourful cock-of-the-rock (Shutterstock)

Within 100m or so we entered a fantastical Lost World, with wraiths of fog adding to the atmosphere.

Kaieteur National Park has its own micro-environment with several new species to science still being discovered here and nearby. We walked through a mysterious forest, and into an area covered with otherworldly giant bromeliads.

We searched down their leaves for tiny golden rocket frogs living in the axil. We could hear the calls of one of the country’s most iconic birds and followed the sounds to a patch of woodland, where a flutter of orange caught our eye.

Sure enough there was a Guianan cock-of the rock, and then another. Eventually we could see five males spread out around the trees, their dazzling colours and feathery tendrils giving them a decidedly dashing look. This was a known cock-of-the-rock lek, and they were all showing off, competing for a female’s attentions.

Kaieteur Falls, the world's largest single drop waterfall (Sarah Marshall)

Kaieteur Falls, the world's largest single drop waterfall (Sarah Marshall)

Kaieteur Falls is the world's largest single drop waterfall by the volume of water (Simon Chubb)

Leaving them, we took a narrow path through rocks and scrambled up for a glorious full-on view of the Falls. There they were in all their splendour, even more impressive than I had ever imagined.

We stayed in a hut overnight, cooking food that we had brought with us. A heavy fog had fallen outside, adding to the otherwordly atmosphere.

I almost fancied I could hear a jumbie in the distance. I woke to a light drizzle and strolled to the top of the Falls. Mists were swirling below. Patches would gradually clear to reveal deep green vegetation along the sides of the river gorge.

Our guide appeared with coffee and we sipped a civilised brew as we stood by the Falls, dumbfounded that there was not a soul in sight. Indeed, probably not within many miles.

And, as had struck me many times throughout the trip, it felt as if we had the whole of this extraordinary land to ourselves.

The trip

The author was a guest of Cox & Kings which offers a 15-day Guyana: The Caribbean Amazon tour. The trip includes 13 nights' full board accommodation, international flights from London (and a light aircraft flight), all transfers and guided excursions (including boat trips) with an English-speaking guide. 

Book the trip

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