A trio of tiny nations linked by a cosmopolitan past and the north-eastern fringes of the Amazon — travelling Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana reveals a side to South America few ever see...
During two weeks travelling South America’s least-heralded overland adventure, I ate Caribbean ‘bakes’ and saltfish for breakfast, found African ‘voodoo’ alive and kicking and, in a city named after a hot pepper, enjoyed the cosmopolitan sight of an Indian man and a Chinese man playing the extremely French game of boules.
One thing I didn’t do, however, was utter a single word of Spanish, or even Portuguese for that matter. Blame the European colonialists for the linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies of the so-called 3Gs – not the mobile-phone signal but Guyana, Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana. This trio are some of South America’s smallest nations, carved from the bone-shatteringly hard two-billion-year-old Guiana Shield craton in the far north-eastern Amazon.
From Georgetown to Cayenne via Paramaribo, I oscillated between the rainforest and the coastline, where the British once arrived to grab Guyana; the Dutch took Suriname; and where France, stubborn as ever, refuses to budge from charming French Guiana. As I crossed border after border, I became ever more curious to see just how the Guianas’ disparate histories had shaped its lively, cosmopolitan present. Not least in the capital of my first stop: Guyana.
“Before your queen visited in 1994, Queen Victoria’s statue had already been blown up once, in the build-up to independence from Britain in 1970,” said my Georgetown guide, Salvador de Caires, his lilting Caribbean accent and rich anecdotes sketching the past as we stood outside the law courts.
“They hastily put her back together again but couldn’t find her nose.”
Guyana may be geologically clamped to South America but its soul belongs to the West Indies.
Despite a doughty British underlay of Anglican churches and 19th-century colonial-style homes with boxed demerara windows, there’s reggae in the air, aromas of fried fish ‘cutters’ along the promenade, and the spirit of El Dorado rum.
Yet, for all Georgetown’s languid allure, I felt the Amazon’s irresistible pull. Covering 75% of its territory, Guyana’s rainforests counts fanciful cock-of-the-rock birds and jaguars among 900 avian species and 225 mammals. A bouncy flight by 12-seater Cessna to Kaieteur Falls offered my first taste of the country’s undiluted primevalness, above a broccoli-topped Amazon canopy nuanced by hues of khaki, pea-green and lime.
After an hour in the air, I relived the same memory of awe that I recalled on first seeing Victoria Falls.
Thundering down the River Potaro’s pinched chasm was Kaieteur Falls, cascading in seeming slow motion behind an aurora of shifting rainbows, its rope-like strands of water knitting together to fall 251m into a swirling vapour. The roar was even audible above the twin engines.
Kaieteur careens off a billion-year-old flat-topped tepuis, where its cloud forests are pure Conan-Doyle’s Lost World, albeit sans dinosaurs. Though who knows what might be lurking? Scientists only recently discovered a new species of blue tarantula here.
Most visitors opt for a two-hour fly-in excursion, but consider spending the night. Granted, the current accommodation is terrible – I counted bats ebbing and flowing through a hole in my roof – but it bought more time to explore Kaieteur’s sparkling wildlife.
Bright orange cock-of-the-rocks huddled in the mossy forest, and I saw endemic thumbnail-sized golden frogs, which spend their entire lives inside a giant bromeliad.
At one point I stepped perilously close to Kaieteur’s unnerving vortex; over 130,000 litres per second of water crashed past my face as I watched clouds of swifts returning to their overnight cliff roosts and winced at their audacity.
Imbued with the boldness of those birds, I ventured deeper the next day into the Guyanese wilderness, to an Amerindian eco-lodge between the Rupununi and Burro-Burro rivers, near Brazil. On the Cessna flight, nervous tourists spontaneously broke into applause when we bump-landed on Surama’s ochre-dirt airstrip.
Gary Sway, an Amerindian of the Makushi tribe, greeted me. Dressed in western clothes, he quipped how his people didn’t dart animals with blowpipes these days. “The guests wouldn’t like it and, anyway, we Makushi prefer bows and arrows.”
Open since 1998, Surama’s award-winning eco-lodge has five simple cabanas alongside a circular benab, a traditional Amerindian meeting house.
Guests stay within a 300-strong community, which also provided the produce for a lunch featuring starfruit juice, curried squash and cassava. Upstairs in the benab, a pink-toed tarantula dozed on its bar. “What’s your poison?” I imagined it asking.
“Paying guests brought us better education and salaries, plus spin-offs for craftsmen and food producers,” explained Gary.
“Missionaries came here 70 years ago and changed our customs. This project has helped us reconnect with our environment. We now have a collective voice to say no to logging and mining, which steals our forest and poisons the water we drink.”
This benefits not only the native people but the wildlife itself. “Want to see a harpy eagle?" Gary asked me after lunch. Who wouldn’t?
These colossal raptors are almost larger than the aircraft I’d arrived in. So, off we set down the Burro-Burro in a motorised canoe, limboing under fallen trees as I listened to Gary’s father, who was at the helm, instructing his grandson on the ways of nature, passed down through Amerindian oral tradition as it had always been.
Talkative macaws and angular herons were commonplace yet the harpies initially kept their two and a half metre wingspan hidden. Then a piercing banshee-like yelp enabled Gary to pinpoint a hungry chick, a year old and already the size of an emperor penguin, through his binoculars.
“Their talons can break the backs of monkeys and sloths,” he said. “But we’re a little too large for them.”
It was still early when I boarded a minibus back in Georgetown for Moleson Creek border post.
We bustled through backwater villages with droll names like Glazier’s Lust and Lovely Lass, before crossing the River Courantyne into Suriname, where we were greeted in Dutch.
Thereafter, we hurtled across the sort of flatlands to make a Dutchman sigh with joy during a 256km collective-taxi to Paramaribo.
Then it all changed. Had I somehow taken a wrong turn, I wondered, as we ventured into Suriname’s Amazon, and ended up in Africa?
Upriver from the coast lay the villages of the Maroons, descendants of slaves who escaped from the Dutch plantations during the 17th and 18th centuries, before slavery was abolished in Suriname in 1863.
Their Saramaka language is identifiably West African, as is their spirit worship, and while the men master the turbulent Suriname River in dugouts, women bear heavy loads on their heads, with infants tucked in their vibrant sarongs.
From Atjoni, it’s three hours by canoe to Danpaati River Lodge, up the Suriname River, a viscous flow with cinnamon-tinted sediment flushing from the Amazon.
The boatman, ‘Sweet Coco’, a self-declared hit with the ladies, skilfully navigated frothing shoals and boulders as I zoned out to the drone of the engines amid riverside forest heaving with monkeys.
The Maroon villages eventually became more numerous. Their entrances are protected by raffia bunting, to ward away evil spirits – something I’d seen before in Africa.
The lodge rests on its own mid-river island of 18 stilted chalets and a central bar-restaurant where tamarin monkeys with gargoyle scowls came daily to raid the buffet.
Local guide Clyde Dreischor explained our presence contributed to the economy of 12 local Saramaka villages, funding school facilities, care for the elderly and employment.
“So the more gin and tonics I drink, the more people I help?” quipped a cheerful Dutch guest.
When I could tear myself away from my river-facing balcony’s hammock, watching kingfishers and imagining every floating log to be a caiman, I’d cool down in the natural Jacuzzi of nearby rapids, or walk in forests where iridescent blue morpho butterflies slalomed between leviathan trees.
On the opposite riverbank lay the Maroon village of Dan, its little triangular-roofed huts decorated with ornate doors and frontispieces bearing geometric designs like Swiss chalets.
“Many are empty,” said Clyde. “The parents died and the children are too superstitious to live in them.” Bodies are buried, he said, away from the village to maintain a distance between the realms of the living and the dead. Villagers have sacred forest spots to worship the winti (spirits of nature).
“Like African voodoo?” I ventured, eager to learn more.
“Oh no, that’s bad ju-ju – like the stuff in Haiti. Maroons worship tree and animal spirits to give thanks for good health, food and medicine,” he quietly assured.
The wealth that Dutch Suriname accrued from slave plantations now manifests in Paramaribo’s elegant UNESCO World Heritage listed downtown, called Foto.
It’s anachronistically pretty, with nearly 300 wooden Dutch buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Here, trade and colonialism is etched in the faces of the multi-ethnic Surinamese. “I have Black, Amerindian, Chinese, Jewish and Dutch ancestors – and an English name,” said Anthony Grant while showing me around Paramaribo. “We say we’re all imports.”
Anthony took me to Zeelandia Fort, which the Dutch took from the British in 1667. By night, it’s lovely to sit at the little café-bar inside the fort’s walls and sip Borgoe rum by candlelight.
Nearby is a monument to Baba and Mai, the first Indians who came to work the plantations in 1873, after slavery’s abolition (which took a decade to kick in), superseding the Chinese who, like the Maroons, had fled, fed-up by Dutch imperiousness.
Then a surprise. Amid the Lutheran churches and warehouses, I noticed a synagogue with Corinthian columns, furnished inside with dark polished hardwood and sand floors.
“The sand deadens their footsteps and reminds worshippers of the biblical desert wilderness,” said Anthony, explaining how a Portuguese Jewish community had escaped European persecution in the 1600s and initiated the first plantations here.
The taxi reached Suriname’s eastern edge at Albina, where the vast Marowijne River takes 30 minutes to cross on a hot open air roro (roll on, roll off) ship. Passportless passengers ducked into the bush upon arrival, having reached the EU.
“Bienvenue en France,” declared the gendarme checking my documents. But an altogether less cordial greeting once awaited those arriving at border town Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. France strove to develop this little Amazon backwater in the mid-19th century, and most arrivals faced hard labour and, occasionally, the guillotine.
French Guiana is a department of France even today. Swathed in rainforest, this obscure state’s journey into Western consciousness was as a penal colony, made notorious by Henri Charrière’s autobiographic book, Papillon.
It was published exactly 50 years ago and detailed his prison break from Devil’s Island, but is a tale with more holes in it than Saint Laurent’s crumbling penitentiary buildings (used between 1852 and 1953).
At Saint Laurent, local guide Daphne explained that the convicts built this prison from the jungle. “Mortality was almost 30% due to tropical diseases like malaria,” she said, and even when the prisoners had served their time, they were forced to remain and work.
“Really, it was a life sentence; the fare back to France cost a fortune, so they rarely returned.”
Inside the complex were six two-storey stone dormitories. In bright sunshine, the cell blocks’ warm, pinkish stone is now shaded by mango trees, and scarcely captures the living hell endured by inmates.
In solitary confinement, prisoners spent up to five years in cells little more than the size of wardrobes. I shuddered at the thought of the cells’ dark confines, where convicts were manacled by the ankles to a wooden plank for up to 23 hours each day.
“Can you imagine the smell in the tropical heat: the disease, the toilets, no washing?” said Daphne, pulling a face. These cells were occupied by the hardened ‘transported’ criminals, who’d tried to escape previously and awaited offshore transportation to French Guiana’s offshore Îles du Salut.
Into the wall of cell 47 is carved the word Papillon (Butterfly) – the nickname of Henri Charrière. In his book he claimed to have escaped from Devil’s Island (one of Îles du Salut’s three islets), but Daphne disputes this.
“Devil’s Island was only for political prisoners, and he was a common criminal. He definitely escaped, but probably from a mainland work camp, and made it to Venezuela. Much of the book is fiction,” she said.
I shared a taxi thereafter to French Guiana’s bijou capital, Cayenne. A quiet coastal town, it is quite modern and, like the other 3G capitals, ethnically cosmopolitan.
There’s a nod to France: fluttering tricolours, gendarmes wearing hatbox-round caps and locals playing boules by the seafront. In the market, Vietnamese and Hmong serve pho soup; both are now integrated communities, settled by the French after the Vietnam War.
An hour from Cayenne, at Kourou, I joined a catamaran tour to the Îles du Salut with Nathalie, a local tour operator who cannot find English-speaking guides, so usually takes her clients around herself.
“I don’t think Papillon escaped the islands on a sack stuff ed with coconuts,” said Nathalie, poo-pooing Charrière’s narrative. “There’s too many sharks in the water and the currents are dangerous.”
Yet, after St Laurent’s perceived depravities, my first impression on circling these little islets was of a paradise found: coconut palms topping glistening black lava cliffs and circled by a turquoise apron.
Two of the islands can be visited, and each has picturesque circular walks. Royale Island’s green alleyways wend through forest redolent with scurrying iguanas and macaques.
There’s an old abattoir where guards once let blood run into the sea to attract sharks and deter potential escapees, and the claustrophobic solitary confinement cells had bars for a roof so convicts were subject, for years on end, to all the elements.
“They usually went crazy inside these, with only 30 minutes’ exercise allowed each day,” added Nathalie.
Scarier tales surround neighbouring St Joseph’s Isle – yet another potent manifestation of a tropical idyll – of prisoners thrown to sharks during a rebellion in 1894 and a convict called Roussenq, who spent 3,779 days in solitary confinement in silence.
Yet this was how the French contributed their DNA to the 3Gs’ tumultuous origins, alongside Jewish plantation owners, escaped African maroons and Indian and Chinese labourers, as the Amerindians watched on and retreated deeper into the rainforest’s protective embrace.
During my travels in the north-east Amazon, my stays at eco-lodges that helped to safeguard biodiversity and support local communities felt ever more relevant – especially as Brazil’s rainforest increasingly comes under threat courtesy of its wrecking-ball of a president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Following so many different vivid narratives within the 3Gs, I experienced South America as I’d never seen it before.
The author experienced many of the highlights on KE Adventure Travel’s (01768 615831) new 15-day Discovering the Hidden Guianas group tour, which travels by light aircraft, dugouts and 4WD.
The itinerary heads deep into the jungle and visits Kaieteur Falls, the Maroon communities at Danpaati in Suriname, and Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The trip includes internal flights, transfers, tours, accommodation, some meals and excursions as per the itinerary.
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