Guyana is truly a wild frontier – a land of few roads, pristine forest and ecotourism opportunities aplenty.
The coastal region is dominated by a mixture of coconut palms, calypso music, Hindu temples, rice and Demerara sugar. Leaving the sea behind, it is a land of waterfalls and rainforest, giving way to wildlife-rich savannas and isolated ranches.
The capital, Georgetown, is known as the Garden City of the Caribbean, despite being theoretically on the Atlantic. Its wide, tree-lined avenue and canals follow the layout of the old sugar estates. White-painted wooden 19th-century houses are raised on stilts, and flowering trees fill the streets. In the evening the sea wall is crowded with strollers and at Easter it is a mass of colourful kites.
The thinly populated interior is almost untouched and rivers are often the only way to get around. Highlights include Kaieteur Falls – almost five times the height of Niagara, with a single sheer drop of 228m – and Orinduik Falls, where the river pours over steps and terraces of jasper. Further south, the big draws for wildlife watchers are Iwokrama Forest Reserve, where you just might spot an elusive jaguar, and Karanambu, where giant river otters gambol.
To the north, Shell Beach is on a vast stretch of Atlantic coastline: 145km of protected nesting ground for leatherback, green, hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles. The remaining coast consists of mangrove swamps full of ibis, parrot, toucans, iguanas and, occasionally, river dolphins.
May, June and July form the main wet season; best avoided, though a good time to see jaguar as they wander onto roads to dry their paws. February to April and August to November are the best times to visit as water levels are low so you can see otter and caiman on the banks. The secondary rainy season runs from late December to late January.
Cheddi Jagan (GEO) is 40km from Georgetown.
Independent travel is possible but difficult: much accommodation in the interior can only be booked by radio, and transport to remote areas and up rivers has to be pre-arranged. Along the coast, minibuses are cheap but have a poor safety record.
In Georgetown, accommodation ranges from scruffy flophouses to 4-star hotels with plenty of midrange and budget options. Out of town, you won’t find anything fancy but wherever you go you should find a comfy room to lay your head and there are many rustic tourist lodges. Government guesthouses are often good value. There are no official campsites in Guyana but budget conscious travellers will find plenty of places to hang a hammock away from the creepy-crawlies.
Cuisine in Guyana is a mixture of West Indian, Portuguese and Indian. There are also reminders of the days of British rule with sausage rolls, cake, and fish and chips. Popular dishes include chicken curry, roti (flat bread), chicken-en-de-ruff, cookup rice (rice cooked with coconut milk and whatever else is going) and black pudding. Fried fish (particularly Bangor Mary) is also popular. In the Amerindian areas, there may be bushmeat (wild pig or tapir), cassava and pepperpot (a spicy meat or fish stew). Vegetarianism is well catered for, particularly in areas with a strong Indian presence. Lentils and chickpeas often form the basis of a tasty, well-spiced dish. Soft drinks, known as sweet drinks, include all the usual suspects. The main alcoholic drink is dark rum, often drunk with lime. The local beer, Banks, is also popular but is quite malty to the European palate. Wine is expensive.
Crime is a problem, particularly in Georgetown, although many think the situation is improving. Fear of crime should not overshadow a visit to this city; take the usual common sense precautions: avoid displays of jewellery and cameras; take taxis to get around at night; steer clear of troublesome areas, eg Albertown. Hygiene is variable and stomach upsets are not uncommon. Never drink tap water. Swimming in rivers is a fabulous experience, but local advice should be sought.
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