The Guianas are a bit the odd ones out in South America. With Guianas I mean, Guyana (until 1966 British Guiana), Suriname (until 1975 Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana (still French). Their colonial history is why they stand apart. They were not colonized by Spain (Portugal) as the rest of South America (Brazil) but by Britain, the Netherlands and France. These countries had more colonies in the Caribbean and therefore the Guianas had more links to this area than to their South American neighbours. They are still sometimes considered to belong to the Caribbean. They also did not gain independence as the other countries (except Brazil) in the early 19th century but only in the second half of the 20th century. Their outsider status is cemented in the world of football. They do not take part in the Copa America as all their neighbours do and they also do not play in the South America qualification for the football world Cup. They rather play the qualification of North and Central America.
There is also a geographical component to their isolation. The Guianas consist mostly of hardly penetrable rainforest so they have been inhabited mostly along the coast and along the rivers (which are not navigable into the other countries). Road networks barely penetrate inland. In Suriname I met an Austrian who just exclaimed “I love rainforest” as I asked what is bringing him to this corner of the world. For this reason, transportation links into the Caribbean were as easy (or easier) than to other South American countries. If you are travelling overland and you visit one of the Guianas you basically have to visit all of them. Each has exactly two border crossings with other countries. Guyana has a very remote one with Brazil (deep in the forest) and one, along the coast, with Suriname. Suriname has the crossing with Guyana and one, also along the coast, with French Guiana. From French Guiana following the sea brings you back to Brazil.
– visited December 2013 –
As there is no road connection between Venezuela and Guyana, I had to go via Boa Vista in Brazil. Crossing the border, you end up in the city of Lethem. According to Wikipedia it has 1,158 inhabitants and with that is by far the biggest settlement in the south of Guyana. It even has an airport with daily flights to Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana. The alternative to the flight is a 16-hour minivan journey on bad roads through the rainforest. But this is what I am here for, to explore Guyana and not to fly over it. With a few stops along the way, the journey will be an integral part of my experience.
Through the Rainforest
I arrive in Lethem around midday but the minivans only leave in late afternoon, they actually go to Georgetown overnight. What is there to do in Lethem? Well, nothing. So, after securing my seat on the minivan, I head to Shirley & Sons Souvenir Shoppe and Bar which has a nice outdoor table with a view on the airfield. I sit with my guidebook and let life and Lethem pass. A Dutch lady arrives. She works for a mining company and claims to have the best maps of Guyana on her computer. She tells me about a few places I might visit, but she also says it is rough out there.
I have been talking about rainforest but Lethem is actually located in the Rupununi Savannah, an area of open grassland in Guyana’s southeast. It is home to several cattle ranches and a number of Amerindian villages. I take the minivan for a few hours until we reach the Oasis Restaurant in Annai. Annai is a settlement of a few hundred souls, home to the Rock View Lodge and the oasis restaurant is an essential stop on the long way from Lethem to the coast. Everybody stops there. You can get food and if you want, you can pitch your tent for a few Guyanese dollars and this is what I do. I had read about the oasis on a blog and the guy reported that he was sitting there all alone. A few people came in and despite there being plenty of space on the long tables they came right to his table and sat down. He was annoyed at first but after some time he realized that they just had a very different understanding of being social. For them he was the first human being they saw after many hours on the road and why not share a story with a fellow human being?
Annai is where the Rupununi Savannah ends and the rainforest begins and therefore allows access to two ecosystems. Unfortunately, tours with Rock View Lodge are pricey. I take the walk to the viewpoint but am disappointed by the near absence of animals. A group from Rock View Lodge, all equipped with big birding lenses, is also around. After a short walk around Annai it is time to move on. The minivans only pass at night so it is time for hitchhiking. The next few hours, I stand on the back of a truck driving along the dirt road through the rainforest. It is interesting but also demanding on the rough road. Guyana’s tourist attractions are few and mostly they are waterfalls (Kaieteur for example) or a lodge somewhere deep in the rainforest. Difficult to reach and expensive to stay. Thankfully, on my way I am passing right by the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway. I leave my truck and walk unannounced into the Atta Rainforest Lodge, fortunately the manager is there and we agree on a small package for my needs. My guide Leon Moore is perfect; he has just received the guide-of-the-year-award for 2013 but the Canopy walkway wholly disappoints. There is basically not a single bird or mammal showing up in the two hours we spend there. That is how nature is, one day you are lucky, one day you are not. Leon shows me a whole lot of interesting insects and reptiles though. He warns about the bullet ants. If one would bite me, I would experience 24 hours of pain and fever.
As the minivans pass here before sunrise, I have to get up early the next morning (should have visited the walkway another time instead). The only passing minivan is full so it is time for hitchhiking again. This time, I get a seat on a truck. The ride takes nearly the full day and is uneventful. We follow a dirt road through the forest for hours on end, we pass a logging settlement, cross a river on a ferry. At a petrol station we have something to eat and buy some drinks.
The window on the driver’s side cannot be opened. As our driver empties his can of coke, he gives it to me to throw it out of the window, I put the empty can in my bag instead. With the next can he just asks me to open the window. Such beautiful nature and so little regard for it. It has not rained much the last days so only a short stretch of the road is a bit tricky. For some time, the driver makes a race with another truck but that only leads to our truck overheating and some stops to help it cool down. In the afternoon we reach Linden and are back on asphalt. Two hours later, we arrive in Georgetown.
Georgetown’s architecture shows the different history of Guyana compared to Latin South America. Colonial architecture in Venezuela means stone buildings, in Georgetown it means sometimes elaborate wooden buildings. I walk through town, visit the steel band legend Roy Geddes in his museum and in the afternoon, I head to the beach. A lady with her young son approaches me and asks if I like it here. “How can you say you like it? It is full of rubbish.” She is correct but I wanted to be polite. Guyana also has a sizeable Indian community due to the importation of indentured labourers in colonial times allowing me to have some tasty Indian food.
Bartica – New Amsterdam
My trip to Guyana is otherwise a missed opportunity. I am not courageous enough to take it. Life in Guyana takes place along the coast, nearly all the population lives there. The road I came on is the only road across the country. Otherwise the rivers act as arteries for the hinterland. This hinterland is probably the closest you can get on this planet to the classic wild west. Deep in the rainforest, there are small settlements, either reached by the occasional plane or by the occasional boat. These settlements have a few shops, some gold dealer, a few bars and a bunch of prostitutes. From there, gold miners head deeper into the forest to look for riches. They come back for supplies, to trade gold and enjoy life. The state is mostly absent. These places are rough, a miner returning from the forest can be totally desperate after weeks in the wild and not finding anything or have plenty of gold in his backpack. I head to Bartica, Guyana’s fifth largest city (11,500 inhabitants) with regular connections to Georgetown but that is the farthest I dare to venture. Bartica is such a trailhead town with plenty of shops selling mining equipment, gold dealers and plenty of seedy bars. To get to the real adventure, I would need to take a boat from there deeper into the forest but I have neither the time nor the courage to do that. Instead, I head to New Amsterdam, a small town in Guyana’s east and take the ferry to Suriname the next day.