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 part of 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 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 manifested in the world of football. They do not take part in the Copa America 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. 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. 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 coast brings you back to Brazil.
– visited December 2013 –
If I had to pick my favourite Guiana it would actually be Suriname. I just didn’t really connect with French Guiana and compared to Guyana it seems just a bit nicer and there are more cheap options for an independent traveller. Looking back, I greatly regret not having made use of the village lodges along the Suriname river. In this tourism project you can use the local boats running along the river Suriname and stay in lodges in the small villages. This is a lot cheaper than the expensive lodges that I encountered in Guyana and seems to be a perfect and slow way to get to know village life in Suriname. I did not do it as I was already short on time and you would need a week or so to really get to more remote areas.
Suriname’s capital Paramaribo is a nice city with rows of beautiful wooden colonial architecture and friendly people. Its historic inner city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As in Guyana, there is a fair number of people of Indian heritage and in Paramaribo they even got a monument. It is a place with many religions and in a quick succession I passed a church, a mosque and a synagogue. Later I will visit a Hindu temple. Dutch is the official language but plenty of people speak some English.
Heading across the river (by boat) to the Commewijne area you quickly leave the city behind. Dutch-style I have rented a sturdy bike to explore on my own. A few buildings remain at the Pepperpot plantation and the nearby nature reserve has a few amazing animals in store for me: an inquisitive Tufted Capuchin Monkey, a wonderful butterfly and a Green-backed Trogon who suddenly flies in front of my lens. At Marienburg you can visit the ruins of the sugar factory.
Over the weekend, I have booked a tour to Raleigh Falls and the Voltzberg (a granite rock), we are supposed to drive deep into the rainforest and have the chance to see a large variety of monkeys and birds. In the morning, I prepare my backpack for the trip and leave it in the store room of the hostel. When I come back to head to the meeting point my backpack is gone. My laptop is in there, some money, plenty of clothes, my sleeping bag, nearly everything… “The girls must have taken it”, exclaims the receptionist. He is right, some Belgian girls left two hour ago with a taxi to the west of Suriname and they apparently put everything from the store room into the car. Luckily, the receptionist has their number and quickly confirms that they have my bag. I get it back when the taxi returns in the evening but of course my tour is gone.
The travel agent offers me another trip instead. Bigi Pan is a nature reserve that consists of Suriname’s biggest lagoon. It is supposed to be rich in aquatic birds. Not as nice as the falls but better than nothing. The trip is supposed to be with 16 Dutch students and the fact that the drinks are included should have raised my suspicion. Paramaribo is full of Dutch students doing internships, a surprisingly high percentage of them girls. The phenomenon of white Dutch girls roaming the city in small groups is eye-catching. I suppose that they all want to gain experiences in a foreign country but prefer doing that in a Dutch-speaking surrounding. The 16 students turn out to be 15 girls and one guy. Bigi Pan is beautiful and the students all nice but from an animal perspective it is rather disappointing (and this is what I came for). Animals are also not the main focus of the trip but having a good time together. In the evening our guide catches a hapless Caiman that has to endure being passed around countless hands (and being kissed) before being released into the water again. Just hold the caiman tight at the head, otherwise it might bite you. We stay the night in a house on the water. Being German, I was surprised how much Dutch I can understand if I am being immersed in it. Our guide spoke good English but first gave all the stories in Dutch, after some time we came to the arrangement that I only was to ask him the things I had not understood afterwards.
My next destination is the Brownsberg Nature Reserve. A minivan inland and then a few hours of walking into the forest. You can get some food and sleep in your hammock (I had bought one in Guyana) for about 20€. I am the only visitor. Seeing Animals in the rainforest is hard. They have plenty of opportunities to hide themselves, sometimes you hear them but you don’t see them. Nevertheless, I manage to take a picture of an Agouti, fail to take a picture of the giant butterflies (wingspan about 25cm) but catch a frog and in the evening, I stumble upon a big boa. On the way back to Paramaribo we have a gold miner from Brazil in our van. He tells everybody that he has no papers and the people seem very sympathetic. The driver takes a short detour to avoid a police checkpoint.
The next day, I head to the border and leave by boat to French Guyana.