02 Sep Lost World – Part II – The Guyanas and Kingdom of the Jaguar
Crossing the Amazon marked the beginning of Part II of this trip. The 4,000 plus km covered in northeast Brazil were all on route to this remote and often overlooked corner of the continent. The Guyanas is a combined name used to define three separate countries, French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana (English). All three are no bigger than Nova Scotia and each hold a pristine natural ecosystem unlike any other found on the planet, prime Amazonian Rainforest.
All three have a similar pre-colonial history of First Nations inhabitants known as Amerindians (9 separate tribes which still exist to this day) and a similar colonization history as per the rest of South America, if not for the only difference being nationality of the conquistadors. French Guiana was French, Suriname Dutch, and Guyana British.
The areas were each founded on the rubber, sugar, minerals, and timber industries of the time, fueled by cheap labour provided through the slave trade. Once slavery was abolished the economic structures began to change, however each country was run primarily as a colonial state well into the early 20th century before they were to eventually gain independence.
My first jaunt into these unknown lands was to cross the Amazon River. I did so by buying a hammock and a spot on a boat from Belem to Macapa. I am happy to say that the boat successfully made it in just under 29 hours. Nice!
During the trip I met a few of the local Amazonian peoples somehow connected to the giant river system in some way or another. It was amazing to hear their stories of family and friends, and of life in that remote corner of our planet. I also met a guy from Senegal who once had figured out I lived in Tanzania and travelled a portion of Africa proceeded to tell me his life story, which was fascinating and kept me on the seat of my chair for a good couple hours. Luiz Medes is one of the more interesting people I have met on this trip so far.
In the close quarters of the 29 hour excursion I met a wonderful family living in French Guiana, or as they say ‘Guyane’. The father Greg (Belgian), mother Sandrin (French), Ben (brother of Sandrin), and children Yanis & Luna, both born and raised in French Guiana, were the quaint little five some backpacking around northern Brazil during the kids summer break from school and Ben’s vacation from work in France. We hit it off immediately talking of life and travels, people and places, purpose and passion. Within the course of the afternoon they had invited me to travel with them to their home and spend a couple days in the heart of the jungle. Ben was leaving back to France and they had an extra spot for me to sling my hammock.
“Right on”, I thought, sounds sweet as, plus costs in FG are so high (Euro currency) that it might be nice to save a couple coins. The traveller should always highly consider (and or immediately accept) invitations to have a home stay with locals when on the road. It is an incredible experience and one I am lucky to have encountered in many different places around the globe.
Their house is an open concept (no walls or windows) at the base of a lagoon (with seven Caimans) in the middle of a secondary Amazonian rainforest ecosystem. They have solar power electricity, a small garden for veg, access to potable fresh water, a compost long drop, six cats, three dogs, eight baby turtles, four rabbits, and the memory of ducks and chickens which unfortunately fell victim to one of the seven Caimans. It is one of the more interesting concept homes I have ever seen and can honestly say an awesome place to tie up my hammock for a couple nights.
My time in FG was short and limited to a couple days hiking and chilling with the family, a day cruising around the ‘Salvation’ Islands, and a day travel to the border with Suriname. By far the highlight was staying with Greg, Sandrin, Yanis, and Luna. Their zest for life and experience is admirable and I am stoked to know that I have an open invitation to visit again at any time, whenever. Sometimes I think that the best parts of travel are the people you meet and the stories you share, no matter where you are these seem to take precedence when looking back at the journey as a whole. They are an invaluable source of information and were a great help when you don’t even realize you need it.
The hiking was done on the Sentier de Molokoi, an 18km two day trek through prime Amazonian Rainforest connecting one of the main roads (only two in the whole country) to the village of Cacao. I did the trek solo and enjoyed it immensely, arriving in Cacao on a Sunday morning with perfect timing to taste the treats of the famed Laotian Asian market.
French Guiana has a surprisingly large South East Asian population with the majority descending from a Laotian immigration led by a Christian nun in the mid 20th century. They are by far the most efficient farming culture within the country and have grown to represent a significant portion of the economic wealth.
From the trek I headed to a set of three islands known in English as the Salvation Islands. They are far from Salvation for any history buffs out there. The islands were used as a penal colony incarceration facility by the French government for close to 100 years. There were an estimated 80,000 deaths between the three islands combined from the years of 1850 and 1946. Most do to execution, poor living conditions, and disease. Scary shit. The islands are called Royale (not with cheese), St. Joseph, and Devils.
This is where the infamous Papillon was said to have been incarcerated in solitary confinement (two or three times for attempted escapes) eventually then escaping for good by floating on a sack of coconuts the perilous 15km to the main land. The islands are historically inescapable, being battered by strong currents and surrounded by deadly sharks. It didn’t look so bad the day I was there, but then who is to know some 60 years later. For anyone interested, Papillon is a fantastic story shrouded in mystery and differing opinions of the actual factual events. Needs to be said, the prison museum states that his claims are completely false, see below photo.
The craziest thing about these islands is that just on the other side of the solitary confinement cell ruins is an actual tropical island paradise. It’s like the prisoners were in the ultimate contrast situation, Heaven vs Hell.
On my last day I decided to attempt a hitchhike of 200km to the border with Suriname. The public transport in FG is bad to say the least, and if it does exist it is incredibly pricey, like 30 Euros for a 60km trip. Ridiculous. So enter the cardboard sign and the smiling backpacker trying to look as harmless as possible.
Just as my luck would have it, I got picked up in less than ten minutes by a French mother and daughter. Sophie and Emilie had been living in FG for nearly 15 years and it was home for them both. They spoke great English and I proceeded to slowly pick their brains on great stories about the changes FG has seen since the turn of this century. They are fantastic people and I really enjoyed the ride. If you’re reading this, thank you so much for the kindness and knowledge shared. Once again, I have been subject to the awesomeness that is international hitchhiking and came away with another great story.
Overall French Guiana was a pretty surreal experience. It is very much like a tropical version of France. It seems like the government is trying to replicate exactly this. Almost all of the produce and material goods are imported from Europe, when it would be easily possible (and way cheaper) to import from other SA countries, the currency is the Euro, the street signs are all identical to Europe, the formal colony locals all hold French citizenship and a close connection to the apparent ‘homeland’. It really was a bit of a shock after spending so much time in “Latin” America, I felt at some points like I was on another continent, especially speaking Spanish and Portuguese to looks of complete and utter confusion. FG’s gem is that of both Suriname and Guyana, the forest. I truly hope that they are able to manage the resource wisely and turn towards tourism and sustainability before the chainsaw.
On Guard!! Suriname!! Enter the Netherlands. Everyone speaks Dutch, Creole, and English. Amazing! Talk about feeling like you’re on another continent, stepping into Suriname was like stepping into the Caribbean fueled with Europe, Asia, and South America.
The Surinamese pride themselves on their diversity and shared “Caribbean” culture. I arrived in Paramaribo (where 80% of the country’s half million live) on the first day of Carifesta, a week long music festival highlighting the best acts from around northern South America and Caribbean nations. There were over 10 countries represented and it was truly an incredible introduction to this change in mentality from Brazil and even French Guiana, everyone in Suriname was very rasta and chill with a rockin’ accented Jamaican style English.
The food is fantastic and really shows a lot more of the international influences with Roti shops, French style bakeries, Dutch brown bars and cafes, East African style street food (which is basically fried chicken), and spicy peppers and sauces for pretty well everything. Yum!
I spent three days exploring the streets of Paramaribo and taking a ton of photos. It has some really great Dutch Colonial buildings in the perfect state of decay. Mostly everything in the historical district is made of wood and in the tropical climate, has seemingly stood up well against the odds.
My time in Suriname was also somewhat limited (as is the theme of my Guyanas experience). For excursions I took an afternoon boat trip on a nearby river to view fresh water dolphins fishing and also headed 200km out of Paramaribo for a couple days hiking around the wilderness reserve of Brownsberg. The dolphins were awesome and I got some great shots, plus fully took advantage of a rum infused sunset cruise back to Parbo that afternoon. Brownsberg was a little more adventurous.
The reserve sits on a small hill top looking out over the Brokopondo Reservoir, a man made lake covering 1,500 sq km and 1% of the country’s total surface area. It is a rainforest graveyard and still has trees sticking out from where it wasn’t deep enough to cover their once lofty canopies. Through creation of the reservoir thousands of animals were forcefully re located and hundreds of Amerindian first nations lost their homes. It must have been a tough decision for the government to make. The dam was officially finished in 1964. With this relocation, nearby Brownsberg wilderness reserve was flooded with wildlife and still plays host to a number of those relocated to this day. It is a prime location for monkeys, jaguars, snakes, insects of all types, spiders, birds, etc. etc. you get the idea, jungle wildlife. Sadly of which I did not see much of, but still a great couple days hiking.
Overall Suriname was a really great intro to the Caribbean connection that the Guyanas hold, especially with Carifesta happening while I was there. It’s not as closely tied to Europe as FG, but still proud of its past and current multicultural culture. The people are friendly and the smiles inviting. There is a wealth of tourism opportunities un-visited by the masses and the country offers the intrepid traveller a ton of great adventurous possibility. Overall cool visit…and as is for most places, one tends to think, if only there was more time and more money. Not this time, Goodbye Suriname!! Enter Guyana!!
Wow, and I thought Suriname was a Caribbean shock. Guyana’s accented English is on a whole other level. Itabe da strog’st Rasta styl speakin’ ya evaherd mon. True’say.
I rocked into Guyana with one thing in mind, Iwokrama. This is a wilderness reserve in the central forest and is arguably the best place in the world to view jaguars and jungle wildlife in their natural habitat. The area is Makushi First Nations territory and the local people have gone to long lengths to protect the surrounding forests and their traditional ways of life. This of course means continuing to fight exploiting attempts by government and big business, and as many local communities have done all over the world, the Makushis have turned to sustainable ‘eco’ tourism as a means of economic support. They have set up three lodges and base camp throughout different parts of the reserve, ech offering their own unique trail systems and wildlife viewing highlights.
I planned to spend three nights and four days exploring the area and of course hoping for that one in a million shot of the elusive Jaguar. Turns out I did not get it, but f*** did I ever come close!
Before travelling out to Iwokrama, there was one other thing I wanted to do in Guyana. It was a bit of a budget splurge, but why not, I may never be here again. Enter Kaieteur Falls, a 200km Cessna six seater flight from Georgetown over the heart of the Guyanese Amazon and landing at the brink of the world’s largest single drop falls. The best part about Kaieteur is that it is so remote there is no one there. I am finally starting to get that Lost World feel. What. A. Spot.
Once back in Georgetown I had to arrange accomm and transport to Iwokrama. There is a local tour operator (Wilderness Explorers) who G Adventures (company I used to guide for) contracts to run our Guyana Wildlife Adventure. I was asked by G staff in Quito to go and offer them some G Branded documents and give a quick briefing on G culture. Easy! Luckily for me, after my short presentation, Wilderness Explorers hooked it up. I explained most of what I knew about Iwok and they were happy to help me arrange the transport, accomm, and best of all, the tours. I ended up leaving GT that evening at 7pm and rattled along a terrible road, in a 12 seater van, for the next 14 hours. Fun.
Eventually arriving at my destination, I hoped out and thanked the driver turning to see a sign that read, Canopy Walk and Atta Jungle Lodge 1.5km. Nice, I had made it. Grabbing my stuff and starting up the path I took my first step into wonderland.
Guyana is a nature lovers paradise. The quantity of bird life, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, flora and fauna, and biodiversity is stunning. There is always something somewhere in the jungle, watching you. The remoteness and inaccessibility has left much of the country untouched and undisturbed for however long, possibly since the dawn of the environment itself, changing as the stages of evolution change. It is a step back in time, a lovely reminder that there are places on earth which hold an enchanting force of majestic power over the soul, a feeling that is difficult to describe. Iwokrama has this.
Throughout my time in the wilderness reserve I stayed at two different lodges and went on several walks and viewing trips. My primary reason for the visit was to see a Jaguar in the wild. On the morning of my third day I transferred to the second lodge at 8am with guide and driver. We were meandering down the 40km of dirt road when the driver Trevor stopped suddenly, “look, there is something walking ahead!” he said with a hushed excitement, “I think it’s a cat.” I strained my eyes to see and got nothing. Jr, our guide quickly grabs his binoculars and focuses on the spot, “shit, it’s a Jaguar, right there on the right hand side, pointing to the furthest end of my strained vision and beyond. I try to focus on the spot he is pointing to as he hands me the binoculars in the back seat my heart pounding and hands shaking in anticipation I look through the binos to a blur, its focused to Jr’s eyes, I quickly raise my finger to adjust, “it has turned, it has entered the bush” says Trevor more to the car then to either Jr nor myself, I get my focal point and strain my mind through the view of the binos wishing and hoping for the Jaguars head to poke out of the spot the two Guyanese had pointed out. Silence like the grave. I sat waiting, waiting, nothing. “Should we move closer?” says Trevor to Jr after what felt like a lifetime. “yeah, slowly”. We crept towards the location the Jaguar was spotted and were greeted by jungle roadside like any other we had passed on our journey from lodge to lodge. “Shit” I thought, “Shit. Shit. Shit.” Unlucky mate.
Now that I look back writing this I was actually very lucky during my time in the forest. I had great guides and saw a ton of different animals that most visitors who spend weeks do not see. Stand out mentions are a Three Toed Sloth and Jaguarundi (a medium sized cat) both of which are super rare (more than the Jaguar), incredibly hard to spot and just as difficult to photograph. Here’s my luck, I got a shot of both!
I also saw Red Howler Monkeys, Wedge Capped Capuchin Monkeys, a Harpy Eagle Chick in a nest the size of a backyard blowup pool, a super poisonous Rocket Golden Frog (one lick of the frogs skin produces a bodily toxin 160 times the strength of cocaine), a ton of spiders and insects, Currassos (big black bird), Bullet Ants, Tucans, and countless birds of which I cannot remember the names.
From Iwokrama Wilderness Reserve I hitchhiked 4 hours along a dirt road to the border town of Letham and bridge crossing to Brazil. My time in the Guyans had come to an end. After three incredible weeks traversing three incredible countries, I have said goodbye and turned my sights on Venezuela with the true Lost World and Roraima.
The Guyanas have been an absolute charm and I am taking away a wealth of experience and memories which will last a lifetime. There is so much here for the intrepid traveller to explore, especially by boat. The river systems traversing these forests are intricate and immense. You could spend years in complete isolation from the outside world in either one of these tiny countries, and for some people that is draw enough on its own. Not to mention the pristine ecosystems, great wildlife, overwhelming flora and fauna, friendly local populations, delicious food, year round tropical climate, multicultural traditions, fascinating jungle medicine and First Nations history.
Where the West Indies meets Caribbean, Europe with a Latin America flare, and the ever present Amazon Jungle, this is a trip I could never have expected and never have asked for anything better.