News: Travel in the Guianas

Posted: 11 July 2018

The airport at Paramaribo is small and rather basic but functions efficiently; on arrival I quickly obtained my tourist card (USD35) and cleared Immigration, although the fact that the flight was not full did speed things up.

The road from the airport into the city runs past Maroon villages of low rise wooden houses built on white sand, which is always a prerequisite for any Maroon settlement. It was a Sunday, and Mother’s Day in Suriname, so there was very little traffic and the journey took around forty five minutes.

The Eco Lodge in Paramaribo was a pleasant surprise; the rooms are homely with very efficient AC, and as it is beside the Suriname River the air is alive with bird, frog and forest sounds. It is very central with a restaurant and nice terrace, but in addition there are a number of options for dining close by. It has a small pool and guests are also allowed to use the pool and facilities at the sister Torarica Hotel nearby.

Waking at 4am the next morning, Monday (my first full day, ) I knew sleep had deserted me- stepping out of my room was like walking into a soft wall of heat, and I made my way through a chorus of birdsong and insect noise to watch the sun rise over the river. There were flocks of white egrets and parrots filling the glorious sky, and a very small ginger kitten using my feet as a trampoline.

The breakfast buffet had a good selection but the fresh mango, papaya and pineapple were a dream, tasting as only locally grown fruit can. May is the beginning of the rainy season but it was a lovely morning with blue skies and sunshine and the air was wonderfully fresh. I met my guide at the hotel and we set off for my introduction to Paramaribo by walking tour. We began at Fort Zeelandia, built by the British during their time as occupiers, continued by Independence Square and the Presidential Palace, and followed the waterfront alongside the Suriname River, which is large, brown, swift flowing and rather impressive. The eye is drawn to the hull of a wrecked German ship from WW2 rising from the water.

The buildings are splendid – Paramaribo is the largest wooden city in the world, and many have UNESCO status. Some are magnificent and others dilapidated with most somewhere in between- the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral is simply stunning, inside and out. As we progressed it became apparent how diverse the population of Suriname is, with a real mix of peoples- Maroons, Creoles, Chinese, Brazilians, Boers and Indians- and the atmosphere is very harmonious; our progress was satisfyingly slow as my guide seemed to know everyone. The city is very tolerant with the mosque and the synagogue next to each other, and sharing each other’s car parks. My favourite site was the Maroon market, packed with all manner of plants to address an endless list of ailments and conditions, as well as gorgeous smelling herbs and spices. It was upsetting to see cages containing small songbirds; it is a passion among the local people to enter them into singing competitions, with the sweetest sounding changing hands for up to 15,000 Euros.

The river can be crossed by small boat or via the bridge which spans it, and after lunch we drove across to the Commewinje district, an area of former plantations which is now a producer of vegetables, nuts, and spices. We stopped at Peperpot, a lovely nature reserve, with trails through the rainforest which can also be cycled. Butterflies and iguanas abounded and there were Capuchin Monkeys in the trees above- it is extremely tranquil despite the calls of many birds- both Puma and Ocelot live in the forest but we fortunately encountered neither. We continued to the impressive New Amsterdam Outdoor Museum- it is the site of a former fort but at this remove it is a beautiful place to visit. Set in pleasant grounds it has a small pond with large lilies, and has been carefully designed to maintain the history of the fort with cannons still on show; there are some impressive surviving buildings, not least the former gunpowder shed. There is also an exhibition to highlight the diversity of the groups that make up the population, and celebrate their contributions to the cultural life of the country.

From the fort we drove to the river and taking a small boat, crossed the confluence of the Suriname and Commewijne Rivers, with white egrets gathered in the trees, and vultures and frigate birds gliding above, looking surprisingly graceful.  We walked to the village of the first of two former plantations, Johan and Margaritta, which rather incongruously boasted a gleaming new ATM by the side of the river. We continued to the second plantation, Friedricksdorp, which is gorgeous. These former plantations line the river and have been converted into charming places for people to stay. There are a series of waterways winding through the grounds which support over 200 species of birds- we saw several caiman resting on lilies, and with more time I would have loved to stay overnight. We caught the boat back down the river to collect the car and drove back to the city.

The next day, Tuesday, my guide collected me and we drove out of Paramaribo to the Neotropical Butterfly Farm at Lelydorp, a lovely spot set amidst flowers, plants and jungle. Our visit began in the exhibition room with a collection of exquisitely painted studies of plants and insects dating from the 18th Century by Maria Sibylla Merian, a German botanical artist and entomologist. This adjoins the Insect Museum which holds a comprehensive collection of many species including some beautiful butterflies. The crowning glory is the Panorama which occupies an upper floor; it is a 360 degree hand painted depiction of the differing terrains found within Suriname, with a soundtrack of the sounds of the forests and plains. I continued with a tour of the various stages of development of butterflies including the packaging for export abroad. Before moving on we sat with a coffee watching humming birds dipping into the flowers all around us.

Our next destination was the Botanical Gardens, where we were taken on a tour by the lady responsible for the gardens, and she was a revelation. She brought the gardens to life; every tree, flower and plant had a story and she explained the practical and medicinal uses of all of them.  In the late afternoon I met my colleagues in Paramaribo for an evening of spotting turtles as they came ashore to lay their eggs. Travelling by boat up the river we glimpsed a couple of dolphins and a number of frigate birds. We reached the island and Braamspunt Beach for which we were headed; it was a lonely spot with a Robinson Crusoe feel to it. We walked along the beach through the sunset scattering small birds darting among the waves, waiting for dusk to become night.  In the end we sat alongside two different green turtles, but saw the tracks of several more as they undertook their herculean task of hauling themselves up the beach, digging a hole deep enough for their eggs, filling and disguising it, before then dragging themselves exhausted back down the beach to the sea. It is very moving to witness the efforts they must go to in order to simply lay their eggs.

My third day, Wednesday, saw me heading for the Danpaati region and a night at the Knini Paati River Resort. We travelled by road taking a new intern and a cook returning from holiday with us, for a three hour drive to the river- at one stop a tiny baby sloth was clinging to the arm of a man who tried to sell it to me for $100. We arrived at the landing stage at Atjoni, from where everything north has to be moved by boat. Setting off for the alluring one hour journey to the Upper Suriname River in a motorised canoe we passed boatloads of school children travelling in each direction. The lodge is situated on a tiny island, very rustic and the cabins light and airy with nice decks, each with a hammock. After lunch I joined my local guide and we took a boat the short distance across the river for a walk through the jungle. The land closest to the river has been cultivated into a garden to grow produce for the lodge. We identified a number of plants with very practical uses, saw an ominous looking Bird Eating Spider, and Squirrel Monkeys swinging in the trees overhead. The boat continued to some nearby rapids where it is possible to swim- all rather captivating. After dinner, locally produced and extremely tasty, we planned to take a night boat ride, but unfortunately the rain began and it was too heavy to take to the river. The silence was almost loud, and there were several instances during the night of pattering feet on the roof and outside on the deck.

On Thursday morning, my fourth day, a tray of tea and coffee was delivered to my deck at 6am and I sat, slightly hypnotised by the river gliding by, watching kingfishers dashing about and listening to a very raucous macaw. After breakfast we travelled up the river to visit the largest of the Maroon villages, with a population of 6,000 people. Ladies were washing themselves and their clothes and dishes in the river, accompanied by their children. We walked through the village exchanging greetings with the local people as we passed. It was interesting to note the change of dwellings from the traditional wooden huts to brick houses as the aspirations of the people change. The village school is quite large and the Headmistress gave us permission to step into a couple of classrooms with about 20 6-8 year olds. We went back down river stopping at another village which is half Maroon and half Christian. There was a large church, a community bank and even a landing strip- there was also a decent hospital served by a Dutch doctor, and a bar beside the river. We returned to the lodge for lunch and then reversed the arrival journey with a boat ride to Atjoni where our driver was waiting for us. We were stuck behind several lorries loaded with huge logs bound for China. My destination for the night was the renowned Berg & Dal Nature Resort, another former plantation. It has an enviable position beside the river with views in each direction and it was very relaxing sitting enjoying them. There was a great dinner buffet with a good choice of dishes and the night was a cacophony of jungle sounds.

The sunrise on Friday morning, day five for me, turned the river into a dazzling sheet of gold. I was collected after breakfast and we stopped at the Jewish settlement of Jodensavanna, established by Jewish people fleeing persecution in Spain. We returned to Paramaribo and this time I stayed at the Torarica Hotel- the rooms are attractive and well laid out and there is a large circular pool which is very popular and a focal point for the hotel.

Day six, Saturday, was sunny with blue skies and as I was getting ready I switched the TV on to find live coverage of the wedding of Harry and Meghan. On checking out I met my driver and drove about two hours to the border town of Albina. Customs and Immigration took less than two minutes and we climbed onto a motorised canoe for the fifteen minute journey to St Laurent du Maroni in French Guiana. Immigration was again very swift and I was in France. We drove for around two and a half hours to Kourou and the Hotel Atlantis. It is a pleasant hotel with a nice restaurant and open bar/lounge area on the edge of town.

Sunday, day seven, and the Isles du Salut were my destination for the day. We travelled out by catamaran with geese and frigate birds flying overhead. It is not actually possible to land on Devil’s Island as it is considered unsafe for tourists to do so, but we were able to visit Isle Royal first and then Isle St Josef, The islands look idyllic on approach, with blue seas and surf and lush trees and jungle, and from a distance bear no resemblance to a penal colony. It is hard to contemplate the dread the prisoners must have felt approaching this paradise knowing that many years of hard labour lay ahead. Walking round the island I was followed by the sound of the surf pounding the shore. There are grim remains of the solitary confinement cells, although the church has been nicely restored, and one of the houses is in the process of being renovated; it is the site of an exhibition with a “Hall of Fame” of people imprisoned there and those who brought about its end as a prison colony. There were a number of Aguti in evidence which have the appearance of large guinea pigs, and some large rabbits with yellow striped ears. After two and a half hours we returned to the boat and drifted across to Isle St Josef. There was a very nice beach area there and most people settled under the palm trees and in rock pools by the sea- it seemed blissful, but its history left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. When the crew came to take us back to the catamaran we stopped by a line to which some enormous Meroe fish that had been caught were tied. It was a beautiful boat ride back into Koudou.

Monday, my final day, dawned and we drove around the area of the Guyana Space Centre looking at a burnt out section of rocket and across to the launch pad- for those who wish to it is possible to take a tour inside the centre and up to the actual launch pad. The capital of French Guiana, Cayenne, is about an hour’s drive from Koudou and is a rather pretty city. We walked up to Fort Ceperou with its views of the ocean and Cayenne, continued through the streets past some of the attractive old buildings and squares, and along the seafront, by which time I had to go to the airport for my afternoon flight home.

The Guianas, especially Guyana and Suriname, receive very few tourists compared to the rest of South America, and offer a different travel experience.

Suriname can be visited as part of our 14 day "Guyana and Suriname Revealed" group tour - French Guiana can be visited as an extension at the end of the tour.

Undiscovered Destinations also offer private and tailormade tours.

Linda Maguire travelled in May 2018

 

  

       

 

 

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