Once upon a time, there were five Guyanas. Each belonged to a different colonial power: Spain, Britain, Holland, France, and Portugal. The Spanish and Portuguese territories were ultimately absorbed by Venezuela and Brazil respectively; but today there are still three, though only two are known by that name and each spell it differently. One of them, the French territory, has kept its national designation because it’s the only one still under colonial control.
Still following? You could be forgiven if not – the Guyanas, those countries which sit atop Brazil like a head on too large a body, are not easy to identify, or even to visit. But the extra work is worth it, not least because many other tourists are unwilling to make such an effort, meaning you can very quickly get far away from the swarming complications of mass tourism.
I started a recent trip there in French Guiana, flying in direct from Paris with Air France to the capital Cayenne. By way of illustrating how confusing a place it is to visit, no one is quite sure whether the city was named after the ubiquitous pepper or if it happened the other way around. Far stranger than that, however, is the simple fact that unlike the other Guyanas, this one has never been free. Founded by the French in the early part of the 17th century, it changed hands a few times before falling fully and apparently irreversibly under French control in 1643. When in the post-war period British Guyana became simply Guyana, and Suriname voted for independence from the Netherlands, France kept control of their old colony.
Walking around Cayenne, this initially struck me as a strange decision. Not only do the colonial overtures seem outdated, but France doesn’t seem to be investing much into its old capital. And yet, French Guiana is undeniably French, using the language and the euro – technically, it’s even part of the EU. This was especially obvious leaving Cayenne and driving to Kourou along some of the smoothest roads anywhere in South America.
The reason for their excellent maintenance – and for France not loosening its grip on the country – becomes obvious a few kilometres out from town: this is home to the Guiana Space Centre, Europe’s premiere spaceport.
No manned craft launch here, but on roughly a monthly basis, rockets are fired into outer space carrying expensive satellites. The gravity this close to the equator makes launching more efficient, plus the nation’s tiny population (under 300,000; less than half of Al Ain) means that if catastrophe occurs, it won’t be over a heavily populated area.
Unfortunately my visit didn’t coincide with the surreal sight of a rocket launching over the Amazon, but by the time I got out to the Iles du Salut (Salvation’s Islands), people were still talking about the last one. “We can’t watch them from the islands, they have to be evacuated,” says hotel and operations manager Pascal Ufferte, manager of the Auberge Des Iles. “The space centre actually owns the islands, so the day before each launch, we are taken to the mainland, but then we always watch – it’s so cool to see.”
The same is true of the islands themselves. They were once infamous around the world as the home of the most inhumane parts of the French penal system. The islands – St Joseph, Royale, and Devil’s – held some of the most notorious prisoners in utterly barbaric conditions. Today it’s possible to visit some of the old cells and to stay at the Auberge, which was once part of the officers’ quarters.
That may sound macabre, but the islands are French Guiana’s most popular tourist destination, each of them beautiful and palm-filled, surrounded by cyan waters filled with sea turtles. Next year, their popularity will likely get a further boost with the 50-year anniversary of the release of Henri Charriere’s semi-autobiographical story Papillon, which was partly set on these islands. If that sounds a little too much like “dark tourism” for your liking, then you don’t need to stick around in Saint Laurent du Maroni, on the border with Suriname. It too was home to a large prison, but now sees even more traffic thanks to the enormous Maroni river that represents a pretty border between French Guiana and the former Dutch territory.
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I paid a local fisherman a handful of euros to take me across, made sure to get stamped into the former Dutch colony, then took a cab north to its beautifully preserved capital, Paramaribo. From the moment I stepped out of the car, it was clear that this was a very different country to the one I’d left behind. They had much in common – the humidity, the deep greens surrounding the cities, the colonial history – but Suriname seemed instantly more relaxed than its Gallic neighbour. Having peacefully voted to leave the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1975, Suriname has been going its own way, but has kept Dutch as its official language, one of 26 spoken around the country.
Like the other Guyanas, the mighty Amazon jungle pushes most of the development to the coast. In Paramaribo, this means whole streets of colonial-era buildings and well-groomed lawns hugging the banks of the Suriname river. It may be a little shabbier than French Guiana, but at one time, the Dutch held this territory and its sugar cane plantations in such high regard, that they effectively traded New York for it with the British.
However, that didn’t mean the complete retreat of their old rival from the region. An hour’s flight north from Paramaribo, Georgetown is the capital of the old British territory, which is today simply called Guyana. Sadly, a combination of political mismanagement and bad luck mean that of the three largest cities across the Guyanas, Georgetown is most difficult to love.
Yet this – and the fate of the entire country – could be set to change with the discovery of massive oil reserves off the coast. This would mark a remarkable turnaround for a country that this year will mark the grim 40-year anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, in which an American cult’s murder-suicide claimed the lives of more than 900 people.
“Imagine that’s the only thing people know about your country,” said my guide Kenneth Shivdyal, “and that’s if they know anything at all. Most people hear ‘Ghana’ and think we’re in Africa.”
We were speaking on a trail deep in the country’s interior, marching through the jungle towards one of South America’s most magnificent natural attractions. Amid very stiff competition, the Kaieteur Falls are a singular beauty in this part of the world, but unlike many of the other great falls in the Americas, this one is largely left in peace.
That night Shivdyal and I had no one else around, the rest of the day-trippers having taken their hour-long flight back to Georgetown after a brief visit. This meant that when the sun ducked beyond the canopy, sending the sky a tremendous peach colour, it was just the two of us and thousands of swifts by Kaieteur.
Every night, a great cloud of the agile birds forms above the falls, growing larger and larger until it seems to reach a critical mass. At that point, the swifts seem to fall from the sky like black rain, throwing themselves in what looks like a suicidal dive, before whipping behind the falls where they roost.
We stood watching for an hour, and every now and then I’d check over my shoulder in disbelief – there really was no one else there.