Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

Guyana has recently opened up its tourism, here's what to expect

If Guyana has a major tourist attraction, then it is surely the majestic Kaieteur Falls, a 45-minute flight from here, but even that receives only a few thousand visitors each year

The majestic Kaieteur Falls receive just a few thousand visitors through the year. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty
The majestic Kaieteur Falls receive just a few thousand visitors through the year. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty

“Did you see it?” Vivian asks, excitedly.

I look past a lily pad large enough to support a toddler and confess that all I saw were ripples fading on the blood-black surface of the lagoon. We are right off the Rewa River in a motorised canoe, quietly drifting along in the hope of seeing some endangered arapaima. This armoured monster is one of the world’s largest freshwater fish and can grow up to three metres in length. Its scaly, gill-less form means it has to breathe at the surface of the water, “rolling”, as Vivian explains to our small group, then disappearing again.

“In the 1990s, during one count we had under 200, but now with our fishing rules, there are more than 4,000,” whispers the guide while we wait for the next fleeting appearance.

Rewa is in the southwestern corner of Guyana, the former British territory in the north east of South America. Once upon a time, there were five Guianas: the Spanish saw theirs absorbed into Venezuela; a Portuguese territory was similarly made part of Brazil; French Guiana continues to be partly governed from France; and Suriname was once Dutch Guiana. Britain granted independence to this country in 1966, after which it became known simply as Guyana.

Those colonial superpowers came with the intention of developing sugar plantations on the coast, and while much of that industry thrived for a time, remarkably little was done to develop the country’s interior. That was especially true here, with almost all of Guyana’s population focused on the unlovely capital of Georgetown and other Atlantic cities. For communities like Rewa, which is reached from Georgetown by a 90-minute flight and one-hour transfer along the Essequibo River, that means entry into the tourist market has happened very recently. Later, back at the Rewa Lodge, Vivian takes us through the property’s brief history, explaining that it was built in 2005 and has always been run exclusively by the local Amerindian community.

If Guyana has a major tourist attraction, then it is surely the majestic Kaieteur Falls, a 45-minute flight from here, but even that receives only a few thousand visitors each year. The Rewa Lodge welcomes a mere 200 guests, though it’d like to double that number if possible, filling its rustic cabins in the deep jungle without having to build and disrupt the environment further. “We’ve thought about what expanding and what it might do to the animals around us,” says manager Dickie Alvin over dinner in the lodge’s main building. “People like what we have here, so we don’t want to change too much.”

The local Amerindian population in Surama. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty
The local Amerindian population in Surama. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty

This means trying to disturb animals like the giant river otters, jaguars and hulking tarantulas as little as possible, while still offering tourists a glimpse into a world long lost in other parts of the Amazon. As our little group moves around Guyana’s interior, from Kaieteur to Rewa to Surama and ultimately the Waikin Lodge near the Brazilian border, it’s clear how much we have to learn about this remarkable country. Prior to coming, few of us had much idea about it – some friends at home heard ‘Guyana’ and assumed I was talking about somewhere in Africa; marketing the country as an up-and-coming destination is a little tricky when people don’t even know which continent it’s on. I have some sympathy: when looking for Guyana on a map, the eye tends to move past it, drawn to more recognisable names on the continent.

So here are some facts about Guyana: it remains the only English-speaking country in South America; before the territory was British, it was developed by the Dutch, but Amerindian communities of course predate any European presence here; demerara sugar is named after Guyana’s Demerara River; the phrase “drank the Kool Aid” comes from the mass murder-suicide of the American death cult known as Peoples Temple, whose Guyanese Jonestown settlement reached its apocalyptic end in 1978; the country’s population is about 750,000, approximately the same as metropolitan Edinburgh; the national bird is the Canje pheasant; and the national dish is pepperpot, a sticky stew beloved by Amerindians. Since gaining independence, development has not come quickly for this little nation on the titanic shoulder of Brazil. This faltering progress has at times raised questions about Guyana’s governance, but as it begins to open up to tourism, the lack of growth offers unspoilt experiences in one of the world’s great wildernesses.

The cock-of-the-rock is native to South America. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty
The cock-of-the-rock is native to South America. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty

Rewa perhaps offers the purest form of ecotourism in the country, but half a day away by river and road, Surama was the first eco lodge in the country. Today it’s undergoing a major refurbishment, a sign that it wants standards to improve, without seeking merciless expansion. In the jungles close to here, there’s a breeding pair of mighty harpy eagles, drawn by the expansive old-growth forest and the population of their easiest prey, the three-toed sloth.

If one of the world’s largest raptors versus one the slowest moving creatures seems like an unfair battle, then it is perhaps in keeping with the unforgiving nature of the deep jungle. Here, the local Amerindian population all have stories of encounters with jaguars, while one of the day trips offered into the jungle includes spotting Goliath bird-eating spiders, the world’s heaviest arachnid.

We give it all a try, our cameras filling with extraordinary wildlife shots, but as a breather from the intense jungle experiences, we’re also brought to Makushi Cultural Centre, where community leader Glendon Alicock leads a group looking to preserve their heritage. The local Makushi language was almost eradicated during the colonial period, but here they’re looking to preserve it, as well as traditional practices such as the production of cassava bread.

Searching for endangered arapaima on the Rewa River. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty
Searching for endangered arapaima on the Rewa River. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty

The community is hoping to soon appoint a new shaman, too.

“For a time, all of our grown youths were gone, but now these young ones have stayed,” explains Glendon, who runs the centre with his wife. “I think our culture is coming back now, and perhaps sharing it with the world will help.”

The following day, we drive a few hours to the Waikin Lodge, where the jungle relents, at least for a few hundred hectares of savannah before the infinite green of Brazil takes over. Here, grasslands are home to different fauna, including huge horned owls and bizarre-looking giant anteaters. Our group scrambles to take photos of it all, some from horseback, others in safari-style jeeps.

As impressive as it all is, for me the most memorable moment comes after sunset on our final night in Guyana’s wilderness. Just as it had seemed like all would stay completely dark, an enormous lightning storm gathered on the horizon. It’s perhaps a facile comparison, but that beautiful light illuminating the nation’s interior seemed to represent what’s happening in Guyana right now – darkness at last being pushed back, and something spectacular being revealed.

Updated: March 7, 2020 06:21 PM

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