Contrary to the rest of South America, independent travel through Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana is more rare, and there’s less information out there that is current and helpful. Chris and I (Deah) traveled through the region in March 2023. A fascinating mix of cultures, religions, and economics, these three countries are not for the faint of heart, but is quite interesting and worth visiting.
The “land of many waters” is one of the least populated countries in South America, and is covered by dense forests and several rivers. After being colonized by the Dutch and the British, it achieved independence in 1966. In the last five years, vast amounts of oil have been found off the coast, causing a boom in the economy (and high inflation). Local and cheap, delicious street food such as Nasi Gorang, or Trinidadian doubles can be found on every corner. High priced, air conditioned restaurants that take credit cards and cater to the oil company crowds are fewer in number, but still dotted around town. Local GT or Banks beer are always ice cold.
You can fly directly to Guyana from Panama (Copa Airlines), Trinidad and Barbados (Caribbean Air), Miami (American airlines), and New York (various). You can also arrive by overnight bus from Manaus/Boa Vista, Brazil, and by shared taxivan from neighboring Suriname (there is only one morning ferry per day so plan accordingly).
Capital City Sights
Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, is… difficult. It is crowded, lacks sidewalks, has open sewer ditches teeming with trash and mosquitos, and has a reputation for muggings. If you exercise some basic caution, you should be able to spend a day of two there and enjoy the National Park (feed the manatees!), the National Museum (don’t miss the prehistoric giant sloth on display), and Stabroek Market (which is also where the busses and taxis congregate to get a ride out of town). The St George Cathedral, in the center of the city, is a point of pride. If you’re going out for dinner after dark, take a taxi. We were told by multiple locals that we should not walk around after dusk.
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It is highly advisable to plan in advance to get out of Georgetown. Many people stay at an eco-resort along the Rupununi River (you will need your own transport or to contract an airport pick up with your lodge) near the border with Brazil. You can also take a flight to see Kaieteur Falls- the flight is by charter only, and costs $2,500 for 8 seats. You can contact Touring Guyana or Evergreen Adventures and ask if they have a single or perhaps two seats available on a charter flight, which only go on weekends, it appears.
Suriname is the smallest sovereign state in South America, and the most densely forested in the world. After several years of warfare, the British and the Dutch made a trade in 1667 that resulted in the Netherlands retaining control of Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, while the British retained control of New Amsterdam, which became New York. Having lost their colony in north-eastern Brazil to the Portuguese, the Dutch West Indies Company was desperate to hang on to its profitable sugar plantations in “Dutch Guyana”, which relied on slave labor to make a profit. Most of the people living in Suriname today are descended from the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, escaped and freed slaves, and Indonesian laborers brought to Suriname by the Dutch.
Direct ways to get to Paramaribo include a KLM flight from Amsterdam; GOL from Manaus, Brazil; Surinam Airways from Guyana; and a few Caribbean Islands such as Curaçao, Trinidad, and Cuba. You can travel by shared van/taxi to Georgetown, Guyana, and to the border of French Guyana, at which point you can take a ferry or small boat across the Maroni River.
Capital City Sights
Downtown Paramaribo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating back to the late 1600s. The wooden, white-washed Dutch architecture features in several historic buildings, many still in use. There are plenty of guesthouses and local eateries with Indonesian, African, Caribbean, and spicey Creole dishes, washed down with a cold Parbo beer or fresh ginger-lemon juice. Sundays are a bit quiet and it’s harder to find an open restaurant. Less dangerous than its neighboring capital city of Georgetown, visitors will still want to exercise some caution when walking around downtown. There is a fairly high homeless population, and muggings do happen on a regular basis.
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There are a few day trips that can be taken from Paramaribo, as well as some overnights. Dolphin/sunset tours are popular, and you can go horseback riding. We took a day trip to Brownsberg Mountain, near the Brokopondo Reservoir. From there you can hike to two waterfalls and see the rainforest, and either stay in cabins at the reserve, stay overnight at Stone Island, or return to the city late in the evening. There is a tour desk at Zeus and Zo, and 24Hostel can help set you up as well.
French Guiana is not an independent country- it is a department of France (the second largest), and is covered 98.9% with forest. The city of Cayenne was established in 1643, and for 150 years Guiana was a slave colony, producing sugar, until France abolished slavery shortly after the Haitian rebellion. By 1804, the French were using Guiana as a penal colony, which had a very high mortality rate due to the climate and the brutal treatment of prisoners. Only in 1952 was the last prison camp shut down in French Guiana.
Flights to French Guiana are limited. You can fly on Air France from Belém, Brazil, starting in May. There are also direct flights to France and to the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. You can take a shared taxi/van from Suriname (ferry across the Maroni River at Albina/St Laurent du Maroni) or from Maçapa, Brazil (ferry across the Oyapak River at Oiapoke/St George).
Capital City Sights
Cayenne is not a huge city, although half of French Guiana’s inhabitants live there. It does not have a functioning bus system, but there are shared taxi/vans that cycle in and out of the Petit Gare. Inside the downtown area, you can see the fort, the cathedral, two museums, and a city market in just one to two days. Cayenne does not have a deep water harbor, so there are no commercial shipping boats or cruise lines that visit here. The food here has a more French influence, as well as Vietnamese. Some very tasty food trucks gather around the Palm Garden in the evenings, and families eat al fresco.
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Many visitors to French Guiana go on a package vacation from Europe that includes an Amazonian ecolodge or resort. Aside from that, the town of Kourou seems to be the main attraction. Here you can tour the Guiana Space Center, or if you time it just right, watch a rocket launch from the European Space Agency. From Kourou you can also take a sailing ship to visit the Salvation Islands, which used to make up the prison camp when it was a penal colony (note: Devil’s Island itself is now a nature preserve and does not allow visitors). If you can’t get to the islands, you can also take a tour of the Prison Transport Museum at St Laurent du Maroni, made famous by Henri Charriére’s book Papillon.
And that, in a nutshell, are the Guyanas (and Suriname). We spent five days in each one, but to be honest, a month in each (or a few thousand dollars) would get you closer to really seeing all the corners. But who has the time? For us, it’s out of South America, and a flight to the Caribbean and some fun in the sun next.