BY: ADAM THRUSH
The Guianas (or ‘the Wild Coast,’ as it was once known) is a section of South America usually omitted from both long-term backpacking trips as well as short-term vacations. Located on the northern coast of the continent, historically the Guianas consisted of five linguistically diverse zones: the eastern Venezuelan province of Guayana (Spanish Guiana), the country of Guyana (English Guiana), Suriname (Dutch Guiana), the French territory of French Guiana, and a northwestern section of Brazil bordering French Guiana, which is now the Brazilian state of Amapa (Portuguese Guiana). Five different colonizing nations and official languages on a continent where most foreigners believe only Spanish is spoken. This diversity earns it the label as ‘the Europe of South America.’
Today, when referring to the Guianas we are almost always speaking of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. These two countries and one territory are, of course, in South America but share very little with the cultures of their continental Latin neighbours. The differences between each of the Guianas themselves are also vast, and quite obvious when visiting.
Let’s start off with Guyana. Although on the mainland of the continent, mentally, Guyana is an island in the Atlantic somewhere amongst its other friends in the Caribbean sea. The people, the music, the food, the use of creole English; there are many similarities between the cultures. Guyanese players even play on the West Indies international cricket team (which is extremely popular in the country, by the way). The East Indian influence is also very apparent since around 40% of Guyanese have Indian ancestry; however many in the country would label themselves as mixed race between African, Indian, and Amerindian (the indigenous people of the region). For me, this unique culture is the big attraction here.
Side note: just because they speak English-based creole doesn’t mean you’ll understand it! The language is spoken quickly and includes words from a variety of other languages.
The Guyanese economy does not heavily rely on tourism like the islands do though. The beaches on the north coast aren’t known for being exceptionally beautiful or clean, and the capital of Georgetown doesn’t offer too many options for tourists either. Starbroek market and St. George’s Cathedral (formerly the tallest wooden building in the world) are the must-sees in the downtown core, giving you tastes of the various cultures that exist within the country.
A downside of staying in the city is the fact that there are no hostels here, so be prepared to pay a minimum of $30 or $40 per night (a little steep for a backpacker’s budget). Most travellers also plan trips to the Amazon in the south, which makes up a majority of the country’s geography (as it does in the other two Guianas). The impressive Kaieteur Falls (226 m high) is easily the go-to recommendation by both travel agents and locals alike, while Mount Roraima on the border of Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela is popular with hikers.
Side note: the quality of driving in Georgetown, and throughout the country is fairly erratic and since they drive on the left side of the road (as does Suriname) it can be a little dangerous and confusing to ‘righties.’
To much of the world, Guyana might be best known (unfortunately) for ‘Jonestown.’ This town, located in northwestern Guyana, was the base of an American cult called ‘The People’s Temple,’ led by Jim Jones. He commanded the suicide, by means of swallowing a ‘Kool Aid’ like drink laced with cyanide, of 909 members in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. Jones had later shot himself in the head before justice could be served against him. On this extremely unpleasant note, let’s move on.
Next stop, Suriname! Some interesting parts of traversing the Guianas are the border crossings. Each involves crossing a river, either by ferry or hired boat to the other side (Guyana to Suriname and Suriname to French Guiana). From Georgetown you can take a shared van to the border and ferry crossing along the Courantyne River in the small town of Crabwood Creek, Guyana. In total, including the van transport and ferry, the cost comes to around $40US, getting you to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname.
Side note: make sure you leave Georgetown early in the morning as there are only two ferries each day to Suriname (~10 am and ~1pm).
The streets of Paramaribo, you’ll notice, are much more organized; the driving culture more relaxed as well. Another big difference from Guyana is the amount of visible tourists (white people) you’ll see roaming the streets. An extremely high percentage of these will be from the Netherlands. Trips between the two countries are quite common, especially during the Dutch summer break (there’s a direct flight from Amsterdam to Paramaribo). Up until Suriname’s independence 40 years ago, people born in Suriname were also given a Dutch passport. Therefore, many families include both a Dutch and Surinamese parent.
Side note: An interesting fact for fans of soccer is that many of the Netherlands’ most famous international players were born in Suriname or come from families that do – players such as Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids, and Clarence Seedorf (he has a soccer stadium named after him outside Paramaribo) just to name a few!
The architecture in Paramaribo is another unique feature of the country. The two storey, pillared, Dutch-style colonial homes still line the streets around downtown. While many are slowly crumbling, there is an effort to gentrify neighbourhoods and restore homes to display their true beauty. Fort Zeelandia, adjacent to the Suriname River, offers a glimpse into the country’s dark history. Other than some quarrels between the English and Dutch, the fort was also the location of the “December Murders” where the military dictatorship headed by Dési Bouterse ordered the torture and execution of 15 Surinamese men, consisting of mainly lawyers and journalists, for criticizing the government. New Amsterdam, across the river, is also a nice day trip from the capital.
Side note: De Kleine Historie Guesthouse in Paramaribo is the only hostel-style accommodation in the Guianas. They have a dorm room with beds that cost around $12 per night.
Much like Guyana, Suriname is ethnically very mixed. East Indian, African, along with Javanese (from Indonesia) individuals make up the majority of the population. Not only is there racial diversity but religious as well. Paramaribo famously has a mosque and synagogue directly next to each other, while churches and cathedrals are also scattered throughout cities and towns.
Side note: Despite being a Dutch speaking country, many citizens speak English, as well as Sranan Tongo (a creole language).
Brownsberg Nature Park in the Surinamese rainforest is a popular destination for tourists. A lookout in the park gives you a view of Brokopondo Reservoir. The reservoir is home to the Afobaka Dam, which supplies the majority of Paramaribo’s electricity but also flooded over 160,000 hectares of forest when it was created, displacing various communities in the process.
Continuing east is French Guiana. Head over to the minivan station and catch a ride to Albina on the banks of the Maroni river, which separates the two countries. Once there, hiring a boatman to take you from Suriname’s immigration office to French Guiana’s is simple, leaving as soon as even a few people are on board.
The third largest city in this French territory, Kourou, is the big attraction here and provides something quite unique. The Guiana Space Centre is located just outside the city and is used as the main site by the European Space Agency. Launches happen several times each year from the three existing launch pads at the centre. There are tours twice a day during the week, but spots fill up at least a week in advance. Launch viewings can also be arranged from the centre, just make sure you plan for it months in advance.
Due to the presence of the space centre, there are over 1,500 employees that live in and around Kourou, many of which are scientists from a variety of European countries. This has led to French Guiana having the largest economy in the Guianas, yet it’s still heavily reliant on France for subsidies.
Although not well traveled, each Guiana offers a unique cultural experience that’s truly worth seeing. The diversity within only adds to the appeal of them (plus, Suriname and Guyana are essentially the only options for Indian food lovers on the continent). So grab your bags and get ready to say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” when someone speaks to you in Guyanese English, while also explaining to your friends where Suriname is, and why you’re brushing up on your French for a visit to South America.