If you’ve actually heard of Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana, congratulations. If you haven’t, there’s no need to feel like a geography idiot; so few tourists visit these countries that relatively little information is available about them. Situated in South America’s northeastern corner, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are mysterious, fascinating and wild, and deserve a second (or first) look. These incredibly diverse countries make the rest of Latin America look homogenous, and after so many years of relative isolation, they’ve developed their own unique customs and culture. Plus, thanks to extreme ethnic diversity, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana boast some of South America’s most interesting cuisine.
But be forewarned: Travel here isn’t for the faint of heart. First of all, there are hardly any direct international flights connecting the three capital cities to the outside world, and second, an overall lack of tourists in the last century means that the tourism infrastructure is seriously underdeveloped. In fact, it’s hard to even designate this region of Latin America as up and coming on the ecotourism scene because it still has such as long way to go. But if traveling far off the beaten path is your thing, read on.
An English-speaking country and a U.K colony until 1966, Guyana considers itself more culturally similar to the Caribbean than South America. Most people know Guyana as the place where 918 individuals took their own lives as part of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, but there’s definitely much more to South America’s third smallest country. The Surprisingly attractive capital, Georgetown, boasts some attractive historical buildings and gardens, and its historic district is working toward UNESCO designation. With a population of 770,000, Guyana is the most populated of the three and is ethnically diverse. 45% of inhabitants trace their heritage to India, while another 30% to western Africa. 17% of the population claims mixed heritage and the remainder is made of up of mostly rural, isolated indigenous communities.
Despite its small size, Guyana has incredible geographic and animal biodiversity. 80% of its landmass is covered in pristine, almost untouched rainforest, with forested, tropical mountains reaching over 6,000 feet high. Over 1000 vertebrate species and 1,600 bird species are found within Guyana, making it a birder’s paradise. The Konashen Community-owned Conservation Area is made up of over 1,000,000 acres and is owned and administered by the native Wai-Wai people, and is the largest community-owned protected region in the world. For the few tourists who make their way to Guyana, Kaiteur National Park and Kaiteur Falls are also a big draw thanks to the park’s flora and fauna diversity.
To get to Guyana, you’ll likely fly into Cheddi Jagan International Airport from London, Trinidad and Tobago or neighboring French Guiana. There are few other direct flights here. Keep in mind that Guyana doesn’t come cheap. Almost everything — gasoline, water, commercial goods — has to be imported, making it a rather pricey country.
If you’re interested in learning more about Guyana, visit the official Guyana Tourism Authority webpage at: www.guyana-tourism.com
With a mostly Dutch-speaking population of just over 470,000, Suriname is sparsely populated, big on nature and extremely ethnically diverse. About 27% of its inhabitants claim Indian heritage, while 15% claim Javanese heritage and 15% African heritage, with the remaining 57% of mixed, Amerindian, Chinese or Brazilian descent. What is there to do in Suriname, you ask? Well, first things first — you have to get there. New York, Amsterdam, Fort Lauderdale and Miami are really your only options in the way of international flights, but you’ll likely be dropped off at the J.A. Pengel Airport at Zanderij, from which you’ll have to take a 60 mile bus or taxi to Paramaribo, the country’s sizzling, Dutch-inspired capital. Here you’ll find the western hemisphere’s largest wooden cathedral and an attractive, UNESCO-designated historic center and over 50% of the nation’s population.
But if you’ve come all the way to Suriname, you’re probably here for the nature. With 80% of the country covered in nearly untouched rainforest and 12% of landmass designated protected national land, you’ll have plenty to do in terms of outdoor opportunities. And you won’t want to miss the UNESCO-designated Central Suriname Natural Reserve. This land of dense rainforests, isolated Amerindian and Afro-Surinamese villages and untamed rivers receives few tourists and doesn’t have much in the way of tourism infrastructure, so hardcore adventure travelers may want to consider bringing their own gear.
If you’re interested in learning more about Suriname travel, visit: www.suriname-tourism.org.
Technically, French Guiana is not actually a country. It belongs to mainland France, meaning that French Guiana is a member of the European Union, is on the Euro, and enjoys a higher standard of living than its neighbors. However, this small, tropical country has little else in common with the motherland. Like Guyana and Suriname, French Guiana boasts a high level of ethnic diversity, with about 60% of the population claiming Afro-French heritage, 15% claiming European heritage, and the remaining percentage claiming mixed, African, Amerindian, Chinese or other Asian heritage.
With just over 220,000 inhabitants living mostly in the low-lying coastal region, French Guiana’s rainforests and forested mountain areas are largely undiscovered, even by the Guianese themselves. In fact, more than 50% of the population lives in and around Cayenne, French Guiana’s capital city. Aside from the yearly carnival parades held in Cayenne every weekend between New Year’s and Mardi Gras, there’s little reason for tourists to stick around Cayenne. Like Guyana and Suriname, French Guiana has an incredible potential for eco-tourism, thanks to its wonderfully intact rainforest. The few tourists who set foot in French Guiana generally head straight to the Guiana Amazon Park, which covers 33,900 square kilometers, or about 40% of French Guiana’s landmass. This region can only be reached via river or waterway, making it one of the most isolated protected areas in the world. For a tiny country, French Guiana is extremely biodiversity: here you’ll find 1,300 tree species, 720 bird species, 480 fish species and 190 mammal species. Keep in mind that no roads and flights to the Amazon region means only hardcore, thrill-seekers need apply.
International flights to French Guiana arrive at the Cayenne-Rochambeau Airport. There are direct flights from France, but otherwise you’ll need to make at least one layover on your journey.
If you are interested in learning more about French Guiana, visit the French Guiana Tourism Committee at: www.tourisme-guyane.com.