Sunday, October 07, 2018

Suriname and Guyana

We flew from Trinidad to Suriname to finally hit the mainland and officially start the South American portion of the trip. The initial plan was to see what the Guianas are all about and when ready continue south into the Brazilian Amazon. Of course all that was to change but we didn't know that yet...
The Guianas are the 3 little "countries" on the north coast of South America that everyone forgets about, including the other South American countries.  This is in part because they aren't really connected to the rest of the continent, be it by land, air, history, language or culture. They are most closely aligned with the Caribbean or with their parent European country.  British Guiana = Guyana, Dutch Guiana = Suriname and French Guiana is still a French colony.
After looking at all the options, I ruled out a visit to French Guiana based on logistical hassle and expense.  From the sounds of it, French Guiana is the Fort Mac of France with very inflated prices and no infrastructure for independent tourism. The other ones aren't much better as we quickly found out.
Few travelers venture to the Guianas and those that do usually follow a quick and uniform route, aided by the fact that there is virtually only one road to take along the coast between all three. When we arrived in Suriname we spent our first night near the airport thinking to head further inland the next day, only to find out that none of the country's public transport passed further inland along that road. We continued to the capital, Paramaribo, and ended up crashing at a couchsurfer's place for a few days.  He was a cool old guy who travels a lot and always has a bunch of others staying with him as well. 
We were to make friends and swap stories with a few other traveling groups that had been in the area a little longer.  To summarize, what we learned was that unless we planned on bringing hammocks, and were open to hitchhiking and roughing it, we weren't going to get very far out here.  Oh, and these countries are on the sketchy side too so the wisdom of such an approach is questionable. As this is not intended to be THAT kind of trip, we ultimately decided to minimize our time in the area and start looking at other options.
Paramaribo was worth a visit though.  The historic centre of the city is Unesco-listed and mostly consists of historic wooden buildings, some restored, some abandoned and some just looking old. But the style is cool. They also have the largest wooden building in the western hemisphere in the St. Peter and Paul cathedral.  The church looks nice on the outside, recently restored and painted in soft colours, but the inside is unpainted and the natural wood is a very pretty and unique look for a catholic cathedral. There is also the small Fort Zeelandia along the river and although Paramaribo doesn't have the best reputation I felt fine walking around during the day, but a little less so along the waterfront.
Suriname is an interesting mix of people too.  African, East Indian, Amerindian, mixed-European.  There were a lot of different types of people to watch moving around. Interestingly, the shops all seem to be owned and run by Chinese now. Our immigration officer looked Filipino. With all this ethnic diversity comes a huge religious diversity too and one of the prides of Suriname is that they all coexist peacefully in that regard. There is a point in the centre where the largest mosque and largest synagogue in the country have been built side by side.

Mosque and Synagogue

St. Peter and Paul Cathedral
Presidential palace


Historic old town
Fort Zeeland

The fort overlooking the river

We left Suriname on a 4:30am minibus heading to Guyana a few days later. Suriname is, by percentage, the most forested country in the world, so between little villages there is a whole lot of nothing but greenery. Most of the homes we saw along the way were old, wooden and on stilts. We had a flat tire at sunrise and got to stand out on the side of the road listening to howler monkeys waking up as the tire was changed. The border of Suriname and Guyana is the Corentyne river with a ferry crossing the only way between them. As the only crossing it tells a lot about movement between them that there are maybe 2 crossing each way in a day and the ferry was full with maybe 2 dozen vehicles and a few dozen walk-ons. We took the little ferry and were picked up on the other side for the rest of the trip into Georgetown arriving in the early afternoon.

Getting on the ferry

Georgetown is not a nice city.  Once upon a time it was known as the city of gardens with lots of green space and streets lined with canals because most is actually a few feet below sea level. Now, the city is falling apart and unkempt, the canals are stagnant and smelly and everyone is paranoid about security.  Or maybe it isn't paranoid because the crime issue is real and even daytime muggings are becoming common. I'm not fond of places where the sun sets at 5:30pm and you shouldn't go out after dark. Taxis are even recommended during the day though if you do walk, don't carry anything valuable on you. I'm sure I've been in worse places, but we weren't interested in taking chances for a city we weren't very interested in in the first place.
So why were we here? Because there is no road to Brazil from Suriname for one thing, but that became a moot point when we decided we were going to reroute and fly out instead. Unfortunately in order to fly out we had to wait a bit and we ended up getting stuck in Georgetown for 4 nights. Most of the time we spent just hiding out and not venturing more than a couple blocks on foot to get food.  There are many nice people here, but at the same time, the city has a hostile vibe and doesn't feel very nice. Lots of people look at you kind of funny like you are being sized up for something.

Georgetown by our guesthouse

Killing time
Central Georgetown

One thing we ended up doing and had always planned to see here was Kaieteur.  It is the world's largest single drop waterfall and the biggest attraction in the country. There is no road to it so a land based trip to visit the falls is a 5-day epic journey through some rough but scenic conditions.  99% of visitors don't pick that option. The usual way to see the falls is on a day trip by plane and there are a few domestic airlines here that run the tours. It is an hour flight each way in a small plane (we were 9 in our group) with about 2 hrs on the ground at the falls. You get a nice view of the falls from the air and then meet up with a guide on the ground who introduces you to the local flora as you walk a trail to a series of viewpoints. The views are incredible.  The falls are 741 feet high and depending on the season can be up to 370 feet wide.  It is the combination of height, size and large volume of water that makes it so impressive and it is commonly listed in the top 10 of "best" waterfalls in the world.  It is the dry season now so we had a beautiful day and the falls are still impressive, but they were flowing at less than half their full capacity.
What makes the visit even more special is that it is so remote in a country rarely visited anyway that fewer than 100 people see it in a day. There were a few other planes scheduled to come in after us (we were the first flight of the day) so we were literally 10 people there viewing the falls.  No crowds, no mass marketing, no development nearby.  Just nature in all its glory. The viewpoints are the edge of the cliff nearby so it is kind of scary if you don't like heights and the views get progressively closer until at the end we actually got right up to the edge of the water. We loved it. Day trips run at $165US and up but there really isn't much choice if you want to see it.

Arrival at Kaieteur

Walking to the falls



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