Uncovering the mysteries of South America’s forgotten gems
1. A very short history of the Guianas
2. Why visit the Three Guianas
3. Culture of the Guianas
4. Destinations in Guiana
5. Getting to the Guianas
6. Ride the Guianas with Motolombia
As the world becomes more accessible and our planet seems to grow smaller, some of us feel a powerful desire to break new ground. To travel further.
In South America, there’s no better example of the “places that mass tourism forgot” than its three smallest nations, known collectively as the Three Guianas.
Strung side-by-side along South America’s north eastern Atlantic coast, the Three Guianas, from east to west, are Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. Only French Guiana remains an overseas territory of France.
Guyana claimed independence from the British in 1975. The same year, Suriname rid itself of Dutch rule.
A very short history of the Guianas
Back in 1499, the Spanish first laid eyes on the mangrove-strewn coastline of the Guianas and its warrior-like Carib Indian inhabitants and didn’t particularly like what they saw.
The gold and silver hungry Spanish decided plundering the Guianas wasn’t worth the effort, although they did make the occasional slave raid.
When the Dutch, French and British began pushing south from the Caribbean, they were keen to stake out a piece of South America for themselves.
That really only left the Guianas, since Spain and Portugal had already claimed almost the entire continent.
The Netherlands began to settle the land in 1615, establishing trade in sugar, cocoa, tobacco and other prized commodities from the tropics. The indigenous workers they’d originally hired were quickly wiped out by introduced diseases, so the Dutch simply imported new sources of labour in the form of West African slaves.
After the second Anglo-Dutch War, under the 1667 Treaty of Breda, the Dutch retained modern-day Suriname and ceded the area east of the Maroni River to the French.
The next 150 years were marked by power struggles that saw sovereignty of the region shift between the colonists.
By 1800, Britain had established dominance in Suriname, although it remained under Dutch control.
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Treaty of Paris reaffirmed Dutch sovereignty in Suriname, while Britain purchased the adjoining Dutch colonies, renaming them British Guyana.
In 1834, slavery was abolished in throughout the British Empire. Once again, the colonists found themselves seriously short on labour.
This triggered the next wave of immigrants, this time from the Asian colonies and particularly India. Today, the Guianas are perhaps the countries with the most widespread mix of ethnic backgrounds in Latin America.
Today, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana showcase overt Asian and Sub-Continental influences, mixed in with European, Latin American and indigenous culture.
Why visit the Three Guianas?
You’ll never complain they’re “too touristy”
The Guianas remain three of South America’s least-visited countries.
That’s not because they’re not worth visiting (far from it). Tourism simply hasn’t been high on the agenda for these, until recently, agriculture-based economies.
Overshadowed by their big brother neighbour, Brazil, and home to exactly zero world famous “bucket list” attractions, the Guianas remain obscure to just about everyone.
They’re full of incredible natural beauty, including one of the last pristine rainforests on earth
The Three Guianas form part of the 270 million-hectare Guiana Shield. Known as “the greenhouse of the world”, this globally important eco-region straddles the northern boundary of the Amazon Jungle.
Pristine forest covers around 80% of the Guiana Shield. It’s dense vegetation and mountain-fed rivers are a refuge for iconic species like the jaguar, black caiman, giant river otter and giant anteater.
Although the coasts of all three countries meet the warm northern Atlantic, if you’re hoping for postcard-perfect beaches, you won’t find them in the Guianas.
Tangled mangroves dominate the coastline. Beyond them lie the Orinoco Delta Swamp and Guiana Freshwater Swamp Forests, whose rivers muddy the seafront as they empty into the Atlantic.
Delving deeper into the wilds of the Three Guianas isn’t too easy. Only a few roads connect the capitals to a handful of regional rural towns.
To hike this barely explored wilderness, with its sheer mountains, windswept savannah, and countless waterfalls, the help of an expert tour operator is essential.
Slowly, ecotourism is making in-roads into the Guianas, while at the same time, their economies are swiftly transitioning to being oil and mining based. In particular, Suriname’s recent gold boom looks to be setting the country on the path to widespread deforestation.
Culture of the Guianas
The mishmash of cultures that are glaringly evident in everyday life in the Guianas is nothing short of fascinating. Guyana, South America’s only English-speaking country, is home to the only two Test Cricket Grounds on the continent.
Guianan cuisine is a hodgepodge of influences garnered from the French, the Bushinengue (descendants of the West African and Caribbean slaves) and indigenous ingredients.
In the capitals, you’ll also see Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian eateries alongside Creole restaurants and French patisseries.
Common ingredients include fresh seafood, smoked fish, cassava and a huge array of tropical fruits.
Rum and a locally produced firewater called tafia are favoured local spirits.
Destinations in Guiana
Cayenne, French Guiana
Cayenne, a port city of roughly 138,000 inhabitants is the capital of French Guiana. It’s charming if run-down aesthetic in sharp contrast to its strong ties to the EU as well as French culture, law and order.
By far the most surprising addition to the city is the French European Space Centre. Also known as the Guiana Spaceport since 1964, it’s strategically located close to the equator and is where the French and European Space Agencies launch their satellites into orbit.
Laidback, tolerant and diverse, the capital of Suriname is built on a shell-sand reef over the Suriname River barely five metres above the ocean at low tide.
The city’s historic centre was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2002 for its fusion of European and local elements, particularly it’s distinctive Dutch colonial architecture. Lovely wooden cathedrals and grand government buildings add to the city’s slightly bizarre aesthetic appeal.
Check out the 17th century Fort Zeelandia and the bustling Central Markets,
overloaded with the morning’s seafood catch and food stalls serving cheap, freshly cooked Dutch-Indonesian favourites.
Guyana’s capital (population 200,00), Georgetown runs at its own leisurely pace.
The closest city to the Caribbean, in its heyday, Georgetown was considered the “Garden City of the Caribbean”.
Georgetown boasts a vibrant contemporary street life, painting a curious contrast against a background of crumbling colonial mansions, overgrown parks, not-all-that-visited-museums and European churches.
Yet Georgetown is no sluggish backwater. The city is the headquarters of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), established to further economic development in the Caribbean nations, and its restaurant and nightlife precinct showcases a surprisingly cosmopolitan sensibility.
Georgetown is situated at the mouth of the Demerara, which originates some 346km inland in the central rainforests.
Georgetown is surrounded by lush tropical scenery, including the incredible Kaieteur Falls. The world’s largest single drop waterfall is approximately four times taller than Niagara Falls and is one of the most powerful waterfalls on earth.
Kaieteur Falls can be reached on a five day expedition by road/ferry from Georgetown, but most opt for a straightforward day trip from the city, taking one of the daily flights between Georgetown and the Kaiteur International Airport (more of an airstrip really, but just a 15 minute walk from the falls).
The Iwokrama Forest spans 3,710skm in the very heart of the Guiana Shield, one of the four last pristine tropical forests in the world. Tropical lowland forest covers much of the reserve, protecting some of the most species-rich habitat on earth.
The Burro-Burro River winds its way through the centre of the rainforest, while the 1,000m high Iwokrama Mountains form the geographical focal point of the park.
The Iwokrama Reserve is one of the only localities within the Shield to boast eco-tourism facilities. The Iwokrama River Lodge is a hub for sustainable tourism, research and conservation offering guided hikes, suspension bridge walks, wildlife-spotting boat cruises and treks to Turtle Mountain for panoramic views of the jungle canopy and the mountain ranges beyond.
Getting to the Guianas
Most international flights into the Guiana capitals arrive from the Caribbean or Brazil.
Maintaining close ties to its French overseers, around a dozen flights per week from Paris to Cayenne.
Paramaibo and Amsterdam are still connected by direct flights. You can fly straight to Georgetown from New York, Miami, Port of Spain or Panama City.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not interested in travelling to the Guianas on some cushy European airline.
Reaching the Guianas overland is obviously way more fun, although not without its challenges. You’ll need ride in on your own set of wheels, as there are no real options for obtaining a bike in the Guianas.
Brazil has the only open border crossings with all three of the Guianas (the Venezuela-Guyana crossing has been closed for years).
Most overlanders enter the Guianas by crossing from Oiapoque in Brazil to St Georges de L’Oyapock, 188km north of Cayenne.
The border towns are split in two by the Oyapock River. Crossing are done on motorised wooden boats, some of which can comfortably accommodate a couple of big bikes.
Once inside the Guianas, the highways between the capital cities are generally good. There aren’t too many roads heading inland, and the ones that are, are generally unpaved and guaranteed rough.
Rural traffic is pretty much limited to the odd 4WD or truck slowly grinding its way through the dirt. These roads cut a winding sliver out of incredibly dense forest surroundings, making for a spectacular off-road adventure.
Ride the Three Guianas with Motolombia
Getting to Guianas by motorcycle is both logistically challenge and a guaranteed work out for your off-road riding skills. Not many people do it.
With no real moto touring culture in the Guianas, solo travel can be difficult and somewhat risky if you find yourself broken down in the middle of the jungle! Motolombia is one of the only motorcycle touring specialists that visit the Guianas.
The Trans-Amazonian Challenge is just about the biggest, craziest adventure we offer, visiting eight countries in 52 days. We take off in late summer and follow the weather to get the best riding conditions possible.
But we call it a “challenge” for a reason! With plenty of off-road experience under your belt, this will be a trip of a lifetime!
Plus you can actually say you’ve been to the Guianas! If your buddies have no idea what you’re talking about, at least you know your little South American secret is their loss!
Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)