A comparatively small country in the north of South America, wedged in between Suriname
to the east, Venezuela
in the west and Brazil to the south. As a former British
colony it is the only anglophone country in continental Latin America.
For most people Guyana is a rather unknown part of the world (in fact many, upon hearing its name, seem to think it must be in Africa – possibly getting it confused with Guinea). But in 1978 the country was suddenly put on the map of world news due to a very dark chapter in 20th century history: the Jonestown massacre. This is also the main reason the country features here – and the site of the tragedy is hence given its own chapter:
The Amerindian word “Guiana” means ‘land of many waters’ and was originally applied to the whole area between the Orinoco and the Amazon, including the Venezuelan Guayana region to the west of present-day Guyana as well as today’s Suriname
and French Guiana
and the border regions in Brazil.
It is indeed a very watery world. Not only are there countless rivers
, the largest being the mighty Essequibo
(the third biggest river of South America), it is also swampy and humid
to the max. Indeed the muddy, mangrove-lined coastline and extreme tropical climate and harsh rainforest hinterland
full of dangers (from predatory jaguars to poisonous snakes and electric eels) put off the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers of the continent so much that they gave it a wide birth. And so it was left to the other big colonial powers Britain
to scramble for these lands. But it took a while. The first settlement attempts failed as the European arrivals soon succumbed to the climate and deadly tropical diseases like malaria.
In fact, all of the “three Guianas” changed hands between those colonial powers several times until the chunk that is now Guyana became firmly British in the early 19th century. The Dutch, who had control of the land before then, left many visible reminders, though, not only in some place names (e.g. New Amsterdam, Uitvlugt, etc.) but also in the system of drainage canals by means of which the low-lying coastal lands were prepared for agricultural use. For centuries this meant primarily sugarcane plantations
. And these were based on slavery
. As in Brazil, the southern US
and much of the Caribbean, millions of black Africans were “imported” through the international slave trade
and had to do the hard work on the plantations. For more on this topic see also under Suriname
There were rebellions of slaves too, and the best-known one in Guyana is that of the Berbice revolt of 1763, the leader of which, a West African man called Cuffy, is still regarded as a national hero in Guyana today.
After the abolition of slavery, indentured labourers were recruited from other colonies, hence there is a sizeable part of the population in Guyana who are of Indian descent. The multiracial mix of Africans, Indians, indigenous Amerindians, mixed-race people, Chinese traders, and others is one of the aspects that makes Guyana very Caribbean. In fact it classes itself as Caribbean and is a founding member of CARICOM.
The dominance of the sugar industry declined by the 1950s and other resources such as gold and bauxite (the ore that aluminium is made from) became more important. But sugar is still a significant export commodity. A big “molasses wharf” in the harbour of the capital Georgetown is evidence of this. Sugar/molasses is also used in the making of the fabled Demerara rum – now made in only one distillery, but this inherited the apparatus from other distilleries when these closed, and it’s therefore in possession of some unique stills (including ones made from the extremely hard and durable Greenheart wood).
Guyana gained its independence in 1966
and became a republic (and a member of the Commonwealth) in 1970. The road to independence was a difficult one, not so much because there was actually a struggle for independence, but more due to internal racial conflicts, especially between Indians and Africans. In 1962, major clashes in the town of Wismar (now Linden – see below) saw Africans drive out the Indian population, torching properties and injuring many Indians, some even got killed. Then in 1964, Cheddi Jagan
, British Guiana’s ethnic Indian leader of the colonial government that Britain allowed, lost an election, under controversial circumstances, and was replaced by Forbes Burnham
, who was of African descent and enjoyed the support of both the USA
and the UK. He pushed for independence and it was quickly granted (in fact Britain
was more than happy to get rid of its troublesome and increasingly uneconomic colony).
Initially he had campaigned against Jagan’s socialist ambitions but following his election in 1968 he himself did a U-turn towards communism
coupled with nationalism, and increasingly moved towards dictatorial rule
, with many elements copied from Cuba
, the USSR
and North Korea
(including even the introduction of mass games
), nationalized most industries and banned imports. The result was a failing economy and significant waves of emigration. Burnham’s reign only ended with his death in 1985. After 28 years in opposition, Cheddi Jagan was elected president in 1992 and served until his death in 1997. His US-born wife Janet took over the helm until 1999, when she resigned and was succeeded by Bharrat Jagdeo, again an ethnic Indian Hindu. He introduced several reforms that worked to overcome the stagnation and damage of the earlier dictatorship and subsequent troubles. His time in office saw steep growth rates economically, but racial tensions remained.
In more recent years
, under different governments, Guyana has continued on a path of lowering public debt and has still seen moderate growth. But overall it is still somewhat poorer than its eastern neighbours. Ethnic divides continue to exist and become more palpable during election times – as “the race card” is indeed still played by opposing parties (cf. in contrast Suriname
Since the economy of its western neighbour Venezuela
went into free fall, Guyana has also struggled with an influx of refugees putting some strain on the country. Incidentally, Guyana’s borders
as Venezuela nominally lays claim to almost 70% of Guyana, namely the entire region west of the Essequibo (see below)!
Guyana, which is roughly the size of Britain
(but still the third smallest nation in South America by area, after Suriname and Uruguay), has one of the largest intact tracts of pristine Amazonian rainforest
, which makes up over 80% of the landmass of the country and is very thinly populated, if at all. Much of the interior is still more or less uncharted. Over 90% of the population total of ca. three quarters of a million live in the narrow coastal strip by the Atlantic, and especially in and around the capital Georgetown
at the mouth of the Demerara River.
Being the only city and administrative capital of the country it is also very much the economic hub – as well as the usual first point of entry for visitors. In fact there are no roads connecting it to its eastern and western neighbouring countries, only the south has a road across the border to Brazil and proper roadside border checkpoints. But for almost all international visitors from other countries, flying in is the only viable option. The same goes for much of the interior, where the only alternative to small planes are canoes using the many waterways. There is one single overland route leading from the north to the south but this is mostly a dirt track, and it regularly becomes impassable during the rainy season. Otherwise all proper roads hug the coastline only.
Georgetown, like much of the coastal plain around it, actually lies below sea level
at high tide (ca. 6 feet or 2 metres) and thus depends on the drainage canal and locks system that was begun by the Dutch. Many houses are actually built on stilts here because of the risk of flooding e.g. after heavy rains. Obviously fears of rising ocean levels due to climate change
are also more acute here than elsewhere. Even in the interior, though, changes in the weather patterns are already being felt (see below). Yet the unspoilt nature of the rainforest in particular, makes it a key attraction for visitors.
in Guyana is comparatively small scale, but especially with regard to nature and wildlife watching it offers the widest range of the “three Guianas”. So when I planned my August 2019 trip
to these three countries, I concentrated my interior explorations on Guyana. I also used a Guyana-based specialist company to tailor my trip for me. Their name is “Wilderness Explorers” (141 Fourth St, Georgetown) and they did an excellent job. Not only did they arrange my trip to see (what little is left of) Jonestown
, which is completely off the normal tourist tracks, they also put together a very good mix of the rest of the country and customized my trip to my very specific demands in Suriname and French Guiana. This was also convenient from a language point of view, since my Dutch and French are too limited to have been of much use trying to organize things with operators in those countries. For both neighbouring countries Wilderness Explorers organized outstanding English-speaking guides as well as overland transport for me (see under Suriname
and French Guiana
, respectively) and everything went as planned.
I flew into Guyana from Paramaribo in Suriname, but Guyana’s international airport also has connections to Trinidad and the USA
(Miami and New York
). I also used Georgetown’s small local airport for internal flights (to Kaieteur Falls, Port Kaituma and Lethem – see below).
A city tour
was also part of my programme. And though the place cannot quite compete with Paramaribo
’s charms, it was a worthwhile add-on. The tour included some of the colonial-era buildings, such as the wooden St George’s Cathedral, several government buildings, a market as well as the seafront and a couple of monuments, such as the very colonial-era statue of Queen Victoria outside the Courts of Justice or the memorial to the Berbice slave rebellion of 1763 (see above).
Wildlife watching already began in Georgetown too, namely in the form of the manatees that live in a park pond and that you can feed grass to! These gentle giants, also known as sea cows (but more closely related to elephants and other pachyderms) were indeed a wonderful encounter. Georgetown’s zoo, on the other hand, is a rather sad, old-fashioned affair with far too small cages …
My first excursion into the interior by plane took me to Guyana’s undisputed top sight: Kaieteur Falls
, the world’s largest single-drop waterfall by volume of water relative to height: a whopping 750 feet (230 metres) and with a flow rate of ca. 660 cubic metres per second on average. The photos
below can hardly do the sight justice, which is truly majestic – and loud. The visit from the airstrip is by guided tour and no longer includes the rocky platform directly next to the falls’ edge – apparently because some suicidal visitors jumped off from here into the thundering abyss! So there’s a dark element even here. (And I have to admit that if you were so inclined to top yourself by jumping off somewhere high, then you could hardly pick a better spot … well, it’s no longer an option; cf. Beachy Head
and Golden Gate Bridge
.) The closest you’re allowed to get these days is a viewing platform a bit further away, but you can lie on your belly and get right to the edge for a good view down to the bottom of the falls. Also at Kaieteur Falls we had some unexpected wildlife encounters, e.g. with a poisonous snake that crossed our path (fortunately our guide spotted it in time and made us keep a safe distance) and a tiny yellow frog that lives its entire life inside the water-filled leaf axils of a giant bromeliad plant.
While that was only a half-day excursion, I also took a multi-day trip to the south
, specifically the Rupununi
, first flying to the region’s main town Lethem
. There’s a bit of dark history here too, as this was the site of the secessionist 1969 Rupununi Uprising
, staged with the support of the Venezuelan military. But the rebellion was quickly crushed by the Guyanese Army, after which Venezuela’s support finished too. Yet the country still claims the whole area west of the Essequibo River as theirs and on maps published in Venezuela
shows it as “Zona en Reclamación”. I only used Lethem as the gateway to the northern Rupununi, but on the drive out of town with my hosts from Karanambu Lodge I spotted a large ruin that may or may not have been the shell of the former Rupununi Hotel, which was the epicentre of the Uprising.
is very different from the rest of Guyana: a wide-open grassland savannah
, partially used by huge cattle ranches, hemmed in by the rainforest to the north and a mountain range to the south-west. The latter are the last vestiges of the geologically ancient range that includes the fabled “Tepui” table mountains of Canaima in Venezuela
– and in fact Roraima
, the tallest of the Tepuis stands right on the current border between Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil. I would have loved to see this, but it is totally inaccessible from the Guyanese side.
Instead we drove north and after a while left the main road and went on a rougher track, crossing rivers on ramshackle-looking bridges and past scattered Amerindian villages. At one point our host pointed out a flat expanse of reeds covering a lake. This, he said, was “El Dorado
”. Apparently in the dry season the reeds turned yellow could give the impression of a lake of gold, as in the old legends about these mystical lands. Finding out that it was no more than at best an optical illusion must have been quite a disappointment for any explorers of the day who went in pursuit of the gold promised in the legends incited in particular by Sir Walter Raleigh … (Btw., the lake’s real name is Lake Parime, but there is also a town called El Dorado over the border in Venezuela
, so named after gold mining, which also features in Henri Charrière’s book “Papillon” – see under French Guiana
Eventually we had to leave the jeep behind and change into a canoe-like small boat to continue our journey. This was because although it should have been the dry season at this time of year, the rains were still coming and the Rupununi River was still some 40 feet (13 metres) higher than it should have been at this point, still flooding the forests around its riverbed, so the lodge we were heading for was only reachable this way. (Our hosts later attributed the deviant weather to climate change too.)
The name of the lodge is Karanambu, and it’s also a historical place. It was the home of the legendary “otter woman”, the late Diane McTurk, who was for giant otters what Dian Fossey was for mountain gorillas. Her family still run Karanambu Lodge and when we got there the place had also resumed its role as an otter orphanage, and two juvenile giant otters were in residence at the time. This turned out lucky, because due to the river being so flooded, seeing giant otters in the wild was made much more difficult than it would normally have been in the dry season. I did spot one briefly on the river, but it was much better seeing these youngsters frolicking about, playing with each other and their designated Amerindian “step father”. Watching the feeding, too, was fantastic. In fact these half-grown otters have such an energy consumption that they are truly voracious and get fed all the fish that the lodge staff caught from the river. These fish were mostly piranhas and the otters have a habit of holding the fish in their front paws and chiselling down from the head – allegedly that’s because piranhas’ jaws can still bite even after death, so the teeth have to go first. Anyway, a hungry giant otter can demolish an entire fish like that in a matter of half a minute, and is then ready for the next one.
Another giant we had come for were giant anteaters, and one day we did see one in the savannah south of the lodge, where a vaquero (cowboy) on horseback helped steering one of these unique animals roughly in our direction. But the encounter was brief and the high grass made photography extremely difficult.
Yet another giant we hoped to see was what everybody hopes to encounter in these parts: the jaguar, South America’s largest cat, slightly bigger than Africa’s leopards but smaller than lions. We did indeed spot one on our last day as a big male crossed the track in front of our jeep some 100 yards away, but the encounter was so brief I did not have a chance to reach for my camera before the jaguar disappeared into the undergrowth.
But there were yet more (relative) giants in the northern Rupununi’s flora and fauna – such as the enormous toad, about twice the size of my fist, that we found in the middle of the lodge’s grounds one evening, or the massive golden ants, or the huge water lilies and their floating leaves the size of a wagon wheel. We took the boat out one evening to see the water lilies open after dark, emitting a sweet smell to attract pollinating beetles. Perhaps not as spectacular as seeing a jaguar, but still quite something. Gliding back along the water after dark shining a strong torch (flashlight) over the water’s surface also made you realize that what seemed just like darkness is in fact densely populated. The air about a metre above the water is thick with all manner of insects, from tiny mosquitoes to big alien-looking moths.
Flying back to civilization (i.e. Georgetown) at the end of the trip I was able to catch a glimpse of the large mining
areas of Linden
, Guyana’s second-biggest town and location of the 1962 riots – see above). The mining here is for bauxite
and leaves very visible scars in the landscape – as do the gold mining
operations you can see elsewhere. But at least the latter are regulated in Guyana, and it’s thus far less plagued by illegal gold mining, with its concomitant pollution, than parts of Brazil and also French Guiana
are, whereas in Suriname
bauxite mining and smelters have left very visible impacts on the forest.
All in all
, while on the truly dark-tourism front Guyana really only had Jonestown
, a place difficult to get to and whose legacy the country would rather forget about, it was still a great final part of my 2019 “Three Guianas” trip. The isolation of the locations in the interior, the scenery and the wildlife encounters, brief as they mostly were, certainly provided plenty of lasting memories. Obviously, given the low tourism rate in this little known country and the modalities of transport, this was far from a cheap adventure; in relation to the time spent there it was probably one of my most expensive trips, in fact. But worth every penny for the extraordinariness of it all.
- Georgetown 1 - northern end of the capital
- Georgetown 2 - seafront
- Georgetown 3 - colonial-era house with Demerara shutters
- Georgetown 4 - smallest house in town
- Georgetown 5 - tropical gothic building in need of some TLC
- Georgetown 6 - parliament building
- Georgetown 7 - Queen Victoria statue
- Georgetown 8 - Berbice slave rebellion monument
- Georgetown 9 - Demerara River taxi boats
- Guyana 01 - endless green jungle
- Guyana 02 - rapids
- Guyana 03 - flying over Kaieteur Falls
- Guyana 04 - Kaieteur Falls; five times higher than Niagara Falls
- Guyana 05 - giant bromeliad
- Guyana 06 - the bromeliad leaf axil is home to this tiny frog
- Guyana 07 - tiny yellow frog closer up
- Guyana 08 - big golden ant
- Guyana 09 - manatee
- Guyana 10 - massive toad
- Guyana 11 - giant otter
- Guyana 12 - giant anteater in the Rupununi
- Guyana 13 - El Dorado
- Guyana 14 - Amerindian village in the Rupununi
- Guyana 15 - flooded forest
- Guyana 16 - sunset over the Rupununi
- Guyana 17 - water lilies opening by night
- Guyana 18 - wobbly bridge in the Rupununi
- Guyana 19 - ruin in Lethem
- Guyana 20 - Linden
- Guyana 21 - the mighty Essequibo
- Guyana 22 - even by plane the Essequibo takes some time to cross
- Guyana 23 - plantation territory
- Guyana 24 - sugar is still an important comodity
- Guyana 25 - river fish at a market
- Guyana 26 - religious wackiness has not all gone