The capital of Suriname
and the absolute crown jewel of all the towns and cities in the whole Guianas region. Paramaribo’s Old Town with its picturesque colonial-era wooden architecture is a worthy World Heritage Site. The city is generally a safe and pleasant place with a good tourism infrastructure, and hence an ideal base for making day trips further afield to explore the rest of the country. But it also offers plenty of places of interest itself, including for the dark tourist.
By South American standards, Paramaribo is quite old. It’s the site of one of the first successful attempts by European colonizers to establish a permanent settlement in this harsh and hostile environment.
There had probably been an Amerindian village here in pre-Columbian times, but the first European attempt was a short-lived Dutch
settlement. The site was picked in 1613/14 because of being the first point along the Suriname River where, 10 miles (15 km) inland from the Atlantic
coast, ships could land without having to deal with the typical shallow sandbars. Next came the French
in 1644, who built a simple wooden fort as a trading post at the site of today’s Fort Zeelandia
But the first serious colonization began with the 1651 establishment of a British
settlement by Baron Francis Willoughby, then governor of Barbados. His private little empire at Paramaribo also saw the first sugar plantations being created, and the first African slaves being imported to work them. The name given to the settlement was, surprise, surprise: Willoughbyland.
Towards the end of the Anglo-Dutch War of 1665–1667, the Dutch under commander Abraham Crijnssen captured Fort Willoughby … which was later renamed Fort Zeelandia
. The province was swapped through the 1667 Treaty of Breda for New Amsterdam on the North American coast that was ceded to the British in return for the Dutch keeping their piece of the Guianas. New Amsterdam later became New York
! Meanwhile the British had however returned to Paramaribo and had to be driven out again on Crijnssen’s return in 1668. In 1674, the Treaty of Westminster renewed the earlier deal and sealed it properly. For the next century and a quarter, Paramaribo and the lands around it remained in Dutch
Paramaribo and Dutch Guiana were developed as a Dutch colony under Lord Sommelsdijck, who was appointed governor in 1683. He established the governor’s residence where today’s Presidential Palace is. By the early 18th century Paramaribo was a thriving town and export centre for shipping all the sugar and other crops from the surrounding plantations to the Old World.
The Dutch also dug drainage canals and built sluice gates to develop the land and make it suitable for the construction of the ever growing town of Paramaribo. Through this, and also thanks to the safety from naval attacks as a result of the establishment of Fort Nieuw Amsterdam
in the mid-18th century, Paramaribo became a thriving city and by the turn of the 19th century had some 2000 houses. In the area around it over 600 plantations were in operation (see e.g. Mariënburg
The city suffered two devastating fires in 1821 and 1832, respectively, in which old inner city was almost entirely destroyed. So the oldest colonial buildings you see there today are actually the result of rebuilding after 1832.
Later in the century, the city’s economy was waning as the plantations lost productivity and many were closed down. The abolition of slavery in 1863 also had a dramatic effect, firstly in that many freed slaves, and also some who had managed to escape, now settled in Paramaribo. And secondly through the arrival of many thousands of indentured workers from the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia
, manly Java as well as from British India
. And many of these also settled in the city after their work contracts expired. Hence today’s extreme ethnic diversity of Paramaribo’s inhabitants.
While the remaining plantations were losing profitability, new mining operations, gold and bauxite (see under Suriname
), brought a fresh boost to the economy, and by the end of WWII
Paramaribo had 75,000 inhabitants and 13,000 houses. After an administrative reshuffle in 1987 incorporating more of the sprawling outskirts, Paramaribo’s total population came to almost a quarter of a million, about half of Suriname
’s total today.
Suriname’s dark days of the military dictatorship also played out largely in the capital, including the 1980 coup itself, the requisitioning of Fort Zeelandia
by the military – and of course the December Murders of 1982 at that Fort – see also under history
. The regime even constructed a monument celebrating the “revolution” of 1980, at the site of a burned-down police station, the stumps of its front columns were integrated into the monument.
When in 2010, the former dictator Bouterse was democratically elected president, and re-elected in 2015, the Presidential Palace in the heart of the city became his primary residence (although he had/has numerous others). At the time of writing, however, Bouterse is in court appealing against a December 2019 sentencing to 20 years in prison, so his days in the grand palace may be over …
Since the return of democracy and economic stability, Paramaribo has become a very safe city, certainly more so than any other city in the region. Its cultural, and especially architectural heritage has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2002.
By the way, the pronunciation of the city’s name, is with the main stress on the third syllable, not the fourth, as I had used to say it before coming to Paramaribo and hearing it said by the locals.
What there is to see:
Both from a dark and a non-dark perspective, the prime sight in Paramaribo is probably Fort Zeelandia
, the historic kernel from which Paramaribo developed, long used as a prison, and the site of the December Murders during the military dictatorship.
Just inland from the Fort is Independence Square
(formerly Government Square or Orange Square) and along the north-east of it the grand Presidential Palace
. Formerly seat of the governor of Dutch Guiana, but since independence the abode of the highest political office in Suriname
. Since this office has been held by former dictator Dési Bouterse since 2010, the palace could arguably also be considered a place of somewhat dark significance (see history
). And if the appeal against the recent conviction for murder by a Surinamese high court succeeds and Bouterse can stand for re-election again in May 2020, it could well be that he can keep occupancy of the palace. We’ll see …
Near the Presidential Palace, to the north-west are several other government buildings, mostly featuring sturdy red-brick walls and big Doric columns at the front. The grandest here is the Ministry of Finance with its tall campanile. And in front of it stands a statue of Johan Adolf Pengel, who in the 1960s was Suriname’s first black prime minister, and a big man indeed, if the huge pot-bellied depiction of him is true to nature.
To the east of the Presidential Palace is the Palmentuin, or palm garden, the only public park in central Paramaribo, formerly the Government Palace’s vegetable garden, but developed as a recreational space from the 19th century. There are around a thousand palm trees here, and the site was declared a national monument in 1999. Look around closely in the north-western corner of the park and you’ll come across a small but very touching monument: the Ruben Klas statue. This was a little boy who died from asphyxiation after hiding in a fridge in 1966. The monument was made by the boy’s father Jozef and bears a plaque that (in Dutch) admonishes parents to take better care of their children. Sadly I found the statue of the little black boy vandalized when I was there – someone had hacked of the little boy’s male member!
There are also other monuments around the Palmentuin, including one for Amerindian tribes, and along its eastern side, on the banks of the Sommelsdijck Canal new wooden huts selling souvenirs and a tourist information booth had recently been set up.
The same artist who sculpted the Ruben Klas monument also made the much beloved Kwakoe statue in the city centre (on the corner of Dr Sophie Redmond Straat and Zwartenhovenbrug Straat) that depicts a slave breaking free from his chains – it was unveiled on the centenary of the abolition of slavery in Suriname.
An especially remarkable monument, from a very dark perspective, is the “Revolution Monument
” on the corner of Waterkant and Heiligen Weg. It features grey concrete slabs with bas-reliefs depicting fierce soldiers with rifles and a woman waving a flag in gratitude and the inscription “25 Februari 1980”, the date of the military coup by Bouterse and his fellow sergeants – see under history
. It was unveiled in 1981 and incorporated several stumps of columns that one belonged to a police station that stood at this site but which was burned to the ground during the coup. It still stands, but nobody seemed to pay any attention to it when I was there …
Yet more monuments with dark associations can be found nearer Fort Zeelandia
, such as the Korean War memorial
next to the National Assembly
building directly west of the Fort. This features three bronze soldier statues with long overcoats atop a grey plinth. The soldiers bear a striking resemblance to those that make up the Korean War
memorial on the Mall
in Washington D.C.
, to the point that I wonder whether they were even made by the same sculptor.
To the east of Fort Zeelandia are more sculptures, including a very strange one that looks like a dog-faced monster holding up a bunch of five small kids, and a duo of statues called “Baba en Mai
”, which is a monument commemorating the arrival of Hindustani immigrants (i.e. from India
To the west of Fort Zeelandia is an obelisk that according to the plaque on it commemorates the Hinterland Wars (see history
), and by the approach track to the gate of the Fort is another military memorial, the TRIS-monument
, dedicated to the Dutch
forces (TRIS stands for ‘troops in Suriname’) who were responsible for security during the colonial era up to independence in 1975. This monument, unveiled as late as 2013, is thus not without controversy.
Not far from there to the east stands the large ruin of a big brick building, allegedly once the very largest brick structure in the country, which used to be a warehouse and later military barracks but which burned down in 1990, leaving only the outer walls. By now these walls are partly being reclaimed by vegetation.
Other ruins you can spot in the city are more often the result of the rot that comes with the hot and humid climate, which affects wooden buildings especially. You can see some neglected houses badly in need of care, and others that are already beyond any hope of repair. In many cases the neglect is due to disputes over ownership, which in the Surinamese system apparently precludes renovation work, or so my guide tried to explain.
Also lost for good is the large hulk of a shipwreck
you can see in the middle of the Suriname River about halfway between Fort Zeelandia and the tall bridge to Meerzorg. This wreck is the “Goslar
”, a German freighter that was sunk here during WWII
in 1940, scuppered by its German crew after Nazi Germany
had invaded the Netherlands and the Surinamese police was ordered to intern all Germans. (See also Fort Nieuw Amsterdam
.) The “Goslar” has been left lying on its side ever since, serving as a silent reminder of Suriname’s small role in the war. There has, however, been talk on and off of possibly salvaging and removing the wreck, as it is an obstacle in the waterway towards the harbour installations and the oil refinery further upstream.
While I was in Paramaribo, shortly after the end of our guided city tour as I was downloading photos from my camera at the hotel I was staying in, a thunderstorm started – and lasted for more than two hours. It was a spectacle and impressive demonstration of the forces of the weather in this part of the world. The amassed rain meant that the city was about one foot under water, I couldn’t leave the hotel, and no taxis were running. Even 24 hours later some streets in the lower-lying north-eastern part of the city were still flooded!
All in all
, Paramaribo may not have so many particularly dark sites, but a varied range of them, including a couple rather significant ones; and it is otherwise a very pleasant city and practical base for explorations of Suriname
. Personally, I liked the whole vibe of the place, and it’s undeniable that visually it is extremely attractive too.
’s coastal strip, slightly inland, namely along a bend on the Suriname River, on its western banks, some ten miles (15 km) from the river’s estuary.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: not so easy to get to, but once there it’s easier to get around; price levels vary quite a bit.
’s international airport (Johan Adolf Pengel International airport – JAPI) is quite a way south of Paramaribo (at least an hour’s drive, often twice that if traffic is thick), so you need to prearrange transport or get a taxi or bus on arrival. This can cost between 35 and over 200 SRD.
Once in the city, getting around
the main central parts is easy enough on foot, but can be sweaty in the humid heat. For tours around the city as well as to destinations within day trip reach there are plenty of tour operators
offering a wide choice of things to do that way. I had mine worked into a longer tailored programme put together by the Georgetown-based company Wilderness Explorers (see under Guyana
). But you can also arrange things on the spot through the tourist information or hotels.
Accommodation options are plentiful, ranging from simple lodgings, B&Bs and guest houses, some in beautiful historic buildings, to larger hotels, such as those of the local Torarica chain, with the Royal Torarica and neighbouring Torarica Hotel & Casino the top choices (casinos, by the way, are a BIG thing in Paramaribo!). But there are also many mid-range options, including one by the Torarica group called “Eco Resort Inn” (although the “eco” accolade is rather rudimentary, and more or less limited to the recycling bins dotted around the premises), which is where I stayed and found it perfectly agreeable.
Food & drink
are never far away, and the city boasts a wide range of eateries, from formal upmarket restaurants (e.g. at the Royal Torarica) to dirt-cheap Indonesian-style warungs or Indian roti shops selling tasty and filling ethnic meals. My favourite places were Martin’s House of Indian Food in the east of the city (requiring a taxi, unless you’re staying in the area) – and, closer to the city centre, a place called De Dijck, which served a mix of Dutch- and Caribbean-influenced dishes and – a rarity in Suriname
! – imported craft beers as well as not too painfully overpriced wine
Time required: For the individual places mentioned above a couple of days could suffice, but you’d want longer so you can go on day trips outside the city, so four or five days are the minimum. But if you want to get into the slow-paced Caribbean routine, you can spend a lot longer than that in this charming place.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Paramaribo itself is primarily a non-dark attraction. Amongst the top sights are the historic Fort Zeelandia
and the marvellous old colonial architecture of the World Heritage inner city.
The latter begins just behind the government quarter along Henck Arron Straat
, which features several very old buildings and the grand Peter and Paul Cathedral
, reputedly the largest wooden building in the Western hemisphere (although Guyana
’s capital Georgetown makes a similar claim with regard to their St George’s Cathedral). If the church building, which goes back to the late 19th century, looks a bit new, that’s because it underwent substantial renovation from the mid-1990s until 2010. The outside is painted dark yellow and grey, but the interior, especially the ceiling is unpainted cedar wood in all its glory.
is another jewel of the inner city, and it’s here that you can find the city’s only working synagogue
and its largest mosque
. They stand side by side in peaceful harmony and even share a common car park – a fact that tour guides and guidebooks alike eagerly tout as a symbol of Suriname
’s multi-religious as well as multi-ethnic tolerant culture.
More of the typical characterful colonial-era wooden houses can be found both right opposite Fort Zeelandia
as well as along Waterkant Straat
running along the riverside west of the Fort all the way to the Central Market
. The latter is also worth a look, not least for the exotic fish on offer and maybe to pick up a bottle of home-made Surinamese sambal or chilli sauce (a real treat for fire-eaters like myself!).
Not as grand as the big white colonial-era mansions but historically also important are the really small wooden buildings that were the slave houses – or later rather the houses of freed slaves – and these are nowadays a dying breed and fewer and fewer of them survive.
A tradition that was kept alive at least in the form of a museum is the culture and especially traditional clothing called Koto worn by the Afro-Caribbeans/Creoles of Suriname. My guide incorporated a visit to the “Koto Museum” into our general city tour, and though I’m not normally so into traditional fashions, it was interesting to learn about the many hidden messages represented by different patterns, and various details of the folded headdress, called “anisa”, that comes with the main Koto dress.
There are plenty more attractions that I cannot comment on since I didn’t see/do them, such as visiting Paramaribo’s zoo
or going on a dolphin
along the river. Suffice it to say, there’s enough to keep visitors entertained to justify spending a whole holiday here, with Paramaribo serving as the ideal base when in Suriname
- Paramaribo 01 - Independence Square
- Paramaribo 02 - Presidential Palace
- Paramaribo 03 - Ministry of Finance
- Paramaribo 04 - Big Pengel statue
- Paramaribo 05 - Ministry of Natural Resources
- Paramaribo 06 - Palmentuin
- Paramaribo 07 - tragedy and warning
- Paramaribo 08 - monument for Amerindians
- Paramaribo 09 - Revolution Monument
- Paramaribo 10 - glorifying the Sergants Coup
- Paramaribo 11 - National Assembly
- Paramaribo 12 - Korean War memorial
- Paramaribo 13 - strange monument
- Paramaribo 14 - immigration monument
- Paramaribo 15 - war monument
- Paramaribo 16 - yet another military monument
- Paramaribo 17 - former barracks
- Paramaribo 18 - now an empty shell
- Paramaribo 19 - trees growing on the bricks
- Paramaribo 20 - Waterkant
- Paramaribo 21 - World Heritage wooden architecture
- Paramaribo 22 - all quiet on a Sunday
- Paramaribo 23 - wooden buildings need a lot of maintenance in this climate
- Paramaribo 24 - the rot does not stop at official buildings
- Paramaribo 25 - social affairs ministry building in need of TLC itself
- Paramaribo 26 - empty building with collapsing roof
- Paramaribo 27 - this one is probably beyond repair
- Paramaribo 28 - splendidly refurbished cathedral
- Paramaribo 29 - also wooden
- Paramaribo 30 - mosque and synagogue in peaceful direct neighbourhood
- Paramaribo 31 - a bit of modern architecture
- Paramaribo 32 - policemen on bicycles
- Paramaribo 33 - yes, we can
- Paramaribo 34 - market
- Paramaribo 35 - strange little fish
- Paramaribo 36 - collapse
- Paramaribo 37 - Koti Museum
- Paramaribo 38 - small wooden house
- Paramaribo 39 - freed slave house
- Paramaribo 40 - Suriname River and bridge
- Paramaribo 41 - car-park-turned-river by flooding after heavy rain