The site of the infamous 1978 “Jonestown massacre”, or mass suicide (it was both, suicides and murder), of the American “Peoples Temple” cult led by Jim Jones at their enclave commune in the middle of the jungle in northern Guyana
. In the end over 900 people were left dead, only a small handful escaped. One of the greatest tragedies of its kind ever, this put Guyana on the international news map for the worst of reasons.
Over four decades on, almost nothing of the original compound remains except for a few rusty relics of vehicles deep in the undergrowth of the jungle that has long thoroughly reclaimed the place. Even the memorial stone put there a few years ago is meanwhile completely surrounded by jungle and to get to it you have to machete your way through the thickets. Without a guide who knows the site well, you’d have next to no chance of finding it – and getting back out! So this is an extreme location for many reasons. And you can’t really call it dark tourism, to be frank, for as massively dark a site as it may be, it is definitely not ‘tourism’ in the usual sense of the word, but an expedition, tricky to organize, edgy and also hard work.
More background info: The story of Jonestown, and in particular that of what led up to the 1978 tragedy, is a complicated and controversial one. There are numerous resources out there (ranging from accusatory to rehabilitative, but there’s also enough that is rather neutral and factual) and this website cannot compete with or replace these. Only a short summary has to suffice here.
came from a poor background in Indiana, USA
, and apparently discovered his missionary zeal early in life, founding his own church aged only 22. As his flock grew, he relocated to California. Here his “Peoples Temple
” really took off, with more and more members joining and giving up their possessions for Jones, whose bank accounts soon filled to the tune of 10 million dollars. Jones was not only good at attracting followers, in particular lots of black Americans, thanks to the “Temple’s” egalitarian approach promising true equality and social justice. He also managed to get into the good books of various politicians, for instance then vice president Walter Mondale or George Moscone. The latter was in fact helped by the Temple in getting elected mayor of San Francisco in 1975. (Ironically, Moscone was assassinated, together with Harvey Milk, in 1978 – see under Castro
– the same year the Jonestown massacre also took place.)
However, “Reverend” Jones turned increasingly wacky, mixing religion with socialist/communist ideals in his preachings, praising Idi Amin, while at the same time becoming more and more authoritarian within his own organization. Furthermore, he apparently honed his sexual prowess by feasting on young virgins amongst his flock (and possibly boys too), and as rumours about this began to spread, Jones’ reputation suffered, the local media were getting suspicious and started asking questions. The increasingly paranoid Jim Jones was fearing a conspiracy against him and was preaching doom and gloom – and at the same time sought a “sanctuary” away from the media attention at home.
And so it happened that he bought a tract of land in far-away Guyana
. Why this little unknown South American country? Several aspects, other than the obvious remoteness, will have played a role. At the time Guyana had an eccentric socialist government under dictator Burnham, so there was some ideological affinity. The economically troubled Guyanese government will also have appreciated Jones’ money (plus potentially other forms of greasing corrupt hands). And there may have been a strategic reasoning at play too – having a large commune of mostly US citizens settling near the border with Venezuela
might deter this neighbouring country’s ambitions to grab the lands beyond the contested border by force (see under Guyana
In typical egomaniacal cult leader manner, Jones named the new settlement after himself, and Jonestown grew out of the jungle, to become, nominally, an agrarian “socialist paradise” where everybody worked happily together, away from the interfering stares of the hostile media and counter-revolutionary imperialist forces. At least that was the facade. How far exactly reality deviated from this ideal is contested, but what’s sure is that there were guns about, carried by specially trained guards, and the commune’s members had to forfeit their passports … so nobody could leave of their own volition. In addition, mind control games were increasingly playing a role … and drugs. Work was strictly organized, children were separated from their parents, and the cult even “bought” indigenous children from poor parents in the region to adopt and integrate them into their flock too. Apparently Jones had a broadcast system over which his ever-longer rambling speeches were piped even into the fields. And commune members had to attend long sessions of ideological training (i.e. more like indoctrination).
Another regular exercise was the so-called “White Nights”. These were basically mock mass suicide operations – pretty much like what soon happened for real. Jones had warned that outside intruders (“capitalist pigs”) could come parachuting in to destroy their little paradise and submit members to torture or worse, and that in that case it was better to commit “revolutionary suicide”.
One Temple defector called Deborah Layton gave a sinister account of Jonestown in an affidavit in the US, but at that stage few believed that things could really be that bad, even including torture of children!
Meanwhile a US congressman from California, Leo Ryan, who had been approached by concerned relatives of Temple members, decided to investigate and as part of that would fly to Guyana to inspect Jonestown personally, despite dire warnings by Layton and other defectors that this was not a safe move to undertake. Undeterred, though, Ryan and a delegation of advisers, media reporters and representatives of concerned relatives came to Guyana on 15 November 1978 and on 17 November travelled from Georgetown to Port Kaituma.
When Ryan and his entourage then visited Jonestown they were at first received welcomingly, and even though Jones himself was a bit weird he wasn’t deranged or aggressive. And they saw no evidence of mistreatment of Temple members. In fact, Ryan was prepared to give the commune a mostly positive review. The journalists were almost disappointed that this wasn’t the “story” they’d anticipated. Well, a few of them would soon find out they actually were in for more than they’d bargained for ....
The next day, the mood (especially Jim Jones’) changed and things soon began spiralling out of control. Jones, looking frail and disturbed, was full of doom and gloom. A few Temple members approached Ryan’s entourage saying they wanted to leave, which caused outrage among others – yet Jones did hand over their passports. One Temple member then tried to attack Ryan with a knife but was overpowered. Sensing an escalating situation, Ryan, his delegation and about 15 defectors quickly prepared to leave to compound.
Back at the Port Kaituma airstrip there were now two planes, as a second smaller one had been sent in to allow seating for the extra defectors. As they began boarding the planes one of the alleged defectors, in fact Deborah Layton’s brother Larry, drew a gun and around the same time a tractor and trailer with several heavily armed guards from the Peoples Temple turned up. In the shooting that followed, Leo Ryan, three of his entourage and one of the defectors were killed, several others seriously injured. When the attackers retreated, having accomplished their main goal of murdering Ryan, the pilots fled in the smaller aircraft, leaving behind the damaged bigger plane and the survivors, who then had to spend the night at the location with some locals who attended to the wounded, terrified of the gunmen returning.
At Jonestown, however, an even worse apocalypse was dawning. The “White Nights” were becoming reality, the final countdown began. A general meeting was called. A big vat was prepared with a potion based on a powdered soft drink mix called “Flavour Aid” laced with cyanide and other toxic chemicals. The “Prophet” Jim Jones oversaw proceedings from his throne and kept rambling on about “revolutionary suicide” and “dying with dignity” (there even exists an audio recording of this, known as the “Death Tape”; you can find this ultimately sinister audio file online … it’s something like 45 minutes long, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to more than short excerpts of it, too chilling is Jones’ speech and the moans and cries you can hear in the background).
Parents first poisoned their kids and then themselves. Some drank the poison voluntarily, others were forcibly injected with it. There was much wailing and crying. But most complied. Some trying to flee were shot by the guards or wrangled down and administered the poison by force. Jones eventually killed himself by means of a gun (though it is also rumoured he may have had one of his followers shoot him). Hence what was initially referred to as a ‘mass suicide’ is now more commonly called a ‘massacre’, or at least ‘murder-suicide’; it certainly was a gigantic tragedy.
Only a small handful of Temple members, who had sensed danger in time and/or were lucky, managed to escape. In total 909 were left dead at Jonestown, a third of them children. Add the dead at the Port Kaituma airstrip as well as those Temple members who committed suicide at their base in Georgetown and the total death toll
– the largest loss of American lives in peacetime until 9/11
, as many a source is keen to emphasize.
Jonestown even left its mark in American English phraseology, “Drinking the Kool-Aid” became an idiom meaning something like ‘blindly, obediently following a doomed idea into catastrophe’. Kool-Aid is another brand name for a similar drink powder formula to Flavour Aid. Somewhere along the way the latter was confused with the former, which was the better known brand.
Jonestown on the morning of 19 November 1978 was a scene of carnage. Bodies lay about in rows, face down, some stacked three deep, beginning to bloat and stink in the tropical humid heat. Absolute hell. The Guyanese army was sent in to clear up the site – and protect it, as it hadn’t taken long for looters to start scavenging whatever valuables they could get their hands on. The army secured drugs, weapons, cash and a trunk containing the passports of the dead.
The bodies were then cleared away by the US military
, by units trained in cleaning up battlefields. The bodies were flown to the USA
and underwent forensic investigation
. The authorities managed to account for only a good half of the victims. Over 400 remained unclaimed or unidentified. These were then buried in a mass grave in Oakland, California
Amongst them are, controversially, also a number of Amerindian or Carib children that Jones’ Temple had “adopted”. These should never have ended up in the US, buried far away from their homeland and their real parents who, mostly out of desperation, had given them up for adoption in the hope they’d get a better life that way. Instead they were given a nasty death and were taken away completely.
Many witnesses of the airstrip shooting and of the Jonestown massacre aftermath are still traumatized. Locals avoid the place. Loads of wild conspiracy theories abound. Quite a few locals believe the place to be haunted.
In Georgetown I spoke to a man who used to live in the Port Kaituma area at the time and remembered seeing Temple members at the market. He too said he would never ever go near the Jonestown site. And later on my trip when I was at Karanambu Lodge the owner there responded by saying “Oh, don’t mention Jonestown” when I indicated I had been to the site. That seems to be the general sentiment in Guyana.
Even though a memorial stone was erected in 2009 (see below), Jonestown gets no official mention in the country, and it is completely off the tourist map. Look at any tourism website promoting Guyana and Jonestown will indeed not be mentioned (or at best in a brief dismissive side remark, as in this article
– external link, opens in a new window). Making it there is hence more an expedition and pilgrimage.
I had read in John Gimlette’s book
that once there existed a T-shirt, sold at the market in Georgetown at the time of his visit, whose print in ultimately black humour showed a map of Guyana with only Jonestown marked as “sights of interest”. I also have a copy of a humorous “world atlas” by the US satirical magazine “The Onion” in whose chapter about Guyana Jonestown is, again, the only thing mentioned. So the T-shirt is in a way correct. If people in the outside world know anything about Guyana at all, chances are that it’s Jonestown and nothing else. Within Guyana, though, nobody wants to be reminded of it, it seems.
Having made it there despite of this state of affairs was hence not just a fulfilment of a pilgrimage
but also a privilege. And indeed when I posted something about my trip there on the Facebook page
I run parallel to this website, I got plenty of kudos from several of my followers.
In a very strange way, visiting this non-site thus stands as one of the top pinnacles of my dark-tourism achievements, even though there was so little to actually see.
What there is to see:
Not much … not much at all. This is not sightseeing but a proper pilgrimage for the really devoted die-hard dark traveller. I was lucky enough to find a company (see under Guyana
!) who were able to make this possible for me, because without having the local logistics organized for you, it would be all but impossible to go there. This is an account of my trip to Jonestown in August 2019:
My organizers arranged not only my domestic flight (in a little propeller plane) and basic accommodation in Port Kaituma
for more details
), but also a local fixer/guide & driver who took us to the site, which is a few miles outside Port Kaituma.
We picked up a local “guide” en route, a small elderly man who apparently used to work at the Jonestown commune back in the day and still knew his way around the site. He took along a machete, which he wielded deftly, despite the fact that most of his fingers were missing from his right hand. But only through his hacking down the jungle with this machete were we able to get through the thick undergrowth at the abandoned site. The jungle really has mostly reclaimed everything that’s left.
Hardly anything even indicates the location of Jonestown these days, there’s just a little bit of dirt track branching off the main track and a grey post that once formed part of the main gate of the compound. The “welcome to Jonestown” sign above it has long gone. Today there is no marker whatsoever.
The track soon disappears in jungle and you have to battle your way through the undergrowth that has regrown. This quickly becomes so thick that the only way through is hacking a path free with a machete. You still get plenty of scratches from thorny plants and you have to watch your step very carefully so as not to trip over roots or slip in the mud … and also make sure you don’t disturb any wasps in their numerous nests here … or anything worse in the undergrowth (snakes are said to be quite common here).
After a while, already deep in the jungle, we reached the only official Guyanese acknowledgement of the Jonestown massacre, a memorial stone that was erected here by the government in 2009. The inscription on it simply says: “In memory of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy, November 18, 1978, Jonestown, Guyana”. Below this several mementos had been placed, including two laminated boards with (very) faded photos and the words “love you forever”. One has to assume that these must have been left here by victims’ relatives who had made the pilgrimage here earlier. I asked my local fixer how often this sort of thing happens, and he replied “no more than once or twice a year”.
We then worked our way deeper into the jungle in search of some relics. Eventually we found a few rusty remains of vehicle wrecks. Only metal hasn’t completely disappeared yet. All structures are gone. Of course anything built from wood has by now rotted away and has become part of the soil. Much would also have fallen victim to looting in the early days after the tragedy.
However, there were two larger wrangled clusters of wrecks, one clearly having been a tractor once – quite possibly the very tractor by means of which the Jonestown guards got to the airstrip where they killed Congressman Ryan and some of his entourage. The driver’s seat of the tractor had half rusted away and a twig was piercing through it … more or less exactly where a person sitting on this seat would have had their anus. I found that kind of ironic … it was almost as if the site was still trying to tell us visitors “bugger you!” …
Other than these vehicle remains there were only a few smaller pieces of metal strewn about the undergrowth. Unlike John Gimlette (see here
) who had visited this site ca. a dozen years earlier, we did not find any shoes or other personal items, nor any vestiges of any structures.
Our local guide did take us to a bush-covered location that he claimed would have been where Jim Jones’ main pavilion
once stood. But there was not a trace of it left
to see. Before heading out to Guyana
I had printed a map of Jonestown in its heyday that I had gleaned online, and our local guide looked at it and pointed in various directions to indicate where what would have been. But there was no way – and no point – of working our way even deeper into the jungle.
And so instead we hacked and stumbled our way back to the car. I took a few more photos of the vestiges of the gate, got in the car and off we drove back to Port Kaituma. None of us said much on that journey. We dropped the local guide off (with a tip, of course) and then our fixer took us back to our guest house. We spent the rest of the day just hanging around in desolate little Port Kaituma … but the fresh memories of our visit to Jonestown were still just sinking in.
So was it worth it? Speaking strictly for myself, I’d say it was, despite the disproportionate effort (and cost). But it is definitely not for everyone. I don’t think I can recommend it, really, given how very little is there to see. So it really is something only for the most dedicated and devoted travellers with an indefatigable mission for making this pilgrimage. Everybody else, forget it.
Some 6 miles (10 km) as the crow flies from Port Kaituma in northern Guyana
, which is ca. 140 miles (225 km) north-west of Georgetown.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: extremely remote and very hard to access; and hence not cheap either.
Jonestown is basically a non-site and sees practically zero tourism. It is most certainly not promoted by the country’s tourism industry or government. But I had read about a visit to Jonestown in John Gimlette’s book “Wild Coast”
and when I discussed it with the Georgetown-based operator that was tailoring my 2019 trip to the Guianas I found that they were indeed the very ones who had also organized Gimlette’s Jonestown trip back then. So I asked to have it included in my programme too. They emphasized repeatedly that “there’s nothing left to see”, except perhaps the odd rusty relic, and that it would be quite an effort, and costly, but as I persisted they did add this to my itinerary.
Getting to Jonestown first required a domestic flight in a small ca. 14-seater propeller plane to Port Kaituma airstrip. There is really no other way of getting there – other than by a cargo boat that ploughs up the coast from Georgetown and then up the river (which would take probably more than a week and would be next to impossible to organize). There are no roads leading here, and even in Port Kaituma and its immediate environs you can’t really speak of roads. They’re just rough dirt tracks. The rules for these internal flights are a bit different. For one thing, weapons are allowed on board – so long as they are declared (try that in Europe!). On arrival and departure there’s some bureaucracy to get through, though. A form has to be filled out at the police post inside the “terminal” building (shed, more like). Apart from the usual personal data you also have to state your profession … and again on the way back – begging the question whether people often change professions after just a single day in Port Kaituma …
Anyway, at the airstrip, having successfully passed through the arrivals procedure we were met by a local fixer (who was called “Ratty” … not his real name, but that’s what he was known as to everybody locally, possibly due to his somewhat protruding teeth rather than any other form of rattiness). He picked us up in his well battered Japanese car – which, rather fittingly I found, had the legend “Never give up” adorning the rear window – and drove us first into the centre of Port Kaituma. ‘Centre’ doesn’t mean much here, it’s basically just a cluster of buildings at the crossroads of some muddy dirt tracks. Then we had to walk on foot along a narrow alleyway past some ramshackle shop fronts (all advertising “we buy gold”) and closed bars to get to our guest house where a room had been booked for us. It was simple, but had a lock on the door, an old aircon and a basic bathroom with a toilet, so it was OK. It was called “International Guesthouse” but that was clearly an exaggeration. My wife and I may well have been the only truly international element here – unless you count Brazilian workers and Venezuelan refugees …
A bit later our fixer then drove us to Jonestown. He asked if we knew our way around the Jonestown site or needed a guide, and after we vehemently replied in the affirmative to the latter and (truthfully) denied the former, we stopped en route to pick up a local who did have that knowledge – and a machete. Good job, because without him and his machete we would never have got far. But he knew the way and was adept at hacking at the jungle enough for us to work our way in.
Nevertheless I ended up with some serious scratches on my legs and arms from thorny bushes we had to push past. It was certainly no picnic or walk in the park, but doable for anybody halfway fit. Needless to say you’ll need proper sturdy hiking boots and long trousers and sleeves – and plenty of insect repellent!
It has to be stressed again: without a local guide who knows the place really well you’d have no chance of finding anything here – and more importantly: of finding your way back to the road! And you really, really, really do not want to get lost in this jungle!!! In other words: do NOT attempt this on your own!
So much for the logistics and effort required to get there, what about costs? Well I can’t say, really, as this was organized for me as part of a longer trip for which I paid a total sum, but don’t know how much every component would have come to. But I can enquire and see if they can give me a figure. The guest house wouldn’t have been so expensive, but the domestic flight in a small plane quite likely was, as was hiring a local fixer/driver. I’ll try to find out more details.
Time required: Only about an hour or so at the site itself, but an overnight stay in Port Kaituma is required, so making it to Jonestown ultimately takes the best part of two days in total as a minimum.
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing … unless you count Port Kaituma with its rough, frontier-town edginess. It’s as far from “touristy” as you can get, really. Port Kaituma sees hardly any visitors coming here “for leisure” (no, in fact make that: absolutely none), Jonestown pilgrims turn up at best at a rate of one or two a year.
The place is mainly concerned with mining, gold in particular. You can see evidence of that all over the town: “we buy gold” signs are everywhere. I remember joking to my wife that I presume that there are no more than five professions present in Port Kaituma: miner, mechanic, gold trader, shopkeeper and prostitute.
Well, maybe add hostelry to the list of businesses too, although the overlap with shopkeeping and brothel-running seems rather vague in this place. There is certainly some form of nightlife going on, going by the loud pumping bass beats that fill the centre of town after dark. One bar-cum-nightclub place I spotted even had that very name: “After Dark” … how fitting for a place near ex-Jonestown! I was glad I had packed my earplugs so I was able to get some sleep regardless.
During the day we went for a bit of a wander, but not too far from our guest house, and sat at one watering hole overlooking the river and the actual “port” and had a few beers, and the atmosphere was reasonably friendly. I even had a chat with a local guy there … about climate change, of all topics (about which this young guy was quite clued up – to my surprise, to be honest).
On our drive around town before heading to Jonestown, our driver-guide pointed out some “sights” (school, church, truck mechanic’s place, …), which more or less served to emphasize: there aren’t any here.
One unexpected thing I spotted above one of the numerous shops (all selling more or less the same: packaged food like biscuits, bottled water, toiletries and plastic kitchenware) was elaborately painted the colours of the Ethiopian flag and featured the legend: “< HAIL > Selassie is the ALMIGHTY”! This is a reference to Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia
regarded in Rastafarianism as the returned messiah. It wouldn’t have been out of place in Jamaica, but seeing it here in the middle of the Guyanese jungle was a bit surprising.
Also somewhat unexpected I found the several Union Jacks adorning miners’ trucks and other vehicles, surprising too, especially given that Guyana is an ex-British
So, yes, in some indirect way, Port Kaituma does fit as a dark place too. But otherwise the nearest further proper dark destinations are over Guyana
’s eastern border in Suriname
However, what can also count as as a dark aspect is seeing from the air as you fly in all the scars in the endless jungle that are the result of gold mining. You can also clearly make out strangely coloured ponds – polluted water from the washing of the soil, often involving the highly toxic element mercury. What’s worse, you can also see where such polluted waters run off into rivers.
I enquired with my organizers whether these would be illegal gold mines and they denied it. Apparently it is at least regulated and officials do pay visits to check everything is done by the rule book. It still won’t be good for the forest but at least it seems to be kept in check – unlike in Brazil or to an increasing degree French Guiana
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing nearby; you’d have to fly back to Georgetown first and take it from there.
- Jonestown 1 - former gate
- Jonestown 2 - thick undergrowth
- Jonestown 3 - machete-ing a path
- Jonestown 4 - memorial stone
- Jonestown 5 - with mementos
- Jonestown 6 - rusty relic
- Jonestown 7 - tractor remnants
- Jonestown 8 - more rusty metal relics
- Jonestown 9a - boxy rusty relic
- Jonestown 9b - ex-tractor seat
- Port Kaituma 1 - the airstrip
- Port Kaituma 2 - small plane
- Port Kaituma 3 - gold rules
- Port Kaituma 4 - fitting
- Port Kaituma 5 - evidence of Rastafarianism
- Port Kaituma 6 - the port by the river
- Port Kaituma 7 - miners truck
- Port Kaituma 8 - jungle-worthy vehicles
- Port Kaituma 9 - gold mining scarring the jungle