After a delicious sleep on the pillow-soft mattress at the Marriott Hotel, we were whisked off on our first morning for a first taste of Guyana’s wildlife in Georgetown’s botanic gardens. I fully admit to being a novice birder and was well below par on the speed required to clock the bird, register it and then focus on it – a crazy high speed bird bingo – but judging by the delight of the experts in the group, it was an hour well spent, including lovely sightings of a Great Horned Owl and Paradise Parrots. It’s not unusual to count up to 50 bird species here.
One of the unexpected wildlife encounters of the trip was to be found in Georgetown’s city park, which reminded me of Clapham Common. Dodging joggers and school kids letting off steam, we were led to a pond where we were encouraged to waft freshly picked grass in the water. Before long grey shapes materialized and we were surrounded by up to eight manatees vying for a nibble.
By the end of my 10 days in Guyana, something had changed and rather than my camera, it was my binoculars that became firmly attached to my neck. I became hooked on the search and was rewarded in spades by Guyana’s dazzling wildlife, from the teeny tiny to the ‘giants’. Guyana is an idyll for those not only in search of wildlife, but as an unexploited tourist destination. The scenery is unexpectedly dramatic and we were welcomed with genuine warmth and enthusiasm in all corners of the country.
Here’s a snapshot of what’s in store for visitors to this magical destination.
Guyana – the people and food:
Guyana is a melting pot of cultures, with the main three being Amerindians, Africans and Indians. Although the British, Dutch and French fought repeatedly over Guyana, the British eventually took control. As someone used to struggling to communicate with its Spanish and Portuguese-speaking neighbours, Guyana comes as a doddle with English as the official language (albeit with an attractive sing-song Caribbean lilt).
Food is one of my passions and a visit to the Guyana Store and Bourda Market, one of Georgetown’s two main markets (along with Starbroek) with local chef Devlin from the Backyard Cafe, is a must for fellow food enthusiasts. Here African potions sit side by side with Amerindian cassava products and vendors tote their home-grown vegetables and tropical fruits from table tops or out of the back of their van. And there’s clear evidence that there are some things that the British just can’t live without.
A few hours after parting with Delvin at the market, we rejoined him at his Backyard Café where he then transformed our purchases into exquisite modern interpretations of traditional Guyanese dishes. Sitting with a steaming cold beer in his leafy Backyard, feasting on his food and meeting his delightful family should be top of the list for visitors to Georgetown.
For those who like a bit of spice in their lives, sampling curries that are every bit as good as those you’ll taste on the Indian subcontinent was an added bonus. In Georgetown we were treated to an authentic Hindu seven-curry experience which started with picking lotus leaves which later became the ultimate in biodegradable crockery.
Georgetown itself is home to the majority of the 750,000 population and here architecture is predominantly colonial, with some outrageously flamboyant wooden examples still standing.
Away from the main towns, the Amerindian communities live basic subsistence lifestyles in traditional thatched huts, sleeping in hammocks and using their dugouts to travel along the country’s river network and for domestic duties such as washing and fishing. Cassava root is their staple food and this simple and poisonous root is transformed into all manner of dish and drink, from a cracker-like bread to a thick alcoholic drink.
Guyana translates as land of many waters in Amerindian and amongst the many attractions of travelling in the interior are to travel by river between lodges. There’s the giant Essequibo River, the dark, steep-sided Burro Burro and the gentle waters of the Rupununi river, all of which are a haven for wildlife, so journeys are spent scouring the banks for giant river otters and caiman and the trees for birds and monkeys.
The coastal area where Georgetown is located is a muddy swamp which was largely tamed by the Dutch using African slave labour and transformed into sugarcane plantations to satisfy Europe’s sweet tooth and produce some of the world’s finest rum.
As you fly over the country, immaculate sugarcane fields suddenly give way to the rainforest which blankets virtually the rest of the country. Out of the rainforest poke table-top mountains which offer good hikes and waterfalls which thunder over the edge into chasms below.
What comes as a surprise are the golden-grassy plains of the Rupununi savannah which trick anyone who has visited African into thinking that they are back in the Masai-Mara. These are home to barefooted cowboys and giant anteaters and are rumoured to have been the site of the mythical El Dorado: having spent weeks in the darkness of the rainforest, the Spanish conquistators emerged to discover what they thought was a dazzling golden lake stretching as far as the eye could see.
Guyana is still a fledgling in the tourism game and it feels such a privilege to visit a country where you’re sharing the experience with just a few other lucky visitors. Once we left Georgetown we encountered just seven other tourists. There is one main road connecting the north and south of the country and there’s so little traffic, just the odd minibus or motorbike. We regularly parked in the middle of the road for a spot of birdwatching. If you’re very fortunate it’s here that you may glimpse the country’s most legendary wildcat (and national animal), a jaguar.
For visitors with a sense of adventure you can hire an SUV and self-drive. For the time-poor, a small fleet of light aircraft will deposit and collect you from strategically located airstrips, where the waiting room is under the branches of a tree.
Boat transfers along the rivers double up as a wildlife safari: tiny kingfishers, swifts and bats skimming the surface and outpacing the boats.
Where to stay?
Many of Guyana’s lodges were built by the local communities and are still run by them. Income from tourism is reinvested in the lodge, local infrastructure, conservation efforts and training more staff. Caiman House, Surama Lodge, Karanambu Eco-Lodge, Atta Rainforest and Rewa River lodge are good examples of this. You may be invited to assist with caiman measuring and tagging and a turtle re-population project at Caiman House, learn about local myths and legends while on a wildlife hike with the guides at Surama or be shown how to turn cassava root into flour at Rewa River Lodge. Food is wholesome and plentiful and usually prepared by softly-spoken local ladies.
You’re likely be staying in an individual thatched hut, the floorboards and walls hewn from local trees, furniture carved by hand and the room cooled by natural breezes rather than air-conditioning. It’s unlikely that you’ll have hot water, an internet connection or a phone signal but in today’s technology saturated world, logging off and reconnecting with nature is the best cure for stress.
The main draw – All creatures great and small:
Guyana has gained a reputation as ‘the land of giants’ with regular sightings of Jaguar, Giant Anteaters, Giant River Otters and a pretty good chance of seeing Harpy Eagles. Apparently these have nothing on the creatures of yesteryear – they have found evidence of a giant sloth and you can see a replica in the National Museum in Georgetown.
Spiders don’t get much bigger than the bird-eating tarantula.
So what charmed me the most? I’m a self-confessed sloth and monkey junky, I love the absurdity of toucans and am charmed by fairy-like hummingbirds. These were all in evidence but it was the tiny and bizarre creatures that delighted me most: peering into giant (yes that word again) bromeliads which thrive near the Kaieteur Falls to find tiny golden frogs; encountering a crab in the jungle whose shell appears to have been painted with the face of a cat; driving through a cloud of yellow butterflies that really worked their magic. Oh and let’s not forget the manatees!