Far Essequibo

Rising in the Acarai Mountains near the southern border with Brazil and flowing to the Atlantic Ocean more than six hundred miles away, the Essequibo River is the greatest of the “many waters” that give Guyana its name. For centuries it was a highway into the country’s interior, and today it still offers a route through all of Guyana’s extraordinary natural landscapes — and some history lessons too. Here are snapshots from an imagined journey upriver, from the Essequibo’s broad estuary to the remote highlands where it begins

  • The remains of Dutch colonial buildings on Fort Island. Photograph by John Gimlette, Author Of Wild Coast: Travels On South America’s Untamed Edge
  • With no bridge crossing the Essequibo, communities on either side of the river are connected by ferries and a host of small boats. Photograph by Mark Khan
  • Climbing up for a better view on Baganara Island. Photograph by Mark Khan
  • Shopping in Bartica. Photograph by Michael McCrystal
  • Guyana’s famous Victoria amazonica waterlilies. Photograph by kajornyot/shutterstock.com
  • Macaws soar over the rainforest canopy at Iwokrama. Photograph by Graham Watkins
  • The Rupununi River winds its way across the savanna to join the Essequibo at Apoteri. Photograph by Graham Watkins

Where the Essequibo meets the Atlantic, a great tongue of muddy brown water extends for miles into the ocean. More than half the landmass of Guyana lies in the Essequibo watershed, and as the mighty river wends north through the country, it is fed by numerous tributaries — the Mazaruni, the Cuyuni, the Potaro, the Rupununi, and many more. Hence the massive volume of water flowing out its mouth, twenty miles wide from bank to bank.

Standing on the stelling — the traditional Guyanese name for a river wharf — in the east bank town of Parika, the view across the Essequibo estuary is broken by series of long, flat islands. Leguan, Wakenaam, and Hog Island, home to villages and plantations, are the largest, but there are dozens more here and further upstream.

Sometimes, indulging in a touch of exaggeration, Guyanese will tell you there are islands in the mouth of the Essequibo bigger than Barbados. A glance at a map will tell you that’s not true, but Hog Island — the largest, at twenty-three square miles — is certainly bigger than Carriacou, Bequia, or any of the Grenadines.

From the Parika stelling you can catch a ferry or speedboat across to Supenaam on the west bank of the river, and thence to Guyana’s Pomeroon Coast, or south into the interior, following the route of Amerindian traders, Dutch explorers, and gold prospectors over the centuries.

The stretch of the lower Essequibo between Bartica and the Atlantic combines the proximity of relatively untouched rainforest with easy accessibility via speedboat taxi. Some lucky Guyanese have holiday houses here, right on the river, ranging in style from rustic to rustic-posh. (Eddie Grant, Guyana’s most famous musical export, owns an entire private island.) And a handful of resorts offer visitors idyllic escape, sublime scenery, and the best of Guyanese hospitality.

Set in pristine forest on the Essequibo’s east bank, Shanklands Rainforest Resort is famous for the array of wildlife, especially birds, which visitors can see with minimal effort. Further upstream, Baganara Island Resort commands an entire island, complete with white-sand beach (and various watersports on offer), and boasts its own airstrip. On the river’s west bank, Saxacalli Rainforest Centre runs a natural history education programme, making use of extensive trails through the surrounding forest and swamp.

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Its vantage point at the confluence of the Cuyuni and Mazaruni Rivers with the Essequibo gives the small town of Bartica views across a vast expanse of water — and makes it the main staging point for expeditions into Guyana’s rugged north-west. It’s also the last outpost of civilisation for the many gold and diamond miners in this region of forests and mountains. Fittingly, the town has a raffish charm, centred around the main stelling, where you’ll find a constant flow of river traffic, a small market, rough-and-ready bars and restaurants, and other kinds of establishments catering to men who spend long, lonely months out in the bush, prospecting for minerals.

There are a few hotels here, but the few tourists who arrive in Bartica are generally on their way to somewhere else — usually on a day-trip up the Mazaruni to visit one of the nearby waterfalls, or perhaps on a riverside camping expedition. The Benedictine monastery not far outside Bartica welcomes guests (with advance notice) — the atmosphere is both contemplative and convivial, and there are few better places to seek out simple peace and quiet.

At Bartica’s northern end, Golden Beach — looking out over the confluence of the rivers — is the home of the town’s annual Easter regatta, when river vessels of various shapes and sizes compete to a soundtrack of pounding music.

Forty miles upriver from Bartica, Gluck Island is still little known outside Guyana. Three miles wide by eight miles long, almost untouched by man, the island is home to two hundred bird species (and counting), plus river otters, caiman, monkeys, armadillos, and dozens more species — plus the closest location to Georgetown where you can see the celebrated giant Victoria amazonica waterlilies in the wild.

Departing from the nearby village of Rockstone, the lily ponds are a thirty-minute boat trip via creeks into the heart of Gluck Island. Victoria amazonica is famous both for its enormous circular leaves, which grow up to three feet across, and for its huge pink blossoms, which open at dusk.

At the geographical heart of Guyana is a biodiversity hotspot that also serves as a lesson to the world in managing natural resources. Bounded by the Essequibo River to the east and the Pakaraima Mountains to the west, the million-acre Iwokrama rainforest is home to over five hundred bird species, over four hundred and twenty species of fish, and two hundred species of mammal: jaguars, giant anteaters, tapirs, bats, and more.

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In 1996, the government of Guyana and the Commonwealth established here a pioneering conservation and research project. The Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development protects and manages this “green heart of Guyana,” with the mission to “test the proposition that conservation, environmental balance, and sustainable economic activity are mutually reinforcing.” Half the forest is set aside as a wildlife preserve and half for sustainable use: ecologically low-impact harvesting of forest products and eco-tourism, in partnership with local Amerindian communities.

Iwokrama’s field station, a series of simple but comfortable buildings in a large clearing beside the river, offers accommodation for tourists and working space for visiting scientists. It’s strategically located near the Kurupukari Falls, which for millennia have served as an Essequibo crossing point. (Amerindian rock carvings here are thought to be four thousand years old.) Expert guides lead hikes into the forest and boat trips down the Essequibo, and a popular half-day expedition visits Iwokrama’s canopy walkway, in the heart of the forest south of the field station. Viewing platforms and aerial bridges allow you to venture into the tree canopy, far above the ground, where the rainforest biodiversity is at its richest. You’ll never look at the forest the same way again.

South of the rainforest belt, Guyana’s landscape is dominated by the Rupununi Savannas, a vast region of seasonally flooded grassland, dotted with mountain outcrops and crossed by tree-lined rivers. It’s a landscape that changes dramatically with the months: sere and sometimes scorched expanses during the dry season turn lush green when the rains begin in May and June, as rivers flood, forming lakes and ponds and temporary wetlands that connect the Essequibo to the Amazon watershed.

Most settlements here lie close to the western border with Brazil, or are connected by the Rupununi River, a tributary of the Essequibo. Relatively few travellers venture this far south, but for those in the know, the Rupununi offers a combination of extraordinary natural beauty and charmingly unaffected hospitality — the handful of lodges for visitors are run either by families or by small communities.

On this imagined journey, in order to experience the best of the savannas, you would leave the Essequibo at the village of Apoteri and turn into the Rupununi River, following the tributary west and south, past Rewa. The Rupununi’s best known lodges are at Karanambo and Dadanawa — both family-owned cattle ranches, with many thousands of acres of land, much of it largely untouched — and in the village of Annai, where Rock View Lodge, run by an English expat married into a Macushi family, is the closest thing to a professional hotel in the region. But an increasing number of Amerindian communities — Surama, Aranaputa, Nappi — have set up community-run lodges where the accommodations may be rustic, but the hospitality is genuine.

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For some visitors, it might be enough simply to contemplate the rugged beauty of this remote part of the world, and enjoy the quiet rhythms of the savanna day. But, like the forests to the north, the Rupununi is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife, which lodge or village hosts are keen to show their visitors. It’s also a good place to experience Guyana’s cultural diversity. Though Indo- and Afro-Guyanese dominate the country’s coast, the Rupununi is populated by indigenous Macushi and Wapishana, whose languages, stories, and domestic traditions thrive in this landscape they have long inhabited.

In southernmost Guyana, the Essequibo River springs from the Acarai Mountains, which form the border with Brazil. Many miles from the nearest dirt road, accessible only via chartered aircraft or a long upriver or overland trip, the remote region of Konashen is home to a small community of indigenous Wai Wai. Very few outsiders have visited the forested foothills of Wai Wai country, though a sustainable development plan for the area may change that in the future. In 2004 the Wai Wai began a partnership with Conservation International Guyana to assess and protect their lands, and set up a Community Owned Conservation Area that is now Guyana’s largest single protected area. In years to come, eco-tourism development may open Konashen to responsible travellers, but for now this pristine corner of South America is known only to the Wai Wai themselves, and the few scientists who visit to research this far country, where the mighty Essequibo begins its journey to the ocean.