Located at the mouth of the Cayenne River, the city’s modern suburbs now sprawl onto the mainland, but its historic centre is on the Île de Cayenne. The streets around Place des Palmistes — a large square planted with towering palm trees — are still lined with numerous nineteenth-century buildings with steep-pitched roofs, shady verandahs, shutters, and arcades. Some have been beautifully restored, serving as restaurants or offices. Others are picturesquely crumbling. At Place des Amandiers (named for its almond trees) on a small seafront promontory, you’ll find old men and occasional youngsters playing boules, while onlookers sip cool beverages at nearby cafés.
The Musée des Cultures Guyanaises, in a restored historic building, collects artifacts from French Guiana’s various cultural groups, including indigenous Amerindians and Maroon communities, known for intricate wood carvings and brightly coloured textiles. The older Musée Départemental Alexandre-Franconie, which describes itself as a cabinet of curiosities, houses natural history and archaeological collections. The museum also administers the family home of local hero Félix Eboué (1884–1944), who became the first black governor in the French colonial service (serving first in Guadeloupe and later in Chad) and was a key leader of the Free French during the Second World War. Eboué is also honoured with a bronze statue in Place des Palmistes, which captures his imposing figure.
Cayenne’s main market is near Place du Coq, marked by an obelisk topped with a strutting rooster. Here you can buy household items and clothes of all descriptions, but most enticing are the colourful piles of fruit, vegetables, and herbs, many of them grown by French Guiana’s Hmong community. Simple restaurants along the sides of the market offer quick, filling, delicious meals.
As you’d expect from the capital of a French département, Cayenne boasts numerous other restaurants, plus bakeries for the purchase of the daily baguette and pâtisseries for special treats. French Guiana’s ethnic diversity means that the influence of classic French cuisine is rivalled by elements of Creole, Chinese, and Brazilian cooking. Decent, inexpensive wine seems to be considered a basic staple.
The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas gave the eastern portion of South America to Portugal, but that didn’t stop the French from repeatedly trying to establish a colony here in the seventeenth century. Finally, in 1664, they achieved a permanent settlement at Cayenne, but spent the next century and a half losing it to and regaining it from the Dutch and English. Since 1814, the city and the territory of Guyane of which it is capital have remained French. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the French government established a notorious prison colony. Devil’s Island was the most infamous convict settlement, but Cayenne was the port through which many thousands of relégués (habitual criminals) arrived. Since 1946, French Guiana has been an overseas département of France. The tricolor flies over the municipal buildings and Guyanais are French citizens.
Ages ago, the city lent its name to one of the most common varieties of Capsicum, the hot pepper native to the New World. Cayenne peppers are usually dried, ground, and sold as a spicy red powder. From their native South America, they’ve spread throughout the world and are a common ingredient in Chinese and Korean cuisine.
Thirty-five miles west of Cayenne is the town of Kourou, home of the Centre Spatial Guyanais, where the European Space Agency launches its rockets and satellites into orbit. On a day-trip from Cayenne you can tour the space centre and its museum, and if you’re lucky you might even witness a launch. Make it a weekend visit and you can also explore the Îles du Salut, a cluster of small islands off the coast of Kourou, where the onetime prison colony (made famous by the book Papillon) has been converted into an inn and holiday cottages.
4.93º N 52.31ºW