You don’t have to be a topographer to figure out that Guyana is unapologetically part of Amazonia. But, just in case you want to be stubborn and argue beyond impenetrable rainforests, jaguars, black caimans, and anacondas, the Pakaraima Mountains will answer any lingering doubts. (For the sake of free movement of people, trade, dancehall, and soca, however, we’ll keep our Caribbean identity too.)
You may not have heard of the Pakaraimas before — but perhaps you’ve heard of Roraima? Functioning as a triple border between Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil, Mount Roraima, with a peak elevation of just over 9,200 feet, sticks out as the tallest in the family of table-top mountains of the western Guyana highlands known as the Pakaraimas. These mountains stretch some 250 miles across, measuring east to west, and the rivers that originate here plunge off immense cliffs to form some of the most spectacular waterfalls anywhere — including the famed Kaieteur, measuring 741 feet from top to bottom, among the world’s tallest single-drop waterfalls.
Exploring the Pakaraimas offers the allure of unknown terrain, unfamiliar indigenous Amerindian culture, and the exhilarating feeling that comes with knowing that just under your feet are rocks hiding deposits of gold, diamonds, jasper, and other precious minerals. But it takes some amount of — well, balls, to attempt a journey across the tepui plateaus: one literal translation of Pakaraimas, a Patamona name, is “giant testicles.”
These mountains were formed many millions of years ago, and are now mostly inhabited by the Patamona, one of Guyana’s nine remaining Amerindian nations. The name Patamona itself means “People of the Heavens” — and if you bother to check the elevation and temperature of some of the villages scattered among these mountains, you’d have to agree. At night, I swear it feels like below zero in some places. But for Guyanese, measuring in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit is just not done. It’s either “hot” or “cold,” and in the case of some of these villages, very cold. Once you take up a sleeping position, you beg your body to stay in place without moving, for fear that thousands of needle-size icicles will pierce through your skin.
So travelling across the Pakaraimas is no easy feat, but the annual safari organised around Easter by Rainforest Tours in Georgetown offers a planned route and instructions on how to survive and enjoy what tour leader Frank Singh calls “an adventure of a lifetime.” The safari had its genesis at the turn of the last century, when the Patamona decided to cut roads to criss-cross their mountains and valleys. Of course, their intention was not to have curious visitors passing through their villages, but rather to find a way to trade their farm produce.
The mountains offer fertile ground for agriculture, and the temperatures lend to the farming of crops that can’t grow on Guyana’s coastland. For example, a great potato and onion experiment was undertaken a few decades back, but most of it went to waste because of inadequate infrastructure to transport it to market in Georgetown. So, using manual labour, the Patamona created roads to connect villages stretching across two of Guyana’s interior regions, Eight and Nine, and for the most part made it easier for vehicles other than tractors and All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) to traverse the territory.
The first Pakaraima safari was undertaken in 2003, with just about four vehicles of government officials eyeing the opening of the otherwise landlocked Pakaraimas. Soon, the safari grew in scale, and it’s now an annual feature of Guyana’s tourism calendar. These days, the convoy is made up of about twenty vehicles, including participation by overseas enthusiasts craving an adventure off the beaten track and an immersion into the customs of the indigenous Amerindians.
Day One: The first day of the safari opens at a fuel station in the heart of Georgetown, just an hour after midnight — the beginning of a gruelling leg of 350 miles. That includes a two-hour drive on paved roads and then a long, bumpy ride on laterite dirt roads through the rainforest. But thoughts of discomfort quickly fade, as you keep watch for wild animals, such as deer, scampering across the road.
Bathrooms aren’t readily available, so any relief breaks have to be taken in the forest. And, of course, the forest has snakes. If that creeps you out, better hold it in until you reach the morning pit stop, where you can also have a hot breakfast at a little restaurant built around a timber operation.
The convoy makes an Essequibo River landing at dawn, in time for the first ferry crossing. The actual ride across the river takes about fifteen minutes, and then you’re on your way through the million-hectare Iwokrama protected rainforest, home to some of the largest animals in South America — the jaguar and the harpy eagle. Jaguars are sometimes spotted strolling along the same road you’re driving on. Get your camera out, just in case.
About four hours into daylight, you’ll reach the Oasis, a roadside lodge for travellers like you passing through the sprawling open savannahs. Next comes a four-hour stretch navigating a dirt path to Karasabai, the village where the actual safari begins. By then, you’ll be beyond tired — so set up camp early, cook, eat, and hit the sack. Camping space is usually on the grounds of government buildings such as the health centre or school. You also refuel before it gets dark, and you’re off to sleep.
Day Two: You wake up in the quiet village of Karasabai, named for a rock resembling a treasure chest. The story says the chest was magically transformed into stone by Macunaima, a legendary being of the Amerindians. Once you set off, about fifteen minutes outside Karasabai, you spot Beena Mountain, where you can find almost all of the herbs used by village elders in the initiation rites — the indigenous education system — to prepare a boy to take on life in the jungle. If you want to explore the mountain yourself, please ask the local village leaders, as it is taboo to visit on your own.
Travelling across mostly open savannah, you reach the villages of Teperu and Rukumoto. Rukumoto literally means “the place of Ruku” — a multicoloured caterpillar, considered a delicacy in these parts. It has a nutty taste once boiled or smoked. They come out during the May/June rains, so you may not see any during the safari, but you can ask locals if they have any left over from last year. In the afternoon, you arrive at the village of Morabaiko, to spend the night.
Day Three: Departing Morabaiko, you emerge to incredible mountain vistas, as you enter the villages of Yurong Paru, and then cross the Echillibar River to get to Monkey Mountain, one of the larger Pakaraima communities — named for the seasonal migration of monkeys from the northwest to the Kanuku Mountains to the south.
The people of Monkey Mountain are multilingual — they speak Patamona, Macushi, and Portuguese, as well as English. A nearby waterfall allows you to cool off after the hot and dusty drive. Locals search for the precious minerals found in the area and use them to trade for fish and meat with Brazilians in nearby border villages such as Mutum.
East of Monkey Mountain is Taruka, a relatively new village, originally formed by Brazilian Amerindians fleeing harsh conditions in their country. During the great Rupununi uprising of the late 1960s, most of the villagers returned to Brazil.
Day Four: Leaving Monkey Mountain, you come to rust-coloured Tuseneng, founded by Archibald Scipio, the son of an itinerant black balata bleeder and an Amerindian woman. Because of Scipio’s appearance, he wasn’t readily accepted by his community — so he moved to the area that is now Tuseneng. Gradually, others joined him and formed the village. Having been adopted by his mother’s side of the family, Scipio went through the full crucible of training for Amerindian boys. Eventually he became a piai man, or local doctor.
Passing the Kawa River (which is dry most of the time, but can rise to chest-deep in the rainy season), you reach Bamboo Creek for a brief stop, and then arrive at Paramakatoi. At an elevation of 2,500 feet, PK — as it’s called for short — is named for a wild guava found in the area. Branches from the trees are used to make arrows. If you want a bit of historical intrigue, ask the villagers for Macaw Cave, where you can see an urn with ancestral skeletal remains.
From PK, the safari leads straight to Kato. With its setting like a natural postcard, Kato was the location of that experiment in growing potatoes and onions. The waterfalls nearby are earmarked for a future hydro-power project that will give electricity to the village.
Day Five: After overnighting at Kato, you depart for Kurukubaru — thought to be the most elevated village in Guyana. So you’ll understand why it has the nickname “Cold, Cold Baru.” As in all indigenous villages, be mindful of local customs. On my first visit, many years ago, when I took out my digital camera, the older folks literal ran. Best to ask permission for anything you want to do.
The people of Kurukubaru, as across the Pakaraimas, are charming and shy. Ask a question and they may bow their heads, giggling. But when you walk off, you may hear them whispering in the Patamona tongue.
Past Kurukubaru, you’ll come to Kamana village, and if you have the time and are a history buff, you’ll want to ask about the trail where you can find battle implements (such as clubs with spikes) and skeletal remains, testifying to tribal wars of long ago. There are also rock formations that are said to represent the victories of various tribes.
Finally, from Kamana you travel to the last stop: Orinduik Falls on the Ireng River, which forms the border here between Guyana and Brazil. The falls are named after a water weed which — if uprooted, dried, burned, and mixed with honey — forms a sort of chewing gum that’s prized for its euphoric properties. So I’m told — I’ve never tried it myself.
You’d be crazy not to indulge in a refreshing bath at the falls — where the river flows over outcrops of jasper — before heading to the small airstrip to catch your flight back to Georgetown. Unless you’re heading back out overland, as you came. With just brief stops along the way, the return drive takes three days to get back to Georgetown. However you end your safari, before you leave, consider leaving a gift for your Patamona hosts — to reciprocate their kind hospitality.
What you need
• four-wheel drive vehicle in good condition, preferably with winch and spare all-terrain tyres
• patching equipment, tow rope, and tool kit
• gasolene or diesel containers, preferably five-gallon size
• fuel hose
• fire extinguisher
• tent or hammock for camping
• battery-powered light
• outdoor gas stove and fuel
• cooking utensils
• food supplies and bottled water
• cutlass, file, and shovel
• first aid kit
Georgetown to Karasabai: 350 miles
. . . to Tiperu: 21 miles
. . . to Rukumoto: 12 miles
. . . to Morabaiko: 12 miles
. . . to Yurong Paru: 18 miles
. . . to Monkey Mountain: 18 miles
. . . to Tuseneng: 15 miles
. . . to Paramakatoi: 15 miles
. . . to Kato: 11 miles
. . . to Kurukubaru: 12 miles
. . . to Ithabac: 27 miles
. . . to Orinduik Falls: 18 miles
Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Georgetown from Caribbean and North American destinations