Caribbean Beat Magazine

Karasabai, Guyana: Makonaima’s treasure | Offtrack

Karasabai, a Macushi community in Guyana’s Pakaraima Mountains, is rich in wildlife and legend alike, writes Annette Arjoon-Martins

  • Guyana map
  • A sociable species, the sun parakeet is usually found in flocks of up to thirty individuals. Photo by Imagebroker/Alamy Stock Photo
  • The rare  pink river-dolphin, which visitors to Karasabai can sometimes spot in the Ireng River. Photo by Waterframe/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Karasabai’s Kezee Eco Lodge is named for the rare sun parakeet, which can be found nearby. Photo courtesy Reel Guyana

The Guiana Shield, a two-billion-year-old geological formation spread across six countries, is well known to adventurers and scientists as an eco-region of global significance, with a rich biodiversity. Stretched across the middle of this shield lies Guyana itself, a country crisscrossed by rivers, dotted with hundreds of waterfalls, with expansive pristine rainforests and towering mountains.

Most impressive of these are the Pakaraimas, a vast expanse of flat-topped mountains spread across the borders between Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. Just south of the Pakaraima range, surrounded by breathtaking landscapes, rich biodiversity, and fascinating folklore, is the indigenous community of Karasabai — an emerging destination for community-led and -owned tourism.

Karasabai is a key place in the folklore of Guyana’s indigenous Macushi people, intertwined with the mythical personality of Makonaima. One of the legendary visitors to Earth from whom indigenous peoples are descended, Makonaima had a twin brother named Pia, and a group of sisters collectively called the Pakaraimas. The “Tales of Makonaima’s Children” are Macushi creation stories, and here you’ll find the legend of how Karasabai got its name.

In Macushi, kala sa means “treasure chest” and pai refers to the deepest part of a body of water, such as a river or lake. The story, handed down through generations, is that Makonaima passed by a creek where a treasure chest was located, and chose to turn it into stone. (Local belief is that anything that crossed Makanoima’s path, and which he did not want to be lost, was simply petrified.) The bay of the creek where the petrified treasure chest lies — the kala sa pai — is now called Karasabai.

Today, Karasabai is celebrated among serious birders for a different reason: it’s one of the few places globally, and the only location in Guyana, where the endangered sun parakeet (Aratinga solstitialis) can be found in the wild. Known locally as the kezee, or “flying jewels,” the sun parakeet is an important motif in Karasabai’s tourism identity — for example, lending its name to the brand-new Kezee Eco Lodge at the foot of a nearby mountain.

Dedicated birders like to start early, and the sun parakeet tour calls for a sunrise start and a short journey by 4×4 across the savannahs, skilfully navigating around the large termite mounds which stand like silent sentinels. Next comes a two-hour boat trip on the Ireng River, meandering through the valleys of spectacular mountains offering stunning vistas, high and low, for miles on end. Puffs of noisy blue-and-gold and red-and-green macaws emerge from the mist-covered, thickly-forested riverbanks, and fly low overhead. Finally, the “flying jewels” appear, in flocks of dozens, making intermittent stops to feed on wild fruits on either side of the river. The boat captain masterfully manoeuvres his small vessel, following the birds to ensure photos or videos.

The riverbanks are dotted with pristine sandbanks, perfect nesting and basking sites for giant river turtles. And since the Ireng is a tributary of the Amazon, lucky visitors may also spot a very rare and much-prized pink river-dolphin (Inia geoffrensis). The boat captain knows the most frequented pools, and is also adept at communicating with the dolphins to increase the chance of visitors getting that glimpse of a lifetime.

For the more adventurous, Karasabai also offers opportunities for mountaineering, with a variety of peaks of various sizes and terrain, depending on levels of skill. The most popular mountain hike is on Saddle Back Mountain, with a cleared trail and a benab rest stop, and the added attraction of a cave full of archaeological treasures.

The Pakaraima mountains are considered deeply spiritual territory by Guyana’s indigenous peoples — not only for their rich cultural value, but also for the provision of  natural resources. In indigenous culture, lucky charms — known locally as binas — are used extensively for catching fish and game, and sometimes, it is believed, even a husband or wife. To the northwest of Karasabai is one particular mountain where the binas for everything are said to be found. Many moons ago, stories say, there was a big flood which affected the indigenous peoples and all the animals in the area. They sought refuge on top of this particular mountain, but there were tensions within the group and they fought among themselves. Those that died, both humans and animals, grew back as plants which are now known as binas. For example, if a deer was killed and came back as a plant, it can now be used to catch deer. Ordinary persons are prohibited from visiting the mountain to collect the binas: only the Shaman, who possesses the power to calm down the animal and human spirits, can perform this task.

Another local landmark with its own folklore is Tiger Pond, with its Macushi name derived from the words ludule (“tiger”) and kuppu (“pond”). When the pond is displeased, some believe, a white cat emerges from the water and attacks young children. The terrible sounds that sometimes emanate from the pond are also bad omens.

You may hear stories like these, perhaps, on a tour through Karasabai’s lush cassava farms to witness farine and cassava bread production, and to sample the potent local alcoholic beverage known as piwari. On sale is a wide range of handicraft, including intricately carved woodwork pieces depicting the various animals you may have encountered on your visit. Hand-carved from a prized wood known locally as “tigerwood” for its distinctive patterns, beautiful jewellery boxes are adorned with the forms of the giant river otter and — yes — the sun parakeet. Or look for one of the detailed needlework panels made by Karasabai’s craftswomen, each requiring hours of delicate work. A splendid sun parakeet rendered in coloured thread may be just the keepsake to remind you, years later, of a visit to this corner of Guyana shrouded in legend.

Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights to Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Guyana from destinations in the Caribbean and North America. Local airlines operate daily flights from Georgetown to Lethem, with overland connections via bus or 4×4 to Karasabai