Guyana: endless horizons
A decade and a half later, I remember my first arrival in the Rupununi like it happened last week. Heading south along the unpaved red-earth road that runs all the way to the Brazilian border, we’d driven for hours through dense rainforest, the sky a narrow corridor between the treetops above us. We’d kept our eyes peeled for an elusive jaguar, known to be spotted along this route, though none appeared that day. As the Land Cruiser manoeuvred around deep ruts and potholes, we almost didn’t notice a subtle shift in the vegetation around us. Then suddenly — startlingly — the forest ended and we shot out into open savannah and a landscape that felt infinitely larger. How far away were those hills on the horizon? It was impossible to judge.
That night, after dinner in the village of Annai — home to an airstrip and tourist lodge — I climbed the giant granite rock, really the size of a small hill, that was the most prominent landmark for miles around. It was the dry season, and the night sky was utterly cloudless and immense. The moon was a sliver, but the stars were so bright and numerous, I could see the savannah landscape rolling away to the east, etched with foot-trails, and make out the silhouette of the Takutu Mountains to the south. Propped up on an ancient rock ledge, gazing across the Rupununi, I felt the thrill of distance like a shiver. My ordinary life at home in Trinidad, even the bustle of Georgetown, Guyana’s capital on the coast, could have been continents away.
But the truth is, as remote and wild as the Rupununi can feel, this savannah region of south Guyana, two hundred miles from the Atlantic coast, is a mere hour’s flight from Georgetown’s domestic Ogle Airport. Even travelling by land, the Rupununi is a day’s journey (admittedly, bumpy and dusty) in a 4×4 or an overnight drive by bus from the city. The Rupununi’s wildness is real, but its remoteness is a matter of the imagination rather than practical logistics.
Similarly, whereas visitors to the savannahs once relied on the hospitality of family-owned ranches, the past decade has seen many Rupununi villages establish community-run tourist lodges with comfortable if not sybaritic accommodations, easily booked via tour agencies in Georgetown or online. When I first came here, communication between far-flung villages was via word of mouth — messages moving along the savannah rivers in small boats — or by shortwave radio. Improvements in satellite communications mean that most communities now have Internet access (and just last year the government of Guyana announced plans to set up free WiFi in key north Rupununi villages).
So the outside world isn’t really so far away (if it ever was) — though the Rupununi’s dramatic scenery and wildlife try their best to convince you otherwise. The red laterite savannahs, dotted with sandpaper trees — so named for the texture of their leaves — are home to giant anteaters and towering termite mounds, while the Rupununi River and its smaller creeks are home to sleek giant river otters and caiman sunning themselves on rocky banks. Monkeys and parrots play in the surrounding clumps of forest. In the dry season, this is a landscape of ochres and reds. When the rains start mid-year, the savannah turns green almost overnight. Rivers rise, then overtop their banks, small pools begin to spread into lakes, and miles of savannah are inundated. Villages on high ground become islands, and boats replace 4x4s, until drought returns with the cycle of seasons.
A practical base for exploring the Rupununi is the town of Lethem on the border with Brazil — a booming frontier town where Portuguese is as much the lingua franca as English. Daily flights on propeller planes connect Lethem to Georgetown, and tourist lodges can arrange land transport from here. Alternatively, key Rupununi settlements have their own airstrips, and pickups and landings can be specially arranged. The longest-established lodges are at cattle ranches like Karanambu and Dadanawa, and Rock View Lodge in Annai, but community-run eco-lodges are now found at villages and field stations across the north Rupununi, many of them offering specialised tours based on local wildlife. Surama has lodges in the main village as well as a forest camp along the nearby Burro Burro River; Maipaima offers access to stunning Jordan Falls and rich birdlife; the more remote village of Rewa, which requires a river journey, caps the number of visitors each year to keep surroundings pristine. Caiman House in Yupukari offers accommodation alongside scientists studying black caiman and other reptile species.
Look at a map of Guyana and put your finger down where you reckon the very centre: it will land, most likely, on the middle reach of the Essequibo River, near the village of Fairview and the protected million acres of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development. Founded in 1996, in an innovative partnership between the government of Guyana and the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Iwokrama Centre is a research site, an experiment in sustainable forest management, and an opportunity for visitors to encounter the lushly strange world of Guyana’s rainforest, teeming with life.
As defined by biologists, the Iwokrama Forest is bounded by the Pakaraima Mountains to the west, the Siparuni River to the north, and the Rupununi Savannah to the south. Near its centre are the Iwokrama Mountains, rising to over three thousand feet. The name means “place of refuge” in Macushi. For Guyana’s indigenous peoples, these mountains were a natural fortress in times of crisis. Today, Iwokrama is a different kind of refuge: considered one of the most biodiverse and unspoiled tropical rainforests in the world.
Though geographically separate from the Amazon Basin to the south, Iwokrama shares many plant and animal species with that region, adding others native to the highlands of the Guiana Shield. The forest canopy — up to a hundred feet high — is home to especially diverse populations of birds (over five hundred species recorded) and bats (over ninety species). More than four hundred fish species have been identified in its rivers and streams, and researchers continue to discover new ones.
Those statistics are impressive, but for the average visitor, it’s the sensory overload of the rainforest environment that’s most astonishing. Whether you arrive by air — landing at the Fairview airstrip — or by road, driving from Georgetown, the sheer scale of the forest is breathtaking, seen from above or below. The low falls at Kurupukari, where the Essequibo River narrows, have been a traditional crossing point for centuries — when the water level is low, you can see ancient rock carvings on Kurupukari’s smooth black rocks. Nowadays a pontoon boat ferries vehicles across to connect the two ends of the Linden-Lethem road. The Iwokrama field station is a stone’s throw away.
Here, in a broad clearing on the bank of the river, are living quarters for staff, laboratories for scientists, and cabins for visitors. The dark waters of the Essequibo — stained cola-black by tannins from fallen forest leaves — slide by, tempting you into a swim. You could collapse into a hammock here and dream the day away, listening to the chatter of birds, but the forest awaits.
Expert guides lead hikes on well-tended forest trails — bring sturdy boots and binoculars, and listen for the distinctive call of the Screaming Piha, a nondescript bird whose drab grey plumage is compensated for by its powerful voice. The hike up nearby Turtle Mountain ends, at the summit, with a view across miles and miles of forest canopy. I remember sitting there, gazing out at the unbroken green, and thinking how little the landscape must have changed in a thousand years. Then nature gave me a reminder that the living forest is, in fact, constantly changing. There was an almighty crack, and half a mile away a giant tree, having reached the end of its lifespan, crashed down through the canopy, in a swirl of flying leaves and a confusion of birds. A moment later, the only sound was the wind.
For a closer view of those soaring forest giants, Iwokrama has built a canopy walkway near Atta Lodge, close to the reserve’s southern border. Here you can ascend nearly one hundred feet, via a series of gently swaying bridges and observation decks, to a part of the forest usually frequented only by birds and monkeys, insects and orchids. Tours are timed to dawn and dusk, when the forest fauna are at their most active, and your stroll through the treetops may be serenaded by macaws and toucans.
Guyana, any schoolchild there can tell you, is a name that means “land of many waters.” And of the country’s thousands of rivers, large and small, the most fabled is also the largest: the Essequibo, running like a backbone the entire length of Guyana, rising from the mountains in Wai-Wai territory that form the southern border with Brazil, and emptying, five hundred miles north, into the Atlantic, sending plumes of silt far out into the blue ocean.
Guyanese like to tell visitors from smaller Caribbean places that there are islands in the Essequibo bigger than Barbados — which is manifestly a fib. But standing at the Parika stelling, looking out at a river as broad as a lake, you can almost believe it. From Parika you can catch a bigger ferry or a smaller speedboat across to the islands of Leguan or Wakenaam, or to the far bank of the Essequibo, or else thirty miles upriver to Bartica, a small but ever-growing town at the confluence of the Essequibo and the Mazaruni.
Just as some Trinidadians have beach houses in Mayaro and Jamaicans dream of a villa near Ocho Rios, Georgetown’s most fortunate have river houses along this stretch of the Essequibo, for holiday retreats. (While Eddie Grant, Guyana’s most famous musical export, owns an entire Essequibo island.) If you aren’t lucky enough to get invited to one of these private escapes, you can opt for one of a handful of river resorts, which combine swimming beaches and watersports with proximity to nature — the rainforest is never farther than the nearest riverbank.
But don’t miss the chance to explore Guyana’s history as well. The Essequibo was the location of the earliest Dutch settlement of this region. The first capital of what was then called the Essequibo colony was on a small island in the Mazaruni, where in 1616 the Dutch built Fort Kyk-Over-Al — “see-over-all” — which centuries later lent its name to a pioneering literary journal. What now remains of the star-shaped fort, abandoned in 1748, is a single brick arch, which still enjoys a commanding view of the surrounding country. Though there are no regularly scheduled tours, many boat captains at the Bartica stelling are willing to make the trip — price by negotiation.
Nearer to Georgetown, and home to a Dutch Heritage Museum, is Fort Island — site of Fort Zeelandia, the Essequibo colony’s second capital. Once a busy trading post, the fort is now all but deserted on weekdays, but weekends and holidays bring visitors from the coast. Though the fort itself is a roofless though impressive ruin, the historic Court of Policy building was completely restored twenty years ago, and stands in meticulously tended grounds, dotted with cannon, interpretive signs, and gazebos for picnicking.
Guyana’s wild interior is what draws many visitors: the promise of adventure and the intoxicating idea of experiencing beautiful, remote landscapes. But give Georgetown its due: the capital city, perched at the mouth of the Demerara River, has fascinated visitors for generations, with its broad avenues, canals and kokers (or sluice-gates, part of the Dutch drainage system), and historic buildings, many of them elegant structures of wood. Central Georgetown is compact enough to explore in a day — but it’s worth taking extra time to get to know this Caribbean city on the South American mainland, now in a period of rapid change as the discovery of offshore oilfields gives a huge boost to the Guyanese economy.
Where to start? Here are ten Georgetown landmarks to put in your itinerary:
Opened in 1881, this historic riverside market with its distinctive clocktower — Georgetown’s skyline icon — is in many ways the heart of the city, a hub of traditional commerce and transport.
The turrets and spires of this Victorian Gothic Revival gem suggest a fairytale castle, but since 1889 it’s played a more practical role as headquarters for Georgetown’s municipal administration.
St George’s Cathedral
The city’s Anglican cathedral is sometimes said to be the largest wood building in the world, its spire soaring to 143 feet. The pristine white-painted exterior gives way to the natural finish of the interior, livened by Victorian stained glass and a magnificent vaulted ceiling.
Walter Roth Museum
Named for a pioneering ethnographer, this national museum of anthropology is home to an extraordinary collection of artefacts documenting Guyana’s indigenous peoples — from centuries-old potsherds to magnificent Wai-Wai feather crowns.
The elegant Camp Street residence of the de Caires family — proprietors of the Stabroek News — is now home to an arts centre hosting literary events, exhibitions, and more.
Commemorating a major eighteenth-century rebellion of enslaved Africans, this striking monument, with a sculpture by the late Philip Moore, depicts the rebel leader Cuffy, looking over the Square of the Revolution.
Once a residence for colonial administrators, then the official home of Guyana’s president, since 1993 this nineteenth-century building has housed the national art collection, with over seven hundred works by celebrated artists like Aubrey Williams, Frank Bowling, Denis Williams, and Bernadette Persaud.
Georgetown’s most popular park is where you can see the famous Victoria amazonica waterlilies, semi-tame manatees, and the double-spanned kissing bridge — favourite spot for selfies — and is also home to the national zoo.
This “meeting place of the people,” a traditional thatched Wai-Wai benab, was first built in the 1970s and has been a popular cultural venue ever since. Destroyed by fire in 2014, it was rebuilt two years later.
This is the place to end your Georgetown tour, at sunset. Protecting the low-lying city from the Atlantic high tides, the Sea Wall is a place for jogging, kite-flying, fishing, gaffing — as Guyanese call old-talk — and enjoying the ocean breeze.
Black is the new gold
A glass bottle with a red plastic cap, three-quarters-full of an opaque black liquid, displayed on a child-scale pedestal: it doesn’t sound like the most exciting exhibit at Georgetown’s National Museum. But the artefact, on display since January 2020, represents one of the most significant developments in Guyana’s history. For this is a sample of Guyana’s “first oil,” the “light sweet crude” from the Liza oilfield discovered 120 miles offshore by ExxonMobil in 2015, which officially commenced production in December 2019.
Minerals — gold, diamonds, and bauxite — have long been Guyana’s economic mainstay. Oil companies had prospected both on- and offshore since the 1940s, without finding commercially viable deposits. The recent discovery of substantial oil reserves off the country’s Atlantic coast — thought to contain the equivalent of 700 million barrels — is a major game-changer, offering the prospect of transforming Guyana’s economy and funding a new era of development projects.
According to Guyana’s Department of Energy, even ahead of “first oil,” the discovery drew over US$500 million in foreign investment, creating 1,700 new jobs and benefitting over six hundred service providers. The Liza well is expected to produce up to 120,000 barrels of oil per day, initially, increasing to 750,000 barrels per day by 2025. As a result, the IMF predicts that the country’s GDP could grow by eighty-six per cent this year.
As new discoveries continue to be announced, Guyana is poised to be the fastest-growing economy in the Caribbean and South America, with all the accompanying possibilities and challenges. No wonder the milestone of “first oil” was celebrated with a massive fireworks display: managed prudently, Guyana’s black gold could be the fuel for a bright future.
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