Guyana is a place of strange contrasts, unexpected juxtapositions, curious incongruities. Start with the fact, puzzling to some outsiders, that it is geographically South American, wedged in between Venezuela, Brazil, and Suriname, but culturally and historically part of the Caribbean, hundreds of miles to the north. It is the Caribbean’s largest country — at 215,000 square kilometres, nearly the size of Great Britain — but also the least densely populated, with under 775,000 inhabitants. And these people, with a dizzying mixture of East Indian, African, English, Dutch, Portuguese, and Amerindian ancestries, for the most part occupy just a narrow strip of low-lying coastal plain.
The vast interior — lush forest, cloud-hidden mountains, and dry savannah — is the Caribbean’s most pristine territory. This is a land of extraordinary natural wealth, with great gold and bauxite deposits, but for decades Guyana has struggled with widespread poverty and underdevelopment. Yet the people — the nation’s true wealth — are resiliently optimistic, determined to make the best of what they have, and justly renowned for their hospitality.
Guyana is not the place to come for a typical Caribbean vacation. There are no white or pink sand beaches along the 300-mile Atlantic coast, no turquoise waters — the sea off Guyana is stained a permanent brown by the muddy flow of her many rivers. There are no posh all-inclusive resorts or tourist enclaves of the kind for which some of the islands are famous. Guyana’s attractions are of a different kind, but also of a different degree. Her island neighbours soothe, refresh, delight; Guyana astonishes.
Most visitors head for the wild interior and its eco-tourism attractions, but Georgetown is much more than just a base for exotic jungle adventures, and is worth a few days’ exploration in its own right. Since the 19th century, it’s been called the Caribbean’s “Garden City”; and, though it lacks the dramatic mountain-girdled setting of Kingston or St George’s, Roseau or Port of Spain, Georgetown has long been considered by many the region’s most beautiful capital. Long, tree-shaded boulevards run parallel and perpendicular to the Demerara River, which forms the city’s western boundary.
Like much of Guyana’s low-lying coast, the city lies below the Atlantic’s high-water level, but an array of defenses, part of the country’s Dutch legacy, protects the city from flooding. Canals and sluice-gates control the flow of water through Georgetown, and the sea is restrained by a 280-mile-long dyke, called the Seawall, which doubles as a popular spot for socialising, family outings, and lovers’ strolls. The constant breeze of the North East Trades makes the Seawall an ideal spot for kite-flying, especially around Easter, when the sky above is festooned with elaborate, multi-coloured tissue-paper constructions.
But the first thing most visitors notice about Georgetown is its charming Victorian architecture. The classic Guyanese house is constructed of wood and raised on stilts, painted white and decorated with intricate fretwork. Many sport distinctive Demerara windows, elaborate structures of wooden louvres and fretworked boxes. These once provided an ingenious form of air-conditioning: large blocks of ice were set in the boxes, cooling the breeze as it flowed into the houses. Internal architecture was also aimed at maximising ventilation; in older Guyanese houses, rooms are divided not by walls but by wooden partitions, with a large gap below the ceiling. This arrangement, so conducive to eavesdropping, also kept the household cool!
The city’s tallest wooden structure (some say the world’s) is St George’s Anglican Cathedral, completed in 1889 (it boasts a fine rose window and a chandelier supposedly given by Queen Victoria). The recently restored City Hall, with its gothic spire, is about the same age, but St Andrew’s Kirk, the oldest church in the city, predates them both by 70 years. Georgetown’s best-known landmark, however, is built not of wood but of cast iron: Stabroek Market, with its four-faced clock-tower, overhanging the wide Demerara. This is the place to go for everything from fresh fruits and vegetables and inexpensive clothing to rattan furniture and Guyana’s famous gold.
Guyana’s more recent history too is commemorated in the city’s landmarks. At the head of Brickdam, a major thoroughfare, is the Independence Arch, an aluminium structure marking the end of colonial status in 1966. The 33-foot-tall 1793 Monument, in the nearby Square of the Revolution, depicts the African slave Cuffy, who led an unsuccessful but historically significant rebellion in the 18th century. And near the city’s north western end, close to the Seawall, is the Umana Yana (“meeting-place of the people”), a huge benab or thatched hut built by a group of Wai-Wai Amerindians in 1972 for the inaugural Caribbean Festival of Culture and Arts. It was reconstructed in 1994 after the original benab was damaged by high winds.
The Promenade Gardens near the city centre, the National Park to the north, and numerous private gardens bursting with flowers and foliage, prove the truth of the old nickname. But the Botanical Gardens, further east, are where you can best encounter Guyana’s extraordinary flora and fauna without actually venturing out into the bush. These 50 hectares are decorated with gingerbread pavilions and bridges; its paths are fringed by gracious palm trees. A series of ponds show off the Victoria Regia lily, the world’s largest water lily species, with circular pads growing up to seven feet in diameter. The Botanical Gardens also house the National Zoo, where the manatees in a large man-made pond are the leading attraction. These naturally gentle creatures are all but tame, and children love to feed them handfuls of vegetation.
And, of course, if you’re a cricket fan, and lucky enough to visit Guyana during a Test or one-day international series, you’ll be sure to head over to Bourda, home of the Georgetown Cricket Club, one of the finest cricket grounds in the West Indies.
hen you’ve sampled Georgetown’s urban charms and are ready for the wilder side of Guyana, you can head in two directions. To the north west, the road goes through rice paddies and small villages to Parika, on the east bank of the Essequibo. The river, 21 miles across at its mouth (and reputed to contain 365 islands), is unbridged, and to continue you must take the ferry to the aptly named Adventure, on the western bank. The road resumes, running as far as Charity, but from here you travel on by boat. West of the Pomeroon River, the coast is almost uninhabited. This 90-mile stretch, known as Shell Beach (named for the seashell fragments underfoot), is a protected area, nesting ground for four species of sea turtles.
Despite the name, most of this region consists of mudflats and mangrove forest, best explored by canoe. Parrots, toucans, ibises, and flamingos make their home in this prime bird watching area, as well as manatees and river dolphins, but the main attractions are the leatherback, hawksbill, green, and olive ridley turtles which come ashore from March to June to lay their eggs. Three months later, thousands of hatchlings emerge from their buried nests, and head out to the open ocean to face lives fraught with peril. The Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society works to protect the turtles from human predators. Rangers patrol the beaches, and nest sites are mapped using global positioning satellite technology, significantly increasing the young turtles’ survival rate.
Accommodation along Shell Beach is limited to a single camp run by an Arawak family (with a full complement of pet dogs, parrots, and tortoises). The facilities are rustic — tents with mosquito nets and a central thatched dining-hut — but the hosts are expert guides to nearby wildlife, and the seafood menu is unsurprisingly excellent. (You can even try your hand at fishing, and dine that evening on your own catch.)
Or you can head south, into the interior, the forested heart of Guyana. From the air, the unbroken jungle canopy stretching in every direction to the horizon is an awe-inspiring revelation of the vastness of the land. To explore this immense region, it’s best to seek the help of a tour operator, who can help you work out an itinerary depending on your interests, tell you where to stay and how to get there, and obtain visitor’s permits (required for some interior districts).
There is a good selection of eco-resorts and lodges along the Essequibo within easy reach of Georgetown, variously accessible by road or boat (many also have small airstrips), some even close enough for day-trip from the city. But it’s worth the effort to spend a few days in the forest. You’ll hardly have to rough it: comfortable cottages and rooms with river views are the norm, the cuisine is excellent, the hospitality more so. A lack of electricity only means that at night you enjoy the romantic glow of oil lamps, and the stars shine brighter than you can imagine. Most lodges offer guided tours or nature trails; the Bartica area, where the Mazaruni River meets the Essequibo, is a good base for visiting Kyk-over-al, a tiny island where Dutch settlers first made their headquarters in this country. (The name means “see-over-all”, and refers to the excellent view; the Dutch ruins gave their name to Guyana’s most famous literary journal.)
Even further south, near Guyana’s geographic centre, is a 388,000-hectare reserve, the Iwokrama International Centre, established to study the sustainable use of forest resources. The field station at Kurukupari offers simple, inexpensive accommodation to eco-tourists, with shared facilities, and visitors can hire Land Rovers or boats to explore the centre’s territory. Satellite camps deeper in the forest are for the intrepid.
It’s possible to remain at the field station and encounter an exceptional range of wildlife, including many bird species, howler monkeys, and peccaries; this is supposed to be one of the best places in Guyana for seeing wild jaguar (one in three visitors manage to catch a glimpse). Or you may be lucky enough to spot one of the jaguar’s smaller cousins: an ocelot or a puma, a margay or a jaguarundi.
The fit and energetic should join an expedition on one of Iwokrama’s trails. To the top of Mt Iwokrama itself and back is a 20-km round trip, not for casual strollers. An easier but no less rewarding trek is to Turtle Mountain — a 45-minute boat trip followed by an hour and a half’s walk. The summit offers a magnificent, never-to-be-forgotten view of the forest canopy interrupted only by the river: a world of green, a vision of peace untroubled by history. There’s also excellent fishing in the Essequibo, and the chance to spot aquatic life such as otters, caimans, and freshwater turtles, and the enormous arapaima, the world’s largest freshwater fish.
Beyond Iwokrama, in Guyana’s remote south west, lies the Rupununi Savannah, a region of dry grasslands watered by creeks and ponds, divided into north and south regions by the Kanuku Mountains. Most of the year the savannah is dry, but from mid-May to August, the rainy season, flooding is widespread and mosquitoes are legion; October to April is the best season for visiting.
Ranching is the mainstay of the Rupununi, and the small population has close links with Brazil across the border. A few cattle ranches have been converted to hotels or guesthouses, and despite the isolation from the coast these offer a surprising degree of comfort: bedrooms with airy verandahs, swimming pools, fine meals. Here too, wildlife is plentiful, though many species are nocturnal and hence difficult to spot. Something about the openness of the country must conduce to largeness: this is the territory of giant anteaters and giant river otters, 20-foot-long caimans and large harpy eagles soaring overhead. Rivers and creeks offer fine swimming, but take your hosts’ advice on where to go, so as to avoid tricky encounters with those caimans!
The region’s major town is Lethem, on the Brazilian border. Most of the time the chief attraction here is the small Amerindian museum, but at Easter things suddenly get more lively, when hundreds of cowboys arrive from the surrounding ranches, Guyanese as well as Brazilian, for the annual rodeo. The story goes that an ex-cowpoke from Dakota by the name of Ben Hart arrived in the Rupununi in the late 19th century, after an unsuccessful stint on the Amazonian railway. He held the occasional rodeo to entertain guests, and the sport gradually caught on.
Whatever else you do in Guyana, there is one sight above all others you should be sure to see. Near the mountains north west of Iwokrama, the Potaro River, flowing across the Pakaraima uplands, suddenly comes to the end of the plateau. Without a moment’s pause it plunges 741 feet to the rocks below, then another 81 feet down to the bottom of its gorge, its cloud of mist creating an eternal rainbow. These are the famous Kaieteur Falls, the world’s highest continuous single-drop waterfall, five times the height of Niagara and twice the height of Victoria Falls, celebrated in ancient legend and modern verse, protected by unbroken forest from the outside world.
Yet tour operators make it relatively easy to visit this splendid site, the centrepiece of the Kaieteur National Park. It is possible to hike overland (a six-day round trip), but this is for the seriously outdoorsy. Far easier to take a small charter plane from Georgetown; it’s just over an hour’s flight to the modest landing-strip near the falls. The continuous rumble grows louder and louder as you approach the top of the falls, and along the trail one viewpoint after another offers heart-racing glimpses of Kaieteur’s power.
It’s hard to take your eyes from the relentlessly pounding water — 35,000 gallons each second at the height of the rainy season — but do spend some time admiring the area’s inhabitants. The great cave behind the falls is the roosting place of hundreds of swifts; at evening they dart in and out of the gorge before braving the torrent to spend the night behind Kaieteur’s curtain. If you’re particularly lucky you’ll manage to see an outrageously orange cock of the rock, an elusive bird species that seems never to have heard of camouflage.
The billowing spray from the falls fills the air with an energising coolness, and in fact the immediate vicinity forms a unique cloud-forest ecosystem, with over 100 orchid species counted around Kaieteur. Large tank bromeliads festoon the trees; peer into one and you may find a tiny, brightly coloured amphibian peering back at you. This is the golden dart-poison frog, whose jewel-like appearance does not hint at the powerful toxins exuded by its skin.
As the plane pulls away from the landing-strip and banks over Kaieteur’s gorge, your final image is one of natural beauty so astonishing it defies words. The forest stretches endlessly below, and it’s easy to understand how centuries of human history amount to the briefest interlude in the far older story of the natural world. Like the rocks below Kaieteur, the planet seems immeasurably ancient; yet also, like the living green below, forever young. This is just another of Guyana’s extraordinary juxtapositions.
Guyana has a rich, vibrant literary tradition. The journal Kyk-over-al (founded in 1945 and revived in 1984) was in its heyday one of the most influential literary periodicals in the West Indies. The country’s first important novelist was Edgar Mittelholzer (The Kaywana Trilogy), whose books began appearing in the 1940s. Wilson Harris (The Guyana Quartet, Jonestown) is Guyana’s best-known living writer; his mystical, experimental novels have delighted as many readers as they have puzzled. Look out also for Jan Carew (Black Midas) and Roy Heath (The Murderer); more recent Guyanese fiction writers include Fred D’Aguiar (The Longest Memory), Pauline Melville (The Ventriloquist’s Tale), and Oonya Kempadoo (Buxton Spice).
Guyana’s two major poets, both in their prime in the 1950s and 60s, were A.J. Seymour (“Over Guiana, Clouds”, “The Legend of Kaieteur”) and Martin Carter (Poems of Resistance). Neither is as well known outside their home country as their work deserves. Leading contemporary poets include John Agard, Fred D’Aguiar, David Dabydeen, Grace Nichols, Sasenarine Persaud, Marc Matthews, and Mahadai Das.
Ian McDonald, Trinidad-born author of the novel The Hummingbird Tree and the poetry collection Mercy Ward, has lived in Guyana for nearly 40 years, and writes a weekly column for the Stabroek News.
The Guyana Prizes for Literature, founded in 1988, are awarded every two years in a number of categories: fiction, poetry, drama, first fiction, and first poetry. Winners have included many of the writers named above.
Shell Beach and Pomeroon Coast checklist
- Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), the largest living turtle species, growing up to 680 kg (1,500 pounds), measuring up to 3.6 m (12 feet) from tip to tip of the front flippers
- Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), a small-to-medium size sea turtle with a beak-like mouth
- Green turtle (Chelonia mydas), the best-known sea turtle species, growing up to 150 kg (330 pounds)
- Olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), a large sea turtle with olive-grey skin and a relatively thin, heart-shaped, olive-coloured shell
- River dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), a rare, little-known species of freshwater dolphin, found in the coastal streams of north eastern South America
- West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), gentle aquatic mammals which consume large quantities of vegetation. They weigh on average 180 to 360 kg (400 to 800 pounds) and can live for up to 60 years
- Red-billed and channel-billed toucans (Ramphastos tucanus and Ramphastos vitellinus), easily recognised by their colourful, oversize bills
- Red-bellied macaw (Ara manilata), a gregarious species, often seen in large flocks; mostly green with a red abdomen
- Orange-winged parrot (Amazona amazonica), a noisy, lively species, flying usually in pairs
- Scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber), a brilliantly coloured bird, feeding and roosting in large flocks
- Jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest South American cat, and a prized sight for visitors. Weighs up to 70 kg (150 pounds); an excellent swimmer and climber. Its gorgeous spotted coat is distinctive, but jaguars with uncommon melanistic coloration are pure black
- Red howler monkey (Alouatta seniculus), named for both its reddish-brown fur and its deafening roar, often heard at dawn
- Collared and white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu tajacu and Tayassu pecari), pig-like creatures with small tusks and grizzled fur. The white-lipped is larger than the collared, and has whitish-yellow fur around its chin and cheeks
- Canje pheasant or hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin), the national bird, nearly 60 cm (two feet) long with a prominent crest. An excellent swimmer and diver
- White-winged potoo (Nyctibius leucopterus), a large, very rare nocturnal bird; Iwokrama is one of the best places for spotting this species
- Arapaima (Arapaima gigas), one of the largest freshwater fish species in the world (and also Guyana’s national fish). It grows to 180 cm (six feet) long and can weigh up to 90 kg (200 pounds)
A full list of flora and fauna recorded at Iwokrama is available at the centre’s website: www.iwokrama.org
Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), one of the largest of the eagle species, growing up to 100 cm (40 inches) long and reaching speeds of 80 km (50 miles) per hour in flight
Jabiru stork (Jabiru mycteria), a large bird, 130 cm (5 feet) tall, with a wingspan of 240 cm (8 feet). It hunts fish, frogs, and snakes with its foot-long bill
Giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), the world’s largest otter species; can grow to 180 cm (6 feet) long, head to tail, with a chocolate-brown coat. An inquisitive species, endangered due to heavy hunting
Giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), a docile creature about the size of a large dog, covered in long, stiff hair. An adult anteater can eat as many as 30,000 ants or termites in a single day
Capybara (Hydrochaelis hydrochaelis), the world’s largest rodent species, on average 30 kg (66 pounds) in weight. Often spotted swimming or at the edge of rivers, moving in small family groups
Black caiman (Melanosuchus niger), the largest alligator species, growing up to 6 m (20 feet) long, notable for its dark colouration, with pale bands along its flanks
Cock of the rock (Rupicola rupicola), a gorgeous orange continga with a semi-circular crest
White-chinned and white-collared swifts (Cypseloides cryptus and Streptoprocne zonaris), easily recognised by their rapid, fluttering flight, and long, narrow wings. They spend most of their waking time in the air, feeding on flying insects
Golden dart-poison frog (Colostethus beebei), a brilliantly coloured tree frog which spends its entire life-cycle inside the micro-ecosystem of the cloud forest’s bromeliads
Four huge rivers (and countless smaller ones) slice through Guyana on their way to the Atlantic: the Demerara, the Berbice, the Corentyne, and the biggest of them all, the Essequibo, 34 km (21 miles) across at its mouth. The country derives its name from this heritage; Guyana is an Amerindian word meaning “land of many waters”.
Guyana sits between Venezuela (to the west) and Suriname (to the east), and above Brazil, on the north eastern corner of the South American continent, between latitudes 1° and 9° N, and longitudes 57° and 61° W.
The topography is varied, and includes thick mountainous rain forests, grasslands, major rivers, coastal plains, and spectacular waterfalls. Over 80 per cent of the total land area is still forested, and only 2.5 per cent is cultivated. Much of the coast lies between 1 and 1 1/2 metres (3 1/2 and 5 feet) below the sea’s high-water level; a Dutch-devised system of drainage canals and dykes protects coastal communities and agricultural land from flooding.
Geographically almost the size of Britain, at 215,000 square km (83,000 sq miles), Guyana has a population of about 775,000, the majority of whom live along the Atlantic coastal plain.
• The first settlers of this region, the Warrau Indians, arrived here before 900 AD, and were later followed by Carib and Arawak tribes
• 1616: First European settlement (Dutch)
• The three counties of Guyana (Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice) changed hands several times between 1663 and 1814, when they were formally ceded to Britain
• 1831: Berbice and the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo were unified in a single territory, British Guiana
• 1834: slavery abolished
• 1846–1917: 250,000 indentured workers from India, China, and Madeira arrive
• 26 May, 1966: Guyana gains independence
• 1970: Guyana becomes a republic
Cities and towns
Georgetown, the capital (population 200,000), is located at the mouth of the Demerara River, near the middle of Guyana’s Atlantic coast. Linden (pop. 60,000), a mining town, is on the Demerara 110 km (70 miles) south of Georgetown. New Amsterdam (pop. 25,000) is situated at the mouth of the Berbice River, 105 km (65 miles) south east of Georgetown. The small town of Lethem (pop. 9,000), on the border with Brazil, is the main commercial centre of the Rupununi district.
BWIA operates several daily return flights between Trinidad and Guyana, with convenient connections from the Caribbean, Toronto, London, Manchester, and Caracas. BWIA also operates direct services to Guyana from New York and Miami.
Guyana’s international airport, named after the late President Cheddi Jagan, is at Timehri, 40 km (25 miles) south of Georgetown.
All visitors require a valid passport. Those arriving by plane require an onward ticket. Visas are necessary for all visitors, except nationals of the following countries: USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Caricom and Commonwealth countries. (Visitors should confirm whether they require a visa at the nearest Guyanese embassy or consulate, or at a travel agent.)
The departure tax of G$2,500 (US$17) can be paid either at the airport on check-in or when confirming your ticket (this should be done at least three days prior to scheduled departure).
Hot but pleasant for most of the year, with a mean shade temperature of 27° C and an average temperature range of 24 to 31° C (75 to 87° F), Guyana’s climate is equatorial. The heat is tempered by sea breezes on the coast. An umbrella is useful during the two wet seasons, extending roughly through May and June, and from December to the end of January. Rainfall averages 2,300 mm (90 inches) a year in Georgetown.
Guyanese dollar (G$199=US$1). Major credit cards are widely accepted by most hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and tour operators. US dollars are also widely accepted. Foreign currency can be changed at banks and cambios, and at many hotels. Note that banking hours tend to be relatively short — from 8 am to 2.30 pm, and also from 3 pm to 5 pm on Fridays.
Guyana is well served by minibuses and taxis, which operate throughout the capital and to other urban centres. Car rental agencies in Georgetown are plentiful (remember that traffic drives on the left). Taxis are cheap and easy to find outside most hotels and throughout Georgetown (eg at Stabroek Market and Avenue of the Republic). Private taxis can easily be arranged through your hotel. There are good roads from Georgetown to Timehri and Linden, and for 300 km (185 miles) along the coast from Springlands to Charity.
Guyana has over 960 km (600 miles) of navigable river, which provide an important means of communication. The Berbice, the Essequibo, and the Demerara are crossed by ferries and by six- and four-seater riverboats called balahoos and corials. River taxis can be chartered. For details, contact the Transport and Harbour Department, Water Street, Georgetown.
Private charter companies operate flights into the interior from Ogle airport. Minibuses serve the airport from Stabroek Market in Georgetown.
English-speaking, with Amerindian dialects.
Christian 50%, Hindu 33%, Muslim 9%, other 8%.
110 v in Georgetown; 220 v in most other places, including some Georgetown suburbs.
Official time is four hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, one hour ahead of Atlantic Standard Time.
If you are planning to visit the interior, pack a good torch, extra batteries, toiletries, and insect repellent.
- Police: 911
- Fire: 912
- Ambulance service: 913