Caribbean Beat Magazine

Great beyond: Guyana’s Rupununi

Guyana’s remote Rupununi savannah is still all but unknown to outsiders

  • On the road from Lethem to Nappi. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • Traditional palm-fibre weaving demonstrated at Nappi. Photo by Leon Wainwright
  • These peppers drying in the sun at Nappi will be a main ingredient in a traditional pepperpot stew. Photo by Leon Wainwright
  • The wide Surama valley, dotted with houses, from near the summit of Mt Surama. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • Two young girls from Yupukarri, near the Karanambo ranch. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • West of Surama, the Pakaraima Mountains stretch ridge by ridge to the border with Brazil. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • The view south-east from Mt Aranaputa; beyond the last Pakaraima foothills, the horizon is eighty miles away. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • Dugout canoes on the Burro Burro River near Surama. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • Leaving Surama by 4x4, the most reliable means of transport in the Rupununi. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • A tiny “poison” frog takes shelter under a wood cabin on Mt Aranaputa. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • Balata anteaters on display at Nappi. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • Emeline Baretto of the Rupununi Weavers Society demonstrates traditional Wapishana hammock-weaving at her house in St Ignatius. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • The elaborate fringes of a Wapishana hammock. Photo by Leon Wainwright
  • Baretto demonstrates traditional cotton-spinning. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • Mosses and epiphytes cover a tree trunk on Mt Surama. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin
  • The Kanuku Mountains form a high wall near Moko Moko. Photo by Leon Wainwright

“On this stretch here sometimes we see jaguars,” said the ranger at the wheel. “So don’t blink.”

I kept my eyes on the red earth of the unpaved road ahead, hoping to catch the flicker of an elusive jaguar dashing from the dense forest.

We were hurtling along what felt like a tunnel bored through the rainforest, the tallest trees rising hundreds of feet overhead, their branches almost meeting and blocking the sky. The earth road was pitted with potholes, some of them big enough to be called craters, and the ranger was driving the Land Cruiser at top speed, the best way to avoid getting stuck in patches of mud.

Forty miles behind us was Kurupukari, a small village on the Essequibo River, home to the field station of the Iwokrama International Centre. Founded in 1996, Iwokrama protects and manages nearly a million acres of tropical rain forest near the geographical heart of Guyana, and the field station serves as a base for scientists and eco-tourists.

Now we were on our way to our second stop in the Guyanese interior, the village of Surama, in its sheltered valley at the boundary between Guyana’s vast central forests and the expanse of the Rupununi Savannah. We’d been driving for more than an hour, and still no sign of a jaguar.

I noticed that more sunlight seemed to be filtering down to us, and the trees were getting thinner. I’d travelled down this earth road before, the “highway” between Guyana’s coast, where most of the population lives, and the town of Lethem on the border with Brazil, so I knew the landscape was about to change. Then we shot out of the forest, and the world seemed to expand instantly in every direction: the huge sky zoomed away, and the flat Rupununi grasslands, bright green at this time of year, stretched to a horizon so distant it could have been imaginary. Like a bright red snake, the road curled ahead of us.

A friend in Georgetown had arranged for us to spend a few days in Surama. “I’ll radio and tell them you’re coming,” she said. “You’ll turn off the main road when you get to Surama Junction,” she told me, “And then it’s a short drive to the village. You could even walk it, but maybe not with your bags.”

Surama Junction turned out to be an unsignposted trail leading into a thicket. I would never have noticed it on my own. As we drove into the trees, the ride got bumpier; the trail was deeply rutted and some parts of it were entirely submerged. August, in the middle of the rainy season, is in some ways a bad time to travel in the Rupununi. Creeks flood, bridges wash away, trails disappear under temporary lakes. But this is also when the Rupununi is most lush, the savannahs changing colour almost overnight from sere brown to bright green, dotted with small flowers.

Then we were out in open country again, driving into a broad, flat valley enclosed to the north, west, and south by hills, with the massive Pakaraima Mountains looming in the distance. Among the sandpaper trees we saw occasional small dwellings, baked-brick houses with thatched roofs, and at the crest of a low rise the Land Cruiser stopped. There were three or four small buildings close to the road, one of them sprouting a short-wave radio antenna, but there was no one in sight. This, we would learn, was the closest thing in Surama to a central point.

Macushi and Wapishana settlements in the Rupununi don’t always resemble what visitors expect villages to look like. The houses are usually scattered across a wide area — Surama covers five square miles — not huddled together round a green or square. With so much land available — the Rupununi stretches over twenty thousand square miles, and is home to perhaps twenty thousand people — there’s no need to crowd, and the people of the savannahs enjoy the privacy of living a comfortable distance from their nearest neighbours. Narrow trails criss-cross between homesteads, and most villages have community centres or schools that can be used for meetings or festivities.

As we looked around us and stretched our legs, someone finally appeared: a middle-aged woman with a puzzled smile on her face came down the stairs from the building with the antenna, and introduced herself as Veronica Allicock. I knew her name — Veronica, my friend in Georgetown had said, was in charge of hospitality for visitors to Surama — and we introduced ourselves confidently. I soon realised why she looked puzzled — it turned out that the message announcing our imminent arrival had not got through on the radio phone. But Rupununi hospitality is always prepared for visitors turning up without warning after travelling for many hours, and luckily there were no other guests expected. Within minutes, with no fuss at all, we were installed with our bags in the small guesthouse, said goodbye to the Iwokrama ranger, and were introduced to Clarice, who would be our cook during our stay, and to Veronica’s daughter Peggy, who would take us on a walk round the village that afternoon.

The guesthouse was a simple wooden building with big windows and a corrugated metal roof, and wooden partitions inside making four little bedrooms and a bathroom. One door looked down to the main trail running through the village, the other offered a view of Mt Surama and the blue eastern sky. Soon we heard a faint clanging of pots from the kitchen, in an outbuilding nearby behind a hedge, and barely an hour after we arrived Clarice was serving us lunch: a stew of ground provisions and plantain, rice, farine — parched cassava — and, for my carnivorous companions, a pepperpot stew made with wild pig.

A herd of pigs had crossed the valley the day before, Clarice told us, hundreds of them racing to the forest on the far side, and the village men had leapt into action with their bows and arrows. “Some of the men were lucky.”

Uncle Theo Allicock’s house was really a cluster of buildings on a low hill with a view east across the valley. “Uncle” was both an honorific and a statement of fact — he and his brother Fred were the founders of modern Surama, and many of the 250-odd villagers are their descendents. Allicock is a common surname in this part of the Rupununi.

We had lunched and napped and now Peggy had brought us to pay our respects to Uncle Theo, about whom we’d heard many stories. He turned out to be a dapper elderly gentleman with a neatly trimmed moustache and a worldly air, dressed in a white t-shirt and white shorts. We sat in the open-sided benab — a traditional round thatched structure — in the middle of his compound, surrounded by infant grandchildren, and Uncle Theo told us about the history of Surama.

The Surama valley has been inhabited off and on for centuries, but the current village was founded in the early 1970s by Fred and Theo Allicock, Macushi brothers who had grown up nearby. In the early twentieth century, one of the old cattle trails from the deep savannahs to the coast had passed through the valley, and Surama was an important stop for cattle-herders, but as this particular trail declined in importance the village was slowly abandoned; perhaps there had also been an outbreak of some kind of disease. By the time the Allicocks arrived, looking for a site to establish their homesteads, the land was unoccupied. Uncle Fred and Uncle Theo invited a few carefully selected families to join the village, and as children and grandchildren were born Surama expanded.

Subsistence agriculture and hunting and fishing take care of many needs in the Rupununi’s Amerindian villages, but to provide an income for their families many young men leave for long stretches to work as gold-miners or loggers in Guyana’s forested north-west, or find jobs across the border in Brazil. But in recent years, with the support of the Iwokrama Centre and several other international agencies, a handful of Rupununi villages have developed facilities for small-scale community-based tourism. Surama was the pioneer, and over the last decade the village has shown that eco-tourism is a viable, sustainable option for similar communities.

Only a few hundred people visit the Rupununi each year. It is rugged terrain, hard to get around, with no paved roads and some settlements accessible only by river or by air, and travel can be unpredictable in the rainy season. Few places have electricity, and outside the town of Lethem there are no telephones, unless you can afford a satellite phone. But the landscape is extraordinarily, even sublimely beautiful. The Rupununi is a corner of the vast Grand Savannah of north-east South America, a region which extends through northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, bounded by mountains and rain forests. It is a land of jaguars and giant anteaters, harpy eagles and great rivers teeming with caiman and piranhas. The wide views are breathtaking and head-clearing — in some places you can see to the horizon eighty miles away, and on clear nights the star-thronged sky is dazzling. The sun’s heat, the rain, the black night make stark opposites, but subtleties of light and air and vegetation wait to be discerned. It is a landscape that can inspire intense, almost romantic devotion, but it is still known to very few outsiders.

That is largely because of the Rupununi’s isolation. It was not until The Road from the coast — Guyanese always speak of it as though in capital letters — was cut about twenty years ago that the Rupununi was “opened” to ordinary tourists, and the building of airstrips at major settlements makes scheduled air travel possible as well. For the most part, Rupununi tourism has been centred at Karanambo and Dadanawa — two vast cattle ranches established in the early twentieth century which now run as eco-tourism concerns — and at the Rock View Lodge, a luxurious oasis (complete with swimming pool) run by the Englishman who, in his previous career as an engineer, built The Road, before he married one of Theo Allicock’s daughters and settled permanently near Annai.

Then in 1996 a group of students from the United States wanted to visit the Rupununi and experience life in a Macushi village. They asked Sydney Allicock, Fred’s son, and the village leader at the time, if Surama could host them. The students slept in the villagers’ houses, ate with them, explored the surrounding savannah and forests, and were enthralled. And they paid cash for the privilege of their time in Surama, to the surprise of the villagers, as Sydney recalls. The money was enough to build the village guesthouse, and Surama realised there were many other people who could be attracted to the gorgeous landscape and simple life of the Rupununi. Community tourism was born.

Now the success of Surama has encouraged other north Rupununi communities to build their own tourism facilities and invite visitors, with some financial support from Iwokrama and organisations like the Canadian International Development Agency. The North Rupununi District Development Board, or NRDDB, which represents the fourteen indigenous communities of the region, has begun training and marketing programmes to support the community tourism effort. And, slowly, the Rupununi is being “discovered” by adventurous travellers from around the world.

On our last day in Surama, we woke early and set off for the hike up Mt Surama, which rises to the east of the village. Tiny, delicate pink ground orchids spangled the waist-high grass along the trail to the foot of the mountain, and the rough leaves of the sandpaper trees were wet with dew.

Mt Surama is covered with forest, and the trees begin as soon as the ground starts to rise. Our guide, Menem, led us up a rocky stream bed and through a banana grove, pointing out birds as they called overhead and identifying a distant crash of branches as a monkey on the move. The last stretch was a narrow path along a near-vertical rock face, then we emerged on a ledge high above the valley but some way below the summit, with a 180-degree view that takes in the whole Surama valley in one direction and the Pakaraima ridges mounting towards Brazil in another.

A huge boulder offered small hollows to perch in and enjoy the breeze. A pair of macaws flew back and forth below us, and the green of the forest was livened by occasional trees bearing red or orange flowers. As we rested, Menem told us stories of the months he spent helping to cut trails in the Iwokrama reserve.

That afternoon, Menem took us on the three-mile hike from the guesthouse to the campsite the villagers have cleared on the bank of the Burro-Burro River, north of the village. On the way, we passed the new half-constructed lodge compound — nine wooden cottages making a half-circle around a large central structure — that will make it possible for Surama to host larger groups of visitors. Near the river, the forest starts again, and a wide dirt trail leads down to a landing place on the bank, where three dugout canoes were moored.

The river camp was spartan: two thatched structures with open sides, one, slung with hammocks, for sleeping, the other for cooking. The forest pressed in on all sides, and twenty feet down the steep bank the river flowed silently but swiftly. After our humid walk we were ready to swim; a big, flat rock made a handy diving board. With every breeze, flowers drifted down from a tree above, making little flotillas.

It was already dark when we returned to the open savannah, and we had not thought to bring our torches; it was a moonless night. By starlight we picked our way along the trail, trying to avoid puddles.

“The captain’s house is near here,” Menem said. “He is away, but his wife is here. They have a small bar where you can buy drinks.”

The offer was too good to refuse, though we knew Clarice must already have our dinner waiting. The village captain — or touchau — was another Allicock, Peter. In front of his house he had built a roofed area with tables and a bar counter. The house seemed deserted as we approached, then a chorus of barking began and the captain’s wife emerged, smiling, surrounded by children, to serve us cans of Brazilian beer.

We were happy to sit in lamplight, we insisted, but she switched on the generator for us, and suddenly lights blazed and Brazilian music blared across the quiet valley. In a corner a multicoloured disco ball began spinning. On holidays, with the entire village out to celebrate, they had amazing parties here, Menem told us. On very special occasions, they even hired musicians from Brazil.

We left next morning for Annai, twenty miles south. Yet another Allicock, Mike, drove us in his Land Rover. I sat in the back, looking out the rear window, as we sped into the trees and Surama, freshly washed by dawn rain, disappeared.

Not much more than a mile before Annai, we stopped at Bina Hill, the de facto capital of the North Rupununi; here there is a two-storey pale-blue painted building where the NRDDB holds its bimonthly meetings, and from which Radio Paiwomack 97.1 FM broadcasts to all the surrounding communities. Nearby is the only secondary school in the north Rupununi, where children from up to forty or fifty miles around board during the school term.

At Annai we said goodbye to Mike Allicock. We would sleep at the Rock View Lodge that night, but we had arranged to spend the day hiking up the forested mountain behind Aranaputa, another village a couple of miles down The Road. Alphonso Forde, our Aranaputa contact and the community tourism coordinator for the NRDDB, was waiting to meet us. Not long before, Aranaputa had bought two motorbikes to help transport visitors. Riding pillion, we were soon zooming south, and over the roar of the engines Alphonso told me about all the village’s plans for attracting visitors, and the whole community’s enthusiasm for their brave new venture.

At the Aranaputa Community Centre, its walls papered with wildlife posters, we met our guide, Navarro, a burly, placid man. As we signed our names in the visitors’ book he told us we should have started the hike earlier — it was already late morning by now, and the early coolness had given way to stifling heat. He gave us extra water bottles — we would need them — and we set off for the mountain, wading through shin-deep water in places where the track had flooded.

We were glad to reach the shade of the trees where the land started to rise, and a trickle of water among the rocks of a stream-bed lent a moment’s coolness. Then the real climb began. Perhaps it was the heat of the day, perhaps the previous day’s hike had worn us out more than we knew, but as we toiled up the steep trail dripping and panting we realised just how unfit we were, by Rupununi standards. Soon we were stopping to rest every fifty feet, consoling ourselves with the ever-widening view waiting every time we turned around. Meanwhile, Navarro barely seemed to break a sweat.

Eventually — mercifully — the trail reached a ridge, and we could walk instead of climbing. The trees were taller, the shade heavier, and we descended into a small saddle. Then, round a corner: a large clearing, fruit trees, two small wood-and-thatch buildings on low stilts, hammocks strung from the trees, the smell of woodsmoke and the sound of girlish laughter. This was Aranaputa’s surprise: three-quarters of the way up the mountain, an Edenic glade rigged out for our relaxation. Navarro seemed gratified by our astonishment, and introduced us to Natoya and Angenese, two teenage girls from the village who had graduated from Bina Hill just that year, and were now sharing Aranaputa’s hospitality with visitors. They had climbed the mountain a few hours ahead of us — carrying all their cooking equipment and provisions, we were chagrined to learn — and now they offered us a jug of fresh orange juice and told us lunch would be ready in a few minutes. Their giggles pealed through the glade as we swung in the hammocks, contemplating our ridiculously sore muscles.

One of the small buildings was a sort of cook-house with a verandah for dining — a great rough-hewn table and benches, and flowering orchids hanging all round. It began to rain just as we were summoned to eat, cooling the air deliciously. Curried beef, rice, fruit: I had forgotten to warn Alphonso ahead of time that I was vegetarian. No matter, I said, the rice is more than enough, but Navarro wouldn’t hear of it. He strode off into the dripping forest with his cutlass and returned with some lengths of palm trunk. In less than ten minutes a steaming dish of stewed heart-of-palm was in front of me, and my carnivorous companions threw envious glances.

“You heard about the poison-arrow frogs?” Navarro asked. The rain was a faint drizzle now, and we were drowsy after our morning’s exertions and our excellent lunch. “They come out when it rains. You can see them right under the house.”

Sure enough, when I peered into the low space between the floor of the stilt-raised structure and the bare earth, half a dozen tiny jewel-like amphibians hopped nervously away, golden yellow with black stripes and spots. I fiddled with my camera, trying to photograph them, but could never get a frontal view — every time I approached, the frogs would turn and flee.

The afternoon’s hike, Navarro told us, was not as strenuous as the morning’s, but, swinging lazily in a hammock, I was tempted to stay and snooze. But when the others disappeared onto the forest trail, I leapt up and sprinted after them, curious after all to see if Aranaputa had any more surprises.

Navarro was right: the hike seemed as easy as a stroll now — perhaps our muscles were finally catching up — with gentler gradients, and a pause halfway to taste the yellow fruit of a kind of palm. “People say it’s like ice-cream,” said Navarro. It was.

We came to a small cliff with tree roots forming a natural staircase, and as we scrambled up we heard what sounded like rushing water. It was the wind in the trees, and then we were out on a long rocky ledge, our final destination. Small plants sprouted in the crevices between the jagged black rocks, almost like a Japanese rock garden, and wind-twisted shrubs clung to the sides of the mountain. Below us, the savannah stretched as far as we could see, its flat expanse broken by smudges of darker green that marked the courses of creeks. Far above, the clouds roiled. We were struck into silence.

Many miles off, a grey curtain of rain drew across the landscape, faster and slower as the wind rose and fell. Fascinated, we watched as it swept closer and closer, and only when it was half a mile away did we turn and begin our descent.

We had made our way eventually to Lethem, the administrative capital of Guyana’s Region Nine — the whole of the Rupununi — a small town with a daily flight to Georgetown and an Internet café, a police station and two small hotels, with Brazil just on the other side of the Takutu River. We wanted to visit the nearby villages of Nappi and St Ignatius, both famous for their indigenous craftwork. Linda Khan, the proprietor of the Savannah Inn, arranged for her young driver Nolan to take us there in his Land Cruiser with leopard-print seat covers.

Nappi, fifteen miles east of Lethem, is the centre of Guyana’s balata craft. Balata, a natural latex similar to rubber, collected by bleeding balata trees, was once used for coating submarine telegraph cables; in the very early twentieth century it was one of Guyana’s major exports, until synthetic plastics were invented. Long before that, Guyana’s indigenous peoples had used balata latex for making domestic objects such as gubbies, or water containers.

Near the foothills of the forested Kanukus, the mountain range that divides the Rupununi into north and south regions, Nappi is close to a plentiful supply of balata, but when the market disappeared sixty years ago the villagers stopped bleeding the trees regularly. Then about forty years ago a teacher named Patrick Abraham from north-west Guyana was posted to the school at Nappi. He knew how to model in beeswax, and he was intrigued by the balata objects he found in the village. He began to experiment with balata, and taught his pupils basic modelling skills. One of these pupils, George Tancredo, proved particularly talented, and his balata figures — representations of Rupununi fauna and various aspects of traditional Macushi life — began to attract collectors and tourists, and eventually made their way to Georgetown.

Tancredo’s success naturally encouraged other Nappi villagers to learn balata-modelling, and gradually a distinctive, highly realistic Nappi style emerged. Shop-owners in Georgetown began placing regular orders, and the NGO Conservation International got involved, helping Nappi craftsmen market their balata objects. Today, Nappi balata is exported to North America and Brazil, and Guyana’s National Gallery owns a large, ornate balata sculpture of a whole Macushi village, made up of hundreds of small figures — Tancredo’s magnum opus.

Nappi’s central point is a low hill crowned by the school, the community centre, and the new water tower. Here we found the village council just wrapping up a morning meeting, and Guy Frederick, a councillor and master balata craftsman, offered to give us a balata-working demonstration.

The craftsmen used to work in their own homes, but a new balata workshop now offers working and storage space. As Guy explained the history of Nappi balata, he built a small wood fire and set a large pot of water to boil. He showed us a sheet of raw balata, made by skinning the tough material from drying troughs after it’s collected from the trees. The sheets are cut into four-ounce pieces, which are boiled to make them more pliable, and formed into balls. Balata is naturally brown; craftsmen used to use natural dyes to vary the colour, but nowadays they buy cheaper synthetics over the border in Brazil.

Guy had thrown a few balls of unworked balata into the boiling water, and now he introduced us to another craftsman, Nicodemus Joseph, who fished one of suddenly rubbery balls from the pot and swiftly got to work. He rolled and squeezed the balata, his hands moving so quickly we could barely follow what he was doing; he grabbed a small scissors, made a couple of snips, and then we could see he was making a small human figure. As he tugged and tucked, a head emerged, then limbs, hands, feet. He put the little man back in the water when the balata began to harden, then fished him out again. A neck, details of a torso, knees, elbows.

To complete a four-ounce figure in full detail takes about four hours, Guy told us, as he showed us the balata objects displayed inside the workshop. There were little tableaux of Macushi families cooking or working; rows of little animals: otters, anteaters, three kinds of monkey; a nativity scene, and even a Noah’s Ark with pairs of Rupununi creatures proceeding up the ramp: jaguars, coral snakes, macaws. Some craftsmen “sign” their work — “GT” on the underside indicates a Tancredo, for instance — and each has a unique style that other craftsmen recognise at once.

I told Guy on a previous trip to Guyana I’d bought a small balata frog in Georgetown, perfectly formed, a striking red with shiny black eyes. He grinned.

“That’s a red mantella. That’s one of mine. I made that frog.”

St Ignatius, as the name suggests, was originally a Jesuit mission. It remains a predominantly Amerindian community, whereas Lethem, a couple of miles north, is home to many “coastlanders”, Guyanese of Indian or African descent born on the populous coast 250 miles away. St Ignatius is also the base for the Rupununi Weavers Society, an association of Macushi and Wapishana women who have preserved the ancient art of cotton weaving and have banded together to market their craft.

Wapishana hammocks in particular are prized objects throughout Guyana. Made from cotton grown on small farms in the Rupununi and spun by hand, and woven on traditional wooden looms, the hammocks are famously double-woven, for strength and to impart a soft nap to both inner and outer sides. The hammocks are finished with elaborate decorative fringes that also form a “blanket” — a person lying in the hammock can fold the fringes over himself for extra warmth on chilly Rupununi nights. Every Wapishana has his or her own hammock, and travelling is a simple matter of rolling it up and carrying it on one’s back — far more practical than a bed for people who were traditionally semi-peripatetic.

Wapishana hand-weaving skills are centuries old, but in recent decades it seemed the art might die out, as fewer girls — and boys — were taught to spin and weave the cotton, and cheap Brazilian hammocks were shipped over the border. Then in 1991 a young Englishman working for the Voluntary Service Organisation and two Wapishana women decided to intervene. They encouraged the women of the region around Lethem to start planting cotton again, and organised spinning and weaving classes for those who had never learned. Assiduously, they promoted the hammocks throughout Guyana and abroad, and people began to take notice. When Queen Elizabeth II paid a state visit to Guyana in 1994, the Rupununi Weavers made her a pair of hammocks; then the British Museum bought one for its collection. With support from the Guyanese telephone company, the Rupununi Weavers acquired a satellite phone and computer, and set up a website to help them sell hammocks to customers around the world.

My friend in Georgetown had suggested I meet Emeline Baretto, the chairwoman of the Helping Hands Women’s Group in St Ignatius and a master weaver. We set out one morning with Nolan on the short trip across Moko Moko Creek, drove past the Jesuit mission, and found Emeline at home. In the largest room of her brick house there was a half-woven hammock stretched on its loom, and she seemed pleased to have an audience for her handiwork.

“I made my first hammock when I was nine,” Emeline said, “And when I was fifteen I started to make them to sell.” In a corner was a basket of unspun cotton, and she showed us how, with a few flicks of her wrist that only looked easy, she would spin it into thick cotton thread wound on a large spool. Next she demonstrated the famous double weave on the eight-foot-high loom. The Wapishana use cotton of two varieties, one naturally brown, the other naturally cream-coloured, which accounts for the hammocks’ characteristic stripes. A hammock can take six months to finish, the weaving interspersed among household chores — which seems terribly labour-intensive, but the hammocks are made to last for decades.

And Emeline, at least, seemed to enjoy the slow discipline by which a basket of heaped cotton thread was transformed into a beautiful, strong object representing comfort, security, tradition. “I like my culture, my old people’s ways,” she said, smiling sweetly.

As we waved goodbye, I found myself thinking that, of the many smiles I’d seen on that trip across the Rupununi, Emeline’s was in fact the sweetest — which said a great deal. And weeks later, talking to friends about my time there, many memories arose, of unexpected adventures and the wild beauty and grandeur of the landscape and encounters with odd beasts. But it was the generous and gentle hospitality of the people of the Rupununi, their many smiles, that I remembered — and remember — most clearly. That says a great deal too.

Rupununi adventures

When to go

Most visitors to the Rupununi go in the dry season between September and April. There is a big rodeo at Lethem over Easter, which brings hundreds of spectators into the small town. During the rainy season, from May to July, the landscape is green and lush, but travel can be difficult, as creeks rise, trails are inundated, and wide-scale flooding can occur.

Getting there, and getting around

The easiest and most expensive way to get to the Rupununi from the coast is by air. There are daily flights from Georgetown to Lethem with regular stops at Annai; stops to other settlements can also be arranged. There are plans to rebuild the abandoned airstrip at Surama; until then, air travellers must land at Annai and proceed by road. • There is also a daily bus that runs from Georgetown to Lethem via Linden, the mining town fifty miles from the coast. After Linden the road is unpaved, and during very bad weather the bus service may be suspended. The drive can take twelve to eighteen hours, depending on the weather. Another option is to drive yourself, but this requires a 4×4 vehicle and it is prudent to have a radio on board.

Within the Rupununi itself, 4×4 is the most reliable form of transport, but it can be expensive, due to high fuel prices. Several places in Lethem hire vehicles and drivers; try the Savannah Inn. For travelling between Amerindian villages, it is best to make arrangements in advance and expect delays during bad weather.

Where to go

Surama has three separate facilities for visitors: a modest guesthouse that can sleep up to four people, an eco-lodge compound with nine cottages, and a river campsite.
Aranaputa can offer makeshift accommodation to visitors at the community centre in the village, but you’ll need your own hammock. There is also a campsite with a simple sleeping lodge and cookhouse on Mt Aranaputa.
• With the help of an organisation called Foster Parrots, Nappi has recently completed construction of an eco-lodge near the village at the foot of the Kanuku Mountains, with plans for another. Each lodge can sleep eight, and the village can arrange bird-watching hikes in the Kanukus.
• The village of Wowetta, about ten miles south of Surama, is one of the best places to see the rare and elusive Cock-of-the-Rock, a bright orange bird with a prominent crest. Simple accommodation is available in the village, and the highlight of a stay there is the hike to observe the nearby Cock-of-the-Rock colony; it’s said that visitors are guaranteed a glimpse of the birds.

Getting in touch

Many Rupununi communities can be contacted only by short-wave radio, which means that visits are most easily arranged through one of the tour companies in Georgetown. Surama has a partnership with Wilderness Explorers, one of the larger tour companies. Telephone (592) 227-7698. Alphonso Forde of Aranaputa can be contacted by email:

Other adventures

The ideal Rupununi trip could combine visits to indigenous communities like the ones described in this feature with stays at longer-established resorts. Karanambo, on the Rupununi River neat Yupukarri, is a working cattle ranch run by the McTurk family, with stylish, comfortable guest cottages at the main compound; it is famous for the giant river otters which proprietor Diane McTurk rehabilitates. Dadanawa in the south Rupununi, another working ranch with guest quarters, is as far south as most visitors to Guyana can currently travel. To stay at either, contact Wilderness Explorers. • Rock View Lodge at Annai, run by Colin Edwards, offers resort-quality rooms, a swimming pool, landscaped gardens, and excellent food, plus a full programme of activities including hiking and riding. • In Lethem, the Savannah Inn, run by Linda Khan, has comfortable rooms, a well-stocked general store, vehicles for hire, and money-changing facilities. Mrs Khan can help arrange trips to nearby villages or across the border to Brazil. Telephone (592) 772-2035 • Sixty miles north of the Rupununi, the field station at the Iwokrama International Centre offers a glimpse of another side of the Guyanese interior, the dense tropical rain forest. At the southern end of the Iwokrama reserve, a state-of-the-art canopy walkway suspended from a series of giant trees gives visitors a bird’s-eye view of the forest.

Guyana resources

Need help arranging a tour? Somewhere to stay in Georgetown? An adventure within easy reach of the coast?

Wilderness Explorers

Wilderness Explorers is the largest inbound ground tour operator in Guyana, with offices in St Lucia, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The company specialises in individual, group, and custom-designed itineraries, ranging from soft adventure at comfortable nature lodges and resorts to the toughest treks for the adventurous. Many international tour operators are already using its skills to provide natural history, cultural, bird-watching, and adventure tours. Wilderness Explorers is the only operator in Guyana conducting tours to the most remote, untouched, and wild areas of the country.

Rainforest Tours

The Pakaraima Mountains tower over the highland region of Guyana, boasting unique flora and fauna. But have you met the Patamona people? A Pakaraima Mountain Safari co-ordinated by Rainforest Tours offers the opportunity of sharing Patamona culture. You can enjoy the traditional friendship drink, sipping cassiri out of the same calabash. Your final destination is Orinduik Falls, where a soothing massage from the flow of the Ireng River lets you forget the many times you got stuck in a creek, or when it almost seemed you were driving in mid-air along the steep mountain ledges.


Conveniently located in Georgetown’s Campbellville neighbourhood, Brandsville’s three buildings housing 32 rooms are a short distance from the sea wall that borders the Atlantic, and just ten minutes away from central Georgetown. Each of the spacious rooms has a bathroom, TV, telephone, and hot and cold water. A pool and Internet access are available for all our guests. Relax — you’re home at Brandsville.

L. Seepersaud Maraj and Sons

In the land of El Dorado, famed for its pure gold, quality and excellence in jewellery have been the pride of L. Seepersaud Maraj and Sons for over seventy years. The pioneer of this reputable and trusted business was Mr Seepersaud Maraj. He started his business in 1935 in Stabroek Market — an architectural landmark — from which it still operates. Today the business has become a household word for quality gold and diamond jewellery. His sons Heera, Sharma, and Ram paint a picture of their father’s spirit for excellence and trust.

Timberhead Rainforest Resort

From the Demerara River you travel by boat along the Kamuni Creek, where overhanging vegetation has stained the water a deep black colour. At Timberhead, three jungle lodges are spaced among the trees. Friendly and efficient staff wait on you while you laze in cosy hammocks or spacious window seats and savour top-class Guyanese cuisine. The area is rich in birds and other wildlife and the lucky visitor may catch a glimpse of monkeys in the trees or a colourful toucan gliding overhead.