Welcome to Suriname

BWIA’s newest destination is a crossroads for a staggering array of cultures, including African, Dutch, Amerindian, Indonesian and Indian, and an eco-traveller’s delight. Simon Lee provides the introductions

Arya Dewarker Hindu Temple, Paramaribo. Photograph by Mark Meredith

Judging from the faces and the food, you might be in Africa, Asia or Indonesia. Looking at the architecture in the capital no one would blame you for thinking you were in provincial Holland. Listening to the music you’ll swear you’re in the Caribbean, but a short plane hop into the interior reveals that this magical mystery destination lies close to the lungs of the earth and the beating heart of the Amazon rainforest.

Suriname remains such a well-kept secret that some international phone directories still have it listed under Africa. In fact it’s part of South America (lying on the north-east shoulder of the continent) with historical and cultural links to the Caribbean.

Diversity, both ethnic and ecological, defines Suriname. Where else would you find a synagogue and a mosque standing side by side, as you will on Keizerstrat in Paramaribo? Among the population of 430,000 there are Amerindians, Maroons (or “Bush Negroes” — descendants of runaway slaves), Afro-Creoles, East Indians, Javanese, Europeans, Chinese, Syrians and Lebanese. An amazing 15 languages are spoken: from the official Dutch to Sranam Tongo, the lingua franca which evolved from a mix of Portuguese, English and West African tribal languages.


It was the legend of El Dorado and the lust for gold which brought Sir Walter Raleigh to the “Wild Coast” in 1600. The first settlers, a party of 300 Englishmen sent by Francis Willoughby, the governor of Barbados, arrived in 1651 and established sugar plantations on the narrow coastal strip. The English were followed by Jews fleeing religious persecution in Brazil, and Suriname can lay serious claim to being the gateway for New World Jews. Many of the ancestors of prominent New York Jewish families are buried in the Jodensavana close to Paramaribo, where you’ll find the ruins of the oldest synagogue and Jewish cemetery in the Americas.

The Dutch conquered Suriname in 1667 and began importing slaves in 1684. After slavery was finally abolished in 1867, the Dutch imported Chinese, East Indian and Javanese contract labourers, creating the basis for today’s multi-ethnic society.

The Dutch legacy survives in the old sluice gates on the coastal strip and the beautiful neo-classical buildings of the capital Paramaribo, with their colonnaded porches, deep covered verandahs and clock gables. Situated on the Suriname River 12 km from the sea, Paramaribo has a delightfully relaxed atmosphere, an organic ambience heightened by wide, tree-lined streets, where bikes and scooters are more common than cars. The Roman Catholic cathedral of St Peter and Paul, one of the centrepieces of the “wooden city,” is reputedly the largest wooden building in the Americas. Open-air birdsong competitions and the vibrantly coloured stalls of flower vendors selling giant heliconias, ginger lilies and orchids add to the charm.

Suriname’s diverse culture and cuisine offer endless entertainment and temptation for all tastes. Try Indonesian dishes like gado gado (vegetables), bami (noodles) and peanut soup, or East Indian curries and an array of Chinese or Creole dishes. Slake your thirst with Parbo, the excellent locally brewed pilsner-style lager. Take in the mesmerising Tarakapang or Javanese dance of the horse spirit, performed to the hypnotic music of the gamelan (a version of the xylophone). Or move your waist to the pulsating rhythms of kawina, kaseko, kaskawi and aleke music.

 

But to truly experience Suriname’s natural and human riches you must travel to the interior. Four-fifths of the country’s 163,000 sq. km. land area is covered with Amazon rain forest, and the 6,000 sq. km. Central Nature Reserve — established in 1998 — is probably the world’s largest protected rain forest. There are other forest reserves at Brownsberg and Raleighvallen.

The forest is home to both Amerindian tribes (Trio, Wayana, Warrau and Wayarekule; the Caribs and Arawaks inhabit the coastal plain) and 35,000 Maroons. These “Bush Negroes”, who escaped from the sugar plantations on the coast to found clandestine settlements in the 18th century, have, amazingly, maintained their African culture and lifestyle. A visit to a Bush Negro village to view their beautiful wood carvings and watch their dances is a unique journey into the past.

Suriname’s virtually undisturbed environment stretches from the forest down to the wetlands and beaches of the coast, where the Galibi Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Marowijne River is the most important nesting site in the West Atlantic for the rare olive ridley turtle.

Whether you’re looking for cultural, culinary or bio-diversity, the music of many languages or simply an unforgettable holiday, Suriname awaits you at the beating heart of the Amazon.