Guyana: great escape

Philip Sander visits this land of rivers, forests, and mountains, and finds no end of thrilling adventure

–“Mighty rivers, ancient forests, vast savannahs…” Photograph by Roberta ParkinAmerindian craft on sale in Georgetown. Photograph by Roberta ParkinAmerindian Guyana. Photograph by Roberta ParkinAmerindian Guyana. Photograph by Roberta ParkinCattleworks on the riverbank. Photograph by South America Team/Foto NaturaCome on down! Photograph by South America Team/Foto NaturaCottage accomodation at Arrowpoint. Photograph by Roberta ParkinGeorgetown’s Sea Wall. Photograph by Roberta ParkinGoldon sale in Georgetown. Photograph by Roberta ParkinGuyanese specialities: chicken casserole. Photograph by Roberta ParkinGuyanese specialities: pepperpot. Photograph by Roberta ParkinHoatzin balance on a palm frond. Photograph by South America Team/Foto NaturaKaieteur Falls. Photograph by Roberta ParkinLand of many waters. Photograph by Roberta ParkinLe Meridian Pegasus Hotel. Photograph by Roberta ParkinParliment building, Georgetown. Photograph by Roberta ParkinRexlaxing in Timberland. Photograph by Roberta ParkinRiver transport plays a key role in Guyana. Photograph by Roberta ParkinSt George’s Cathedral in the capital, Georgetown. Photograph by Roberta ParkinSt George’s Cathedral. Photograph by Roberta ParkinStabroek Market, in the heart of Georgetown. Photograph by Roberta ParkinThe City Hall and High Court buildings in Georgetown. Photograph by Roberta ParkinThe facade of Georgetown’s City Hall. Photograph by Roberta ParkinTrekking to Kaieteur. Photograph by Roberta ParkinView of the Rupununi Savannah. Photograph by South America Team/Foto NaturaWild lilies. Photograph by Roberta Parkin

The Caribbean is full of surprises. Postcards, movies, tourist board brochures carefully maintain the image of small tropical islands where it never rains, where the beaches are uninterrupted, the locals unfailingly charming, the sea always warm and always a carefully regulated shade of brilliant blue. Even Caribbean citizens find themselves falling for the myth sometimes.

But of course the truth is more complicated than that. We have rainy seasons. Some islands don’t have the coral reefs necessary for pink or white sand beaches. Some have mountains high enough to make fireplaces necessary in the cooler months. Our many interrelated cultures are richer and deeper than the yeah-mon, happy-go-lucky stereotype. And some places in the Caribbean aren’t even islands.

If you arrive in Guyana from the north by plane, you might get the impression you’re arriving in an almost uninhabited region. From the air, as you swoop down over the mouth of the Essequibo (21 miles wide at its mouth), you see green stretching away towards the horizon, forest that seems both endless and impenetrable. You wonder why no one told you the airport is in the middle of the jungle. But as you drive out of Cheddi Jagan International Airport, named for Guyana’s late third president, the bustle along the road to Georgetown is reassuring: shops, houses, churches and Hindu temples, rumshops, minibuses packed with people, donkeys pulling carts loaded with produce. On your right you pass the distillery where Guyana’s sugar is turned into El Dorado rum; on your left you catch your first glimpse of the Demerara, the second of Guyana’s great rivers. You take note of the system of trenches and kokers (sluice gates) that drain the country’s coastal region, much of which is below sea level.

You know you’ve reached the city when the jumble of buildings suddenly gives way to an orderly grid of wide streets, many of them with tree-lined promenades running down their middles. Some of Georgetown’s older buildings seem in need of repair, but the distinctive architectural style is striking: three- or four-storey white-painted wooden buildings with shutters and fretwork and protruding Demerara windows on every side, welcoming in the sea breezes. Forty years ago the Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul compared them to illuminated ivory carvings. You might also think of them as delicate white ships, floating on the waterlogged land, lined up in graceful flotillas.

The heart of Georgetown is the ward of Stabroek, on the east bank of the Demerara. From here the city grew outwards during the 19th and 20th centuries, and here is where the municipal and national governments have their headquarters. At the district’s heart is the covered Stabroek Market — which Guyanese call “Big Market” — a cavernous iron-framed emporium built in 1881, where the people of Georgetown do their shopping and where it seems almost any item can be bought at one of the hundreds of little stalls: fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, clothes, gold, household items, raw cloth (which you can have run up into a shirt or a dress by a neighbouring tailor). There’s even a whole alley of dealers in caged birds, which many Guyanese prize. The market backs right onto the river, and the rear section is actually built over the water, so goods can be unloaded directly from small boats. This is also where you can catch a speedboat ferry across to the west bank of the Demerara, a couple of dozen passengers in orange life-vests crammed with their shopping into the vessels for the short, thrilling ride.

From the vicinity of Stabroek, Main Street runs north to the Atlantic, lined by many of the city’s finest buildings: the High Courts, fronted by a statue of Queen Victoria; City Hall; the residences of the president and the prime minister. A stroll here also offers a magnificent view of St George’s Cathedral a block east, one of the tallest wooden structures in the world; its austere spire is visible from much of the city, a useful landmark for pedestrian navigation. At the head of Main Street is the high-rise Pegasus Hotel, and beyond that Georgetown’s famous Sea Wall. This 280-mile-long dyke runs east from the mouth of the Demerara, protecting the city and other coastal settlements from the Atlantic at high tide. Its wide, flat top is popular with morning joggers, afternoon strollers, nighttime lovers, and Easter kite-flyers. If you visit when the tide is in, you’ll gain a proper respect for the ongoing feat of hydraulic engineering that keeps the city relatively dry.

Or stroll east from Stabroek for twenty minutes along Brickdam, with its canal, or Regent Street, lined with shops, and you come to the Botanical Gardens, laid out in the Victorian style with an avenue of towering royal palms, a bandstand, and a series of ponds which are home to a family of manatees. These rare aquatic mammals are increasingly difficult to see in the wild; it’s hard enough to see them here. At most they show eyes, nostrils, and mouths above the surface of the water, and often only a line of bubbles indicates their presence.

In the gardens you’ll also find the mausoleum of Forbes Burnham, Guyana’s first president. A couple minutes’ walk away is Castellani House, once President Burnham’s residence, now the home of the National Gallery. Guyana seems to have produced a disproportionate number of important artists whose influence has been strong in the rest of the Caribbean. At Castellani House there are major works by Philip Moore, Aubrey Williams, and Denis Williams, as well as by seminal but lesser-known figures like Edgar Burrowes and Herbert Moshett; younger artists like Bernadette Persaud, George Simon, Oswald Hussein, and Philip Gajadhar are also represented. Outside the main entrance to Castellani House, just across a busy intersection, is Georgetown’s most prominent (and some would say most notorious) public sculpture, the 1763 Monument, depicting Cuffy, the leader of a major slave revolt. Another work by Philip Moore, the figure is oddly posed, and Guyanese have woven all sorts of theories about its supposed significance.

There’s enough to do in and around Georgetown to keep anyone busy for more than a few days. The city’s physical graciousness needs time to be properly savoured. Long, painful economic difficulties in the 1970s and 80s meant that many older buildings were allowed to fall into decay, but also that Georgetown is lacking in monstrous high-rises. Yet this is no museum town, but a bustling, hustling port, noisy near the harbour, surprisingly quiet along some of the tree-lined avenues. There’s a decent sprinkling of upscale restaurants and any number of more modest eating spots (see page 86). Sheriff Street along the city’s eastern edge is an often raucous strip of bars and nightclubs, where you can stay out drinking, dancing, or just liming till the wee hours.

If you’re feeling bewildered by the place, strike up a conversation with someone, ask advice. The Guyanese are noted for their hospitality — maybe this derives from the custom in the old days of offering shelter and food to travellers in the remote hinterlands — and everyone, from taxi drivers to shopkeepers, seems willing to chat, tell you where to go or where to eat, exchange political gossip, have a good “gaff”, as the local expression goes. If you’re lucky, you may even get invited to someone’s house for traditional Sunday lunch, or taken to visit relatives at a little village several hours’ drive from Georgetown.

There’s also a strong Brazilian presence in the city — by some accounts, 40,000 Brazilians live in and around Georgetown — and in recent years a number of carnivore-friendly Brazilian restaurants have sprung up. The Pegasus Hotel has a popular Latin Bar for those eager to show off their dance moves. Some of Georgetown’s old cinemas have fallen into dereliction, but Castellani House has recently started a free film night, showing everything from old Hollywood classics to more recent art films, and the Sidewalk Café on Middle Street also has a weekly film club, on Tuesday nights. Thursdays, Sidewalk is the place for live jazz, often featuring artists visiting from abroad.

But most visitors come to Guyana to see the interior, as the vast region beyond the coastal strip is called. The country’s 83,000 square miles encompass landscapes ranging from dense rainforest to open savannah, from towering mountains to mangrove swamp. Guyana isn’t flooded with tourists like some other adventure destinations, but at the same time a close-knit network of tour operators, hotels, ranches, and resorts makes it surprisingly easy to get straight to the heart of the wilderness. An adventure here really is an adventure.

My own interior adventure began one Monday morning in Georgetown, when I was met by Seego (short for Seegobin), one of the drivers from the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development. After a quick zigzag through the city to collect some other guests and pick up supplies at Bourda Market, we were on our way to Iwokrama. This million-acre forest area was set aside by Guyana both to protect the pristine landscape and to demonstrate that tropical forests can be used sustainably without destroying them.

The journey there by four-wheel drive takes about seven or eight hours, depending on the weather. From Georgetown to the mining town of Linden, we made good time on the paved highway, but just outside Linden, after crossing the Demerara River, the paving disappears and you proceed on a surprisingly good red earth road which runs all the way to the town of Lethem and the Brazilian border, following the old trail by which tens of thousands of cattle were once driven to the coast.

From the sugarcane fields of the cultivated coastland, you pass to the scrubby forest of the laterite plain of Guyana’s bauxite mining region. A layer of white sand, looking almost like a blanket of snow, overlies the pebbly red laterite. As you drive further south, the forest grows thicker and taller. The approximate halfway point is a place called 58 Miles, not a village so much as a string of houses stretching for a few miles along the road. The Peter and Ruth Restaurant is part road-stop, part general store, where you can have a good meal and a cup of coffee, stretch your legs, buy supplies for the trip ahead, and marvel at how far away the coast already feels. From here, it’s another three or four hours to the Essequibo near Kurupukari Falls, where vehicles cross the river by pontoon ferry.

After hours of driving through the now-towering rainforest, you emerge again into the sun to see the river (just a couple hundred feet wide at this point) sparkling, lined by orange sandbanks. The first thing I thought of was a swim, but first we had to make our way in a small boat across the river and a quarter-mile downstream, to the Iwokrama field station. A clearing above the river contains a central headquarters, housing offices, kitchen, and dining verandah; a row of cool wooden cottages for guests, each able to sleep six or eight people; and quarters for the staff. As soon as welcoming formalities were over, I made my way back down to the river for a swim off the small jetty.

The forest creeks that feed the Essequibo are usually stained dark brown by fallen leaves, and warmed by the near-equatorial heat; as we struck out from the bank, I remarked to my companion that this was like swimming in a great river of tea, warm and brown. A half-tame caiman basked on the black rocks nearby, and an early moon rose into the still-blue sky.

Next morning, after breakfast, we headed out on the river again, about a mile downriver towards the foot of Turtle Mountain. About nine hundred feet high, this ridge offers spectacular views of the surrounding forest. Climbing at a moderate pace, we reached the summit in about two hours, while our ranger, Laikram, pointed out trees, flowers, birds, seed-pods. We were met at the top by a fresh breeze and the sight of treetops stretching away in every direction to the horizon, broken only by the curve of the Essequibo flashing below us.

We returned to the field station in a downpour (the soaking was just another reason to have a swim before our late lunch), yet later that afternoon the weather had cleared, with a gentle breeze for our short trip back upriver to Kurupukari Falls, where we scrambled over the rocks to see the ancient Amerindian petroglyphs that suggest there has been a settlement of one kind or another in this vicinity for thousands of years.

We also visited the nearby Macushi village of Fairview, where we got the sense of a community balancing traditional agriculture and kinship customs with all the demands of the wider world. Each wooden house (balanced on stilts to protect it from the seasonal flooding of the river) is surrounded by a small orchard of orange, tangerine, soursop, and breadfruit trees, and most of the villagers are blood relatives, which means young people must look to other communities up- or downriver when the time comes for them to choose spouses.

As we strolled to our boat for the short trip back to the Iwokrama field station, the late afternoon sky was loud with the cries of a half-dozen species of parrots and macaws, pairs of them returning to their roosting spots for the evening.

It takes more than an hour to drive from one end of Iwokrama to the other, from the field station in the north-east to the canopy walkway at Mauisparu in the south-west. Here, at a specially selected hillside site, Iwokrama has built a series of suspension bridges and observation decks through the treetops of the canopy forest, allowing visitors a look at the forest from an angle otherwise accessible only to birds, monkeys, lizards, and snakes. Reaching a height of nearly one hundred feet above the forest floor, the walkway uses adjustable cables and braces to allow the support trees to grow normally.

Birds and, sometimes, monkeys, feed within just a few feet of the observation decks; the treetops sway gently with the wind; and the abundance of life around you — from insects to bromeliads — brings home the truth of the statistic that eighty per cent of tropical forest dwellers live in the middle and upper canopies. And to be moving through the trees at this great height seems an extraordinary gift. I thought of a phrase from Derek Walcott’s poem “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”, describing the flight of birds: “the high privilege of their birth”.

A few minutes’ walk from the canopy is the campsite, where lodges are currently being constructed for those visitors who choose to overnight at the spot, either to observe nocturnal forest life or to be on hand for the birds’ dawn chorus. Here we were met by Colin Edwards of Rock View Lodge, who took us on the next stage of our journey. Rock View, near the village of Annai, 45 minutes’ drive south of Iwokrama, is just past the natural boundary between the rainforests of central Guyana and the savannahs of the Rupununi. As you proceed along the road, the tall forest begins to dwindle, then suddenly ends; the flat, dry savannah, dotted by shrub-like sandpaper trees, seems endless, the sky enormous, and distances become difficult to judge. Emerging into the open after a few days in the forest can feel unexpectedly exhilarating.

Colin knows the Georgetown-Lethem road better than most people. He ought to, since he helped build it, in the early 1990s. English by birth, he came to Guyana in the late 1960s and has lived there or across the border in Brazil ever since, working for many years as an engineer. When he retired from the construction business, he bought an old Brazilian ranch house near Annai, where the last foothills of the Pakaraima Mountains end and the great Rupununi plain begins.

There, he has steadily worked to create an orderly little demesne in the gorgeously sparse savannah, adding to the original ranch house two lodges for guests, a large kitchen and dining-house, a shady orchard, what is probably the only swimming-pool in the Rupununi, and even a small zoo of animals people have brought to Rock View over the years (including a tapir named Tommy). The Annai airstrip runs just outside Rock View’s boundary; the Dakota Bar (named for the small aircraft that land here) is a small but vital hub of commerce and conversation, where news is exchanged, goods ordered from the coast, messages relayed to other interior settlements.

Life at Rock View can be almost sybaritic. The boulder-lined pool is always cool and inviting, the electricity generator runs all night, and the ranch house contains a remarkably large library and Colin’s impressive art collection, including works by Ossie Hussein, Philip Gajadhar, and Genevieve Cox. One could conceivably spend weeks lazing in a hammock under the cashew trees, sipping cool drinks, but the Rupununi landscape is far too distracting. It demands exploration. There is a hiking trail in the nearby hills, a short walk from the ranch — a dawn expedition revealed dozens of birds, a troupe of breakfasting monkeys, and stunning views across the savannah, a study in browns, yellows, greens, and sunrise pinks.

Though I’d never been on horseback before, I agreed one afternoon to go out for a ride. More experienced and intrepid visitors can actually help round up cattle, but I settled for a trot to Bina Hill, where a small radio station broadcasts to the north Rupununi. That evening, fresh from the pool and crisply clothed, I met Rock View’s other guests for drinks under the mango trees, before our al fresco dinner (alerted to my vegetarianism, the kitchen had a special dish prepared every time I sat down for a meal).

The moon was nearly full that night, and after dessert my companion and I climbed the enormous tree-covered rock, fifty feet high, that towers over the ranch and gives it its name. Under the moonlight, the landscape around us was now a huge silver etching; road, airstrip, and foot-trails gleaming like a fine net laid over the land. A strong night-breeze whipped past us, and we huddled into the shelter of a ledge, reluctant to turn our backs on this breathtaking vision.

Next morning, Colin drove us down to Ginep Landing on the north bank of the Rupununi River, for the next stage of our journey. Here we met Edward McTurk of Karanambo Ranch, nephew of the ranch’s proprietor, Diane McTurk. We set off on a two-and-a-half-hour boat trip upriver, the current moving slowly under the blazing sun. As we proceeded, Edward pointed out dozens of birds and other animals in the riverside trees and along the many sandbanks: herons, hawks, kingfishers, storks.

Finally, round another bend of the river, a row of slightly sinister black rocks along the right bank announced our arrival (later we heard two versions of the local legend about these rocks, which were once considered unlucky). We scrambled up the small beach and through a tunnel of trees to get to the ranch compound, a cluster of palm-thatched brick buildings, dotted with mango trees and bougainvillea bushes. Guests stay in small cottages, each with a verandah and hammock in front, a large, cool bathroom behind, and a wood-shuttered bedroom in the middle.

By now we were slightly disoriented by the heat. Diane McTurk appeared to welcome us, explaining that she had just been feeding the otters. Karanambo is famous in Guyana, and even further afield, for these giant river otters; they thrive in the Rupununi, and for years Diane has been adopting orphaned youngsters, rearing them and preparing them for life on their own. When I visited, there were two otters in residence: Sappho, the elder, and Tsunami, still a baby. Visitors can not just observe them at close quarters, but even swim with the otters (if they’re willing to risk a small, playful nip). On land, they waddle effortfully, but in the water they move like fish, and one of Sappho’s favourite tricks was to sneak up to our boat and flop in suddenly, spraying water all over the passengers.

While we waited for lunch, we collapsed into the row of hammocks that line the main house, clutching tall glasses of Karanambo punch — thick with fruit pulp and strong with El Dorado rum, and reputed to be a sort of elixir of life. Over lunch in an airy room hung with Amerindian artifacts, Diane told us about the history of the ranch, which was established in 1927 by her father. Despite the ease of the conversation and the laid-back atmosphere of the surroundings, there was a touch of pleasing formality about the meal, a sense of carefully cultivated standards of behaviour, here in the deep savannahs. As we ate and talked, the short-wave radio in the next room crackled, messages passing from one small settlement to another across hundreds of miles, a reminder that the people of the Rupununi have devised their own ways to overcome the isolation of this beautiful but difficult landscape, to achieve a sense of wider community.

The morning’s long journey had taken its toll, and by mid afternoon, after we’d had a short tour of the ranch compound, seeing one of the houses being rethatched with ite palm leaves, we retired to our cottages and their huge white beds draped with mosquito nets. Later, refreshed by sleep, we headed out with Edward and Diane on a boat trip up one of the many creeks that feed the Rupununi River, to a large pond with a cluster of Victoria amazonica waterlilies, to watch the flowers open at dusk. The small boat was amply stocked with more Karanambo punch, Brazilian beer, and delicious little biscuits from the Karanambo kitchen, plus binoculars and copies of Hilty’s Birds of Venezuela, the standard field guide for birders in this part of South America.

The lilies — the world’s largest species, native to the Amazon region but discovered here in Guyana in the early 19th century — were clustered at the far side of the pond. At first the flowers looked like white globes, glowing a little in the early evening light. As the sun went down, they opened slowly, revealing a deep pink blush at their hearts, and if we peered closely we could see the small black beetles that help fertilise them, congregating in their inner chambers.

We returned to Karanambo by dark, ducking to avoid branches overhanging the creek, flashing powerful torches along the banks to help guide the boat, and catching the gleaming red eyes of floating caiman. A fish leapt from the river into the bottom of the boat. “I caught one!” cried Diane. This would be Sappho’s meal tomorrow.

Most people go to bead early in the Rupununi, and at Karanambo the electricity generator is switched off at ten. By that hour you’re ready for bed anyway. As I was lying under my mosquito net, trying to calculate exactly how far I was from Georgetown and the coast, I heard a small creature scrabbling in the palm thatch overhead — lizard, bat, tree frog? It was oddly comforting to think that even the roofs of the houses were alive here, and I turned over and fell asleep at once.

The day we left Karanambo, we were woken at dawn for another boat trip, but a sudden downpour delayed our departure, and we passed the time eating a three-course breakfast. After half an hour the sky was clear again (at the height of the rainy season from May to July, the river rises enough to surround the low hill on which the ranch compound is built, and Karanambo becomes a temporary island accessible only by boat), and we set off for Crane Pond, south along the river. This waterfowl nursery was teeming with herons, egrets, ibis. The pond itself contained a kind of floating forest of lilies, sedges, and grasses. The path along its bank wound through tall razor grass; in the undergrowth we spotted the remains of a caiman’s nest.

Back at the ranch, after we packed our gear, we were weighed for the plane, for we were flying back to the coast. As we sat at the lunch table, Edward kept an ear to the radio, listening for the alert that our plane was approaching. At the signal, we said quick goodbyes, jumped into the jeep, and raced the three miles to the airstrip. Several airlines run regular flights to those interior communities with landing strips, and you can also charter a plane to get to more isolated outposts. Our flight back to Georgetown was a sort of reprise of the previous days; from the air, we renewed our sense of the scale of Guyana, savannah, forest, and river.

A week-long interior trip like this one can be both thrilling and disorienting. The natural beauty of Guyana’s landscapes, their sheer expanse, the feeling, once you’ve left the coast, of responsibilities and obligations falling away, are intoxicating. Floating on the Rupununi River, I found myself thinking the outside world — cities and deadlines and schedules — was a distraction from this freedom I’d discovered, a freedom I wanted to understand better. I returned to the bustle of Georgetown slightly bewildered and fretful, and also newly conscious of how much of Guyana I had yet to experience. The city’s wide promenades felt constricting now; I chafed at being indoors.

My last evening in Georgetown, I walked along the Sea Wall, looking first at the lights of the city to the south and then to the great Atlantic horizon to the north. The sky was clear, and I watched Orion slowly climbing from the east; to the west, the Sea Wall curved past Kitty and disappeared down the Demerara coast. The sea breeze was strong in my face, and the tide was creeping in over the mudflats.

Guyana had taken me by surprise. I expected it to be vast; I expected the landscapes to be stunning; I expected adventure. I’d found all of these. What I didn’t expect was the exhilaration I’d felt at the taste of a life stripped of human luxuries but abounding in the luxuries of the natural world: water and air, sun and rock, the hiss of river rapids ahead in the dark, the gift of a hilltop view. I didn’t expect the rush of affection I’d felt for the people I’d met and to whom, in many cases, I’d entrusted my safety. I didn’t expect to so keenly regret having to leave, to feel a kind of loyalty to the place, after just a couple of weeks. I didn’t expect, frankly, to feel like I was somehow at home.

As I stood on the Sea Wall, the laughter of evening strollers floated past. I tried to imagine my next visit, tried to imagine a lifelong relationship with Guyana. For a week after I got back to Trinidad, I felt confused, out of rhythm, slightly lost. I amassed a pile of books about Guyana — history, natural history, politics, art — on my desk, and read like an exile trying to hold on to his memories. And I reflected on the mystery that sometimes a place you imagine as an escape from the familiar ends up teaching you something about the essence of home.

WHERE TO STAY IN GEORGETOWN

Le Meridien Pegasus
Located just where the Demerara River meets the Atlantic Ocean, Le Meridien Pegasus enjoys stunning seascape views. Within walking distance of many major places of commerce and tourist sites, and just south of Georgetown’s famous Sea Wall, the hotel is centrally located in the heart of the city, making it ideal for both business and leisure travellers to Guyana. The business centre provides a complete range of secretarial and business services, conference and event management services. Guests can enjoy three restaurants and the Latin Bar is a popular nightspot from Wednesdays to Saturdays.

Cara Suites
Cara Suites is a collection of self-contained studios and suites, centrally located in the heart of Georgetown. Known for its very un-hotel-like atmosphere, it has become a firm favourite over the years with regular business travellers to Guyana. Cara Suites offers a wide range of accommodation to suit individual requirements, length of stay, and budgets, starting with studio rooms and culminating in the finest Cara executive suites, which are especially suited to corporate clientele.

Cara Lodge
Cara Lodge is the perfect hotel for those who want to soak up Guyanese heritage and culture. One of the oldest wooden buildings in Georgetown, it has become the best known hotel in the country. Cara Lodge was built in the 1840s, and originally consisted of two houses. It has a long and romantic history. The home has become a unique hotel offering all the tradition and nostalgia of a time gone by, complete with the comforts and services of the most modern of hotels. The Bottle Restaurant is considered by many the best in the capital.

Hotel Ariantze
Delightfully charming décor and friendly personalised service make a stay at the Hotel Ariantze, one of Guyana’s traditional boutique hotels, a pleasantly memorable experience in fine Caribbean hospitality. From arrival to departure, whether for a short trip or a longer stay, guests feel as though they’re staying with family. The Bourbon restaurant offers intimate evening dining, superlative food, and impeccable service. And everyone comes to the Sidewalk Café for lunch, for tasty Guyanese dishes served buffet style; on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, it turns into Georgetown’s only jazz club.

Brandsville Apartments
Simply comfortable, affordable, and secure, Brandsville is ideally located in Kitty, a few minutes from the Sea Wall and near Georgetown’s entertainment area on Sheriff Street. The stylish rooms, each air-conditioned, cater to the most demanding visitors, both local and foreign, and the roof garden enjoys excellent views of Greater Georgetown. Brandsville is inspired by the traditions of Guyanese hospitality, and proud of its origins. Special privileges are offered to our valued guests.

GEORGETOWN SHOPPING

Guyana is famous for its gold and diamonds, and jewellery created by local craftsmen is both exquisite and surprisingly affordable.

King’s Jewellery World Founded by Looknauth Persaud, who has been involved in the jewellery industry for over 25 years, King’s Jewellery World is a family business. It maintains a time-honoured tradition of designing and providing the finest quality jewellery, each piece handcrafted from Guyanese gold. King’s has been known as the jeweller of the West Indies Cricket Team and other international cricketers for two decades. Its famous Millennium Cricket Bracelets are sterling examples of the creativity of the jewellery industry in Guyana. The main retail branch also has a gift department offering watches, sunglasses, crystal, and leather products.

L. Seepersaud Maraj and Sons
The L. Seepersaud Maraj family has been selling fine jewellery at Stabroek Market — “under the clock” — since 1935. Elaborate gold filigree tilarees, exotic multi-tiered bracelets, and diamond rings both traditional and modern astonish shoppers, but this is also a family business in the true sense. The company’s jewellers offer a genuinely personalised service, a tribute to good relations with customers over the years. Visit any day of the week, at the shop just inside the main entrance of Stabroek Market, and you’ll see one of the three Maraj brothers keeping the family tradition alive.

The Ministry of Amerindian Affairs runs a small but intriguing craft shop at its new building on Thomas Street. This is perhaps the best place in Georgetown to find traditional Amerindian craftwork, including palm hats, matapis (woven sheaths used to squeeze casareep from cassava), furniture, Wai-Wai seed necklaces and belts, balata figurines, and wood carvings.

INTERIOR OUTPOSTS

Where to stay in the Guyanese interior.

Arrowpoint Nature Resort
Nestled in the heart of the Amerindian reservation of Santa Mission, a 35-minute boat ride along the Kamuni Creek, Arrowpoint offers both serenity for weary minds and physical thrills for those in search of adventure — from hiking and mountain-biking along  jungle trails to creek swimming and beach volleyball. Owner Gerry Gouveia, managing director of Roraima Airways, believes that indigenous communities must be integrally involved in tourism enterprises on their lands, and Arrowpoint makes it possible for visitors to experience indigenous Guyana. Housing, furnishings, and menu all reflect strong indigenous input, and guides will be happy to give you a glimpse of Guyana’s natural beauty.

Timberhead Rainforest Resort
Just 15 miles as the crow flies from Georgetown, Timberhead, on the banks of the Pokerero Creek, is a haven for visitors wanting to enjoy unspoiled Guyana. Three palm-thatched lodges, built in 1991 by Amerindians from nearby Santa Mission, are designed for comfort and peace of mind. Swim, canoe, or fish in the black-water creek, or walk the well-marked trails. Over 200 bird species have been spotted in the vicinity. Or just laze the day away in a hammock, enjoying the delicious Guyanese cuisine. A nighttime river safari reveals nocturnal water lilies as well as the glowing red eyes of caiman.

Shanklands Rainforest Resort
A place of romance, solitude, and relaxation, Shanklands is a tropical retreat set among rolling lawns on the Essequibo, insulated from the outside world by the rainforest, yet just a couple of hours from Georgetown by road and boat. Play croquet or badminton on the lawns, kayak to a nearby creek, or try water-skiing. Accommodation ranges from the luxurious to the rustic, and the cottages offer a panoramic view of the river and islands below.

Rainbow River Safari
For visitors serious about getting close to nature, this is about as serious as you can get. Rainbow River, near Marshall Falls, is surrounded by miles of unspoilt rainforest, with two freshwater beaches and two waterfalls for the delight of visitors. Try your hand at gold and diamond panning, go whitewater rafting (on a raft you build yourself), or go on a wildlife hike, looking for jaguars, tapirs, deer, wild hogs, and many bird species. Sleep in a cabin or at our large campsite, and wake to the sounds of the jungle and the rushing rapids. Enjoy meals cooked over an open wood fire.

Iwokrama International Centre
The million-acre Iwokrama Forest in central Guyana is one of the world’s most pristine tropical forests, managed by the non-profit Iwokrama Centre. The field station on the west bank of the Essequibo near Kurukupari is a base for both scientists and eco-tourists. Comfortable cabins look straight onto the river, and Iwokrama’s staff, many of them from nearby Amerindian communities, can take visitors out on the centre’s many trails, on the river, or on longer camping trips at one of several campsites. www.iwokrama.org

Rock View Lodge
On the overland route from Georgetown to Lethem, Rock View is a green oasis in the north Rupununi. Its two comfortable lodges, gardens, orchards, and swimming-pool make a restful base for exploring the hills and savannahs nearby. Guests can mingle with locals at the Dakota Bar, overlooking the Annai airstrip, to hear the latest gossip, or stories about the Rupununi’s colourful past. www.rockviewlodge.com

Surama Lodge
About half an hour’s drive north of Annai, the Macushi village of Surama has a community-run lodge for visitors interested in experiencing life in an indigenous settlement. The rustic accommodation and simple food are more than made up for by the chance to get to know your hosts — the entire village — and enjoy their keen hospitality. sydneyallicock@yahoo.ca

Karanambo Ranch
The largest cattle ranch in the north Rupununi, Karanambo was established in 1927 and has been run by the McTurk family ever since. Still an active cattle ranch, Karanambo now also offers accommodation to visitors in simple, charming cottages near the Rupununi River. This may be the best place in the world to have a close encounter with a giant river otter: proprietor Diane McTurk is famous for rescuing orphaned youngsters and preparing them for life in the wild, and there are always one or two otters around the ranch.

Dadanawa Ranch
At 2,000 square miles, Dadanawa is Guyana’s largest cattle ranch, and the most southerly outpost for visitors to the Rupununi. It’s also a popular base for serious adventure tourists. Proprietors Duane and Sandy De Freitas regularly arrange expeditions by boat, horseback, or four-wheel drive into the south Rupununi, the Kanuka Mountains, or the southern forests beyond the savannahs. These tours can be as strenuous as visitors are willing to undertake, and are an extraordinary way to see Guyana at its wildest.

HOW TO GET THERE

It’s possible to plan an interior trip entirely on your own, but an experienced tour operator can help negotiate special deals and provide invaluable information.

Wilderness Explorers
One of Guyana’s best-known tour operators, Wilderness Explorers specialise in itineraries that give visitors a chance to see as much of Guyana’s interior as possible. Transport, accommodation and meals are all carefully planned, and experienced guides or drivers accompany you the whole way, so you can enjoy your adventure with no worries. Wilderness Explorers can arrange anything from diving to bird-watching, or even trips into Brazil or Suriname.

Rainforest Tours
Kaieteur Falls, Orinduik, tours of the Pakaraimas, visits to Amerindian villages — Rainforest Tours will gladly arrange these or any other Guyana eco-adventures for visitors. www.rainforesttoursgy.com

NO END OF ADVENTURES

It’s impossible to take in all of Guyana in a single trip, and even longtime visitors who’ve been coming here for years never manage to exhaust the possibilities of this beguiling place. Outside of Georgetown, the central forests around Iwokrama, and the north Rupununi plains, other expeditions include:

• Lethem, on the border with Brazil, a small frontier town with a famous Easter rodeo, when the vacqueros of the surrounding savannahs assemble to show off their skills with horse and lasso. The nearby settlement of St Ignatius, built around a Jesuit mission, is an important centre for traditional Amerindian craft. From Lethem it’s possible to cross into Brazil (non-Guyanese should check with the nearest Brazilian consulate whether a visa is required), or you can head into the south Rupununi, beyond the Kanuku Mountains, to Dadanawa Ranch. The forests at Guyana’s southernmost end are home to the semi-nomadic Wai-Wai. Reaching this territory requires serious planning, and either a chartered plane or a strenuous hike of several days.

• Mt Roraima, Guyana’s highest point, where the boundaries with Venezuela and Brazil meet. Roraima is a remote, flat-topped tepui, with sheer cliffs rising 9,094 feet from the surrounding savannah, supporting its own micro-climate and species found nowhere else in the world.

• Bartica, a busy small town at the confluence of the Essequibo, Mazaruni, and Cuyuni Rivers, the gateway to the mining areas of the north-west. Several nature resorts are located near the town, and the ruins of the Dutch fort Kyk-over-Al are a short boat-trip away.

• Shell Beach, on the north-west coast beyond the Pomeroon River, a remote ninety-mile-long beach (named for the seashell fragments underfoot) where four species of protected sea turtles nest from March to June. The Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society works with local residents to protect the turtles from human predators. Just inland are extensive mudflats and mangrove forests, best explored by canoe, home to manatees, river dolphins, parrots, toucans, and many kinds of waterfowl. A large camp run by an Arawak family is the only accommodation here, and facilities are rustic (tents with mosquito nets), but it’s worth roughing it to experience this unspoilt part of the South American coast.

• Kaieteur National Park, near Guyana’s geographical centre, where the Potaro River flows from the Pakaraima Mountains and plunges 741 feet over the edge of its plateau into a narrow gorge, forming Kaieteur Falls, the world’s highest continuous single-drop waterfall (five times the height of Niagara). This may be Guyana’s most celebrated natural wonder, celebrated in ancient myth and modern verse. The falls are surrounded by thick forest; the overland hike requires a six-day round trip, but you can also fly directly from Georgetown, just over an hour in a small plane, and return a few hours later. At the height of the rainy season, 35,000 gallons of water flow over the lip each second, but there is a sheltered pool near the edge where you can take a vertiginous dip. Hundreds of swifts roost in the great cave behind the falls, darting in and out of the spray; the area is also home to the elusive, brilliant orange cock-of-the-rock, and the golden dart-poison frog.

A GUYANA READING LIST

As in the visual arts, Guyana’s contribution to Caribbean literature seems disproportionate to the size of its population (perhaps the size of its physical territory has something to do with it?). Martin Carter (Poems of Resistance) and A.J. Seymour (“Over Guiana, Clouds”, “The Legend of Kaieteur”) both in their prime in the 1950s and 60s, were Guyana’s leading poets, and Seymour was the longtime editor of the journal Kyk-over-Al (founded in 1945, revived in 1984), in its heyday one of the most influential literary periodicals in the West Indies. Trinidad-born Ian McDonald, author of the novel The Humming-bird Tree and several collections of poems, succeeded Seymour as editor of Kyk in 1989. Other leading contemporary poets include UK-based John Agard, David Dabydeen, and Grace Nichols; Canada-based Sasenarine Persaud and Cyril Dabydeen; US-based Fred D’Aguiar; Barbados-based Mark McWatt; and the late Mahadai Das.

Guyana’s first important novelist was Edgar Mittelholzer (The Kaywana Trilogy), whose books began appearing in the 1940s. UK-based Wilson Harris (The Guyana Quartet, Jonestown) is the country’s best-known living writer; his mystical, experimental novels have delighted as many readers as they have puzzled. Some say a trip into Guyana’s interior is essential to understanding Harris’s work. Look out also for Jan Carew (Black Midas) and Roy Heath (The Murderer); more recent Guyanese fiction writers include David Dabydeen (Our Lady of Demerara), Fred D’Aguiar (Bethany Bettany), UK-based Pauline Melville (The Ventriloquist’s Tale), and Grenada-based Oonya Kempadoo (Tide Running).

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, as well as younger individuals like poet and fiction writer Ruel Johnson. Petamber Persaud hosts a weekly literary programme on Guyanese television, reviewing new books and chatting with authors.

BUSINESS MATTERS

Guyana produces both rice and sugar for export, and agriculture accounts for half the GDP. Guyanese rum is among the world’s best. There are also extensive timber operations. Bauxite, gold, and diamond mining are important industries, and in recent years Guyana has been moving towards exploiting oil and natural gas deposits off its coast. Eco-tourism is a small but growing sector. There are many opportunities for foreign investors in this resource-rich nation.

Linden Economic Advancement Programme (LEAP)
The town of Linden, about sixty miles inland from Georgetown, is the centre of Guyana’s bauxite mining, and lies along the road from the coast to the Brazilian border. In 2002, the Linden Economic Advancement Programme (LEAP) was established by the Guyanese government to stimulate development in the town and the surrounding region, through economic diversification. LEAP provides training for small entrepreneurs and a business incubation unit, plus a micro-credit scheme. It also supports improvements to roads, river transport facilities, and other infrastructure.

RoopGroup/CariAir
RoopGroup/CariAir is a development company focused on major investment projects in Caricom, with specific interests in agribusiness, technology, and aviation projects. Headquartered in Georgetown, It provides export and packaging services for non-traditional agricultural products in Guyana. It also plans to launch a cargo airline in 2006. Founder and chairman Peter Ramsaroop has published a book titled Hope for Our Nation: Guyana Vision 2020 (EVOLVENT Press), describing the critical factors necessary to move Guyana to economic and social success.

GUYANA FACT FILE

Geography
Four great 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. “Guyana” in fact is an Amerindian word meaning “land of many waters”.

The country sits between Venezuela (to the west) and Suriname (to the east), and north of Brazil, on the north-eastern shoulder of the South American continent, between latitudes 1° and 9° N, and longitudes 57° and 61° W.

The topography is varied, and includes thick rainforests, 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.

History
•    The first settlers of this region, the Warrau Indians, arrived 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, including suburbs, 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.

Getting there
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.

Airport
Guyana’s international airport, named after the late President Cheddi Jagan, is at Timehri, 40 km (25 miles) south of Georgetown.

Entry requirements
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.)

Departure requirements
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).

Climate
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.

Currency
Guyanese dollar (G$180 =US$1). Major credit cards are widely accepted by 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.

Transport

By land
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 inexpensive and easy to find outside most hotels and throughout Georgetown (eg at Stabroek Market and Avenue of the Republic), or you can call any of several taxi companies and ask for a car to meet you just about anywhere in the city. There are good roads from Georgetown to Timehri and Linden, and for 300 km (185 miles) along the coast from Springlands to Charity.

By river
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.

By plane
Private charter companies operate flights into the interior from Ogle airport. Minibuses serve the airport from Stabroek Market in Georgetown.

Language
English-speaking, with Amerindian dialects. Closer to the Brazilian border, many people also speak at least some Portuguese.

Religions
Christian 50%, Hindu 33%, Muslim 9%, other 8%.

Voltage
110 v in Georgetown; 220 v in most other places, including some Georgetown suburbs.

Time
Official time is four hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, one hour ahead of Atlantic Standard Time.

Useful items
If you are planning to visit the interior, pack a good torch with extra batteries, toiletries, insect repellent, and waterproof gear.

Health
Drink only bottled water, and be sure that fruit and vegetables are properly washed. Some visitors take anti-malaria pills before arriving, but medical experts are not agreed on the usefulness of these, and malaria is uncommon in the Georgetown area. You may wish to ask your doctor’s advice when planning your trip.

Emergency numbers
Police: 911
Fire: 912
Ambulance service: 913