Suriname: kingdom of the silk cotton tree

James Fuller treks to the heart of Suriname, and finally understands how rainforests got their name

Central Suriname Nature Reserve at Raleighvallen on the Voltzberg. Photograph courtesy Dean Van OmmerenChinese parade highlighting the diverse cultures celebrated in Suriname. Photograph courtesy The Suriname Tourism FoundationDutch colonial architecture on Paramaribo`s historic Waterkant (waterfront). Photograph by James FullerFreshly caught fish at Brokopondo Lake. Photograph courtesy Dean Van OmmerenSunset over Paramaribo’s streets of wooden buildings. Photograph by James FullerSuriname mapVisitors to the interior can stay at eco-lodges like this one. Photograph courtesy The Suriname Tourism Foundation

Stand on a bustling Paramaribo street corner for five minutes and you’ll see the multicultural history of Suriname walking past. The faces and features are those of Creoles, East Indians, Javanese, Dutch, Maroons, Chinese, Portuguese, Jewish and Amerindians, to name but a few. If a country could copyright the term “melting-pot”, it would be Suriname.

This extraordinary ethnic diversity is born out of nearly two centuries of Dutch colonisation, when a plantation economy was sustained initially by African slaves, and then, after abolition, by indentured labourers from India, Java, China and Madeira.

The mix of cultures gives rise to variety in all forms of life, be it food, language, dance, traditions, festivals or religion. Such a convergence of cultures could conceivably cause problems, but tolerance and coexistence are evident here. How else could a synagogue and mosque stand so close on Keizerstraat that they share the same car park?

The capital, Paramaribo, is a remarkable place where the Dutch, from whom Suriname gained independence in 1975, have left an indelible mark. Strolling around the streets lined with picturesque colonial wooden buildings—displaying gambrel roofs, louvred shutters and red brick bases—it’s as if a 19th-century Dutch town has simply been transplanted into a tropical setting.

The most eye-catching architectural examples are to be found around Fort Zeelandia and along the Waterkant (waterside). Here you will find historic buildings such as the Weigh-House, where goods and slaves were offloaded from incoming ships. The Waterkant also features bars and restaurants and is an atmospheric place for an evening walk.

Closer to the heart of the city there is the imposing Petrus and Paulus Cathedral, the largest wooden cathedral in the Caribbean. Little wonder Paramaribo is known as the Wooden City and that Unesco placed it on the World Heritage List in 2002.

But the capital is more than quaint architecture. A visit to the sprawling and chaotic Central Market confirms that. Here you find vendors from across Suriname selling virtually everything you can grow, rear or catch. The smells are pungent and the noise levels high as you walk amongst bellowing traders and their stalls of fish and crabs from swamp, sea, and river; vegetables such as cassava, patchoi, eddoes, plantain, aubergine, peppers and okra; fruits such as banana, soursop, lychee-like ramboutans, pineapples and fresh nuts, including peanuts and cashews.

I was proudly told by one chicken seller that his was the freshest meat in the market. How could he prove this? Well you select your chicken and watch it being slaughtered and dissected before your very eyes.

I said I’d take his word for it.

There are enough sights, shops and art galleries to amuse by day, but by night the city really springs to life, with a lively social scene catering to all tastes.

The place to start your evening is the central Stichting Uitgaanscentrum Paramaribo (SUP) area; try saying that after a couple of Parbos (the local beer). This vibrant area of open-air cafes, bars and restaurants is popular with tourists and locals alike, and no establishment is more popular than ‘t Vat. Here you can sample one of the many national dishes, saoto soup—a peppery, watery soup made with chicken, lemon grass, beansprouts, onions, garlic, laos powder and a boiled egg.

From ‘t Vat you can take your pick of entertainment venues including jazz, karaoke and traditional bars, restaurants, cafes, Latin dance evenings, clubs and casinos.

For day-trips from the capital, venture over the Wijdenbosch Bridge, towering 155 metres above the slate-grey tidal waters of the Suriname River, into the neighbouring agricultural district of Commewigne.

Visit the museum at Fort Nieuw Amsterdam or take in some of the area’s old plantation estates. The countryside is flat, so you can enjoy it by bicycle, or, for the less energetic, there’s the laidback sightseeing option of a boat trip down the Commewigne River.

Also within a day’s journey is White Beach, an artificial white-sand river beach resort around two hours’ drive inland. White Beach is known for its music, parties, bars and restaurants, but if that’s not to your taste, the more family-oriented Overbridge River Resort is a similar distance away.

Two excursions which require an overnight stay are Suriname’s second-largest city Nieuw Nickerie, in the north-west—worth the effort for the scenic drive alone—and Galibi Nature Reserve, where every year thousands of sea turtles, including the giant leatherback, come to lay their eggs.

There is plenty to entertain in Paramaribo and the coastal fringes, but the interior is what Suriname is really all about. It is no exaggeration when the country markets itself as “the Beating Heart of the Amazon”. More than 80 per cent of its land surface, 62,000 square miles, is covered by pristine tropical rainforest.

You can enjoy this verdant heartland in many ways and get there either by road and boat or, for the more remote resorts, by chartering a light aircraft. Trips include two-day relaxing stopovers, adventure excursions featuring white-water rafting and even seven-day survival packages, when you are dropped with two Amerindian guides, basic rations, and instructions to reach a predetermined pick-up point in a week.

Not having been trained in the Special Forces nor having masochistic tendencies, I took a four-day trip with Andy Lijkwan, of Oxygen Eco Tours, to Brownsberg Nature Park and Isadou eco-resort.

Suriname’s coastal belt, known as the Young Land, is flat until you reach Paranam and begin the steady climb up towards Brownsberg. The country’s most popular and accessible nature park is a three-and-a-half-hour, bone-shaking, backside-numbing drive over mostly red dirt highway from the capital.

The accommodation at Brownsberg is a collection of tourist lodges standing on a mountain plateau surrounded by forest, high above the sprawling 1,560-square kilometre Brookopondo Lake.

It was at Brownsberg that I learned some valuable lessons. Firstly, there’s a reason they call it rainforest.

After a day spent exploring some of the area’s many trails and waterfalls we intrepidly decided to trek 15 more minutes to the Mazaroni lookout point to see the setting sun.

Halfway up, the sun had already disappeared behind a bank of stygian cloud. The heavens grumbled, a few raindrops fell and seconds later the skies opened. As we looked at each other, pathetically hoping somebody had brought an umbrella big enough for six, our guide informed us it was only a passing shower and we should make for the shelter at the summit.

Unquestioningly, we skipped up the path through the shadowy forest like newborn lambs. Our tiny torches poked derisory holes in the gloom as the deluge continued.

At the top I learned my second lesson: an open-sided set of wooden stakes topped with a galvanise sheet riddled with holes offers limited protection.
After a 10-minute assessment, during which time my feet went from damp to submerged, we concluded sagely that a storm was setting in, and opted to make a break for camp.

Off we went, slipping and skidding along an uncertain route downhill as streams of muddy water cascaded along the trails.

Of course, not everyone minds the rain, and thousands of frogs were now gleefully hopping in all directions. One large specimen got a bit enthusiastic and three lusty hops saw him collide in kamikaze fashion with my shin.

As we eventually squelched our way back into camp with our hair plastered over our eyes and T-shirts and our dignity around our knees, I couldn’t conceive of being more thoroughly drenched.

Third lesson learned: always carry your camera in a waterproof bag.

The next morning was greeted by a cacophonous symphony of red howler monkeys roaring in the new day. It is an awesome sound, and on the expansive hillsides running down to Lake Brookopondo their calls boomed and echoed for miles.

From Brownsberg we drove to Atjoni and the end of the roadway. From Atjoni inland it’s boat travel only. We were heading for Isadou, one of around 30 eco-resorts which are dotted along the great length and breadth of the Suriname River. Interspersed with these resorts are dozens of Maroon villages.

The Maroons are the descendants of African slaves who worked on the sugar, cocoa and coffee plantations before escaping into the forest to live a free life. Most still make a living from hunting, fishing and agriculture, though some find work in the nearby gold mines. Most Amerindian tribes are to be found yet further into the interior.

The 30-minute boat journey to Isadou affords time to take in the solid walls of rainforest which extend as far as the eye can see on either bank: trees, palms, bushes, ferns, tendrils, vines; every shade of green in the spectrum; leaves of every size and shape.

Hidden in its depths and interlinking waterways lurk mysterious animals such as the beautiful jaguar; the comical-looking sloth; the world’s largest rodent, the capybara; the secretive tapir; and formidable snakes like the anaconda.

It is a battle for survival here, and plants clamber on top of one another in a race to reach the sky. Trees with poker-straight trunks tower into the air and are topped off with flourishing canopy florets. Parwa, mango, tamarind, calabash, bush papaya, mope and mahogany trees all vie for airspace, but none can match the majesty of the sovereign of the arboreal world, the silk cotton tree. Known locally as the kankantri, or king of the forest, the silk cotton is a sacred tree in Suriname and can reach heights of 40 metres.

Isadou eco-resort is on an island in the middle of the Suriname River, giving a real sense of seclusion. The island’s lodges are built in the Maroon style, of a simple wooden construction with roofs thatched with dried wild banana leaves.

From here you can fish, birdwatch, swim, take a trip over to the nearby village of Jaw Jaw and experience the Maroon way of life, go on hikes, or simply relax. As with all things in Suriname, the pace and agenda are entirely your own.

Suriname is not only an eclectic mix of peoples and cultures but also an eclectic mix of experiences. It is a hidden gem, especially for the nature lover. This little-publicised hybrid of northern Europe, the Caribbean and South America is not at the top of many people’s countries-to-see list—but it should be. I’m already planning my next trip.

SURINAME VISITOR’S GUIDE

Suriname Factfile

Location: North coast of South America
Capital: Paramaribo
Size: 163.800 square km
Population: 493,000
Government: Democratic republic since November 1975
Official language: Dutch

Fishing

As the early morning mist rises from the lazy waters of the Suriname River and dissipates into the forest air, a traditional dugout canoe glides slowly along the water’s edge. A nightjar is disturbed from its roost and flits ghostlike amongst the riverside’s twisted root systems before disappearing into deeper cover. Pairs of parrots chatter to each other as they fly high across the waterway.

It’s often said that there’s more to fishing than catching fish. Experiencing the serenity of dawn on an Amazonian river, with nothing but the plop of your guide’s oar and the sound of nature awakening to break the stillness, confirms this.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a highly experienced angler or you just want to try your hand at catching dinner, you can be accommodated in Suriname. There are many species to pursue, but among the most popular are the fearsome-looking piranha (pireng), peacock bass (tukunari), giant trahira (anyumara), several species of catfish, and the hard-fighting tarpon (trapun).

With over 3,000 km of rivers as well as the huge Brookopondo Lake to negotiate, it’s best to get local advice and guidance.

Useful websites include www.fishbase.org and www.suriname-tourism.org

Birdwatching

Watch black-collared swallows swooping low for insects over rocky river outcrops; catch glimpses of spectacular channel-billed toucans gliding between the tree tops; see scarlet ibis foraging on the mudflats at low tide; or observe the majesty of the elegant swallow-tailed kite, upset by a mobbing keskidee as the predator strays too close to a mother’s nest.

With such a diverse range of habitats—from mudflats to mangroves, swampland, savannah, rainforest and rivers—it is hardly surprising that over 700 bird species call Suriname home. There are parrots and macaws, hummingbirds and herons, woodpeckers and waders, flycatchers and raptors. The extensive list means that for birdwatchers of all levels, Suriname is a very special location.

Depending on your time, birding trips from one day to 16 can be organised. And you don’t have to travel far to see a lot of birds: over 400 have been spotted within the immediate environs of the capital.

For Suriname’s most famous bird, though, you will have to venture inland. The fiery orange Guinean Cock-of-the-Rock is the treasured photograph for most visiting birdwatchers. Males, who look like they’re balancing mandarin segments on their heads, can be seen all year round performing at spectacular leks (mating arena) of up to 50 birds.

For more information the website of Otte Ottema, the country’s only professional ornithologist, is a good place to start: www.planktonik.com/birdingsuriname/index.html

Tourism

With 80 per cent of its land surface covered by untouched tropical Amazon rainforest, Suriname offers visitors an unforgettable, rich eco-tourism experience of unique flora and fauna. Among its protected eco-sites is the well-known Central Suriname Nature Reserve, named by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. There are numerous waterfalls and rapids, and adventure-filled hiking trails up the mountains.

In the historic inner city of Paramaribo, also a Unesco World Heritage Site, one can see the architecture of the different colonial powers who ruled the country for centuries.

For more information go to: www.suriname-tourism.org

The Suriname Tourism Foundation can be contacted at:
Dr JF Nassylaan 2
Paramaribo, Suriname, S. Am.
Phone (+597) 475165 / 471163 / 424878
Fax (+597) 477786
E-mail: info@suriname-tourism.org
Website: www.suriname-tourism.org

Where to stay

Hotel Krasnapolsky Paramaribo is situated in downtown Paramaribo, a 40-minute drive from the Johan Adolf Pengel international airport. All the important government institutions as well as the main shops are within walking distance.

Rooms and suites have views over the pool or the wooden city. The hotel can also offer conference facilities for up to 500 people, including translation equipment, and a business centre with Internet facilities.

Krasnapolsky’s in-house tour agency offers tour and service packages, including day trips in and around Paramaribo and to the interior.

The Ambassador Hotel and Casino is located in Paramaribo, the city of a colourful blend of cultures.

The hotel is in the bustling business and shopping area of the city centre. Its facilities include the Ambassador Casino, Ambrosia, a five-star restaurant, and a meeting room with banquet facilities. The hotel offers 40 rooms, decorated in tropical style.

The Mirage Hotel is in the heart of Paramaribo. Shopping malls, food courts, boutiques and jewellery shops are all within walking distance. The rooms are comfortable and convenient.

The casino offers popular table games, including blackjack, American roulette, stud poker and punto banco, a wide variety of video slot machines and innovative and exciting progressive slot games.

The hotel’s restaurant, Oasis, serves delicious international dishes, specialising in Turkish cuisine.

Tropicana Hotel and Casino is in Paramaribo, within walking distance of several money exchange facilities, boutiques, and supermarkets and with easy access to public transport. It offers luxurious single and double rooms at affordable rates.

A wealth of gaming fun and live entertainment awaits all the guests, and the Tropicana Casino is one of the city’s hot spots.

The casino has a wide variety of games to choose from: American roulette, blackjack,stud poker and three-card poker, as well as slot and video machines.

The casino restaurant, the Palm, serves international cuisine in an intimate dining room.

Banking

The history of the DSB Bank (De Surinaamsche Bank) dates back to 1865. DSB Bank has developed into the leading bank in Suriname. Its headquarters are in Paramaribo and are supported by four branch offices in other areas as well as three branches in Nieuw-Nickerie, Moengo and the arrival hall of the international airport.

DSB Bank offers primary banking services as well as loans, transfers, asset management, brand-name registration, insurance, treasury and internet banking for individuals and businesses.

Telecommunications

Telesur guarantees quality service and countrywide coverage.
Visitors to Suriname can also make and receive national and international calls with their GSM-phone (900/1800 MHZ) if their provider has an agreement with Telesur.

For information on countries where this service is available as well as requests to activate this service, contact:

TelesurMobile Services Department
1 Havenlaan Zuid
Phone: (+597) 403636
Website: www.telesur.sr

Visual arts

Paramaribo has several art galleries where one can see (and purchase) beautiful paintings, sculptures and other fine art objects.

The most varied selection is to be seen in Readytex Art Gallery, where another department offers a great craft assortment.

Young artists can be seen at work in the educational institutes, which all offer a warm welcome to visitors:

Academie voor Hoger Kunst- en Cultuuronderwijs

Waterkant 14
Paramaribo
Phone (+597) 479517

and

Nola Hatterman Instituut
Zeelandiaweg 6 – Fort Zeelandia
Paramaribo
Phone (+597) 470828.

Artists have united in the Federation for Visual Artists in Suriname (FVAS). Website: www.suriname-fvas.org

Another website that features visual art:

www.readytexartgallery.com.