Suriname’s rainforest: journey to the back of beyond

Suriname’s vast, virgin rainforests are being carefully preserved. But a few hardy visitors venture into the heart of this wilderness

A squirrel monkey on Foengoe Island at Raleighvallen, in the reserve. Photograph by Andy IsaacsonA Trio shaman in Kwamalasamutu, a remote settlement in southern Suriname. Photograph by Andy IsaacsonOn the trail to Voltzberg Dome, in the nature reserve. Photograph by Andy IsaacsonThe Central Suriname Nature Reserve from the Voltzberg Dome. Photograph by Andy IsaacsonTrios in Kwamalasamutu. Photograph Andy Isaacson

It is a typical afternoon in Raleighvallen, a remote area of Suriname’s rainforest, perhaps not unlike a day a thousand years ago. The local maripa tree still delights monkeys with its luscious orange fruits. The still, muggy air weighs heavily on every living creature. I am watching a troop of 27 brown capuchin monkeys feast on these fruits as three US field researchers jot down their observations in notebooks.

“Bubka’s grooming Boris!” exclaims one, a woman in her early 20s, craning her neck toward a pair of teenage capuchins embracing on a nearby branch. “Aww, Little John and Andy Capp are playing with each other.”

The monkeys do as they do – forage, play, wrestle, grunt, and peep.

Ninety per cent of Suriname appears this primordial, a vast, pristine wilderness broken only by isolated Amerindian and Maroon settlements and – a foreboding development – the makeshift camps of Brazilian goldminers. But by some estimates, this still constitutes more intact rainforest than in all of Central America.

In 1998, the Surinamese government was on the verge of parcelling out a huge swath of it to Asian logging companies until interest groups led by Washington’s Conservation International (CI) intervened, convincing the government it was better off staking out a future in ecotourism. It set aside the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, a 6,000-square-mile corridor of virgin forest in the country’s heartland.

CI spruced up a pair of tourist lodges at Raleighvallen, the reserve’s northern gateway. In the 1970s, Raleighvallen was internationally recognised as a birdwatchers’ paradise, attracting Americans long before current hot spots like Costa Rica. But political instability in the 1980s crippled Suriname’s tourism industry; it’s only just recovering.

The government’s nature conservation agency, which manages the facilities at Raleighvallen, remains a slumbering and disorganised bureaucracy – good for rainforest preservation, because extraction deals are slow to develop, but frustrating for efficient ecotourism. A burgeoning private sector has emerged instead, resulting in the construction of several new jungle lodges across the interior.

The tourists remain overwhelmingly Dutch, thanks to direct flights between the capital, Paramaribo, and Amsterdam. American visitors must typically endure at least two flights, a transfer in Trinidad or Aruba and an after-midnight arrival. It’s far greater hassle than vacationing in Costa Rica, but it’s part of Suriname’s back-of-beyond appeal.
From Paramaribo, I hitch a ride to Raleighvallen with CI staff workers who are building an imposing three-storey tourism centre. It stands on the edge of Foengoe Island, a mile-long strip in the Coppename River that serves as the main facility for visitors to the nature reserve.

We arrive after a bumpy, four-hour van trip and another four hours upstream in a motorised longboat. (A half-hour flight with a tour operator is another way.) Near the centre are two spartan but comfortable longhouses for guests and a couple of thatched dining areas. A cluster of huts belongs to the island’s inhabitants, about 20 Kwinti Maroon, descendants of runaway slaves, who work as guides for Suriname’s parks. Shortly after dawn on my first morning, I wander uphill to the island’s grassy airstrip, a swath cut across the forest that provides an ideal vantage point for spotting birds – toucans, tanagers, macaws – in the early, burning-off fog.

The Coppename River, the colour of black tea, but so pure that it can be gulped like a cool beverage, also acts as a break in the dense verdure, where at various moments I spy wayward flocks of parrots and a pair of river otters gliding quietly along the water’s edge.
I visit the ”monkey girls” – as the Kwinti affectionately refer to the US researchers stationed at a cabin across the river – on the path to the Voltzberg, a granite dome that rises 800 feet from the forest floor. I’m appointed a Kwinti guide named Stephen, a stout, dark-skinned man who wears camouflage pants and rubber boots and flashes gold when he smiles.

Stephen and I walk along a trail that winds around the bases of giant, buttressed trees weeping liana vines. A black frog trimmed in yellow, carrying eggs on its back, stands frozen on the leaf litter; an army of leaf-cutter ants marches without pause. Blue morpho butterflies meander.

The cacophonous soundscape suggests a forest bursting with activity, but actually spotting life within the highly textured scene requires finely tuned senses and a little luck. I flinch when a troop of migrating capuchins crash through the trees above me; by the end of the hike, I will see five other monkey species, including gangly spider monkeys and a diminutive marmoset.

After two hours on the trail, Stephen and I reach the base of the Voltzberg. We soon rise above the lush canopy of the trees, plodding up charcoal-coloured rock that is home to a community of cacti and lizards. Beneath us, like a choppy green sea, the forest spreads in all directions, lapping against the bases of scattered granite domes rising like islands. On the horizon a faint outline of mountains marks the northernmost reaches of the Brazilian Amazon.

From the summit I watch a family of five red howler monkeys huddle for the night on the uppermost branches of a tree. I’ve often wondered what it might be like to be airdropped deep in a forest, into a world that has evolved outside the grasp of civilisation. Such a place may no longer exist, but as I descend beneath the forest canopy, towards the darkness and the voices of creatures now waking, I imagine I’m close.
A few days later I am in a propeller plane, the jungle pressed flat below me, with the Coppename River sprawling across it like a giant anaconda. I am flying from Paramaribo to Kwamalasamutu, an Amerindian village near Suriname’s southern border with Guyana and Brazil. After two hours, a clearing in the unbroken wilderness appears, revealing clusters of more than a hundred thatched rooftops and trails of smoke. As the plane descends, I make out children running toward the grassy airstrip at the edge of the settlement.

American missionaries blazed the trail to Kwamalasamutu in the 1960s, and gathered several tribes living around the forest into one village under God. Gym shorts replaced breechcloths. But despite decades of contact with outsiders, the weekly sight of a plane dropping from the sky is still an event, and when mine comes to a halt on the runway, at least three dozen men, women and children are gathered around it. Tourism is slowly reaching this remote outpost, but is not yet developed to the point at which I am welcomed with painted faces, feathered headdresses and a souvenir dance.

Eight years ago, a local Trio man stumbled upon a complex of cave dwellings a mile downriver from the airstrip and discovered a trove of more than 300 pre-Columbian petroglyphs carved into granite. Archaeologists flew in and found the oldest pottery stash in Suriname.

Now, with CI’s support, the villagers are trying their hand at ecotourism at the site. They have built two solar-powered lodges near the caves that can accommodate six guests, and a traditional thatched round hut for dining. Tour operators in Paramaribo have started to take visitors on dry runs to help the villagers train as guides and hosts.

I am greeted at the airstrip by a local Trio Indian who is employed by the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), another US-based nonprofit organisation that is trying to help balance the tribes’ needs on the one hand, and rainforest conservation and cultural preservation on the other.

The latter is not merely for nostalgic reasons. When ACT’s founder, ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, first visited Kwamalasamutu in the early 1980s to research indigenous healing, shamanism had been largely renounced. Plotkin explained to the people here that many of the white man’s medicines were derived from plants within their own forest. (The World Health Organization estimates that a quarter of all modern medicines are made from plants that were first used traditionally.)

After several return trips, Plotkin presented a 300-page manuscript to the villagers’ chief in which, for the first time, generations of medicinal knowledge had been recorded in writing. Holding the only book to have been written in the Trio language other than a translated Bible, the chief pledged to pass its contents on to future generations.
Plotkin has since expanded this effort into Colombia and Brazil, and during my week in Kwamalasamutu he had arranged a gathering of shamans from those countries to share practices with one another.

During a break, Plotkin shows me an indigenous-medicine clinic his organisation built next to the village’s soccer field, where local shamans treat patients with medicines brewed from leaves, vines and tree bark.

To ensure that traditional medicine knowledge doesn’t die with the elders, Plotkin also helped the village create a shaman apprenticeship programme.

Next door stands a concrete building that provides free primary healthcare. The two refer patients to each other, depending on the illness, and the result is an innovative community healthcare system in which traditional and Western practices are integrated and mutually respected.

“It’s not some mash-up where you’ve got shamans handing out antibiotics,” Plotkin says. ”It gives (villagers) a lot more free choice than I have with my health plan, and has demonstrably reduced the expense for outside medicine.”
Later that day, walking through Kwamalasamutu, I pass a teenage Waiwai Indian wearing a 50 Cent T-shirt, and elsewhere, a Trio elder who is naked except for a red breechcloth tied around his waist and beaded necklaces draped across his torso.

That evening I meet John, a Trio who speaks some English and who invites me into his hut for homemade cassava bread and a cup of kasiri, a beer also brewed from the starchy root. He and I sit on benches across a table, illuminated by a faintly glowing candle. His wife lies in the corner, curled in a hammock above the dirt floor. For more than an hour, he and I talk about our disparate worlds, and before I get up to leave we decide to share a song. He starts by singing a Christian melody, his voice sounding heavy in the earthen room.

I felt compelled to reciprocate with a mystical tune by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.

“I hear a voice out in the darkness, it moans and whispers through the pines,” goes the final verse. “I know it’s my sweetheart a-calling /I hear her through the walls of time.”