FRENCH GUIANA 2017
French Guiana is almost entirely covered in rainforests, with numerous creeks and small rivers. The territory is almost entirely separated from its neighbours by two rivers: the Oyapok to the east and the Maroni to the west. It’s a strange mix of French law and rainforest humidity where only a few destinations are reachable by 4WD vehicle. As a department of France, it is here where we cross back into the EU. But not even a European superpower can tame this vast, pristine jungle. French Guiana is a tiny country with colonial architecture, eerie prison-camp history and some of the world’s most diverse plant and animal life. The capital, Cayenne, with its colourful Creole houses and street markets, shops and cafes surrounding the palm-filled main square, is a must-see city in this part of the world.
Border to Cayenne
After driving 3 days through up to knee deep mud, we arrived in Oyapock in the extreme North East of Brazil, from where we crossed into French Guiana, over the newly opened bridge (March 2017). This bridge was completed already in August 2011, even so the Brazilian border post is still not completed, hence a trip back into town was necessary to visit the 2 offices for the required stamps. (so much for efficiency). We were told we were the first Dutch Citizens to drive a car from South America into the EU, Europe and France. We were welcomed by a friendly smile and “bonjour”. Customs and police allowed us to stay overnight at the border.
The rainforests of French Guiana are still largely unexploited and sparsely populated. Overall, more than 90 percent of French Guiana is thick rainforest. There is great bush camping along many creeks, and small rivers meander through steamy jungle where caimans lurk. In the dense rainforest shelter many century old indigenous villages.
Apparently, rockets and rainforests are a good mix in French Guiana. In 1964, the French government chose this jungle-fringed slice of equatorial coast near Kourou for a Space Center, thanks to its low population density and distance from storm tracks and earthquake zones.
After a couple of days in the bush we arrived in Cacao on the Comté River south of the capital. Hmong refugees transplanted from Laos in the 1970s are the main ethnic group in this small Asian village of wooden stilt houses. The French Guiana link goes back to the 1970s, after Hmong refugees were left behind when their US, Australian and other allies pulled out of South East Asia. Many fled to Thailand, and some were later resettled overseas by France and the US. The first group of 45 Hmong arrived in Cayenne in 1977. They were transferred to a new plot of land in the Amazonian jungle, which they called Cacao. Since then, nearly 2,000 Hmong have settled in French Guiana.
The highlight of our visit to French Guiana was the bush camping along creeks and observing the many plant species, trees, birds and other animals. We were told French Guiana has over 5500 different plant species, over 1000 types of trees and 177 types of mammals. The biggest threat to these according to the locals are gold mining, poor control of hunting and poaching.
Our next stop was Cayenne, an important seaport in South America. Timber, rosewood essence, rum and gold are all exported from here.
Cayenne to the Suriname Border
Cayenne has a mix of Creole, Haitian, Brazilian, European, Hmong and other Asian communities. We were disappointed with the city but loved the big Carrefour supermarket full of European food and wine. Despite being disappointed in the city we did enjoy the beach at Remire-Montjoly and while on the beach we did see a huge leatherback turtle laying its eggs late at night.
We obtained our Suriname Tourist Permit in Cayenne, then moved on to Kourou, around 60KM North West of the capital. The town itself does not have a good reputation with an average of 2 armed robberies per day, hence we decided not to camp in Kourou, but just outside town. The weather was rainy so we never visited the Iles du Salut of the coast of which the most famous is Devils Island. The Guiana Space Centre where the European Space agency starts missions, is located just north of Kourou. During the unrest 2 months ago the Centre was occupied by 30 labour union leaders but taken back by the French Foreign Legion, hence security was very strict. The unrest started in Kourou and spread all around the country in a few days. This resulted in closed borders and cancelled flights from Europe. Supermarkets no longer sold fresh products due to road blocks. The strikes became an issue and part of the 2017 French presidential election. It was made clear to us if it wasn’t for the Space Centre in Kourou France would have given up on French Guiana a long time ago. The Space Centre is of great importance to the economy accounting for about 30% of the country’s annual gross domestic product. Services, manufacturing, and construction are the largest sectors of the economy. The gross national income per capita is among the highest in South America, courtesy of the motherland. Wages and benefits are legislated at the same rates as those that prevail in France, hence unemployment and inflation rates are high. The social-security system of France is used in French Guiana. It provides payments for work injury, unemployment, and maternity as well as family allowances and also old-age, disability, and survivor pensions. Health conditions are generally good. Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. Nearly all eligible children attend school.
Leaving Kourou we had some amazing bush camps in the thick rainforest.
Roads are not wide spread but over 3,400km of French Guiana’s waterways are navigable by native boats called pirogues. 460km is navigable by small ocean-going vessels and coastal and river steamers. French Guiana is subject to heavy rainfall between December and July; annual precipitation reaches over 4000 mm per year and high temperatures all year round. We did enjoy a few more days in the rainforest looking for wild life. We learned that 80% of the insects around the world live in French Guiana, many are still found and documented. We have seen huge spiders of at least 15cm in diameter and scorpions. The best known one is the Matoutou. We also saw the most incredible butterflies, easily 12cm across in beautiful metallic blue colors. The country also has caiman and snakes (we are told French Guiana has 98 different types of snakes) including the famous Anaconda. This snake is non-poisonous but it will kill you by squashing or suffocating its prey.
Due to heavy rain and flooded roads we never visited the beaches north of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. Instead we crossed the river by Ferry into Suriname.