Northeast Passage

When picking places to visit, one of my goals is filling in the map.  Guyana and Suriname are two countries in the northeast corner of South America I haven’t yet hit, so I decide it’s time.

A brief history lesson: the northeast coast of South America (facing the Caribbean) was colonized early.  The British, Dutch, and French all wanted to gain access to its minerals, particularly gold, so each grabbed a piece; the Spanish were to the west (Venezuela) and the Portugese to the south and east (Brazil).  Over the centuries, the borders have been fluid; disputes and conflicting claims continue to the present.

British Guiana, after independence, renamed itself Guyana.  Dutch Guiana, traded by Britain to Holland in 1684 in exchange for New Amsterdam (New York), became Suriname.  French Guiana, a/k/a Guyane, remains a French overseas territory.  (I went there eight years ago.)

There are direct flights from Amsterdam to Suriname, to Guyane from Paris, and to Guyana from New York; otherwise the jumping off point is Trinidad, which lies just off the coast of Venezuela.

One way to boost my country count would be to go island-hopping, but I don’t because I find them boring. A day in Trinidad confirms this.


The capital, Port of Spain, is the principal city of the British West Indies and even has a skyline. There are a few old colonial buildings, but nothing exceptional.  This is supposed to be a happening place during Carnival, but there is little of interest the rest of the year.  Unlike most of the Caribbean islands it has a real economy supported by offshore oil production, but the beaches are weak and tourism sparse. Especially off-putting is the price level, beginning with the $45, twenty minute taxi ride from the airport.


Enough already!  With my buddy, Lorne, we take the afternoon ferry to Tobago, which proves not to be a great transportation choice, as rough seas predominate for the three-hour crossing.

Although Trinidad and Tobago comprise a single country, the islands are hardly equal: Trinidad has 94% of the total land area and 96% of the people; half the population derives from laborers brought by the British from India, In contrast, Tobago's residents are descended from African slaves.  Atypically, they are fairly friendly towards whites: their anger is directed instead at their perceived second-class status to Trinidad and its ruling Indian class.


With its quiet, picturesque beaches Tobago is a typical Caribbean island.  Prices are somewhat less inflated than in most, and a bit more reasonable than Trinidad.  A half-day taxi tour covers the colonial and natural sights.  We spend two pleasant days before returning to Trinidad by air for a connecting flight to Suriname.

The main airport in Suriname is quite distant from the capital. It started as an U.S. Army airfield built to protect the nearby bauxite mines. Bauxite is the ore from which aluminum is refined, and aluminum is the metal with which airplanes are built. When the Dutch East Indies fell to the Japanese in WWII, Suriname become the source for some 80% of this mineral vital to the war effort.

Parimaribo, the capital, is sometimes called “the white city”  because it is almost entirely comprised of wooden buildings painted white. 

Most of the downtown area is a World Heritage Site. Sunday morning all is quiet.  Aside from some seedy-looking casinos (frequented by locals), there is the old Dutch fort, some very large wooden churches, and a synagogue and a mosque situated right next to each other.


Everything is very stately, very orderly, very clean, very Dutch.  Dutch is the official language and English is widely spoken, although common discourse is in Surinamese, a creole.  Suriname has a population of 500,000, of which about half live in the capital.  The interior is sparsely populated jungle, the source of a considerable tropical timber industry.  Tourists come mostly from Holland: after a day or two in the city they head to the interior for a jungle experience.

We arrive late Saturday night.  Sunday we spend walking around.  Monday we take a bicycle tour. The route takes us up and across the Suriname River to the old fort at Niew Amsterdam, where centuries-old bronze cannon are interspersed with WWII coastal defense guns placed to fend off German U-boats.  

The far side of the river also contains several former plantations.  As in much of the Caribbean, large scale agricultural production is no longer economic.  Lack of alternative development has resulted  in fallow land and abandoned buildings.


The road takes us past a number of Hindu temples.  Indentured laborers brought from India to work the sugar plantations have developed into a sizable community.  The most recent immigrants are the Chinese, who are now the shopkeepers – oddly, each establishment is invariably referred to as “the Chinese store.”

The last holdout for native merchants is the old market on the downtown waterfront.  It is traditional and colorful, with many jungle products on offer, (though most of the manufactured goods seem to be imported from China).


Our final stop is the Suriname Zoo.  It’s not bad for a third-world zoo, but nothing special either.

It’s time to move on.  Next door is Guyana.  Its capital, Georgetown, is a only 200 miles as the crow flies from Parimaribo, but crows with jet engines route via Port of Spain for a 10 hour, $500 journey; by road,  it’s two hours quicker and 95% cheaper.  We both leave at 4 AM, Lorne to catch the 6AM flight and me to catch the 9 AM ferry.

I have booked with “Bobby’s Taxi.”, which sends a minibus to pick me up at my hotel. The road is good and uncrowded: even the coastal portion of Suriname is sparsely populated.  Check-in time for the ferry is an hour before departure to allow for customs and immigration formalities.  The river crossing itself takes another hour.  The rivers in this corner of the continent are huge, carrying lots of sediment to the sea, and the reason there really aren't any beaches.

It’s all figured out neatly: each morning a van starts out in both Parimaribo and Georgetown, each heading for the ferry terminal.  At the start, I am given two chits: one for each leg.  We are dropped off at the ferry terminal on the Suriname side.  On the Guyana side, the Bobby’s Taxi Guyanese counterpart is waiting, having dropped off his Suriname-bound passengers.  I give the driver my second chit and he returns to Georgetown to complete his trip and our journey.  This portion goes quite a bit slower because the road, while in good repair, is the main street of numerous coastal towns and settlements.

Georgetown does not get many tourists. There are a few grossly-overpriced hotels and a lot of dives, but a dearth of mid-level accommodation.  I stay at the Hotel Arianzte, a huge old wooden hotel, chock full of character and fairly comfortable, where I am the only guest.

Like Parimaribo, Georgetown is built of wood, but the white paint budget is considerably smaller. The wooden cathedral is notable mainly for its large size, and the central market is quite distinctive.


There are a few attractive edifices spread out over a fairly broad area, but it’s hard to overlook the refuse, litter, garbage, and debris in the open ditches that run down the middle and along the sides of the streets.


The country has more contacts with Anglophone Caribbean than with its neighboring countries. Commerce with Suriname is limited to a daily ferry.  The Brazilian presence is increasing thanks to a  new bridge at the southern border, but getting there takes two days bouncing along a dirt road. There is not even a road to Venezuela in west.

Connections with the United States are more consequential than the with the colonial motherland: several direct flights leave daily for New York.  Many Guyanese spend their working lives in New York City, sending home remittances and returning with a pension. Remittances and transfer payments form much of the economic foundation of the country.  Although the gold mining industry is booming, the prevailing method of automated dredging from the riverbeds creates little local employment.  Of far greater impact is the illegal drugs trade – Guyana is widely deemed to be as a narco-state, with government officials in cahoots with traffickers transshipping drugs from South America.

The first day Lorne and I meet up and walk around a bit.  Day two is sightseeing, such as it is, and arranging trips to the interior.

The next day we drive a hour south and transfer to a motorized longboat for a trip to Arrow Point Resort.  As soon as we board it starts to pour.  And rain it does!  We travel for perhaps 90 minutes through the jungle but don’t see a thing because we are huddled under a plastic tarp to keep dry.  When we arrive at Arrow Point, it is still raining, but at least we have a roof over our heads.  It's an “eco-resort,” meaning standards are low: rudimentary cabins, a central building, and not much else.

Finally it stops raining and we are conducted on a walk through the jungle.  I try a bit of fishing, but the equipment is primitive and the piscines absent. Blackwater creeks and cabbage palms may be scenic if you are from London or New York, but it looks a lot like Florida to me.

On the way back we stop at Santa Mission.  This was headhunter territory until the missionaries fixed them.  Founded in 1858 by the London Mission Society, the settlement is an unremarkable collection of huts surrounding a church. Our arrival is timed fortuitously: there is a wedding in progress, and people have come from far and wide to attend.

The residents of Georgetown, descendants of slaves, are black. The people here are injuns: more specifically, Arawak.  The politically correct are careful to refer to the indigenous tribes as "Amerind" to distinguish them from "Indians," who come from south Asia, and "American Indians," who live in the United States.  Judging from the facial appearances of the wedding attendees, there does not appear to be much interbreeding.  As with many ethnicities, the young girls are quite attractive but soon dumpify.

The next day we go to Kaieteur Falls, the highlight of the whole trip.  There is no road so one has to fly, though you could trek there in five grueling days.  Small charter planes (5-9 passengers) bring mostly foreign visitors to this world-class natural attraction located withing a National Park. Even though it is close to Christmas, ours is the only flight of the day.

After an approach affording a spectacular aerial view of the Falls, it's a short stroll from the airstrip to the first of several viewpoints.  Along the way, I spot one of the park's signature denizens, a tiny golden frog.

Five times higher than Niagara and twice as high as Victoria, Kaieteur was not discovered until 1870.  It is the largest single-drop waterfall in the world.  This boast derives from a combination of height and volume.  (The world's tallest, Angel Falls in Venezuela, is a mere 150 air miles distant but would require many days of circuitous travel to reach.)

No first-world safety-nazis here: you can get as close to the edge as you like. You can even step into in the riverbed right at the precipice. Out of courtesy to one’s fellow visitors, one should avoid falling, since searching for your body will inconvenience the others.


We fly back as far as Bartica, situated on the west bank of on the mighty Essequibo.  (Venezuela still claims everything west the river.)  As I said, this is the land of the big rivers: Parimaribo is on the Suriname; the Maroni separates Suriname from French Guiana; the Corentyne forms the border with Guyana; and Georgetown is on the Demarara. The biggest of them all, the Orinoco, flows through Venezuela.  After lunch, we board a boat that takes up up a tributary to a small falls and natural swimming pool.  This may be the tropics, but the stream-fed water is too cold for me so I remain on the bank.  Then a long ride downriver to the port and the drive back to Georgetown.

The main reason anybody has even heard of Guyana is because of Jonestown, where 918 besotted followers of the Rev. Jim Jones drank the Kool-Aid in 1978. (Important historical correction: it was not Kool-Aid® they drank, but "Flavour-Aid," a local knock-off product. Kraft Foods has done a poor job of setting the record straight on this.) Of course, we want to go there, but it ain't so easy: the site is deep in the jungle west of Georgetown, almost to the Venezuela border. To get there one would have a charter a plane at a cost of $1500. And once you get there: there is nothing to see: the jungle has completely reclaimed the settlement. There are no buildings, no ruins, no nothing except a few bits of rusting metal. Reluctantly, we abandon the quest.

Our Jonestown plans thwarted, we are out of stuff to do but not out of days.  Monday we pop by the museum.  British Guiana produced what is the world's rarest postage stamp, but, as there is only a single specimen extant, it is a facsimile on display.  Interestingly, after independence and name change, the new postage stamps read "Guyana (South America)" presumably to avoid confusion with Ghana (Africa).  After that, we visit the zoo, which is even worse than Suriname's.

Lorne's flight leaves on Tuesday.  Mine is not until Wednesday, so I spend the day lolling about surfing the interwebs.

Post-trip assessment: not exactly a thrill a minute, but pleasant enough and a couple more tick marks on the countries-visited roster.


Trip date: December, 2011