Guyana And Suriname: The Outlier Countries Of South America

Guyana and Suriname may be worth visiting, but they are not worth planting flags in… if I’m going to start off this blog post very frankly. 

Let’s consider my experience at immigration. That was very telling. In Suriname it took me 3 hours to get through immigration after landing at the airport. Guyana wasn’t very fast either.

Later on, I learned it takes 694 days, or 99 weeks, to register a company in Suriname — the worst speed among all jurisdictions worldwide. And Suriname seems to be the more modern, civli of the two outlier South American states, at least from my short experience there.

Suriname’s flag is not very compatible with flag theory.

What makes Guyana and Suriname outliers? 

Guyana and Suriname are effectively Caribbean countries that happen to be located on the South American continent. They have Caribbean cultures histories and are more connected to the Caribbean than South America from an air travel standpoint. In fact, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) headquarters are located in Guyana’s capital, Georgetown — not a very Spanish, sounding name, huh?

That is because Guyana is part of the British West Indies and is an English speaking country. Suriname, on the other hand, is a former Dutch colony (remember my visit to the Dutch Caribbean?), and Dutch is still its official language. But both countries have their own English-based creole language that serves as the lingua franca. 

The land of many waters

Once upon a time there was British Guiana (now Guyana) and Dutch Guiana (now Suriname), all part of the Guiana region that also included parts of what are now Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.

Guyana, or “the Guianas”, means “land of many waters” in an indigenous American language. While South America is famous for the Amazon River, and secondarily for the Orinoco River, this land of many waters is home to the Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara rivers. The Essequibo is South America’s third largest River behind the Amazon and Orinoco. 

Land of many jungles, as well as waters

While the time I spent in this region was light on touristic activity — largely due to these countries not really appealing to me — I did venture out into the jungle to get a look at some breathtaking falling water that flows into yet another river. Actually, this waterfall is the largest of its kind in the world and much taller than Niagra Falls. So even if Guyana and Suriname are quite boring countries, there is reason for you to keep reading.

Getting to Guyana from Venezuela, or at least trying to

You may recall that my recent Venezuela trip ended with a fiasco. I made it out, but barely. And in the process I had to rearrange my Guyana travel plans, which ended up impacting my Suriname stay as well. 

I wanted to head directly from Venezuela to Guyana, but of course, my flight was canceled and no one even bothered to notify me until 30 minutes before the departure time. So I ended up flying to Medellin, Colombia and spending a night there before flying to Guyana with a stopover in Panama. 

This trip was kind of exhausting. I did not go to sleep in Medellin, instead going straight from partying to the airport. I wasn’t going to miss another flight after what happened in Curacao and Aruba. 

Finally arriving in Guyana

I slept a little on the flight to Panama, then a little more at the airport in Panama and then a little more on the plane to Guyana. Finally, upon arriving at my hotel in Guyana, I took another nap. By the time I woke up, it was already dark. I just stayed in the hotel and ordered dinner to my room.

Getting acquainted with Guyana

But, as a I took a taxi from the airport to the hotel, riding alongside the Demerara River, I started getting acquainted with Guyana, thanks to my taxi driver who wanted to play tour guide. We had plenty of time to talk since it’s a 1 hour ride from the airport into town — that being the Guyanese capital of Georgetown. And along the way, we hit 6 or 7 police controls. 

Other than getting a crash course in how slow-paced and uninviting Guyana can be, I did learn a fair amount about the country from my driver. For starters, in Guyana people drive on the left side of the road — a remnant of British rule. Actually, people drive on the left in Suriname, too, but not so in all other South American countries. 

The Dutch were the first Europeans to establish colonies in the Guianas, but the British took took control of the region around 1800. In 1831, they united three colonies into British Guiana. Guyana (with a “y”) did not become an independent country until 1966. 

12 years later, Guyana gained international notoriety for being the place where cult leader Jim Jones killed hundreds of his American followers in his jungle compound called Jonestown. It was there where the “drinking the kool-aid” expression originated, as Jones got hundreds of his cult members to drink cyanide laced powdered beverages. 

Nowadays, Guyana is known as the only country in South America with English as the official language. It is also a surprisingly resource-rich country.  Guyana is rich in bauxite, a rock that is the world’s main source of aluminum. In addition to bauxite mining, there is also gold mining in Guyana. I even saw a gold mine while flying into Georgetown. Additionally, there have been recent oil discoveries off the Guyanese coast, and the country is hoping to get rich quick. But for now, Guyana is considered to be a corrupt country with a lot of poverty and politicians who are willing to sell out to China to be part of Beijing’s worldwide infrastructure development network. My taxi driver vouches for this. 😉

Low season in a flat country

The world isn’t flat but Guyana is. Guyana is one of the lowest lying mainland countries in the world. I had a good picture of this from hotel room in Georgetown. I was staying at the Guyana Marriott Hotel. My room was on the top floor of the Marriott. Actually it was also on the top floor of the entire country of Guyana. This gave me a good vantage point of Georgetown, as well as its flat natural surroundings. 

My view from the Marriott, aka the top of Guyana

So what is there to see in this flat country? As alluded to, there are jungles and rivers. The day after I arrived I was planning on doing an Essequibo River tour. That didn’t work out because I was too late. The following day there were no tours because, apparently, it was low season and there were not many tourists in Guyana.

I gave up on the Essequibo River tour, but I was set on paying a visit to the Kaieteur Falls, a not-so-flat site that is the country’s top landmark. Booking a Kaieteur Falls tour was also problematic.

Low season scheduling

Getting to the falls requires flying from Georgetown into the jungle, and the tour I wanted to take was canceled because not enough people signed up. Having made up my mind that I would visit this huge waterfall, I extended my stay in Guyana by two full days, postponing my trip to neighboring Suriname and shortening my stay in likewise nearby Belem, Brazil.

Shady Georgetown

With my travel plans rearranged, I returned to the Marriott and did nothing but work, take consulting calls and hang out in the hotel because the Guyanese capital is a sketchy, if not boring, city. Well… not exactly.

An example of Guyanese architecture

Georgetown is both sketchy and quite boring, but I did take some time to explore the city. The architecture in Georgetown is not very nice. The city is known for having many wooden buildings. The buildings also tend to be quite short, as you could see from my hotel room view. 

A very uninviting beach

I walked aways along the seawall, which is basically a dike that runs along the entire country, keeping it above, rather than below sea level. I also checked out a very uninviting beach and Guyana’s state house, or green house, which is the president’s residence.

Guyana’s green state house

The architectural highlight was the world’s largest wooden church, St. George’s Cathedral. Of course the church is an Anglican cathedral.

St. George’s Cathedral, the world’s largest wooden church

Unfortunately, I just missed the celebration of 49 years of Guyanese independence. Had I come a day earlier and caught the Independence Day festivities, that could have spiced up my stay in Georgetown.

Just Missed Guyanese Independence Day

In general, Georgetown is pretty spread out, and as I have repeated, shady. I did not feel very comfortable walking around the city. So I spent most of my time in the city inside the cozy confines of the Marriott. 

Flying over the jungle

At last Guyana gets exciting. At Ogle airport, which is located in Georgetown, not some jungle, I boarded a very interesting aircraft. The Britten-Norman Trislander is a turboprop with three propellers that has been out of production for three decades. This British-designed piston-powered aircraft that I boarded is one of the last of its kind still operating worldwide. 

The Britten-Norman Trislander

Guyana’s Roraima Airways is either the only airline still using Britten-Norman Trislanders or one just a couple of airlines still operating flights on this aircraft. The Britten-Norman Trislander is long and slick and seats about 16 passengers. I think there were 12 people on my flight.

Lucky for me, just like on my Vanuatu volcano eruption mission, I was seated directly behind the cockpit with a view of everything the pilot was doing.

The Britten-Norman Trislander cockpit

In this case, somehow there happened to be a Google Fi connection throughout the flight. In fact, the internet at 2,000 m above the Guyanese jungle was better than in most places in Germany. I livestreamed our Britten-Norman Trislander taking off and flying over Georgetown. Take a look:

 

As the plane flew over the jungle, for 30 minutes, pretty much all we saw were trees. There were also some patches where there were gold or bauxite mines. And there was one dirt road going through the jungle that leads to Brazil.

Guyanese landscape

The flat jungle landscape disappeared after 40 minutes. We then saw some rather high — for Guyana — plateaus or mesas.

Up to this point, something I have failed to mention is that, despite it being such a flat country, there are mountains in Guyana. The tepui tabletop mountains or mesas stretch across Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela. The famous Mount Roraima, the namesake of the airline with which I was flying, is the highest point in Guyana. The mountain is also the tripoint where Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela meet. Additionally, Mount Roraima is believed to have served as inspiration for Conan Doyle’s science fiction novel, The Lost World.

Guyana is actually quite unique geologically. It is right in the middle of the Guiana Shield, a geological formation that is 1.7 billion years old and is home to tepuis and incredible waterfalls, like…

Kaieteur Falls

We already got a view of Kaieteur Falls as our plane was descending. The view from above is very impressive. For that matter, how could it not be? Kaieteur Falls is the larges single-drop waterfall in the world. 

Kamikaze pilot?

The pilot carried out a maneuver in which he made a loop and landed on a very short runway in the middle of the jungle. The pilot was very competent, and although this seemed a bit dangerous, he was in control of the aircraft and safety really wasn’t a concern. 

It was then time to hike to the falls. We quickly linked up with our local guide and were on our way. Our guide was a tiny man from a local indigenous tribe. 

Will I take the plunge?

Kaieteur Falls is very culturally significant to local indigenous tribes. The waterfall is named after a chief named Kai. The story goes that Kai’s tribe was at war with another tribe. A god or great spirit called on Kai to take a plunge off the massive waterfall. Kai paddled off the top of the waterfall, sacrificing himself in order to save his tribe. Kai then transformed into a rock. And to this day there is a rock next to the waterfall that looks like the chief. Also, nowadays the waterfall is known to be a place for some high-profile suicides, usually involving Guyanese people jumping to their deaths.

A tiny Kaieteur Golden Rocket Frog

While following our guide on a small hike, we learned all about the tank bromeliad, a plant that is found all over the jungle and actually serves as a house for the Kaieteur Golden Rocket Frog. The tank bromeliad is filled with water on the inside, and this golden frog lives its life inside the plant.

A frog inside a tank bromeliad

Our hike brought us to three different viewpoints of Kaieteur Falls. From each vantage point the waterfall is an amazing sight. The water falls into a river that cuts through a deep valley surrounded by tepui mountains. Kaieteur is a 226 meter sheer drop to the ground. The only taller waterfall is Angel Falls, which is located just a few miles over the Venezuelan border.

Amazing sight

Unlike Niagra Falls and many other tourist attractions, there are no security fences at the top of the waterfall — even though it is a popular suicide spot. At one location I almost fell and plunged to my death. Had I fallen, do you think I would have morphed into a rock? 

Standing on the edge but I survived

Actually if I fell, I probably would have transformed into another waterfall. That is because waterfalls are just like me. They are always moving, and they are so immensely powerful despite being made up of a soft element at their core. 😊

One of the Kaieteur Falls viewpoints was very close by, another was close and the third was relatively far away. From the different vantage points, we got different looks at the beautiful colors of the waterfall, its sheer drop and the surrounding jungle, including the bromeliads and other plants. 

How’s this for a viewpoint of a deadly waterfall?

At one of the viewing spots we also got to see a bright-colored native bird that similarly to the frog also has a cool name. This red bird is called the Guianan cock of the rock. The cock of the rock is a shy bird, but we still managed to photograph it.

Cock of the rock sightings

After seeing Kaieteur Falls in all of its glory, we hopped back on the Britten-Norman Trislander and flew back to Georgetown. If you, too, are interested in visiting this magnificent waterfall, I can certainly recommend using Roraima Airways. In addition to operating a classic aircraft, the airline is very professional.

Roraima Airways can bring you here

My stay in Guyana concluded with a short night at the Marriott, most of which I spent working. By 4 am it was already time to head to the airport for my flight to Trinidad and Tobago — a Caribbean island nation/wild Carnival destination that you will hear about in an upcoming blog post.

Suriname

Suriname is basically the Dutch version of Guyana. 

After flying in from Trinidad and Tobago — coming directly from Carnival — I got stuck at immigration for three hours, as you already know. How did that happen? When I landed I needed to get a tourist card — kind of like a visa on arrival. But it took an hour before immigration officers handed out tourist cards. As I was filling out my card, a large KLM plane arrived from Amsterdam, and about 400 people got off. These KLM passengers got in the immigration line just before I finished filling out the tourist card, forcing me to wait for all of them to get through, even though I landed well before them.

Finally, after getting though immigration and driving into town, Suriname’s capital of Paramaribo, I settled into the Courtyard by Marriott. There I enjoyed a very nice dinner, something much needed after eating underwhelming food in Trinidad and Tobago. Thanks to the Courtyard by Marriott Paramaribo, my initial meal in Suriname consisted of some Carpaccio (raw meat), steak, goose liver pate (foie gras) and chocolate cake. With my stomach sufficiently filled, I slept well that night. 

The following day was my only full day in Suriname. As with my time in Georgetown, I spent a large chunk of my day in Paramaribo working. But I took some time to explore the city.

The Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul in Paramaribo

Like Georgetown, Paramaribo has a lot of wooden houses. But the architecture in Paramaribo is a lot nicer. There are ornate wooden Dutch colonial buildings in the city center. It’s a bit reminiscent of the Dutch colonial buildings in Curacao, though not strikingly impressive like the Willemstad waterfront. The structures in Paramaribo are a bit on the shabby side, though the atmosphere surrounding them is nice. There is a big bridge over the Suriname River, as well as an old fort that the Dutch captured and held for a few hundred years. It almost feels like the Netherlands.

Suriname is flat and water-rich like the Netherlands.

As for other sites, I stopped by the parliament building and the presidential palace.

Suriname’s presidential palace

I also saw a synagogue next to a mosque. It didn’t seem like anything to extraordinary. But the locals claim this is the only place in the world where Jews and Muslims pray in peace right next to each other. I think they are making this claim based on some technicality, but Suriname really has a very ethnically diverse and tolerant society.

Muslims and Jews, peace and love

The main ethnic groups are Surinamese Indians (as in people of Indian/South Asian descent) and Maroons (descendants of African slaves brought to the Americas). Many Maroons escaped plantations and formed their own settlements. Some Maroons had children with indigenous peoples, creating a local creole ethnicity. Additionally, there is a Javanese ethnic group in Suriname. Javanese are people who originally come from the Indonesian island of Java. 

There are even some Chinese people in Suriname, as well. And as with Guyana, there is growing Chinese influence. The Chinese are reportedly dominating Suriname’s wood trade (extracting trees from the forests).

As you can tell, Suriname has a large Asian population. In fact by percentage of the population, Suriname is the most Asian country in the world outside of Asia. Yet Dutch culture is still very prominent in Suriname, at least in the Paramaribo old town, or Historic Inner City. I soaked in the Dutch feel by going for a walk along the river promenade and eating some Dutch pancakes.

The benefits of Marriott status

The jungle/waterfall trip in Guyana aside, I was not enamored with either Guyana or Suriname. Having status at Marriott hotels really salvaged my stays in both countries. The Marriott was the best hotel in town in both Georgetown and Paramaribo. In addition to good food, views and work environments at both hotels, I had the privilege of meeting a host of diplomats and bureaucrats. Yes, even though I am an anarchocapitalist, I like talking to those people. 😉

It so happened that while I was in Suriname there was a UN event in town. Diplomats and bureaucrats from all UN countries were in Paramaribo discussing development aid etc. And they were staying at the Courtyard by Marriott. I had some nice conversations with these bureaucrats at the hotel bar. They were interested in hearing about what I’m doing and not doing. 

At Christoph.today you get to hear all about what I am doing. As for what I am not doing, I’ll leave that to your imagination. 😉 

Wrapping up the Americas

Speaking of UN countries and documenting my travels, by stepping foot in Suriname, I completed the Americas. I have now visited every UN country in the Americas. I have not yet been to French Guiana, for instance, and other territories that have not achieved independence. But I will get to them. 

More of the Guiana Shield jungle left to explore?

And as for my final words on Guyana and Suriname, you can’t go wrong with a visit to Kaieteur Falls (so long as you are not suicidal). But the Dutch were better colonizers than the British.