Look at a map of South America and you’ll immediately notice the usual suspects: Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile. But look more closely and you’ll notice a trio of ‘countries’ on the Atlantic coast just to the north of Brazil and to the east of Venezuela. I say ‘countries’ since one of these, French Guiana, is not actually a country but a department of France (so, yes, officially France and Brazil border each other!) This department along with the nations of Suriname and Guyana make up the little known area of South America often referred to as the Guianas. None of them is Portuguese or Spanish speaking which is what people usually automatically associate with South America, and it’s not just the language which makes these three places unique within the continent either.
My travels through the Guianas started in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. One of five overseas departments (can you name the other four?!) and also the largest overseas region of France, its correct name is actually Guyane. It’s just us foreigners who refer to it specifically as ‘French’. Being a region of France it is in the European Union and uses the euro as official currency. It also relies heavily on the Motherland for subsidies and trade.
It’s difficult to describe Cayenne. It’s not particularly French and it doesn’t in any way resemble the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries of the continent. While it does have a somewhat Caribbean feel to it, the investment from France spent on roads and other infrastructure does give it a more developed European feel, especially with the presence of the Geant Casino and Carrefour hypermarkets along the perfectly tarmacked route from the airport.
Just over 50% of the population were born in French Guiana and around 10% were born on the French mainland with the remaining citizens being from nearby countries such as Brazil and Suriname. There is definitely a ‘melting pot’ atmosphere to Cayenne, with elegant, well-dressed women carrying freshly baked baguettes under their arm, Chinese mini-mart owners chastising their kids for pinching sweets from their shop and weathered looking locals ‘liming’ (It’s a Caribbean thing – it means hanging around, chatting and chilling!) on the town’s Palmistries Plaza.
Aside from the subsidies received from the French government the major economic drivers are gold mining and the Guiana Space Centre. It may seem like a strange place to build a space centre but actually being a stable country near the equator with low population density makes it an ideal candidate. So much so that it is the European Space Agency’s primary launch site near the equator.
Some 350 kilometres north of Cayenne and a 40 minute flight away is Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. Formerly called Dutch Guiana, I found that here the eclectic mix of people was even greater than in Cayenne. When in South America the last thing I expected to see were Hindu temples, towering mosques and Chinese enterprises all combined with a touch of Dutchness!
Suriname became independent from the Netherlands as recently as 1975 and it certainly has a unique feel to it. It was governed by the Dutch for over 300 years but it still has a distinct Caribbean flavour to it. More recently a Chinese influence has become more prevalent and many of the shops are owned and run by the Chinese community, which numbers over 40,000, some 7% of the population.
The capital, Paramaribo, is much larger and more spread out than I was expecting, with the outlets I needed to get to for my data collection extending over a whopping ten kilometres. So, instead of the usual stroll around town I opted for a new mode of transport for shop-hopping – the bicycle. It would probably be illegal to drive that bike back in the UK, with its rusting chain, half-flat tyres and wonky saddle but it was certainly a fun and challenging way of getting about, if a little surreal. I came a cropper, however, when the rains came as cycling and holding an umbrella don’t mix well.
The last of the Guiana’s on my trip was Guyana, formerly British Guiana, and a country I’ve been to once before. The ambience of the capital, Georgetown, is very much like that of Caribbean capitals and if you didn’t know you were on the South American mainland you would swear that you were somewhere like Barbados or Grenada, such is the similarity. In fact, Georgetown is home to the headquarters of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
The equatorial rains continued during my time there and my brolly became a ‘must have’ when venturing out on the streets. Georgetown is much smaller than Paramaribo so getting around on foot is fairly straightforward, although strolls after dark should be avoided as some areas of the town have a bad reputation for crime. After one long morning I reached what I was hoping to be KFC for a well-earned lunch but, to my chagrin, KFC have closed down in Guyana. I had to go to Church’s Chicken instead! The Pizza Hut from my previous visit has also closed down so I hope that expats living in Georgetown are happy with the local alternatives!
Before I go I must say that if you ever find yourself in Guyana I strongly recommend a trip to see Kaiteur Falls which are buried deep in the Guyana rainforest. I didn’t get to visit again this trip but I would certainly rank them among the top five natural wonders that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience!
Next up will be a post from the ‘real’ South America as I venture into the Spanish speaking nations of Ecuador and Peru on the Pacific coast. Until then…!