In the mid-19th century, the French government set out to reduce prison costs at home by sloughing off undesirables by way of their colonies. Searching for their most forsaken frontier outpost to drop the luckless cons, they came up with Guiana. Though its last penal colony closed in 1953, this tropical pocket of ooh-la-la now takes prisoners of another variety. Budget travelers beware: French Guiana is among South America's costliest destinations.
Modern French Guiana is a land of idiosyncrasies, where European Space Agency satellite launches rattle the market gardens of displaced Hmong farmers from Laos and thinly populated rainforests swallow nearly all but the country's coastline. Highly subsidized by Mother France, it boasts the highest standard of living of any 'country' in South America, but look beyond the capital city and you'll still find backwoods settlements of Maroons and Amerindians barely eking out a living. Traveling in French Guiana isn't easy, but it is part of the adventure. And if you have Francophile leanings, live in the Americas and enjoy roughing it in the rainforest, it's one place where you can have your canapé under the canopy without crossing the pond to Charles de Gaulle.
Suriname is an unusual cultural enclave with an extraordinary ethnic variety deriving from Dutch colonization, the early importation of African slaves and, later, indentured laborers from India and Indonesia.
Warning: Following protests in Paramaribo in July 1999, the US State Department advised US citizens to be wary of future demonstrations, although no significant protests were reported in the year 2000. Petty lawlessness, as well as more serious and violent crime, is on the rise in Paramaribo, Albina and Moengo, and increasingly deeper in the country's interior, perhaps due to the government-sanctioned February 2001 release of nearly 100 prison inmates to relieve overcrowding in the country's main incarceration facility, Santo Boma, in Paramaribo.
Dutch and British colonization made an indelible mark on Guyana, leaving behind a now dilapidated colonial capital, a volatile mix of peoples and a curious political geography. The country's natural attractions, however, are impressive, unspoiled and on a scale that dwarfs human endeavor. Guyana has immense falls, vast tropical rainforest and savanna teeming with wildlife. If the government doesn't destroy the environment in a bid to pay off its huge foreign debt, Guyana could be the eco-tourism destination of the future. Right now, it's the place for independent, rugged, Indiana Jones types who don't mind visiting a country that everybody else thinks is in Africa.
Warning: Street crime and physical violence are common in Guyana, particularly in Georgetown. Visitors should avoid walking after dark, maintain alertness at all times and keep out of Georgetown's Tiger Bay area. Protests and general uproarious uprisings have been popping up all over the country (particularly in Georgetown) in anticipation of the March 19, 2001 elections.
Full country name: Guyane Française
Area: 91,250 sq km (56,575 sq mi)
Capital city: Cayenne (pop 40,000)
People: 70% Creole (African/Afro-European descent), 10% European, 8% Asian, 8% Brazilian, 4% Amerindian
Language: French, French Guianese creole, Amerindian languages
Religion: Predominantly Catholic
Government: Overseas department of France
GDP: US$1 billion
GDP per head: US$6000
Major industries: Shrimp, forest products, mining, satellite launching
Major trading partners: EU (esp. France, Germany)
Full country name: Republic of Suriname
Area: 163,270 sq km (63,675 sq mi)
Capital city: Paramaribo (pop 240,000)
People: 35% East Indian, 32% Afro-Surinamese, 15% Indonesian, 10% Maroons (descendants of ex-slaves who inhabit the upland forests)
Language: Dutch, and also English, Sranan (an English-based Creole), Hindi, Javanese and Chinese
Religion: 27% Hindu, 25% Protestant, 23% Roman Catholic, 20% Muslim
GDP: US$1.48 billion
GDP per head: US$3,500
Annual growth: 2%
Major industries: Bauxite and aluminium, palm oil, rice, shrimp and fish, bananas
Major trading partners: Norway, the Netherlands, US, France
Full country name: Guyana
Area: 215,000 sq km (83,850 sq mi)
Capital city: Georgetown (pop 350,000)
People: 51% East Indian, 43% Afro-Guyanese, 4% Amerindian, 2% European & Chinese
Language: English (though most Guyanese speak a creole), also Hindi and Urdu
Religion: 57% Christian, 33% Hindu, 9% Muslim
GDP: US$1.8 billion
GDP per head: US$2500
Major industries: Sugar, bauxite, alumina, gold, rice, timber and shrimp
Major trading partners: UK, USA, Canada, France and Japan
Visas: All visitors except EU nationals and citizens of Switzerland and the USA require a visa.
Health risks: Cholera, dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, typhoid, yellow fever
Time: GMT/UTC minus 3 hours
Electricity: 220/127V, 50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to Go
French Guiana is a tropical country with a serious rainy season. While the July to December 'dry' period may be the most comfortable time to go, Carnaval - usually held in late February - is French Guiana's greatest cultural attraction. August to November is the best time for jaunts into the jungle. The leatherback turtles come out near Mana between April and September.
Visas: Virtually all visitors require a visa. There are Surninamese embassies in the Netherlands, Germany and the US. Visitors from other countries can obtain visas on arrival
Health risks: Malaria, rabies, typhoid, dengue fever, cholera
Time: GMT/UTC minus 3 hours
Weights & measures: Officially metric but, in practice, imperial measurements are used.
When to Go
Suriname's dry seasons, from early February to late April and from mid-August to early December, are the best times for a visit. From March to July, several species of sea turtles come ashore to nest at Wia Wia and Galibi reserves.
Visas: Visitors from most countries, except the Commonwealth Caribbean, require a visa
Health risks: Malaria is endemic in the interior; some risk of cholera, dengue fever and typhoid
Time: GMT/UTC minus 4 hours
Electricity: 100V (Georgetown), 220V (most other places)
Weights & measures: Officially metric (although imperial measures are still widely used)
When to Go
The best time to visit Guyana may be at the end of either rainy season, in late January or late August, when the discharge of water over Kaieteur Falls is greatest. Some locals recommend mid-October to mid-May, which may be wet, but not as hot. If you want to travel overland to the interior, come during the dry seasons.
LAND & CLIMATE
Geography of French Guinea
Perched on the northeast coast of South America, French Guiana is bordered on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east and south by Brazil, and on the west by Suriname. Unlike its neighbors, French Guiana is not an independent nation, but has been an overseas department of France since 19 March 1946.
French Guiana has three land regionsa marshy coastal area in the north, a broad central plateau, and the Serra de Tumucumaque in the south. Many rivers rise in the mountains and flow north to the Atlantic. The climate is tropical, with temperatures averaging about 27°C (81°F). About 3,200 millimeters (about 126 inches) of rain falls a year.
Almost all of the residents of French Guiana are Creoles. Most of the people live in Cayenne, the capital and main port, and along the coast. Native Americans, descended from the aboriginal Arawak, Carib, and Tupí-Guaraní groups, live in the remote interior. Virtually untouched by Western civilization, they have preserved their traditional customs. French is the official language, but many Creoles also speak a mixture of French and English.
Extensive forests cover more than four-fifths of the land surface of French Guiana and are rich in commercial timber. Less than 1 percent of the land is devoted to agriculture. Industrial establishments, such as sawmills, rum distilleries, and brick and dye works, tend to be small. The European Space Agency (ESA) established a satellite launching facility at Kourou, which has helped the area’s economy considerably.
The first French settlement was early in the 17th century. In 1852 the French started using French Guiana as a penal colony, sending political prisoners to Île du Diable. Notorious for its harsh conditions and for the cruel treatment its prisoners received, the penal colony was closed in 1946.
Suriname consists of a swampy coastal plain up to 80 kilometers (up to 50 miles) wide in some places; a central plateau region containing broad savannas, tracts of dunes, and forested areas; and a densely forested mountainous region in the south that remains mostly untouched.
Major Rivers and Lakes
Suriname’s many rivers, most of which flow north to the Atlantic, include the Maroni, which delineates part of the border with French Guiana, and the Courantyne, which forms the border with Guyana. Other important rivers are the Coppename, Saramacca, and Suriname rivers. A large lake, named Professor W. J. van Blommestein Meer, lies in northeast Suriname.
Weather and Climate
In Suriname’s tropical climate, annual temperatures range from 23° to 32°C (from 73° to 90°F). More than 2,032 millimeters (more than 80 inches) of rain fall per year in coastal areas, diminishing to 1,524 millimeters (60 inches) inland. Rainfall is heaviest from December to April, when floods often occur.
Suriname has a small, moderately growing population concentrated along the coast. Beyond this narrow strip of human settlement, Suriname boasts vast forest resources and biodiversity. Nearly 94.4 percent (1995) of the country is forested, with wet tropical forest making up the majority. But deforestation is accelerating in the interior, as foreign companies acquire timber concessions.
The most pressing environmental issue in Suriname is the proposed sale of vast tracts of virgin forestup to 40 percent of the nation’s landto logging companies from Southeast Asia. The government wants to use profits from forest resources to offset skyrocketing inflation and unemployment. Environmentalists, on the other hand, are encouraging ecotourism as an alternative industry and pushing for sustainable forest use.
Suriname has a relatively well-planned system of protected landcovering about 4.7 percent (1997) of the country’s areathat includes examples of most ecosystem types within the country. Lack of funding, however, limits the effective management of the system. The country participates in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, with one designated site, and the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, under which three sites have been recognized.
Suriname also takes part in the FAO Tropical Forestry Action Plan, a program that promotes economic resource development in the context of conservation. Through the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, Suriname works with neighboring countries to encourage resource conservation. The country is party to international agreements on Endangered Species, Marine Dumping, Nuclear Test Ban, Ship Pollution, and Whaling.
Guyana is made up of three major geographical regions. A belt of alluvial soil, varying in width from about 8 to 65 kilometers (about 5 to 40 miles), extends along the low-lying coast, protected by a system of dams and dikes. Dense forest, concentrated in the south, covers most of the rest of the country. The forests extend into an interior highland region with a maximum elevation of 2,810 meters (9,219 feet) atop Mount Roraima. Beyond the forest lies a region of savanna.
Major Rivers and Lakes
Guyana’s many rivers all flow north or east to the Atlantic. The Essequibo, with a wide estuary at its mouth, is the country’s longest river. Some rivers form spectacular waterfalls, notably the Potaro River’s Kaieteur Falls (226 meters/741 feet), one of the highest single-drop waterfalls in the world.
Weather and Climate
Guyana has a tropical climate, with little seasonal temperature change. Along the coast about 1,525 to 2,030 millimeters (about 60 to 80 inches) of rain falls, mainly from April to August and November to January. The savanna region receives about 1,525 millimeters (about 60 inches) of rain annually, mainly from April to September.
Guyana is a sparsely populated country with vast but fragile forests and mineral resources. Most of Guyana’s population lives along the coast in an area of intensive agriculture. In this region there is considerable pollution. About 94.4 percent (1995) of the country is forested, mostly with tropical wet forest, although dry forests occur in the north. Deforestation is accelerating rapidly. Other threats to forests include brushfires, soil erosion, and overhunting or poaching of wildlife. Mangroves are a critical coastal habitat and resource, providing biodiversity, breeding areas for fish, and protection against erosion by the sea. Mangroves are seriously threatened and inadequately protected.
Guyana has formulated a National Environmental Policy and a Forest Action Plan, which address major issues of resource use, pollution control, and protection of the environment and indigenous peoples. However, there are few effective environmental laws, and the existing ones are not well enforced. Resources for managing protected areas are scarce. The protected system is limited to one national park, although plans to greatly expand the system have been introduced.
A major threat to potential protected land is the highway linking Brazil and the Guyana coast, and the government-approved logging concessions along its length. Foreign companies are vying for huge logging contracts in the interior. Mining interests, especially for gold and diamonds, conflict with conservation plans. In 1995 a gold-mining operation spilled cyanide-treated wastewater into the 1,010-kilometer (630-mile) Essequibo, resulting in a serious health threat to humans and wildlife downstream. The Program for Sustainable Tropical Forestry in Guyana, funded by the World Bank and the United Nations (UN), seeks to establish a Global Environment Facility that would set up special protected forest areas and study sites with the aim of researching methods of sustainable use of tropical forests.
Guyana works with neighboring countries through the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, which provides for conservation-oriented development strategies in the Amazon region. It is party to international treaties on Biodiversity, Climate Change, Endangered Species, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer, Tropical Timber 83, and Whaling.