Crossing the Guianas – South America

When my friend Bob Geiman and I decided to travel to the Guianas, we bought tickets to the West Indies and home from Caracas. Our wives did not want to go.

Different from what we had read
We found the Guianas to be different from the accounts we had read. They do not get many visitors from the United States, so air connections are sparse and expensive. Any island hopping on the way is costly, exit taxes are sometimes more than the basic fares.

We flew from Piarco near Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Georgetown on LIAT, a couple of days after the February 1, 2007 merger with Caribbean Star and Caribbean Sun. LIAT could not find our confirmation number in their system. Fortunately we had plenty of time, and when the Caribbean Star representative got back from her break, we were issued paper tickets.

There was no sign of life at Gate 2, which was marked on our tickets, although our flight was listed on the screen at the vacant desk. Then a girl came rushing to our boarding area. "Please come with me. We've already boarded." She hustled us down the stairs at Gate 1, from which we taxied ten minutes before our scheduled departure time. There were 14 passengers on our 64-seat Dash 8.

The flight to Georgetown in Guyana took about ninety minutes. As both Trinidad and Guyana are Caricom countries, passport stamps are not given freely. At immigration, though, they quizzed us about our plans. When we said we were in transit to Suriname, we were stamped in.

The officer introduced us to a taxi driver, with whom we settled on a rate of $25.00 for the trip into Georgetown at night. Our first impression of Guyana was good: we saw many neat houses along the two-lane road from the decent airport. We enjoyed the salt air as we approached Georgetown. It seemed more pleasant than I had anticipated in a country reputed to be dangerous.

We had picked the Rima Guesthouse out of Lonely Planet as our official destination. Immigration officials in the region insist that arriving passengers give the name of their accommodation on their forms. This influenced what we told the driver. It was nice enough for $28.00 for two. We found a good dinner with the Super Bowl on the television across the street at Windies, a sports bar.

After spending the night under mosquito netting, I was up at 7:00, looking forward to making our way quickly to Suriname. We walked a kilometer past the wooden St. George's Cathedral and stopped opposite Stabroek Market for a photo.

Folks said "Good morning" to us on the street. When we asked a local lady about transportation to Rosignol, she took us to the spot where shared taxis awaited a carload of passengers. The fare was G$800.00, or US$4.00, reaching a speed of 125 kilometers per hour on the way.

The old ferry, the Torani, was scheduled to cross to New Amsterdam at 11:30, but sailed shortly after noon with six trucks, a few cars and a handful of passengers. The ticket cost G$100.00, more than that to get a taxi to the place where we could find the No. 63 minibus to Springlands at G$600.00. That ride went well, they opened the back of the van so we could stow our bags under the rear seat. We were glad we traveled with a single carry on each. I did have to keep an eye out for bumps so I could duck to avoid hitting my head on the roof.

We spent the rest of the day in Springlands as the ferry sails across the Courantyne only once daily, about 11:00 a.m. While canoes are available, the newspapers were full of the murder of two women who had tried taking a canoe across the river that week.

We stayed at the Malinmar for G$6500.00. The room had a fan and cold water shower. We watched Suriname television with commentary in Dutch, news and sports clips in English. Hallah food, the Muslim equivalent of kosher, was easy to find.

The ferry Canawaima had loading ramps on both ends, was in moderately good shape and large enough for 18 cars. On this crossing there were four cars and a minibus, as well as a few foot passengers. It took half an hour to sail up the brown river to South Drain, which we could spot from a distance because it had a microwave tower.

We found that people had to travel between Guyana and Suriname sometimes just to catch a plane – no service from Suriname to Trinidad, or from Georgetown to Curaçao.

In South Drain we boarded a bus heading for Paramaribo, waiting quite a while for it to fill. It took forty minutes over a dirt road to the highway, where a left turn would have taken us to Nickerie. We turned right for Paramaribo, stopped twenty minutes at a gas station, where we lined up for the outhouse. Lunch was a cup of ice cream.

For four hours we made what speed we could, a maximum of 125 kilometers per hour, with many stops for a drempel, a speed bump at each village. We also had to slow down in places when visibility was cut by smoke from slash and burn agriculture. We found out that Bobby's Bus Service included door-to-door service, which added another hour before we were dropped at the door of the Guesthouse Albergo Alberga (€20 or $26.00 a night). Until the sun went down, it got warm in the bus each time we stopped.

At the best restaurant in town, I committed the faux pas of asking if they would accept "American dollars."

"Yes, we also accept U.S. dollars. The menu is priced in U.S. dollars."

We got a local map at the tourist office, visited Fort Zeelandia and walked the length of the Waterkant. It could become a world-class tourist area with some more paint and demolition of a few buildings. We saw the large mosque next door to the equally large synagogue, and the huge wooden Roman Catholic cathedral being restored with funds from the European Commission.

A short walk to the area where buses load, a few questions and some bargaining got us a ride in a shared taxi all the way to Albina at a rate of SRD30 per person, about $11.55. After waiting for two more people, we took off over the river on a big bridge. Two hours later we were stamped out of Suriname at the police station (a stop included in the fare), taken to the area where we could catch a motorized canoe to French Guiana.

Across from the ferry dock where we landed and where the police checked our passports thoroughly and wordlessly, we found a market, but no place to change money into euros. The town of St. Laurent de Maroni was not much of a place. "One hundred meters up the road," we were told. There we found some life, and a block to the left, someone was changing money out of the back of a truck.

Then it took a couple of hours for the nine seats to fill for departure. We progressed at about 110 kilometers per hour over a generally good two-lane road. However, at the police checkpoint, three white French policemen gave our black driver a hard time. He was not having it and we soon went on.

We felt lucky to get a room at the Guyane Studios across the street from the Central Hotel (which was full), even if it was way over budget at €53. Dropping our bags, we went to dinner at Milles Pâtes. I had the menu special of veal foot soup, a fish dish and ice cream, with a Belgian beer. Cayenne was hot, television reception poor and the view from our nice room was of a slum. For a department of France, this was incredibly poor value. We fled the next morning for cheaper Brazil.

After a short walk around the town, we went to the "terminal", found a shared taxi about ready to leave for St. Georges. With a few stops along the way to deliver passengers, freight or messages, we made the 190 kilometers in about three hours for €40. Again, a stop at the police station to be stamped out was included in the fare. We had lunch on the square before boarding a panga for the €4 ride across the river to Brazil.

I had expected Oiapoque to be a crummy town, but it was decent enough. A room facing the river was reasonable. Better yet, we could get brewed coffee.

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