A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Noemad

Guyana - An Introduction

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“So, where are you going this time?”
“Guyana”
“Wow, Africa? That sounds interesting…”

Map of Guyana

Map of Guyana

It’s true, most people have no clue where Guyana is or what it’s about. It’s one of those places that is right in front of you the whole time, but you would never realize it existed unless something in particular draws your attention to this country.
I also would’ve probably hardly ever noticed its existence had the opportunity not presented itself that my two good friends, Nate and Ilana, were stationed there as part of their Peace Corps assignment. And so, I decided to pay a visit…

Situated on the northern coast of South America, the "Guianas" are actually three distinctly separate countries each with a different background. French Guiana (Guyane) is still a French colony and therefore a part of the EU. It’s by far the wealthiest of its neighbors, with France pouring in plenty of money to build a stable base for their space program.
Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana) borders French Guyana to the west. Dutch is still the main language in this country, but they have achieved independence form the Netherlands since the 1950s.

Nestled between Suriname to the east and Venezuela to the west is Guyana. It was formerly a British colony and therefore, the only English speaking country in South America. A direct 4.5hrs flight from Miami made it a breeze to get there, but the conveniences ended there.

We landed in Georgetown at 945 pm. Georgetown is the country's capital and also the largest city. It is on the northern (atlantic) coast of Guyana. 90% of the country's population lives along the northern coastal belt, which accounts for only 4% of the land mass. The country takes its influences from a variety of cultures, including Chinese, European, Brazilian-Portuguese, and Amerindian. Also, because of their proximity to and frequent trade with other Caribbean countries, most inhabitants actually consider their Guyana Caribbean as well.

As in most large cities of third world countries, Georgetown is no exception to having sketchy neighborhoods. Unfortunately, it seems that way for the entire city. We were warned multiple times not to leave our hotel at night, especially alone (well, that one is just common sense), but even as a group...always take a taxi that was called for by the hotel, never hailing one on the street. One overwhelming eye sore was the amount of trash polluting the city in every direction. Trashcans were pretty hard to find, even when you looked long enough.

Our hotel, “Ocean Spray,” was a nice stay for Guyanese standards. For ~$70/night, we had a room on a top floor with two queen beds, hot water showers (a must for me!), a mini-fridge, clean and spacious rooms and “ocean views.” The ocean was anything but the beautiful turquoise water with white sand beaches that usually comes to mind when thinking of the Caribbean. The Demerara River rises in the forests of central Guyana, flowing northward to meet the Atlantic Ocean at Georgetown and dumps its dark brown/tea colored water there, giving the ocean a very somber grey shade. Combined with pollution on the beach and a seawall full of graffiti, an ocean view in Georgetown leaves a lot to be desired.

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We spent the first night here catching up and downing a few of the local brew - Banks. In the following morning we began the day-long journey to Mahdia, our outpost for Kaietur Falls.

Posted by Noemad 06:49 Archived in Guyana Tagged georgetown guyana

Transportation Frustration

Journey to Mahdia

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Nate and Ilana planned our entire hike to Kaieteur Falls - the nations top visitor attraction. Because they had been living in Guyana for over a year and a half and had a very good grasp of how things were run in this country, they were able to set up all
our transport in advance for the three day journey. However, everyone else planning a trip to Guyana (where they don't know anyone), should join a tour group, such as Rainforest Tours, to avoid a lot of headaches. They provide all the transportation, local guides for the trek, and also cook for you. You’ll see from reading this blog why that is so important.

From Georgetown, we took a bus south to the next largest town towards the center of the country, Mahdia. Allthough only 315km away, the total travel time was slightly under 8hrs over pot-holed dirt roads that weave through swampy marsh, dense jungle and mountainsides. To me, the ride was a blast! But to anyone who gets even the slightest bit of motion sickness or has any type of back injury, or even claustrophobia, should probably opt for a different method of transport. Remember this ride?
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Imagine sitting in it for 8 hours.

Transportation in Guyana is an experience in itself. First, understand that no form of public transportation will ever take you from point A to B in a straight shot. Oftentimes drivers will stop to pick up or drop off goods and passengers as personal errands or favors. Our “public” bus to Mahdia was a 12 passenger van filled to the brim with coolers, sacks of avocado, mango, rice and boxes of other goods. Every nook of the bus was stuffed with something, like a great game of Tetris. The bus operators were a husband and wife team who run this route every couple of weeks, and also own a small convenience store in their hometown (hence the loading of goods). (Sidenote: most people have several jobs in Guyana, therefore bus driver/convenience store owner is not uncommon). In some cases you may even be required to hold someone else's package on your lap for the entire trip.
Furthermore, It's safe to say that there is no such thing as a timetable for transportation. Perhaps you can get an approximation of when it will take off or arrive; but the best policy is to just throw out your itinerary and go with the flow.

While we sat in our bursting-at-the-seams van waiting to depart, 11 adults, 1 child, and 1 birdcage on the lap, in 89 deg heat with 100% humidity, I thought, “for sure, we must be ready to get on the road now!” But no, there was in fact, one seat available in the back row, and we waited approximately 40 minutes til someone came along who also happened to want to go to Mahdia that morning. Have I mentioned that our seats were reserved about a month in advance? But no one complained or made a sound, life is idly passing by at a much slower pace in Guyana, and that’s just the way it is.
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One other crucial part of this journey was the music. While our van handled the potholes and sharp curves very well, there were still some parts of it that may have been held together by duct tape. But one thing they spared no expense on was definitely the sound system. Equipped with state of the art speakers and a sub-woofer that seemed to be molded into the doors, or maybe the seats, it ensured for a continuous ride of blaring guyanese hip hop music, with plenty of air-horns. For the ENTIRE...8...hour...ride.

Posted by Noemad 07:08 Archived in Guyana

The Birdcage

I found this so interesting it deserved its own blog post

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While walking the streets of Guyana, a small birdcage would catch my eye here and there, until I started to notice a bit of a trend. There were an unusually large amount of men holding birdcages while standing in the streets, or in stores, or at bars. And then, I saw a birdcage sitting in the middle of our already packed van to Mahdia. I just had to ask what the deal was...

It turns out, men in Guyana like to take part in something called bird whistle fighting. Yes, I said bird whistle fighting.

Imagine a man carrying a birdcage, about a sq.ft. in size, with a small bird inside. It’s not just any bird though, it’s called the towa towa and is infamous for its ability to whistle on cue. Once a challenge has been proposed, they meet on Sunday mornings (as early as 5am) and set up the draped birdcages on poles to face each other while the crowds gather. When they are ready to begin, they uncover the cages and the birds go back and forth whistling at each other until a winner is declared. How do they pick a winner? According to locals: you just know. But from an article I found online in a Guyanese newspaper, the official rules are that “the first bird to whistle 50 times wins the wager.”
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Apparently it takes a lot of hard work and dedication for the owner to train his bird to whistle at the proper pitch and speed, on cue. It involves feeding it a special diet so the bird will grow in size and seem more intimidating to its adversary, as well as playing recordings of the proper whistling sound in order for the bird to learn to imitate it. The value of the birds go up with every game they’ve won, some selling for as much as $250-$2000!

Considered a prized possession, you see men walking around with their towa towa birdcages everywhere in Guyana.

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This was our bus driver to Mahdia and his towa towa that made the journey with us, alternating on people's laps.

Posted by Noemad 18:09 Archived in Guyana Tagged towa_towa

Journey to Kaieteur Falls I

Mahdia to Amatuk Island

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We spent our one night in Mahdia at the RH Hotel. RH stands for Roger Hines, and he is the unofficial king of Mahdia. Not only does he own the nicest hotel in town (newly built, each room comes with hot water showers, complimentary toothbrush and condoms!) but he personally gave us a tour of the town's grocery store, music store, and the new compound he is building - all of which he owns. While on this walking tour, we were escorted by two body guards with (semi)concealed weapons (the butt of the weapon could be seen sticking out of their pockets) while a man took our photographs as if he were Roger's personal paparazzi.

Considering most people live under a pile of 4x10s with screws, Roger was doing pretty well for himself. Apparently the upped security was as a result of an assault he survived during a visit to Georgetown, where he was shot in the arm and robbed at gunpoint. He also casually mentioned that the perpetrator is now dead. We didn't bother asking how that came to be.

From Mahdia we spent another hour and a half on the road til we got to Pamela's Landing - our put in for the river journey.
We piled into the small boat - just enough for the 4 of us, our captain and our packs - and sped past beautiful dense jungle on the dark Potaro river.

When I think back on all my previous experiences while traveling, there was always a recurrent theme - a strong desire for going off the beaten path and sometimes doing things that can be considered a little scary. I was totally obsessed with Indiana Jones when I was a kid, and I have to think that it has strongly influenced the types of trips I've taken. Exploring Guyana's Amazonian jungles and rivers could easily have been another chapter in Indiana's adventures.

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We met a friendly Guyanese business man on the plane who sternly warned us of the country's most prized natural resources:
“You'll get into less trouble trying to smuggle drugs out of the country than attempting to take gold and diamonds with you. Leave the gold and diamonds to those with licenses.” He repeated this mantra no less than three times.

During the 2.5 hr ride up the Potaro River we got a glimpse of what this man was talking about, deforestation from mining and dredge barges on the river made it clear that even though we were without modern conveniences, we were never too far from another human being.

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However much the thought of deforestation may have been a buzzkill, the Blue Morpho butterflies we saw teleporting through the air with each flap of their wings brought us back to the realization that we were still in some of the most pristine jungle in the world. Perhaps the last of it.
As the name implies, the blue morpho's wings are a bright, iridescent blue at the top. The underside is a brownish color, providing camouflage when its wings are closed. However, when the butterfly is in flight, the contrasting bright blue and dull brown colors flash, making it look like the morpho is appearing and disappearing. Blue morpho's only live in the deepest parts of the rainforest in latin america, and even then, only come out of hiding to find a mate.

As our boat neared the island around 10am, we could hear the roar of Amatuk waterfalls get louder and deeper. Amatuk island is nestled into Amatuk waterfalls, and was completely empty, waiting for us to grace its presence for the next 24hrs. The island is often used by tour groups and hikers as a half way point to Kaieteur. A simple guesthouse, equipped with cookware and a few spices, as well as a free standing tarp roof, a picnic table, and an outhouse completed the camping facilities available to us. We pitched our tent under the cover of the roof, hung a couple hammocks, and went on a quick tour exploring our new island home.

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Nate climbing one of many cashew trees on the island
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The guesthouse
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Amatuk falls envelops the island on two sides
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I mentioned earlier that most people do (and should do) this kind of trip as part of an organized tour, with local guides who know their way around the jungle, and even cook your meals with local (eat what you catch) ingredients. Well, not us. We braved this by ourselves and, thankfully everything went fine. However, if we had a guide, perhaps he would have advised us not to go swimming around in the dark, dark Potaro river and stay away from the edges of the river at night. We did in fact do all those things, including a night swim, and found out the following night that we had been swimming in piranha infested waters and that a large caiman makes his home on the shores of our island as well. I even remember Nate jokingly thrashing in the water and pretending to be pulled under at one point. It could've been a scene out of a terrible teeny bopper suspense thriller, right before tragedy strikes.

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They say ignorance is bliss.
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After making lunch we started a fire and began finding creative ways to empty the bottles of rum we brought.


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Posted by Noemad 06:10 Archived in Guyana Tagged guyana amatuk_island

Journey to Kaieteur Falls II

Amatuk to Kaieteur

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Depending on how heavy of a sleeper you are, Amatuk island will either be a blessing or a curse for you. In my case it was the latter. Remember, the island is sitting in the middle of a waterfall, and it's only a few hundred m. sq. in size, so the rumbling of the waterfall is a constant reminder of where you are. At night, even more so. If the sound of thousands of pounds of water cascading over boulders hadn't kept me awake, surely the monsoon that took place that night would have. We slept inside our tent under the tarp roof, but the sound of rain hitting the tarp right above our heads could not have been drowned out by a million screaming cats. Let's just say it was a long night.
The following morning we packed up all our gear and filtered a few more gallons of water for what we knew would be the most strenuous part of our trip: the hike up to Kaieteur Falls. We had organized a guide to meet us at Amatuk and guide us through the trek for the rest of the day, but for reasons unknown to us no one but our boat and captain showed up, and even he was an hour late. Nonetheless, the journey must go on. With the boat, we continued up river towards the falls for another hour before we arrived at the trailhead.
The beautiful dense rainforest, dark brown river, an overcast sky amid a tropical heat gave me a feeling of freedom and serenity I knew was seldom found. Only the low hum of our boats’ engine could be heard for miles. I kept my eyes on the riverbanks to catch a glimpse of the largest boa species that makes its home in Guyana, the anaconda, but no such luck. Kaieteur is located in the middle of a geographical area known as the Guiana Shield, which includes large mountain plateaus and a rainforest system that is part of a watershed reaching all the way to the Amazon River. This area is considered to have one of the highest biodiversities in the world, in both plant and animal species. Some of the worlds largest animals call Guyana their home: Black Caiman alligators, capybara (rodents), green anaconda (boa constrictor), giant anteater, giant river otters, giant river turtles, false vampire bats, and of course the Jaguar (largest cat in the western hemisphere).

Our boat pulled up to the bank where another, older camp had been made. The tarp roof was mostly torn but it provided enough shade for us to fuel up with peanut butter sandwiches and water. We couldn’t have been more in luck that just as we were about to set out on the trail, to which we had no map and no guide, a young Guyanese man had been waiting for the boat to bring him back to town. He thought it strange that we didn’t have a guide so he approached us and offered to sketch a map of the trail for us. The result was a few lines drawn on the back of a business card. He said we couldn’t miss it, the trail was well worn in and once we crossed three bridges we should be on the lookout for a fork where we should take the sharp ascent up, and not go straight. OK, got it, here we go.

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The trail was well worn in, and easy to follow. Counting bridges was not. Is a log fallen over a small trickling creek considered a bridge in Guyana? Hmm, how about this larger one with three logs across an even larger creek? Then we came to a concrete bridge over an empty waterbed. We had no idea how many bridges we crossed, each one of us had counted a different number. The forest floor was dense in fallen leaves, rotting wood, mushrooms, many tropical plants and large palm seeds. I’m sure if animals were watching us, we were clueless, our eyes were glued to one step in front of us. Colonies of leaf-cutter ants criss-crossed our path and just about everything around us was dripping wet. Even when it rained we could hardly feel more than a mist as the canopy of the trees was so dense. We continued along the only path we saw and about 30 minutes into the hike, we noticed a sharp ascent. I don’t think we ever saw the fork in the path, but we knew we had to go up at some point so we felt we were on the right track.

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For the next 2 hours we climbed over 600 feet in elevation, at times so challenging that we could only continue by holding onto trees or rocks and pulling ourselves up by them, then resting, and repeating. The trail had a few switchbacks but for the most part continued straight up. We hiked past many creeks and small waterfalls, a rock wall completely covered in moss about 50 ft long and 10 ft high. We knew we were close when we reached a plateau at the top. The trail continued on through a less dense forest and eventually led us to a clearing with giant bromeliads lining the way. It was as if we had just stepped into the Land of the Lost. Continuing our lucky streak, Nate took a glance into one of the bromeliads to see if he could find the rarest frog of its species in the world, the golden poison dart frog. And what do you know, there happened to be one sitting in there. Known as one of the most poisonous frogs in the world, just 2 inches worth of its toxin can kill 10 grown men.

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As exciting as that was, we could hear the loud rumbling of Kaieteur falls in the background and couldn’t help but continue all the way until we caught the first glimpse of it. It was absolutely astonishing. The height is incredibly overwhelming to even stand near the edge, so we all got on our bellies and took in the view.

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Pictures don’t do it justice, it is the single most incredible view I have ever experienced. A thousand times better than Niagara Falls. There are no rails and no safety nets, what you do here is your own choice. At the edge of the cliff is a straight drop 800 feet down. If you even trip too close to the edge, its goodbye to you.

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As we revered in the raw power of mother nature, swift birds were starting to gather above us in the light of the setting sun. One by one we would watch them dive with great speed behind the waterfall, where they nest during the night.

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Posted by Noemad 10:24 Archived in Guyana Tagged kaieteur_falls

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