Guyana’s path to paradise
The spectacular Kaieteur Falls are one of the top attractions of Guyana's pristine interior. (Sarah Grainger)
Despite its cultural, political and economic credentials as a Caribbean nation, Guyana’s coastline on the northeast edge of South America is nothing to write home about. But on the bright side, the country’s muddy beaches have deterred the kind of development seen elsewhere in the region. For the most part, the hotels and resorts have stayed away and the interior has been preserved, keeping intact this country’s slice of the Amazon rainforest and turning Guyana into an emerging eco-tourism destination.
Tourists arrive via the capital, Georgetown, where the country’s British and Dutch colonial past can be seen in the white clapboard houses and the dykes that keep the steamy, low-lying city above water. The Pegasus Hotel Guyana sits along Georgetown’s sea wall, and its poolside restaurant is a popular meeting place for the country’s elite.
Due to a lack of paved roads and other infrastructure, getting around outside of the capital is difficult for independent travellers. Most people take trips to the interior with experienced tour operators that are based in the capital, like Wonderland Tours and Roraima Airways. The most popular trip offered is a one-day tour to Kaieteur Falls, the world’s longest single drop waterfall by volume, located deep within the jungle’s southwest. Small 10-seater planes make the hour flight to the falls, approaching up the river canyon and swooping down close to the lip of the cascade for the perfect photo op, before landing at the nearby Kaieteur airstrip.
From there, an easy 10-minute hike to the falls takes you through Kaiteur National Park, where you are unlikely to see other groups of tourists but you can catch a glimpse toucans, macaws and golden tree frogs. The falls are 741ft, almost five times the height of Niagara and two times the height of Victoria Falls. They are also remarkably untouched – there is no guardrail or fence to warn tourists of the dangers of getting too close to the edge.
In the North Rupununi wetlands in Guyana’s southwest, visitors can take jeeps to the remote Dadanawa Ranch, after driving through open savannah and across floating pontoons, on a journey also organized by tour operators in Georgetown. The area is home to jaguars, giant anteaters and the Arapaima – the world’s largest freshwater fish. Birders come to see rare species like the Cock-of-the-Rock, the Blood Parrot and the Harpy Eagle.
Further down the Rupununi River, at Karanambu Lodge, world-renowned otter expert Diane McTurk welcomes guests to share her home and see her pioneering conservation work with orphaned giant otters. Guyana is one of the last existing strongholds for these native South American animals, and visitors can even swim in the river with them.
Those with a head for heights can keep following the river to the Iwokrama Centre, a river lodge and research centre where a canopy walkway gives visitors a new perspective on the rainforest. A 500ft trail of suspension bridges snakes 100ft in the air, through the forest’s mid- and upper-level canopy.
Guyana, aware of its potential as an ecotourism destination, is struggling to manage the competing demands of development and conservation. In November, the Marriott hotel chain began construction in Georgetown, and US air carriers, such as American Airlines are considering establishing routes to Guyana soon. Currently, Delta Airlines has services from New York to Georgetown and Caribbean Airlines flies between Port of Spain and Georgetown, connecting Guyana to the Caribbean and North America.
To counteract this development, the country is trying to implement a carbon credit scheme that will see richer economies pay to preserve the Guyanese rainforest and save it from destruction by gold and diamond miners. Former president Bharrat Jagdeo came up with this unorthodox plan to keep Guyana’s rainforest pristine and the Norwegian government has already agreed to participate, paying millions of dollars to Guyana to offset Norway’s carbon use. In return, Guyana has promised to guarantee the preservation of the forest in the immediate future, preventing illegal logging and mining and thus helping to put the brakes on climate change.