French Guiana was discovered, like the destinations we’ve already written about in our Overseas coverage, by Christopher Columbus, quickly followed in 1500 by a French crew, dreaming of an Eldorado.
Historically, French Guiana has been associated with being a penal colony from 1852 onwards, with famous convicts including Dreyfus, Papillon or Seznec.
Today, French Guiana holds many more joyous facets: a dense equatorial forest, a lively and mixed population, abundance of wildlife, an important space centre… Impossible to list them all!
An exceptional natural Eldorado
Crossed in all directions by many rivers and streams and surrounded by the dense jungle, Guiana promises an unforgettable experience to all those in search of adventure.
With nearly 8 million hectares of virgin forest, most classified as protected areas, and an exceptionally rich natural heritage consisting of some 1300 types of trees, 190 species of mammals, 720 species of birds, and 480 species of fish, French Guiana remains one of the last great wilderness areas to explore and the gateway to the dense Amazonian forest, an ecological paradise where exotic flowers bloom and birds blossom.
Along the 370km long river making up the Oyapock basin, budding explorers have the opportunity of visiting the Amerindian communities, and seeing their practically unchanged way of life and traditions. Sailing up the river and creeks in “pirogues” (dugout canoe), with an engine or oars, with experienced local guides, is often the only way of getting to this “beginning of the world”.
The most adventurous will sleep in a hammock under the “carbet”, a traditional and simple palm leaf roof during the stopovers. They will experience for themselves that even during the night, the forest continues to live and produce a thousand sounds… magical.
Others, visiting the vast Kaw marsh, an essential stop to see the multicoloured birds and the caimans will be able to sleep in a new floating “carbet” which can accommodate up to 18 persons. They will be able to choose between an open wooden cabin, a hammock on the upper deck or the “Balbuzard” suite, which offers a 360° view of the enchanted landscape of this nature reserve, a paradise for water birds and caimans….
Like many other French territories, French Guiana has put an emphasis on environment protection and the creation of Guiana Amazonian National Park in 2007 is a testimony to this commitment. It has been protecting a very special environment and the cultural heritage of the Amerindian and the ‘Noirs-Marrons’ communities.
On the coast, the famous rare and fragile “Luth” turtle can be approached. The largest of the seven marine species (it can measure up to two metres long and weigh more than 600 kg!) uses the Guiana beaches as a breeding site.
As it cannot live in captivity, its natural breeding must be preserved and seeing these unique turtles lay their eggs and their hatching out is an unforgettable memory.
In the same idea, the nature reserve on the island of Grand Connétable 15 km out into the Approuage estuary, adds to this system. It contains the only protected marine area on the Amazon coast, where rare or threatened species, such as the green turtles or giant groupers, can be found.
The Kourou Space Center
The future of French Guiana is linked to the Kourou space centre, one of the most successful rocket launch sites in the world. The European Space Agency is established on 50 km of the coast and, in the morning or afternoon, free of charge (children less than 8 years’ old not allowed) visitors are shown around its futuristic domain.
Here, one can see the enormous equipment for the Arianne launcher and the Space Museum. With a little luck, you might even see a launch from the “Carapa” observation site!
The legendary Guianese population
French Guiana reveals a real melting-pot of its population. In 1902, the tragic eruption of the Mount Pelée volcano in Martinique led the islanders migrating en masse to this Latin American coast.
Nowadays, the discovery of isolated villages definitely reveals a cultural mixture. The festive spirit is everywhere, particularly with the bals tradition, which is hosted by the “Touloulous”. The Guiana carnival is known for its length: 1 to 2 months depending on the calendar!
Craftwork distinguishes each community’s specialties: wickerwork for the Amerindians, and carved-wood for the “Black-browns”.
In a beautiful Creole house, in Cayenne, the Museum of Guiana Culture displays ethnographic collections that concern the main cultural groups present in French Guiana.
Gold Eldorado, Guiana is also known as a kingdom for all jewellery lovers.
Gastronomy in French Guiana
Nearly 400 years as a European, African, Indian and Amerindian cultural melting pot has given French Guiana’s cuisine inspiration, originality, and passion, with a wide range of tastes and spices. Chicken or fish “boucané” (smoked), a dish inherited by pirates, which today has many different variations, “fricassés” (stews), the awara broth are all French Guiana specialties. These stews are delicious accompanied by generous helpings of rice and red beans.
The best way to immerse yourself in Guyanese culture is to wander through the fruit and vegetable markets of Cayenne Kourou.
Annual events in French Guiana
8 January – 22 February: Carnival – Cayenne
The carnival begins with the election of the 2012 Queen in Encre in Cayenne. The Touloulous MC masked balls every Saturday night which dance to the rhythm of Piké Djouk and Biguine music. The carnival ends with the black she-devil parade and the burning of the fictional carnival king Vaval in Cayenne. www.tourisme-guyane.com
30 January to beginning of March: Bouvet Guyane – Cayenne
A transatlantic rowing race between Senegal and Guiana, leaving Dakar in January and arriving in Cayenne at the beginning of March: thirty solo competitors, without stopovers, in an 8m long boat (maximum).
16 June: 4th edition of the Jacky Vaudé Fishing Contest
The event is run from the Constable Sand banks, well known for Tarpon and Red Carp.
October: 10th edition of the “Maitres de la Pagaie” (Master Paddlers)
A team sport event aboard a traditional flat-bottomed boat.
October: Kayenn Jazz Festival – Cayenne
The celebrations start with a brass band parade setting off from Cayenne’s Town Hall, and which resembles the musical atmosphere of New Orleans’s streets. Every night internationally famous musicians have the crowd dancing to different colourful musical moods. www.ville-cayenne.fr
Photos: © CT Guyane