Dutch-speaking Suriname is the smallest country in South America, but it packs in a remarkable biodiversity: it is home to the world’s bulkiest rodent, the Western Hemisphere’s largest cat and an exceptional 720 bird species. The UNESCO-listed capital Paramaribo is famed for its diverse ethnic mix and unique wooden architecture. And the forested interior is studded with opportunities for the curious traveller, from the vast Central Suriname Nature Reserve and plush Bergendal Eco-Resort to the bicycle-friendly plantation loop through Commewijne and sparkling rapids of the Upper Suriname. If you've never considered a visit, here are five reasons why you should.
The remarkable wildlife
Seek out colourful birds and monkeys in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve © Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Boasting a rare wealth of wetland habitats, the highest proportion of forest cover of any country in the world, and one of the lowest human population densities, Suriname packs a remarkable amount of biodiversity into a relatively modest area. It is home to at least 192 mammal, 720 bird, 175 reptile, 102 amphibian and 370 freshwater fish species, along with hundreds of thousands of invertebrates. A casual walk in any of the main reserves will likely result in sightings of capybara, tapir, giant anteater and various monkey species, while lucky visitors are in with a chance of spotting big-name favourites including sloth and the elusive jaguar. A stroll through the beaches of Galibi and Matapica can turn into turtle viewing, as they serve as nesting grounds for four of the world’s seven species of marine turtle, all of which appear on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Suriname is a rich destination when it comes to avian species, too; indeed, the national checklist of around 720 species is very impressive given its relatively small size.
Rapids and remote villages
Take a boat up the river and pass the isolated villages of Upper Suriname © Ariadne Van Zandbergen
The most easily explored part of Suriname’s interior comprises the Upper Suriname River, which stretches inland from the southern shore of Brokopondo Reservoir to the northern base of the remote Eilerts de Haan Mountains. Wild and largely untrammelled despite its relative accessibility, the Upper Suriname is lined with a few dozen small settlements (populations range from a few hundred to 4,000) and 20-odd island-bound or riverside lodges, all of which share a down-to-earth rustic feel in keeping with their jungle surrounds. It is also one of the most exciting parts of Suriname to visit, whether you opt to splash out on a fly-in package to the relatively upmarket Anaula, Danpaati or Awarradam, or to explore the river more whimsically, staying at budget lodges and using inexpensive taxi-boats to propel you slowly southwards.
A charming capital
Waterkant is one of Paramaribo's liveliest (and most attractive) streets © Anton_Ivanov, Shutterstock
Often referred to as Parbo, Suriname's capital is a safe, welcoming and decidedly beguiling city, steeped in history and strong on character. Founded in the early 17th century on the west bank of the Suriname River, Paramaribo’s main attraction is the old inner city, which is liberally scattered with pre-20th-century architectural gems, including Fort Zeelandia, the magnificent wooden Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, and dozens of old colonial homesteads. Further afield, popular goals for day excursions, all easily visited using public transport or on foot or by bicycle, include Paramaribo Zoo, Weg-na-Zee and the Neotropical Butterfly Park at Lelydorp. Also worth highlighting are the popular dolphin sunset cruises that explore the waters around the confluence of the Suriname and Commewijne rivers.
A rich heritage
As part of an Amerindian cleansing ritual, individuals must drink casiri as a symbol of cleaning the body and soul © Ariadne Van Zandbergen
The interior of Suriname is home to legendarily remote Amerindian villages, inhabited by Amerindian peoples whose tenancy stretches back to the pre-Columbian era. Most communities living there still adhere to traditional animist beliefs, which typically treat the jungle as a potentially dangerous spiritual realm wherein all living creatures have a dualistic nature, possessing both a physical body and a soul. For those with an interest in Amerindian culture, it's possible to visit Kwamalasamutu, home to around 1,000 predominantly Tiriyó inhabitants, who were first exposed to the outside world in 1960 as a result of Operation Grasshopper, and have since been heavily influenced by the teachings of Baptist missionaries. Another community based at Kwamalasamutu, the 80-strong Sikiyana, are renowned for their knowledge of medicinal plants and are also regarded as highly spiritual, even shamanistic. The main attraction of the region is the elaborate petroglyphs engraved into the walls of the Werehpai Caves, which lie about 2 hours’ walk from the village along a rough jungle path. Depicting humanoid forms, animals and abstract patterns, the richly symbolic petroglyphs are almost impossible to date, but are probably more than 4,000 years old, the work of unknown forest dwellers presumably ancestral to the Amerindians that inhabit the region today.
Speed along the zipline cableway at the top-notch Bergendal Adventure Centre © Ariadne Van Zandbergen
The Bergendal Eco and Cultural River Resort, set on the west bank of the Suriname River, provides an excellent ‘soft’ introduction to the Surinamese interior, combining a genuinely wild setting and jungle feel with exceptionally comfortable upmarket accommodation and facilities. On a protected sandy swimming beach about 1km upstream from the eco-resort, there's an adventure centre that offers a range of exciting activities to hotel guests and day visitors. The foremost attraction for adrenalin junkies is the 90-minute canopy zipline cableway, which runs between seven wooden platforms high in the forest, including one with a 220m span and another that runs right across the river to its eastern bank.
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