Guyana - The author’s take

Author’s take

 I visited Shell Beach, and during one afternoon I walked the endless beach alone for an hour before sitting down to write. 

Guyana is South America’s little-known curiosity that lies far off the well-trodden tourist path. It’s bordered by Venezuela, Brazil, Suriname and the Atlantic Ocean, but is a continental anomaly. The lively English-speaking locals – a melting pot of East Indian and African descendants, peppered with indigenous Amerindians, Europeans and Chinese – and a history of British colonialism create a culture decidedly more Caribbean than Latin.

With 215,000km² (83,000 square miles), Guyana has plenty of space, but 90% of the roughly 750,000  inhabitants live along the developed coastlands, which is only about 5% of the total landmass. The remaining 95% is relatively unpopulated outside of small interior villages, Amerindian communities and migrant mining and forestry camps. Some 80% of Guyana is still covered in rainforests.

A lack of interior development (the main road running north–south through Guyana remains unpaved) has allowed Guyana’s unique geography – coastal waters, mangroves, marshes, savannas, mountains and tropical rainforests – to support a range of ecosystems that widely remain in a pristine natural state. Within the interior, the Guiana Shield (one of four largely intact pristine tropical rainforests left in the world) converges with the Amazon Basin, providing a home to a dizzying array and number of flora and fauna.

To date, research in Guyana has identified more than 225 species of mammals, over 300 species of reptiles and amphibians, more than 810 species of birds and some 6,500 species of plants. Within these numbers are some  of South America’s, and the world’s largest species, including black caiman (alligator), capybara (rodent), arapaima (scaled freshwater fish), green anaconda (snake), giant anteater, giant river otter, giant river turtle, false vampire bat, harpy eagle and jaguar. The research is far from conclusive.

Guyana’s tourism offerings are largely nature-based and ideal for discerning visitors who like a sense of adventure with their travels. Northwestern Guyana offers miles of undeveloped coast, nesting sea turtles, dense forests and meandering rivers that double as the area’s main roads; the easily accessible lower Essequibo River has several resorts and private house rentals from which to experience the many moods of South America’s third-largest river.

Georgetown, the capital city, is home to more than 200 species of birds and beautiful colonial architecture; Berbice, in the northeastern part of the country, is covered in sugarcane fields and fruit and vegetable farms. Within the central rainforests you’ll find one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls and a million acre rainforest reserve; in the Rupununi savannas of southwestern Guyana you can visit welcoming Amerindian communities, functioning cattle ranches and a handful of lodges that provide plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in the natural surroundings.

The options for visitors are as varied as the terrain and throughout Guyana tourism is still developing. Because Guyana has never experienced the droves of tourists common to other South American countries, everything is done on a smaller, and more intimate scale here. Most lodges are small, family- or community-run affairs that welcome visitors as old friends. Expect to be called by your first name, often upon arrival, and to be remembered should you ever return. Tourism in Guyana is different from most places; it’s far from polished and can entail hiccups. Guyana is not for the fussy. But it’s exactly this unpolished and unpretentious tourism that creates a unique experience that often leaves visitors feeling as though they have stumbled upon a rare, nearly undiscovered tourism gem.

Since writing the first edition of this guidebook, Guyana’s tourism industry has seen some welcome developments. Birders and nature enthusiasts are starting to come in greater numbers and lodges have upgraded their facilities and added new rooms, guides have received additional training, new communities have developed products and tourism is being regarded as a feasible means of conserving and preserving the country’s natural riches.

However, an increase in visitors to Guyana is relative and you’ll likely only feel crowded by the forest. I still recall a trip towards the end of my own travels researching the first edition of this book. I visited Shell Beach, and during one afternoon I walked the endless beach alone for an hour before sitting down to write. I noted that I was on the northern coast of South America, waves of the Atlantic lapping at my feet, a wall of coconut palms to my back and the tracks left from a nesting green sea turtle on my right. There was no sign of civilisation in any direction and for the umpteenth time during my travels in Guyana I felt as though I had stepped into something larger than the present, something that diminishes all that mankind has created in this world, both good and bad. It was nature, in a raw, unaltered, almost timeless state that made me feel insignificant. It was a welcome and humbling feeling.

It’s this sense of experiencing a rare natural world that I still associate with travelling in Guyana today. Every trip I take into the interior involves my feeling astonished and entirely lucky to be where I am, whether it’s on a quiet river, a mountaintop, or sharing a dinner with a family. The pristine nature, the rich biodiversity, the endangered species, the incredibly varied ecosystems are all here, and thankfully the welcoming locals see the benefits of marrying conservation with development.

Many Amerindian communities are turning away from the wildlife trade, mining and forestry and looking at tourism as a means of bringing income to their villages while preserving their resources for future generations. Lodges are built, trails are cut and guides are trained, but visitors do not magically show up.

Guyana remains a virtual unknown. Villages and people can’t depend on tourism without enough visitors to make it possible. I hope that this information will generate interest in Guyana and encourage travellers to take a chance and veer off the beaten path on their next holiday.

Author’s story

During my early travels through Guyana – whether it was trekking through claustrophobic jungles or exploring the seemingly never-ending savannas by 4x4 – I was awe-struck by the beauty and pristine nature of the country.

When my wife and I moved to Guyana in 2005, we knew very little about the country. Before packing our bags and boxes we paged through guidebooks and searched the internet for any information that would provide a clue about what life would hold. Websites of local newspapers seemed obsessed with bad news and some guidebooks were less than encouraging. But we did come across some stunningly beautiful photographs and heard enough positive accounts to eventually decide we’d have to come to our own conclusions.

Shortly after moving to Guyana it was easy to see that the typical economic hardships and social ills experienced by developing countries were offset by a rich natural history and vibrant culture.  Viewing the country through the eyes of a freelance writer, I couldn’t understand why more magazine articles weren’t written about Guyana, and why there didn’t seem to be any tourists. During my early travels through Guyana – whether it was trekking through claustrophobic jungles or exploring the seemingly never-ending savannas by 4x4 – I was awe-struck by the beauty and pristine nature of the country.

I scribbled notes about boating through pretend lands and wrote about rainforests that were surely too archetypal to be real. I quickly recognised that information on Guyana as a tourism destination was extremely limited.

After living in Guyana for more than a year, my job took me to the British Birdwatching Fair to market Guyana as an emerging destination for birdwatchers. While trying to drum up interest within the media, I spoke with Hilary Bradt. Magazines didn’t seem ready for an unknown destination, so I thought a book publisher was a real long shot. I couldn’t believe it when she told me they had long been looking for an author to write a Guyana guidebook. I immediately recognised that Bradt is truly a company that understands travel and the rewards of getting off the beaten path. And they are willing to take risks to help promote tourism in countries with very low tourism numbers.

When preparing to move to Guyana, I never would have imagined having the opportunity to write a guide on this overlooked land. Since the first edition was published in late 2007, I have had the honour of working closely with Bradt to promote Guyana, and I have seen the positive impact a Bradt title has had on Guyana’s tourism development. I can only hope that this continues to do its part in bringing Guyana more recognition as a tourism destination, and in some form benefits those who work so hard to make tourism in Guyana a reality.

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