Guyana: Eco-travel’s next frontier

Often confused with the African country of Ghana, South America’s Guyana took a tough reputation hit 30 years ago with the infamous Jonestown Kool-Aid incident. Thankfully, past that dark chapter (perpetrated by Americans), the only English-speaking country on the continent is now entering a new era focusing on eco-tourism.

Guyana means “land of many waters” in the indigenous language, and that’s certainly truth in advertising, as its many rivers — some of South America’s biggest — drain an immense swath of the Amazon basin. The country’s lush surroundings and relative isolation results in an incredible biodiversity that begs for eco exploration.

  Travel here is mostly by 4X4, light aircraft and river boat, because the vast majority of roads — if they exist at all — are unpaved. But however you go, all roads lead to uncharted adventure. In fact, current statistics from the Guyanese government show that the country received only about 4,000 tourists last year. So if you’re the type of traveler looking for the world’s best-kept secret, this is the place.

From unrivaled wildlife discoveries and eco-lodges run by indigenous tribes looking for new ways to maintain ancestral lands to a distillery making one of the world’s best rums, Guyana is the place for a seasoned world traveler longing for something off the beaten path.

Adventure-filled Eco-Lodges

Feeling like a colonial outpost from another century, the scruffy capital of Georgetown serves as your starting point. Just a few hours from here lies Arrowpoint Lodge, an ideal place to start your eco-adventure. The journey to Arrowpoint involves a boat trip up the Kamuni River, its banks a patchwork of heavily forested areas and open savannah grasslands. After arriving and dropping your bags in the simple, clean cabins, hop on one of the lodge’s mountain bikes and ride jungle trails to the nearby Arawak settlement of Santa Mission. Here you can buy artfully designed basketry woven by villagers here in traditional patterns.

  In the heart of the rainforest at the confluence of the Rupununi and Rewa rivers, where sightings of scarlet macaws, jabiru storks and black caimans — the largest species of alligator — are common, you’ll find another must-stay, the Rewa Eco-Lodge. Operated by the Makushi tribe in partnership with several other native communities, it sits on the banks of the mossy green Rewa, and offers access to lush rainforest, vast green escarpments and natural wonders like Green Pond — an oddly modest name for a mile-and-a-half-wide lake where you are almost guaranteed sightings of black caimans and arapaimas, the largest freshwater fish in the world.

One of the best experiences from Rewa is the several-hour trek to Awarmie Mountain. Waiting for you at the top are epic vistas that stretch past the Rupununi to distant mountains, savannahs and endless treetops. The birding is spectacular, with the chance to see species such as the ornate hawk-eagle, red fan parrot, white bellbirds, and pairs of macaws soaring over the rainforest canopy.

Because the Makushi village is nearby, Rewa also gives you the rare opportunity to spend some time in the community to see firsthand a culture in transition. In quick succession you may see kids in their tidy uniforms learning English and practicing Makushi, a man tinkering with a solar panel, and a woman making cassava bread the same way her ancestors have been doing for millennia.

Both literally and figuratively, the million-acre Iwokrama Forest preserve lies at the heart of the country’s decade-old sustainable travel initiative. Located in the center of Guyana and home to an ecological research center and two guest lodges, Atta Rainforest Lodge and Iwokrama River Lodge, Iwokrama has to be on your checklist for several reasons. The first is a spectacularly engineered suspended catwalk, the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, that will have you gingerly treading 90 feet above the forest floor. Stretched between four platforms lashed to massive Brazilian Cedar trees, the 450-foot-long walkway, built several years ago with the assistance of Canadian engineers, is a highlight of staying at the Atta Lodge.

The Iwokrama is also a starting point for off-the-beaten-path adventures, like hikes to isolated Turtle Mountain, with its jungle canopy views and chances to see up to five eagle species, spider monkeys, parrots and if you’re lucky, a jaguar. Paddle through the Essequibo River in a kayak and wave to Sankar, an old three-legged caiman with no tourist cravings who hangs out in front of the lodge. When the day is over, travel by launch to Michelle’s, a local hangout serving cold beer, coconut juice and reggae blaring from the sound system. On the way back, your guide will point out caimans and iguanas lurking on the riverbank.

Near the Brazilian border in the country’s southwest, a 4X4 from the frontier town of Lethem can get you to the Makushi village of Nappi. From here, it’s mostly mud, muck and thick jungle growth before you arrive at the native-owned and operated Maipaima Eco-Lodge. Nestled in the old-growth forests of the Kanuku Mountains, this is one of those magical places that will leave you thinking you’re definitely not in Kansas (or Silver Lake) anymore. Massive mora trees of staggering height, scarlet macaws squawking and wheeling above the canopy and a sense of welcome isolation await as you step out of the mud-splattered vehicle.

Accommodations are humble — simple wooden benabs, or cabins , on raised platforms to avoid seasonal floodwaters — but who cares, you have a clean bed, en-suite bathroom (cold water from an exposed PVC pipe never felt so good) and excellent local fare like riverfish, cassava bread and cold starfruit juice just a request away. But the main attraction is the surrounding rainforest. Cross nearby Maipaima Creek via a fallen tree, and you’re in primal rainforest. There are short hikes, such as the one to the “Bat Cave” where you won’t find Christian Bale, but you will see pre-Columbian pottery, bats naturally, and possibly, a glimpse of Guyana’s national bird, the elusive cock-of-the-rock in all its gaudy, Caltrans orange glory.

Water and Power

If you’re really up for a quest, a much longer 8-mile trek from Maipaima through untouched rainforest leads to Jordan Falls. Besides sturdy hiking shoes and water, the other requirement here is being in shape. This all-day hike (about six hours) isn’t Griffith Park: You’ll be fording streams over slippery stones and boulders, dealing with mud and humidity, critters like inch-long bullet ants and maybe a snake sighting or two. But just repeat this three-word mantra: It’s worth it.

At the top, you’ll be rewarded by the rush of cool breezes and the chance to take a refreshing dip in natural rock pool Jacuzzis atop 300 foot stair-step falls that drop to the forest below. Your Makushi guides will set up your hammock for the night while you dine alongside the banks of Wamacarro Creek, waiting for billions of stars to put on a light show like you have never seen. As you lay out on the sun-warmed river rocks staring up at the confetti of stars above, you can note in your journal that you are one of only several hundred outsiders to have ever visited this place.

The other waterworks that cannot be missed is considered by many Guyana’s signature attraction. Located in 350-square-mile Kaieteur National Park, Kaieteur Falls amazes with its nearly 800-foot single-drop waterfall, which is five times higher than Niagara Falls and considered one of the tallest and most powerful waterfalls in the world. Your first sighting will probably be as you arrive by light aircraft, which, if you have a pulse, will leave you awestruck. After landing and as you approach the rim of the deep gorge and take in the thunderous sound, avalanche of coffee-tinted water and plumes of white spray vaulting hundreds of feet in the air, you can add heart-stopping to your reactions as well.

Toucan Guyana’s Most Potent Legacy

Water also plays a role in another of Guyana’s biggest points of pride, Demerara rum. Named for the river that flows through the capital of Georgetown, this regional style is notable for its use of a particularly sweet local sugar cane, dark amber color and distillation style that incorporates the use of the oldest wooden stills in the world. If you’re into fine spirits, take time to visit the tasting room at the DDL distillery in Georgetown. Rum has been produced in Guyana since the late 17th century (this is where British Navy grog originally came from after all) and the Guyanese have mastered the craft.

The history is important, because this centuries-long rum cred has made it possible for DDL, the makers of renowned El Dorado rum, which is named after the legendary city of gold, to incorporate in their distillation process the oldest wooden column and pot stills in the world. What in other countries might be museum pieces is a vital component in helping produce legendary rum that any bar chef worth his muddler is finding a way to use in their cocktails. Particularly sought after are the multiple award-winning 12- and 15-year-old aged, blended rums noted for their dark amber hues, complex aromas and multilayered flavors of sultana, dark chocolate and honey, finished with oaky spice.

Travel smartly and you just might find yourself sitting on a jungle mountain top sipping the world’s best Demerara rum, realizing you have found eco-travel’s new El Dorado.

Note: Tourism in Guyana is still in its infancy, and some lodges, particularly on native lands, have limited ways of communicating with outsiders. We recommend working with experienced tour outfits in the region, such as Wilderness Explorers, for the best experience.

Photo: A view of Kaieteur Falls in Guyana; a river guide from Rewa Village relaxes at  Rewa Eco-Lodge; Nappi children pose for a photo; a toucan in the wild. Credits: Eric Hiss (first three); Jim Danzenbaker

Article excerpted from


About minesgreencircle

Founded in 2008, the Mines Green Circle is the special Green Environmental Unit of Palace of the Golden Horses and Mines Wellness Hotel for “Better Environment, Better Health”. It advocates green practices amongst the personnel of the Palace of the Golden Horses and Mines Wellness Hotels as well as its guests.

Posted on June 9, 2011, in Travel-Eco and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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