By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
If there is one element that can completely sum up Guyana, one of the destinations Copa Airlines added to its network in 2014, it would have to be surprise. Anyone who has come to Georgetown, the capital, and walked along the coasts and the lands adjacent to the numerous flowing rivers that give the country its name (Guyana means “land of many waters”), would think a similar tropical garden expands beyond the horizon, covering every inch of the nearly 76,100 square miles of this South American republic.
But that’s not the way it is. If we leave the capital of Guyana in a small aircraft and head toward the southern part of the country, it takes just over an hour before we can see how the rainforest abuts an endless tropical savannah without the slightest transition. This land we are flying over has been called the Rupununi, a mysterious-sounding name that goes hand in hand with the place’s age. These lands adorn the Guiana Shield, an old and worn rock formation upon which the South American subcontinent emerged out of the ocean, for the first time, in the early part of the Precambrian period, almost 4.5 billion years ago.
The extensive Rupununi region is divided into a forest zone to the north and a large savannah to the south. Annai —a town on the shores of the river of the same name, almost halfway between the border of the forest and the Kanuku Mountains— is a good point to begin exploring the region, and also allows you to experience the simple, pleasant lifestyle of a ranch on the savannah. The Rock View Lodge is a good example of this lifestyle; it recreates the concept of a Brazilian fazenda, but with a Guyanese touch.
With this type of accommodation, new experiences start at breakfast when you are offered jellies made with fruits from the tropical savannah, fresh cheese, and sour milk, so common to the Guyanese palate and so strange to ours. The permanent silence, occasionally interrupted by the singing of birds or the choruses of insects, encourages you to lie down in a hammock with your favorite book, giving in to rest with total abandon. The ranch produces a large portion of what it consumes and you can walk along the vegetable gardens. There is also a fish farm, as well as ducks, hens, and other poultry.
But it would be terrible not to discover the unique flora and fauna of the savannah, something you can do with an ATV or, better yet, on horseback. The alternation of torrid sun and intense rain gives rise to the formation of small flooded oases in the lowlands, where life prospers. The caiman, the capybara, and the Jabiru all thrive there. In contrast the yurumí (or “flag bear”), a gigantic anteater, can be seen endlessly racing across the browned plains. And let’s not forget about bird watching; the areas surrounding Annai are home to some 520 winged species.
Such prospects sound tempting, but there is even more. Leaving Annai and traveling northward on a clay road, you will arrive at the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development in about three hours. This lodge and research center sits in the heart of the biological reserve of the same name. The route between Annai and Iwokrama revives the classic concept of adventure tourism. The road is rough and a few minutes after leaving the last ranches of Annai behind, we find before us the green armies of Iwokrama, which seem to throw their branches like claws in their eagerness to stop us (or welcome us, depending on who’s talking). The wildlife steals furtive looks towards the road: the driver of our jeep says he saw a jaguar at dawn, before getting us. And as we cross a bridge, we notice a family of otters playing in the stream below. The blue macaws and the crested guans fly over the canopy on the roadside.
The road we follow crosses the country from north to south, from Georgetown to Lethem, a town bordering Brazil. The sign for a path at the edge of the road announces that we can reach the Iwokrama Centre from there. A few more minutes of travel, and the tree canopy opens into a neat lawn surrounding the research complex and the cabañas. The lemonade we are offered, together with an ice-cold towel to cool our faces, necks, and arms, can be considered as glorious a welcome as that of the angels at the Gates of Paradise. No wonder, since in fact we are in the midst of a Garden of Eden. Iwokrama is a protected park, made up of more than 988,000 acres that Guyana donated to the international community to seek responsible ways to use the rainforest and tackle climate change.
Sherwin Bart and Jerry A-Kum offer us a trip through the complex. A research team from the University of Miami (USA) is preparing to leave Iwokrama after a month of study in the jungle. A recently arrived tourist couple can be seen melding into the peacefulness of the environment overlooking the Essequibo River which, although young and impetuous, passes by this area before traveling onto the northern plains and becoming the wide, serene, and majestic river that flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Desmond Hoyte, president of Guyana from 1985 to 1992, dreamed that our country could become an example to the world of how to achieve development while preserving the rainforest. Iwokrama is the result of that dream,” explains Bart and A-Kum. The protected region is divided into an exclusive preservation zone and another where sustainable ways of using the forest are tested. The initiatives include the commercial use of selected timber species, eco-tourism, forestry, and forest management services. The management model, which includes a partnership with the Guyanese government, private business, and importantly, local communities, is overseen by a board of guarantors of international stature.
Public-private partnerships are common in several of the country’s tourism undertakings. In Iwokrama, a partnership was made with the Makushi people who are native to the region. In fact, the word “Iwokrama” means “place of refuge” in the Makushi language; it is believed that this is where inhabitants of the region were concentrated and sheltered when the warlike Caribs raided from their coastal estates. It is also the place where the Makushi organized themselves for a counterattack. More than 95% of people working at the Lodge are from northern Rupununi. They are trained in tourist service skills and later many return to their communities to start their own businesses.
Atta Rainforest Lodge is an example of this type of business. Also managed by the Makushi, it offers an inimitable way to experience nature. We arrive at dusk since our plan is to take a hike to see the nocturnal wildlife, and later continue on the canopy walkway, where we will watch the sunrise.
We have dinner with a Japanese and German couple who plan to go bird watching the following morning, looking out especially for the colorful Guyanese rooster rock. The dinner, although simple, is awash with elegance and good taste that is complemented by the friendliness of the Makushi hosts and the originality and creativity with which the plates are served, abounding with fruits and other products from the surrounding area. A shower at the end of the evening, under the canopy of the sky, ends the day with a flourish.
We get up around 4 a.m. Two or three herds of howler monkeys provide a choral accompaniment, as though to declare supremacy over this area of the forest and as a preamble to the first gray flashes of dawn. The subtle shadows fail to reveal what animates other muffled sounds in the forest. We walk along, guided by the weak thread of light given off by our flashlights. The idea is to wait for sunrise in the canopy walkway so we can see the harpy eagle that almost always hunts at dawn. This is no easy task, since the bird is at the top of the jungle’s food chain, and one bird alone can dominate several square miles of forest to procure the prey it needs.
We never see the powerful raptor; however, that doesn’t mean our early morning was in vain. During our journey, the growing light continues to reveal the marvels of the flora with new colors, as well as wildlife. We spot golden orioles and one of the herds of howler monkeys that was probably responsible for waking us up. The glorious sunrise marks the hour for us to say goodbye. We begin our return trip to Annai in an ATV and from there we take a small plane to Georgetown.
In Annai, before we leave for good we climb a huge boulder from which we can see the vastness of this tropical savannah and beyond (the rock and the view give the name Rock View to the nearby lodge). We can even see the Pacaraima Mountains that hide the mythical waterfalls of Kaieteur to the north, which we also want to visit but on another occasion. The surprises Guyana offers are revealed in layers: just when you have assimilated one, another one calls you to discover it. It’s a land undeniably made for adventure.
From North, Central, South America, and the Caribbean, Copa Airlines offers two weekly flights to Georgetown, capital of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, from the Hub of the Americas, in Panama City (for times and days of service, please visit www.copaair.com). From here, it’s possible to reach Rupununi in a small aircraft (the flight time is just over an hour) or by road (the travel time is approximately twelve hours). Information on air travel is available at www.transguyana.com. For information about the places where the Panorama of the Americas team lodged, please visit www.rockviewlodge.com,
www.iwokrama.org, www.iwokramacanopywalkway.com and www.wilderness-explorers.com.