By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
The Guyana Massif is an enigmatic and ancient territory with crags that stretched proudly and defiantly heavenward when the peaks of the Andes were barely nosing above the surface. Not even eight hundred million years of erosion have managed to completely destroy these tough sandstone and quartzite formations, which have been whittled down to table-top mountains or mesas known as tepuys. These enduring fortresses, with moorland vegetation on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, bracket the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.
Georgetown, the country’s capital, lies on a coastal plain on the eastern shore of the Demerara River delta. The city is criss-crossed by canals equipped with curious gates activated by counterweights and known as kokers (sluice gates). During the flood season, the counterweights are released and the heavy gates open, allowing the water to drain more quickly into the sea. Floods are not frequent, but they do sometimes occur, which is not surprising in a coastal region approximately three feet below sea level.
Introduced by the Dutch, the kokers testify to the changing history of Guyana. Located in an area where the borders of the colonial empires of Spain and Portugal blurred, Guyana was fought over by England, France, and Holland, latecomers to the colonization of lands in South America. This country seems as mysterious to the rest of Latin America as the magical micro-forests of the tepuys. Fortunately, this will change starting next month when Copa Airlines begins providing service between Georgetown and other points of the Americas through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City.
To mark the occasion, Panorama of the Americas takes you on a bird’s-eye tour of a destination that has much to offer and discover; this is a place for the adventurous at heart. As noted, the capital sits on alluvial plains, as is clear from the traditional architecture. Many of the houses that have survived from the English colonial period are raised on stilts, with elegant stairways leading to their doors. The windows of the wealthiest residences are fitted with oddly extended windowsills that are enclosed by shutters. Blocks of ice were placed on the sills to cool the air entering the house.
Among other stops, a tour through Georgetown should include the Seawall bandstand, erected in 1903 to honor the recently-deceased Queen Victoria. Nearby stands a gigantic and unusual palm-thatched hut: this is the Umana Yana (“people’s meeting place” in the local indigenous language), built to host the 1972 summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Walter Roth Museum exhibits a large collection of objects created by the country’s indigenous peoples. At 141 feet, the St. George Cathedral is one of the tallest buildings constructed almost entirely of wood in the world. Aside from St. George’s, several Christian churches of various denominations can be found on plazas, corners, and streets throughout the country, but unlike in the neighboring countries, there are also many mosques and even Hindu temples. Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago share the noteworthy feature of large Hindu populations on a continent where Christians appear to be an overwhelming majority.
This singular circumstance is also evident in the names, olive skin, and deep black eyes, eyebrows, and hair of a slice of the population; in the garlands festooning the patios of many houses as a sign of offering and veneration of Ganesh, Shiva, or Lakshmi; in festivals like Holi, which welcomes the spring and sends the Guyanese into a frenzy of blessing each other with perfumes and colored powders; in the intensely flavorful food available in restaurants, hotels, and even simple roadside eateries in the city; and perhaps even in the inclusive, tolerant, and open nature of Guyanese society.
But there is more to see than the city: beyond the coastal plains, Guyana wears a mantle of rich and exotic tropical forest, inhabited for millennia by indigenous peoples. A 45-minute journey from the city, upstream on the Demerara River and then the Kamuni (one of its tributaries), takes visitors to the Arrowpoint Resort, located inside the indigenous reserve of Santa, mostly inhabited by the Carib and Arawak peoples. The Resort is close enough to Georgetown to allow for day trips to enjoy hiking on interpretative trails, canoeing, cycling through the forest, and meals. Visitors can spend the night at the resort, and take part in night hikes through a vibrantly living jungle that assaults the ears with a cacophony of sounds, while glowing eyes of various colors and sizes gleam from all sides. On the way back to the capital, you might stop at the Santa Mission to admire and purchase indigenous handicrafts.
So many rivers muddied with nutrients and sediment empty onto the Guyana coast that it lacks the turquoise waters of typical Caribbean beaches, but that does not mean that the country is entirely without beaches. Outside Arrowpoint, a road of fine, white sand parallels the current of reddish waters. The same can be said of the Baganara Island Resort, built around the old summer residence of a wealthy Guyanese family. The island of Baganara is one of the nearly 365 created by sedimentation along the Essequibo River, the largest river in the country. It is an oddity of these beaches that high and low tides differ by some three feet, but this is explained by the fact that the plains of northern Guyana sit below sea level.
The ancient and peaceful Essequibo River, the largest in the Guyanas, follows its path to the sea without tributaries deviating to the Orinoco or the Amazon, its huge, imperious neighbors. On the largest island of its delta, the fittingly-named Fort Island, is the site of the remains of Fort Zeelandia, from which the Dutch fruitlessly tried to defend Guyana against the English, and the Court of Policy Hall, a recently-restored former government building. Fate and mythological tradition dictate that no unmarried young women may live on the island, since the wandering souls of the Dutch who tried to colonize the area would supposedly attack the women and claim them in order to fulfill the Dutch colonists’ dream of starting families and ensuring their future.
Guyana’s tourism offerings are generally environmentally friendly and jointly organized by local communities, entrepreneurs, academic and research institutions, and the government, as exemplified by Arrowpoint, Baganara, and the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development. The easiest way to reach Iwokrama is to fly to Annai, and from there, drive along the central highway for about four hours. The tourism-science complex is located in the enormous natural reserve that bears the same name and extends over nearly one million acres.
Guyana donated the Iwokrama Reserve to the international community in 1989 as proof of its commitment to research and environmental conservation and to show that a tropical forest could be made profitable without destroying it. The Research Centre has been operating since 1996, carrying out various scientific projects in conjunction with universities and other research institutions around the world. The tourist attractions, intended to help pay for the research projects, include—aside from lodging—wildlife watching, canoeing on the Essequibo River, and a forest canopy walkway, which the Panorama of the Americas team considers one of the greatest inducements to visit.
Unlike other canopy tours, this one does not require traveling by zipline; it is meant for walking. This attraction is managed jointly by private entrepreneurs, the Iwokrama Centre, and the Makushi people, who also offer a marvelous lodging experience at the Atta Rainforest Lodge. After an intense and active day, it feels wonderful to shower under the stars, share supper and the experiences of the day with other guests, and then fall sleep lulled by the distant music of howler monkeys and myriad insects.
Iwokrama is located in Rupununi, one of the largest, richest, most diverse, and wildest provinces of Guyana. In addition to tropical forests, Rupununi also boasts extensive tropical savannahs, where Makushi settlements mix with farms, some of which, like Rock View Lodge, offer lodging and agrotourism. For a city denizen, it is very satisfying to tour the fish farms, hen houses, and above all, organic gardens that produce not only the usual fruits and vegetables, but also local varieties that can be enjoyed in the Lodge’s restaurant. From here visitors can also organize horseback rides across the plains, where they will have a chance to spot the peculiar collared anteater that is at home on these savannahs; bird watch; tour the jungles of Iwokrama; or climb mountains in the nearby Pakaraima range.
In indigenous languages, Guyana means “land of many waters,” and although the flat plains make it seem that the country’s many rivers always flow at a stately pace, it is another story where the rivers are born, in the green mantles of the enigmatic tepuys. A visit to the amazing Kaieteur waterfall will remove any doubts about this. The Potaro River discharges 45,000 gallons of water per second from a height of 840 feet on its way to join the Essequibo. This spot, the natural jewel of the country, seems an appropriate place to conclude this all too brief overview of Guyana, a largely undiscovered land where the nostalgia and mysteries of the past meld with hopes for the future.
Starting July 11, 2014, Copa Airlines will offer two flights a week to Georgetown, the capital and largest city of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana. Global hotel chains are just beginning to make their way to the country, but the city has several intimate, family-style, full-service hotels in renovated colonial mansions. The Panorama of the Americas team stayed at two hotels: the Roraima Duke Lodge and the Cara Lodge. The country is large and sparsely populated, and many of the natural attractions are difficult to reach, making the use of a professional tour guide recommended. This magazine contracted Wilderness Explorers , Roraima Tours, Old Fort Tours and Evergreen Adventures. Panorama of the Americas’ Guyana tour was also coordinated and supported by the Guyana Tourism Authority.