Wednesday, September 4, 2013

French Guiana Part 1

I feel like I need to start this post with a brief history lesson to set the scene for what I did and saw here, since lets face it, most people probably don't know much about French Guiana. Basically the Europeans were fighting it out for the colonies back in the day and France got this area of land in the north east corner of South America. They set up some plantations and brought out some slaves from Africa to work on them. However, when slavery was abolished, the plantations were abandoned and left to run down. To overcome this problem, the French then brought in a bunch of Chinese, Malay and Indian workers. But this kind of work was obviously a bit too hard for them, and since they weren't slaves, they decided to set up shops instead. This is still evident today since Asians seem to run all the stores. When the plantations failed due to a lack of a willing workforce, the French instigated Plan B. French Guiana became to France what Australia was to Great Britain – a dumping ground for convicts. However, this also failed for various reasons including tropical diseases killing everyone and the inability of rehabilitated prisoners to make an honest living forcing them to return to their criminal ways. So that plan was also abandoned. A couple of world wars then distracted the French for a while before they focused again on French Guiana and decided to build a Space Centre in the 1960s. Unlike their previous projects, this one was a roaring success.

French Guiana is a DOM TOM. This means French is the official language, it has the euro, people get to have French licence plates on their cars, and residents have the highest standard of living in South America since they get EU money. Good times.

The flight to Cayenne from Belem is only 1.5 hours. It’s quite interesting because you basically fly over jungle the whole way until you are at the airport. I was thinking during the flight, if the plane crashes we are pretty much screwed. I don't know how they would rescue people when there are no roads or anything. On the plus side, it’s nice to see that humans haven’t destroyed the entire Amazon Jungle. Yet.

Coming in to land.


Cayenne wins the top spot for South America’s most expensive city for budget travellers. A taxi from the airport costs €30-40 and there is no public transport. On top of that, there are no hostels or guesthouses and the cheapest hotel (Hotel Ket Tai) is €45 a night. Bam! I’d spent €76 within an hour just to sleep here for one night. Budget blown.

Place des palmistes

My primary mission for my first day in Cayenne was to organise a tourist card for Suriname. I got to the Surinamese consulate at 9am and there was already a mass of people standing around, not forming an orderly queue. After waiting about 10 minutes I discovered you need to get a number depending on whether you want a tourist card or a visa. Do you think anyone would get out of the way though so I could get to the guy handing out tickets? No. It was so stupid cos all the people blocking the door already had their tickets and were waiting for the guy to call the numbers to let them in. But eventually I pushed through and got my number and then went back to wait. After an hour of standing outside sweating in the heat, I got inside. Most of the EU countries are on the eligibility list for a tourist card. This is good for two reasons. One, you don’t have to fill out any forms and get passport photos for a visa, and two it’s €20 compared to about €75. Once they had my UK passport, it took about five minutes to get the card and then I was done. I was relieved I could now get into Suriname, because getting to Georgetown from French Guiana to fly to Miami would have become very expensive and a massive pain in the arse if I couldn’t go through Suriname. Why you can’t just buy an e-tourist card on the internet is beyond me. It would certainly save a lot of hassle and dicking about.

Now that that was sorted, I had a wander around the city, which is actually more of a town. Cayenne doesn’t have a lot to offer tourists so I don’t have that many photos. While there is some nice French inspired architecture here, Cayenne is worthy of a day, tops.

This is the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), which I think is one of the nicest buildings there.

I was hoping to get some fresh fruit in the central market but I went there and most of it was closed. This seems to be a common thing in French Guiana. Markets in the towns near Cayenne are open once or twice a week and the days vary depending on the town. I think the same vendors must go to each one, which wouldn't surprise me actually since it's the Hmong people around Cacao who grow and sell all the veggies. Anyway, while I was walking along minding my own business some homeless guy with one leg decided to attack me! He was sitting on the footpath begging, saw me, and took a swing at me while yelling things I didn’t understand. I swear I did nothing to provoke him. I think he was just an angry man who may have been drunk or high. Obviously I didn't give him any money after the attempted assault, and while I walked away perplexed by what had just happened, he was still yelling at people or me. I believe there is a bit of drug problem here, although it was one of the safest countries I've been in in South America.

Since my trip to the market failed, I went to a supermarket to see what it offered. Pretty much everything that’s not local fruit, veg or bread is imported from France. I was very excited to get my hands on some quality dark chocolate. I hadn't eaten any chocolate since Colombia since Venezuela was full of Nestle rubbish and Brazil wasn’t much better.

I also very much like that all the toilet paper is imported from France. Developed country toilet paper is so much better than the second rate stuff the rest of South America uses. I don’t care how many baby trees the carrefour cut down to make this stuff, I love it! Soft toilet paper is definitely up there on the list of 'things I miss about home'.

This brand of locally made sauces are excellent. They are really spicy thanks to the Creole influence here, so you only need a bit. They are all vegetarian, but the one on the left is probably the least spicy of them all so you can use it more like a sauce on pasta or whatever. I particularly liked this company's version of French mustard too. So good.

There are no dedicated vegetarian restaurants in French Guiana since the French hate vegetarians and have even gone as far as outlawing vegetarianism in schools. But don't despair because a lot of Asians live among these foie gras loving ex-pats. 

Like most Australians, I like eating Asian food on a regular basis. Asian food at home is normally good and cheap but in South America, it's pretty average. As such, I’ve been craving a good chilli basil stir-fry for some time now. Thankfully there are lots of reasonably priced Asian restaurants here. I went to a thai one for a veggie lunch special and was not disappointed.

I managed to line up some couchsurfing after two nights in Cayenne. This was my first attempt at couchsurfing and one of the few ways you can save money in French Guiana.

My accommodation Montsinery, just north of Cayenne.

My couchsurfing host Constance picked me up from Cayenne and we went to an archaeological site with her parents who were visiting from France. Basically the only tourists here are French people visiting relatives and me. I didn't run into one English speaking tourist the whole time. They were all French. On the plus side, I got to practice my bad French again, which was a nice change from speaking bad Spanish. If you come here and don't speak any French, you are likely to have some difficulties.

The archaeological site l'habitation Loyola was once a fairly large plantation I believe. 

We sifted through piles of dirt looking for old rubbish (like from 200 years ago) basically. 

It was alright for about an hour since we did find the odd bit of glass bottle or ceramic, but doing this any longer or as a job would be pretty boring. 

The next day Constance took us to Chou Ai to see some rescued sloths. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love sloths. They are like big, docile, smiley babies!

Baby sloth!

They don't move very fast at all, which is probably why they get hit by cars a lot :(


The second way to save money in French Guiana is to hitchhike. Every backpacker blog I could find (which is about five) mentioned hitchhiking to get around. Normally this is not something I would ever consider doing, especially alone, for fear of becoming the inspiration for a Criminal Minds episode. However, hitchhiking is very common here since there is no public transport and it's quite safe. I saw a lot of locals doing it and at least half of them were women. 

My first hitchhike was from Montsinery to Kourou. Some Rasta guys gave me a lift. They were so funny. They’d never met any Australians here before so were quite intrigued by what I was doing travelling around on my own. I totally could have gone for a smoke with them too if I’d wanted since that came up in conversation.

Constance had kindly lined up some more couchsurfing for me with her old housemates. The guys dropped me off and even carried my backpack up the steps for me. That’s when I noticed how long their dreds were. One had dreds down to his calves! I have never seen hair that long. It must weigh a tonne and be really hot. I really wanted to take a photo of it but my camera battery had died. Bugger.

One of the housemates was an engineer at the European Space Centre and gave me a lift out the next morning to do the tour, which is like the only free thing to do in French Guiana. Since I was here during peak French holiday time the tour was fully booked but they said wait until everyone has signed in and there might be space if there are some no-shows. If you're reading this for helpful hints, the morning tour has 100 places whereas the afternoon one has only 50. There were about 25 no-shows but I stupidly forgot my passport so I couldn’t go. Urgh, I was kicking myself for being such an idiot. I did the museum tour, which was ok, but not the same. 

If you time your visit right, you can also see a shuttle launch (details here). That would be so awesome, but I was smack in the middle of the schedule, so that didn't happen for me. After the museum I hitched a ride back to Kourou, since the Space Centre is about 5km away from the town.

Rocket engine.

The housemates were all going away for the weekend so I could only stay one night. Then their neighbour came over and started chatting to me and he told me I could stay there. Sweet! I packed my bag and moved next door.

Kourou has a beach (also good for watching launches from) which is quite nice.

The water here is really brown from debris coming out of the Amazon Jungle and floating down the rivers to the sea. This means you can't see the bottom which freaked me out when something would wash up against me. But it's warm so you can stay in for ages.


The next day I had to hitchhike a fair distance from Kourou to Cayenne to Roura. First I had to get out to a main road from the house. A guy picked me up in town and dropped me off at the main roundabout, just outside Kourou. Then a few minutes later a couple stopped on their way to Cayenne. I had a good conversation in French with them and they laughed every time I used Spanish words cos I couldn't remember the French ones. Pretty much all of my sentences in French Guiana consist of French, Spanish and English words. The ratio of each depends on the complexity of what I'm trying to say. This couple were really nice and even offered me accommodation in Kourou for when I come back next week. Next up I got a ride for a few kilometres with a customs officer on his way to the airport. We talked about drug smuggling into France. Most drugs come from Peru these days and the mules swallow them to go out through Cayenne direct to France. Right now is peak tourist season though, so there is less drug smuggling going on since ticket prices are too high. Lol, budget conscious drug lords! I guess times really are tough with the euro. He also told me that Brazilians illegally mining and smuggling gold out is the other big problem here. Next up a group of 19 year old guys stopped in what looked like a work truck they’d stolen for the weekend. They were actually waiting for their mates at the same place I was hitchhiking from and said they’d give me a ride to Roura. Like most young people these days, they spoke excellent English. And they gave me a cold beer to drink along the way!

Although there aren't any hostels or guesthouses in French Guiana, there are lots of places you can rent a hammock space from. This website lists places which provide covered hammock spaces and facilities. Unfortunately most of them are not in towns, which is not overly convenient when you don't have a car and need to get food or something.

So, I successfully hitchhiked all the way to my destination, not waiting more than 10 minutes between rides. My next challenge was to put my hammock up. Some guy helped me the first time since I didn't know how to tie the knots properly, but then after that I did it by myself and it did not fall down once in the middle of the night. Success!

While sleeping in hammocks is not my favourite thing, having one will definitely save you money in all three Guianas. You can get them cheap in Brazil. I bought a hammock, mosquito net and some rope at the markets in Belem for $20. This paid for itself after one night's use. While it was annoying carrying around the extra weight, I only needed it for a month and intended to ditch it before going to the US.

While Roura does not really offer anything for tourists, I stayed at this hammock place because it offers several boat/ canoe tours which I wanted to do. 

Along with expensive accommodation and none-to-limited public transport, getting boat tours to the islands is challenging since most of them depart from the middle of nowhere instead of towns. As you can see, backpacking here is really hard!

The place I stayed at had WiFi so in the afternoon, I was sitting at one of the tables (which are outside but in a covered area) and a baby tarantula walked across the table. Eek! I freaked obviously, but the girl who works here just picked it up and carried it off to the jungle, which is right next door, like it was nothing.

Thankfully I didn't see any other tarantulas during my stay here and nothing crawled into my hammock during the night.

So that's it for this post. More French Guiana to come including monkeys, penal colonies and baby turtles.