|Not that living on a sailboat in the Caribbean isn't adventure enough, but I decided to have a little land adventure in South America again. But I'm not traveling alone. No, I flew to Guyana just over a week ago, and have hooked up with my friends from Finland, Aira & Olaf. Our plan is to explore The Guianas region of South America, and the Amazon region of Brazil together for the next two months.
I met Aira & Olaf in 2004 in the Colombian Amazon where the borders of Peru, Colombia & Brazil meet. They were traveling down the Amazon River from Peru, I was traveling up the Amazon from Brazil, and we virtually met in the middle. We briefly explored that part of Colombia together before continuing on with our respective adventures, which unfortunately were in opposite directions. We met again a few years later to explore the wine region of Argentina, and they also came sailing in Grenada a few years back.
I've never been to this part of South America before. In fact, this is the ONLY region in South America that I haven't been to before. So I'm very excited to finally touchdown here and, once this trip is over and assuming all goes as planned, to be able to say that I've visited ALL countries in South America.
So I hooked up with Aira & Olaf in Georgetown, Guyana, which is probably the least interesting capital city I've ever been to. Tourist attractions are few. Old and crumbling buildings are many. The old colonial style buildings in city center still show a glimpse into the charm they held in years gone by, but lack of maintenance and frequent flooding has caused much decay and has sadly robbed them of their former beauty. To make matters worse, Georgetown is actually 7 feet below sea level, sitting on the east bank of the Demerara River where it empties into the Atlantic, and the Dutch canal system that was built donkeys years ago to drain the city is now mostly filled with garbage and scummy black water which is a real offense to both eyes and nose. So, yeah, I've seen prettier capital cities before!
To be honest, the only reason we're spending any amount of time in Georgetown at all is:
1) Olaf's son, Henri, is currently working on a United Nations project here in Guyana, and Olaf & Aira have been enjoying a small family reunion with Henri & his family,
2) there's a Suriname Embassy here and we all need visitors visas to enter Suriname later on in our travels,
3) our plans include a trip into Guyana's interior, a large region of virgin rainforest, but there's very little infrastructure there, no phones, one dirt road in and out and, as a result, ALL trips into the Interior must be arranged through tour agencies in Georgetown, and
4) Georgetown is the place from which tours to Kaieteur Falls depart, and a trip to the Falls is on our to-do list.
So the family was reunited, and a small birthday party was even held for one of Olaf & Aira's grandkids. Our trip to the Falls was booked for a few days after our arrival in Georgetown. We visited the Suriname Embassy the morning after our arrival to apply for our visas, and collected them the next day. We made tentative plans for our trip into the Interior. All was going well and according to plan. Famous last words …
To kill some time before our Kaieteur Falls trip, we decided to take in Georgetown's tourist attractions, few that there are. We visited St. George's Cathedral, reputed to be the tallest wooden structure in the world, although I have my doubts about that claim. The outside was less than interesting, but the inside was a pleasant surprise -- quite ornate and very clean and tidy. Olaf and Henri went on a tour of the Demerara Rum Factory (makers of El Dorado rum), while Aira and I spent a more sophisticated afternoon in the National Art Gallery where we were again pleasantly surprised to find an interesting exhibit of paintings, wood carvings and sculptures done by a local, now 90 year old, indigenous artist. We also strolled through the Botanical Gardens, and while the plants and trees were a bit sparse and weary looking, we saw lots of parrots, macaws, harpie eagles, and even a few noses and backs of the endangered manatees which live inside the muddy and murky ponds within the Gardens.
Yes, all was going very well indeed, until our trip to the Falls kept getting postponed by the tour company. It went from Friday morning, to Saturday morning, to Sunday morning, to Sunday afternoon. We were starting to wonder if we'd ever see the Falls! Plus, we had already done the touristy thing in Georgetown and were more than eager to get out of the city. And every time they postponed our Falls trip, we had to completely re-work our plans into the Interior, which was getting increasingly difficult as we entered the weekend as tour agencies don't work much over the weekend, and you can't just hop on a bus and get off into the middle of the jungle without making some kind of prior arrangements!
So, to kill a bit more time and get out of the city, we decided to do an overnight trip up the Essequibo River – another large cafe-au-lait-coloured river that empties into the Atlantic – to visit Guyana's lumber and mining region. Unfortunately, due to one of the many Falls postponements, our overnight trip had to be changed to only a day trip. Nevertheless, we all piled into Henri's jeep and headed to the nearby town of Parika, where our river trip would begin. In order to accommodate 5 adults and 2 kids in car seats, Aira & I were given the "seats of honour", which meant we sat on sofa cushions in the back storage area of the jeep!
To get to Parika, we had to cross the Demerara River on what is reputed to be the world's longest floating bridge, a span of around 2 km I believe, but don't quote me on it. From Parika we hopped onto the slow ferry going up the Essequibo River, and expected to arrive in Bartica, our destination, around 4 hours later. Upon arrival, our plan was to explore Bartica for a couple of hours, have a leisurely lunch, then catch a fast-boat water taxi back to Parika. Only problem with our plan was that our 4 hour slow ferry to Bartica took 6.5 hours! That left us very little time to explore Bartica before we were forced to take a fast boat back to Parika because all ferry services shut down at 5pm each day, and that was our only means of returning to the jeep in Parika.
Few roads exist beyond Bartica, except those leading to logging and mining sites, so river traffic is heavy as it's the main means of transporting supplies and people. We saw everything from small canoes, fast and slow ferries, to fishing boats and tugs pulling large barges. So while our trip didn't exactly go as planned and we didn't really get to explore Bartica, we did have a leisurely trip up the river, got to watch local life in the water and along the river banks … and sometimes it's not about the destination itself but about the time spent getting there.
Finally Sunday afternoon arrived without further postponements, and we were on our way to Kaieteur Falls. An 8-day, arduous overland trip to the Falls is possible, but we're old and not that adventurous, so we chose to fly in by small airplane instead (maximum 9 passengers plus pilot). The flight took just over an hour, and offered great bird's eye views of the thick jungle below, the river systems that meander off into the distance, and finally – Kaieteur Falls!
Kaieteur Falls is said to be the highest single drop waterfalls in the world, pumping gallons and gallons of water over a 742 foot cliff. The Falls sit deep within the jungle inside a large protected national park. We were met by a guide at the airstrip and hiked a short distance through the park to reach the Kaieteur Falls viewing platforms.
It was a bit overcast the day we visited the Falls, with a slight drizzle falling, which was somewhat frustrating since the day we were originally booked to go to the Falls had been sunny with blue skies. Sometimes the mist from the Falls themselves impaired our visibility, sometimes the drizzle did, so we couldn't really get a true appreciation of the height and width of the Falls. Our tour at the Falls lasted around 2 hours, and we visited 3 different viewing platforms. Even though weather and visibility weren't totally great, the Falls were mighty impressive nonetheless, and well worth the wait.
With our trip to Kaieteur Falls now complete, we were finally able to finalize our plans out of Georgetown and into the Interior. So I'll leave you here, booked to leave Georgetown on a minibus for what was sure to be a sleepless trip on a bumpy dirt road into the wild jungles of Guyana!