natural travel choice
Off-the-Beaten-Path Guyana Promotes Itself as Prime Ecotourism Destination
rom the moment you step off the plane and onto the tarmac at Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan International Airport, you know this is going to be unlike any country you’ve ever seen before.
For one thing, Guyana is South America’s only English-speaking republic, and it’s a melting pot of cultures, religions, ethnicities and eclectic traditions. This becomes quickly evident along the 28-mile highway to Georgetown, where men congregate on the side of the road, holding birds in bright red cages and placing bets on whose bird sings the sweetest melodies. You’ll also pass Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and an occasional Chinese pagoda — and you’ll have to keep reminding yourself that this is South America, not Asia. Guyana, which itself is an Amerindian word meaning “Land of Many Waters,” is home to only 750,000 people, more than 90 percent of whom live in the narrow coastal strip along the Atlantic Ocean. That makes this largely forested country — about the size of its former colonizer, Great Britain — among the most sparsely inhabited on Earth. Yet it’s also home to the world’s tallest wooden church, its highest single-drop waterfall, one of South America’s most colorful markets and one of the continent’s best-preserved mangrove wetlands. For intrepid travelers, that alone more than compensates for the lack of chain-brand all-inclusive resorts normally associated with a Caribbean tourist destination. The three-hour Mangrove Reserve Tour developed by Annette Arjoon-Martins of Air Services Ltd. is a delightful, unforgettable introduction to Guyana. “The good thing about this is, we’re only half an hour’s drive from Georgetown, and it’s a nice alternative to a city tour,” said Arjoon-Martins, a certified pilot and now tour operator who tries to educate her guests as well as keep them entertained. “Climate change is a major issue for Guyana because we are seven feet below sea level. That threatens our existence along the coast,” she explained. “Mangroves sequester 10 times more carbon than any other forest because they grow so fast. Three hundred years ago, our entire coastline was covered in mangroves, but a lot of coastal degradation took place, especially in the ’70s, when we were playing around with socialism.” The Mangrove Reserve Tour, winner of the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s 2012 Biodiversity Conservation Award, costs only $25 per person and begins at a 165-year-old former sugar plantation house, where visitors watch a short film about Guyana’s 22,600-hectare coastal mangrove forest. Then it’s all aboard a cart pulled by an ancient horse for a leisurely tour through traditional Guyanese villages. Mohamed Irfaan Ali, Guyana’s minister of tourism, industry and commerce, says the mangrove tour is a prime example of how the Guyanese private sector is promoting his country as a unique ecotourism destination. “We’re trying to merge the whole issue of
The world-famous Kaieteur Falls
Photos: Larry Luxner
environmental protection and sustainable development into the tourism product, so that the value of Guyana’s greenery and biodiversity can be understood,” Ali told us. “You don’t need to go into the interior to see that we’re practicing sustainable conservation.” But some particularly adventurous tourists choose to do just that. Dane Gobin is CEO of the Iwokrama International Centre, a 371,000-hectare rainforest nature reserve established in 1996 as a joint effort between the Guyanese government and the British Commonwealth. Iwokrama is located just north of the Brazilian border about 340 kilometers south of Georgetown; that’s six hours by road, or one hour by air. Its chief patron is Prince Charles, who has visited the project twice. The Iwokrama resort draws about 1,200 people a year, 95 percent of them British citizens attracted by Guyana’s reputation as a birding mecca (the country is home to 474 known species of birds). The resort’s remote cabin, which sleeps eight, is equipped with a weather station that conducts scientific research, as well as a full kitchen and broadband Internet in the rainforest, “with speeds of up to 100 megabytes per second, thanks to the new fiberoptic cable to Brazil,” Gobin notes. A natural magnet for eco-tourists, Guyana is home to 275 waterfalls, four mountain ranges, 18 lakes and vast swaths of untouched tropical rainforest. The Guiana Shield and the adjacent Amazon Basin form the largest equatorial forest in the world and boast a wide range of Sponsored Report
Princess Hotel & Casino south of Georgetown is Guyana’s largest hotel.
ecosystems, with distinct flora and fauna, abundant wildlife, spectacular vegetation, and one of the richest biodiversity destinations in South America. Guyana’s exceptional and still largely undiscovered nature tourist attractions and resorts are mainly found at the confluence of three of its largest rivers — the Essequibo, the Mazaruni and the Cuyuni — nestled amid thousands of square miles of savannah land between untouched mountains ranging from Brazil to the south and Venezuela to the north.
April • May 2013