Brief Guide For Potential Visitors
In order to fully understand South America, the journeyman traveler would be well advised to visit French Guiana.
Often overlooked by Travelers to the continent, this tiny portion of land as it appears on the map, bordered by Brazil and Suriname and situated on the north-eastern shoulder of the South American main, is home to several key destinations for those who truly desire to know and wish to let it be known that they have covered the whole continent.
Firstly some truths
Relative to its neighbors, French Guiana is tiny, covering an area of 91,250 sq km (this figure is constantly debated due to border disputes with Suriname) and hosting a population nudging above 200,000. While this looks tiny, and of course it is smaller than Suriname and Guyana, it is three times the size Belgium or marginally smaller than the state of Indiana.
As it is technically part of France, and therefore the EU, in the form of an Overseas Dependency the Euro is used here and therefore prices seem astronomical for those arriving from Brazil or Suriname. Indeed the lure of the Euro proves too tempting for many neighbouring citizens who flood in legally or illegally to take advantage of the strong currency.
A bit of History
While the majority of South America was partitioned and squabbled over by imperial powers Portugal and Spain, this area was involved in a power struggle between the Dutch, English and French and for this reason has more in common with its Caribbean neighbors than those residing on the same piece of land.
In 1817 French Guiana officially became French territory and from 1852 to 1946 its verdant lands, islands and primary rainforest were used as a Penal Colony. This practice came to an end as recently as 1953 by which time more than 80,000 prisoners had passed through the camps.
The capital and largest city is worth a visit to see how a French Overseas Department is run and to benefit from a fine French breakfast. The corrugated iron roofs of the downtown and palm trees in the square give this city a laid back and distinctly Caribbean feel, while the cuisine begs otherwise. If you are heading on to Suriname and require a visa this is where you’ll need to stop to cover the necessary bureaucratic details.
Located further up the coast from Cayenne, Kourou is the home to the Center Spacial Guyannais and a hefty Foreign Legion garrison. Here, French and European satellites are launched at regular intervals. If you can time your trip to coincide with a launch, you will not regret it.
Iles du Salut or Salvation Islands
Consisting of Ile Royale, Ile Saint Joseph and Ile du Diable, these three islands some 11km from the mainland in the Atlantic Ocean were notorious penal camps for the very worst offenders. Famous residents included Alfred Dreyfus and Henri Charriere of Papillon fame.
Charriere’s legacy is questioned as the guides on the island state that he may have “borrowed” some escape tails from other inmates since his stories often don’t line up with given dates and facts. All the same, you would be well advised to take a motorized catamaran out to the islands to see this legacy.
Nowadays the biggest island, Ile Royale, the former administrative headquarters to the Prison, has a restaurant and an inn. On the Ile Saint Joseph, nature is reclaiming its land and one can wander through the brush to see the highly unpleasant solitary confinement cells. The Ile du Diable is off limits due to rough waters and perilous currents.
Cacao – Inland not far from Regina has a Saturday market run by Hmong refugees from Laos.
Tresor/ Kaw – National Parks in the interior where one can enjoy and see what a primary rainforest actually looks like.
St Laurent du Maroni – the final city before reaching Suriname. Get here early before crossing into Suriname to visit another former penal colony.