This post is part of a three part series about travelling through the Guianas. You can also read part 1 – about where we went in the Guianas, overall information about the Guianas and things to do in Guyana and Georgetown – and part 2 – all about Suriname.
What do you know about French Guiana?
French Guiana is actually part of the France, and thus part of the EU. It was very strange to enter the EU while still standing in South America.
French Guiana started with a French settlement in Cayenne, the capital, in 1643. Tropical diseases and hostile locals made things difficult and limited plantation development. On top of this, there were conflicts with the Dutch and British and occupation by Brazil and Portugal.
Once the French were back in control, slavery was abolished and France decided penal settlements were worth a try.
The first convicts arrived in 1852. The pamphlet we received in St Laurent said that only prisoners guilty of capital crimes were sent to French Guiana instead of receiving the death sentence. However after they finished serving their sentences in the colony, they had to remain in French Guiana for that same length of time, effectively doubling their sentences. A harsh rule but it wasn’t enforced that often as over 90% of the convicts died of malaria or yellow fever. This also means that the penal settlements did little for stimulating population growth in the colony, one of the reasons for sending convicts there in the first place.
The last penal settlement closed in 1953. French Guiana became an overseas department of France in 1946 and in 1964, work began on the space center which has brought an influx of people from Europe and elsewhere and accounts for about 15% of the economic activity of the department. The economy is still dependent on France and the state employment and billions of euros in subsidies means that there is a near European standard of living in the urban areas (not that this was that obvious to us).
It was not difficult to get from Paramaribo, Suriname to French Guiana.
We took a shard taxi from Paramaribo to the border town of Albina and the Marowijne River which forms the border between Suriname and French Guiana. Here, there is a ferry a couple of times a day and many canoes which can take you across. It’s a short distance, so we went between the two immigration check points in a canoe. It was very easy to enter French Guiana (France). We weren’t asked any questions and didn’t need to fill in any forms.
Like Guyana and Suriname, there are natural attractions in the interior of the country which we did not visit. We stuck to the coast and visited the old penal settlement of St Laurent and the capital, Cayenne. We also considered visiting Kourou, home to the space station and Devil’s Island, an infamous penal colony. However, French Guiana is expensive and there was a lack of information about how to get around Kourou, where to stay, etc, and it just seemed like it was going to add up to too much money.
St Laurent is a small town located by the Marowijne River where we entered French Guiana from Suriname.
The big attraction in St Laurent is Camp de la Transportation, where convicts arrived for processing. A tour was necessary to explore this place which was annoying as they were only conducted in French so we did not understand it. We were given a small pamphlet in English with some explanation, so that helped us understand the gist.
We saw prison cells and where prisoners were guillotined. The whole place looked quite horrific and reminded me of some of Australia’s (and some of my ancestors!) history. The cells were tiny, and it did not get much better for prisoners once they finished their sentences. They were often still stuck here in tiny cells before they were allowed to return to France.
Other than this, there were not many things to do in St Laurent. We wandered around and tried to avoid rain storms.
Cayenne is the sleepy capital of French Guiana, although it felt like another world as we entered it from the jungle – there was actually smooth bitumen and lots of (relatively) fancy cars.
Cayenne is a city best explored by walking around a lot. There are lots of places to walk to and see although, again, nothing must see. Two days is enough to take it in.
We hung around the main square, Place des Palmistes, and liked to eat at the food stalls there. We visited the city markets, botanical gardens, Fort Ceperou and many government buildings.
It was a bizarre place really, unlike any other I can think of. I mostly remember being very bored and uninspired. It is expensive, and kind of like a taste of Europe without seeming European at all… I am confusing you yet? It is a confusing place!
It is not easy to get to the Guianas or to get around them once you are there. I think this is why many people skip them on their South America adventures. We found it easiest (and cheapest) to fly from the Caribbean to Guyana. We came from Barbados after watching an Australia vs West Indies cricket test match for only $120.
We ended up flying out of French Guiana to Macapa, Brazil as the journey between the two places sounded horrible and expensive. It is not legal to travel overland between Venezuela and Guyana, you need to go via Brazil. If you are planning a trip to this part of the world, it is definitely worth looking into flying to a neighbouring country, or a Caribbean island and then flying on separately from there.
I would also not rely on travel times on tools such as google maps. According to that, it would only take 12.5 hours to travel between Georgetown and Cayenne. In fact, justour journey between Georgetown and Paramaribo took about that long.
We did not have any problems booking accommodation as we went. It was not cheap, especially in French Guiana, but the quality was ok.
This is not because I foresee any big problem with travelling with kids around the Guianas. It is because there is so little to do there that would interest kids. I was bored stupid at times, and I would hate to deal with that with kids. There are so many amazing places to visit around the world where there is lots to interest kids, so I would stick to those places.
It was interesting and cool to go somewhere that people seldom visit. I am still yet to meet another person who has been to the Guianas. However, it was painfully obvious that there is a reason why people don’t tend to visit this region – there are not many things worth visiting. Our time would have been better spent exploring some more of Brazil.
We only spent a week and a half in the Guianas. The was reasonably full but easily achievable and probably the right speed for us. As much as we both wanted to go to the Guianas, there isn’t much we actually want to see in them. They are also more expensive than your average South American country so, for us, it was more about soaking up the vibe as much as possible and then moving on.
I can not recommend this region from the point of view that it is somewhere you must go and experience, because I didn’t find it that fascinating. If you are someone who likes to go random places and get off the beaten track, then the Guianas could be for you. Just don’t expect to find much excitement when you get there!!
This post is the final part of a three part series about travelling through the Guianas. You can read the first part about general information on the Guianas, the route we took, Guyana and things to do in Georgetown. Read the second part for information about Suriname.
Are the Guianas on your bucket list?