French Guiana has a population of 300,000. It is a remote region of France and the only territory in the Americas to be considered a European country. Hardly anyone we know has ever been here, and yet when we found out that Oasis Overland was offering up a chance to visit this tiny section of South America in an off the beaten path itinerary, we were intrigued. Our first few days were spent in Cayenne, capital of French Guiana. Here we tucked into delicious Vietnamese pho (courtesy of the Hmong and Vietnamese who have settled here), wandered the streets admiring the French colonial architecture, and visited a couple of museums. From Cayenne, we made our way to Kourou. Kourou is famous for its spaceport at the Guiana Space Center. Tours here are free and we got to learn all about the Ariane 5 rockets. Sadly, we missed a rocket launch here by a week! However, we were able to enjoy a pre-carnival street party instead. Kourou’s other claim to fame is being the launch pad for boat trips out to the infamous Devil’s Island. This notorious French penal colony had over 60,000 prisoners sent here to languish in the tropics. Only 2,000 prisoners survived the arduous conditions and the prison was shut down in 1953. Today, two of the three islands are open for visitors to retrace the footsteps of the doomed prisoners. This fascinating part of French Guiana’s dark history was well worth a full day’s excursion. After leaving Kourou, we drove towards the border of French Guiana and Suriname. Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni made for an interesting last day in French Guiana. Here we learned about the Transportation Camp, where all prisoners were in-processed and sent out to other penal colonies. We also got to indulge in some more super tasty pho and spring rolls – the Vietnamese food in French Guiana has been such an unexpected highlight! From Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, we had to wait for the daily ferry to transport us across the Maroni River to Suriname. Our week stay in French Guiana was more than enough to scratch the surface and we were quite happy to have included this on our itinerary.
06 Feb – Vila Velha bush camp – Cayenne (French Guiana)
It was dark when the alarm sounded at 5:35 am. A light rain at 3 am but it had stopped a few minutes later. Rebeca was feeling sick this morning so Danny was frying eggs for breakfast while Keith put together pasta for lunch. Several people were feeling off this morning (Robby, Lisa, Rob, Bert) and we suspected it was the dinner from the ferry that was the culprit as Jeremy and I had felt off yesterday morning. We left at 6:50, ten minutes ahead of schedule and Spongebob labored on the muddy road. At one point I thought we’d get stuck but Steve managed to drive through the sticky red mud section without getting bogged down. The first 30 km was on the dirt road and it was slow going. We only covered 10 km the first hour, and our speed improved marginally after that. When we finally hit tarmac just before 10, we finally picked up speed as we drove to the border crossing at Oiapoque. Getting stamped out of Brazil was a breeze and getting stamped into France was easy. Yellow fever cards were mandatory so we had to get into the fridge to dig them out. The friendly French officials joked with the British passport holders that they didn’t know if Britain was still welcome to enter the EU which made everyone laugh. About 30 minutes into French Guiana, there was a police check point and two police came on board and demanded to see our passports. They were in the fridge so the police witnessed Jeremy digging everyone’s stuff out since they refused to let us do it privately. Truck lunch was pasta with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil, quite tasty. After lunch, we still had 140 km to go to reach Cayenne. About 60 km out, we came across a military truck rollover, with soldiers thrown out onto the road and the driver and passenger ejected through the front windshield (now smashed). Bert immediately ran over to assist with the first aid kit and we helped stop traffic. 4 ambulances showed up and 2 rescue helicopters and Alli found out in her fluent French that this curvy road is notorious for traffic accidents. No wonder why…we witnessed a police car rush on scene and struggle to brake in time to prevent hitting one of the injured soldiers that had been catapulted across the road! Totally insane. Robby and Jeremy helped hold up a tarp to cover the female army driver who was the worst off with a broken wrist, her arm had a bone that was perforated, an injured neck and a shattered clavicle. Nothing life threatening thank goodness but she was in a lot of pain! We sat on the side of the road for about 4 hours while the soldiers were being evacuated. Around 6 pm, we were finally given the all clear to continue driving to Cayenne. It was dark by the time we arrived and Danny was shocked to find that our hotel, Central Hotel Cayenne, had canceled our reservation and given our rooms away. But luckily we were able to find suitable rooms at Hotel Amazonia, which was 92.50 Euros for a room for 1 night, including breakfast and a swimming pool. We checked into our room and immediately went out to find an ATM to withdraw Euros. Then we met up with the group at 8:30 for street food. Watched some tv and took a hot water shower before calling it a night. The AC was on full blast and we slept comfortably under the duvet. This is definitely the nicest hotel of the trip so far and all of us are in twin or double rooms. What a splurge for Oasis!
07 Feb – Cayenne
Happy birthday to me! I got to sleep in until 8:30 am in a comfy bed with AC, duvet and peaceful quiet. So happy that Oasis splashed out for such a fancy hotel in the middle of Cayenne, it was a very nice birthday present to me, ha ha. We enjoyed the best breakfast buffet of the trip, real sausages, croissants, crepes, fruit, juices, yogurt, french bread with real cheese, assortment of meat slices, hot chocolate, tea and coffee. Just wonderful! Danny’s quote of the day was “Oh my giddy aunt…best breakfast of the trip!!!”. After breakfast, we decided to head out and explore Cayenne which didn’t take long – we visited all 3 museums (two similarly named “Musee de Cultures Guyanaises” and Musee Departemental Franconie), walked past the Saint Sauveur Cathedral, hiked up to Fort Ceperou and ended with a super delicious Vietnamese pho for lunch at the Marche de Cayenne (main market). I got to speak a little bit of Vietnamese with the owner of the stall who remembered Danny from last year! The carrot/orange/mango fruit cocktail juice was super tasty, and the pho’s beefy broth was seriously tasty. I ordered the super big bowl for 1 Euro more…well worth it. After lunch, we joined everyone else at a nearby travel agent to work out the boat trip to Devil’s Island. The day we wanted to go (9 Feb), there was a boat to take us there but it was full on the way back so the lady suggested we sleep over at Devil’s Island prison camp….um, no thanks! So Danny had to adjust our schedule on the fly and now we have 3 days in Kourou (one for Space Center, one for Devil’s Island, and one day for who knows what). The folks who are not going to Devil’s Island will be bored for sure but hey, majority rules and 14 of us are going so hopefully everyone else can keep themselves entertained! We then joined Cat and Gary on an afternoon trip to Sentier du Rorotat, a free park about 10 km outside of Cayenne that supposedly has lots of sloths and monkeys. We really wanted to see a sloth especially after learning that the sloth sanctuary has shut down. But it was not meant to me..despite the late afternoon hour, not a creature in sight which was disappointing. Back in Cayenne, we joined the group at the very fancy Hotel des Palmistes for drinks and birthday cake. Gary is my birthday buddy since today he turned 74. Danny gave us a birthday cake with candles that said we were 21 years old and the staff thought it was our 21st wedding anniversary which was hilarious! A little girl came up and wished me happy birthday in perfect English with her proud dad standing behind her so she earned herself a slice of birthday cake. Afterwards, half of us went to eat street food for dinner and I got a tasty cheeseburger and a desperado beer. Rebeca had gotten super drunk early on and was having a blast until she twisted her ankle on uneven ground so that cut her night of partying short. In fact, most people called it an early night due to dodgy stomach problems or just being tired, but Danny, Leo, Cat, Gary, Robby and I continued the party and went to another bar/dance club near the main market. At 10 pm, we were the only ones there and we got started on beer, Jack Daniel’s and coke. Cat proclaimed the Jack Daniel’s shots were watered down because she wasn’t feeling anything and she was sober one minute and a stumbling mess the next. It was hilarious watching drunk Cat on the dance floor and after midnight, we decided to call it a night. Danny had to give Cat a piggyback ride all the way to the hotel and help escort her back to her room with Amanda (who was down and out with tummy problems). We were back to our room at 1 am so a great way to kick off my 35th birthday! 🙂
08 Feb – Cayenne – Kourou
Sad to be leaving Cayenne today! We enjoyed an excellent breakfast before using the last bit of internet before check out at noon. There was a pre-carnival event in the street just down the road from our hotel. No costumes but a lot of enthusiasm and smiles. Tonight there is a big parade in town but we will miss it since we will be heading to Kourou. We left just after noon and went straight to the Carrefour supermarket for the next two cook groups to go shopping. What a massive well stocked supermarket…loads of wine, cheese, chocolate and pastries. I bought some Twix which were on sale and salami and chips for the Manaus ferry (if it can last that long). Then we drove to Kourou which only took an hour. I sat next to Keith who was Mr. Talkative and wanted to chat about Debbie, his future job and his impending move to Florida. When he is sober, he is surprisingly good for conversation and I actually enjoyed our discussion. He has been laying off the drinking lately so whatever Debbie must have said to him worked because he now wants to stay on the trip and says he is interested in getting to experience the local culture. Let’s see how long good Keith can last! We arrived to Kourou at 2 pm (Chez Taliko, 10 Euros per person per night for “bush” camping) and immediately put up our tents. We snagged a spot in the back yard in front of the beach under a simple thatch hut, sandwiched between Jeremy/Rebeca and Keith. Rebeca and I walked to Dreyfus Tower, about 3 km away. It was a breezy walk and we had a good conversation throughout. The tower was nothing special but just something to see. On the way back, the campsite looked like a ghost town so we thought everyone would be at McDonald’s on the free WiFi. So we walked over there and discovered that no one was around. Rebeca got an ice-cream sundae and we tried to get on the WiFi but no luck. Back at camp, we found out everyone had taken a siesta, hence the ghost town appearance. I relaxed in the hammock that Robby slung up for us and dinner was announced shortly after. Cook group had decided on a non cook meal of cheese, crackers and pretzel sticks. The variety of cheese was nice but it felt like a truck lunch, not a dinner. There was a beautiful full moon out and a strong breeze which made for a pleasant moon watching session before we watched a bit of tv. Being right on the beach made this a pleasant campsite, which was good considering we have 3 nights here.
09 Feb – Kourou
Today was a fun day. We slept in until 8:30 and cook group made pancakes with nutella for breakfast. After that, we decided to explore Kourou and quickly found out this town has nothing going for it except the Space Center. Most of the buildings were shuttered closed and the sleepy town resembled a ghost town. We did see that the locals were preparing for a carnival parade for later this afternoon so that was something to look forward to. There were a couple of buildings with interesting murals painted on them but that was the extent of Kourou. On our way back to the campsite, we saw Rebeca and Jeremy sitting at a bar so we joined them for a drink. Robby had cook group and he stormed off after one beer but the 3 of us continued drinking beer until 2. Cook group (Rob, Robby and Gary) made grilled hamburgers and sausages for lunch which was tasty. We helped top up the water canisters before grabbing some beers and walking into town with Danny, Leo, Allison, Jeremy, Rebeca, Gary, Amanda, and Keith. Danny mistakenly thought the parade started at 4 pm but it was still quiet when we arrived. So we grabbed a couple of tables and drank beer while chatting the afternoon away. After 90 minutes, Gary got a case of the ass because no one was talking to him and he stormed off just as the carnival parade kicked off. So much fun and we loved the costumes, music and dancing. Just after 8 pm, everything had wrapped up and we were craving McDonald’s. So we joined Jeremy, Rebeca and Allison for the 2 km walk to the restaurant, stopping at a bar to settle a bet (Robby won and Jeremy had to buy him a beer). At McDonald’s, we stuffed our faces and laughed as we talked about truck drama. We were back to the campsite by 9 p.m. and thankfully Steve was still up because we needed to get some stuff off the truck. A cold shower later and we were in bed by 10. Hopefully it stays breezy and cool all night long because it was comfortable last night.
10 Feb – Kourou
It started raining after Robby got up for cook group. Once it started easing up, I ran over to the kitchen area to power my phone and grab breakfast (fried egg on bread with sausage). Today we were scheduled to visit the Space Center at 1 pm. A 3 hour tour was free, but a visit to the museum cost 4 Euros. Futoshi wasn’t going because he didn’t want to spend 4 Euros but Danny convinced him the tour was free and worth it. As Futoshi got on the truck, he shoved Izzy’s stuff in the overhead roughly to one side. She saw him do it and immediately corrected his behavior, letting him know it was not acceptable Nothing rude but she was firm and I thought it was long overdue because he has been getting away with murder for far too long. Not only does he have an entire locker to himself but he has a large section of overhead space too. And now he was trying to take over Izzy’s space to store his boots…well, he didn’t take getting reprimanded very well and stormed off the truck in a huff. Then he came back and grabbed all his bags and stormed back off again like a petulant child. Danny tried to appease him by letting him know we could wait as long as it took for him to organize his stuff and Futoshi responded that he didn’t want to go and that no one likes him based on comments made to him. I thought that was rich…the guy who has zero consideration for anyone else wants everyone to be considerate towards him!? Ha ha ha, you can’t make this shit up. It was Futoshi’s first meltdown and I thought it was hilarious because he was 100% in the wrong. Needless to say, the rest of us gave zero fucks that he didn’t want to come along. First we had to go cook group shopping at a nearby supermarket, Super U. Amanda, Cat and I have to do dinner for tomorrow so we eventually decided on pasta with pesto and granola for breakfast since we were sleeping at a bush camp and would be getting there late at night and leaving early in the morning. After shopping, we pulled up to the Space Center and had 2 hours of free time to check out the museum and eat lunch before the 1 pm tour. The museum was pretty cool and we managed to squeeze in a quick lunch before having to check in for the 1 pm tour with our passports. We had 2 guides for the 3 hour tour (English speaking) and a comfortable bus. We visited 3 sites (Soyuz launch pad, Launch Center 3, and the Diamant Launch Area). This morning’s group was lucky enough to spot a jaguar at the Diamant launch area but lightning didn’t strike twice. No jaguar for us…boo! At the end of the tour, we entered the Jupiter Control Center for a final video summarizing everything we had learned from our tour today. Visitors can apply online for an invitation to the monthly launches on a first come first serve basis based on availability and we found out the next launch is in 8 days. Bad timing for us because that would have been hella cool to see! By 4 pm, we headed back to the campsite and Danny came on to tell us that we need to be nicer to Futoshi because his feelings were hurt due to comments made towards him. I got angry and said that maybe if he treated everyone else with respect he’d get some too. If anything, it kind of made me want to double down on my dislike for him.I haven’t said or done anything wrong towards him but now I want to start! Cook group (Leo, Alli and Jeremy) made a delicious meal of chicken in tomato sauce, arepas (Leo made them by hand), and all the fixings. Cat let us use her data to chat with Dawn and McKenna about the Galapagos, which was very kind because it saved us a trip to the nearby bar. Tomorrow will be an early morning so not a late night for us tonight.
11 Feb – Kourou – Iles du Salut – Sinnamary (Crique Toussaint) bush camp
A horrible night’s sleep! It started raining at 2 am so we pulled down the flaps and went back to sleep. Keith woke up too and was shining his light all over. Then he started pacing back and forth and shining his light everywhere. For a moment, I thought he was having a hard time with his rain fly. Eventually, he shook our tent and yelled that he had been robbed. Apparently, sometime between 11 pm when he went to sleep and 2 am when it started raining, someone had crawled to the rear of his tent and sliced a hole through the tent. His phone and wallet were on the pillow right next to his head and they stole his $500 phone. Thankfully they didn’t touch his wallet. I had a hard time falling asleep after that because we were less than a foot away from his tent and our phones were between us! Our tent was unscathed but I did start to feel paranoid about the campsite. The alarm sounded at 5:30 am and we really didn’t feel like getting up but we had to…today we were visiting Devil’s Island and we had to be at the port by 7:30 am. First a quick breakfast, and then we tore down the tent and packed up. Steve volunteered to give us a ride to the port, saving us a 30 minute walk. We had to wait around for the ferry because it actually wasn’t scheduled to leave until 8:15. Danny had paid to go but his tooth filling had fallen out and he needed to see a dentist today to get that sorted and Keith wanted to stay behind to change all his passwords and banking information because it was all on his phone. They had offered to let Jeremy and Rebeca take their spots for free but Jeremy felt like relaxing today instead. So then a spot was offered to Futoshi (for free) and he refused…probably because he can’t stand the thought of hanging out with us any more than is necessary! So 13 of us made a day of it. The ride took 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach Ile Royale. Surprisingly, we weren’t even allowed to visit Devil’s Island because it is off limits. But we did have the chance to check out the 2 neighboring islands (Ile Royale and Ile Saint Joseph), which had also been penal colonies. Despite the weather forecast for rain and thunderstorms, we ended up having a beautiful sunny day. We walked around the island at a leisurely pace because the return boat wasn’t scheduled until 4:15. Which meant we had loads of time. The ruins of the penal colony were remarkably well preserved. Tourists have been visiting for decades and there is even an option to sleep over in a former jail cell through the hotel that has sprung up on the island. We took loads of pictures and found some friendly capuchin monkeys to observe. One of them was eating termites off a stick, licking it like an ice cream cone. After lunch, we still had a small section of the island to explore. We found the convicts’ watering hole where they used to go swimming. Two tourists were bobbing in the water there. Then we spotted turtles surfacing briefly for air and were amazed at how many turtles were in the area. A bunch of capuchin monkeys were in a nearby tree and we watched as one of them stole Leo’s orange juice. After drinking it, he jerked off and started licking his hand clean afterwards. Alli, Allison and I were involuntarily witnesses to this event and it caused a lot of laughter. All of us were feeling hot by this point so we hiked up to the hotel and restaurant area to use the shower. Peacocks, monkeys and agoutis had taken over the upper garden and we had to stop for photos. Then a quick rinse off before chilling at the restaurant over an overpriced coke. The catamaran ride back at 4:15 was running late, and we got back to town at 5:30. Danny and Steve were eager for us to hit the road. We drove 70 km to our bush camp, a lovely spot by a swimming hole at Crique Toussaint in Sinnamary. Amanda, Cat and I whipped up dinner in the dark with Danny’s help – pesto pasta infused with garlic and Parmesan cheese and garlic popcorn. It was fast, filling and delicious and we were in bed by 9 pm. Two episodes of Curb your Enthusiasm had us laughing into the night…Larry David is hilarious!
12 Feb – Sinnamary (Crique Toussaint) bush camp – Iracoubo – Saint Laurent du Maroni – Apatou (Crique Societe) bush camp
Thankfully it cooled down during the night to make a comfortable night’s sleep. Breakfast wasn’t scheduled until 8 am but we had everything ready early. Granola, milk, leftover pesto pasta and breakfast pastries made for a super easy breakfast and we departed early so that we’d have a chance to visit Eglise Saint-Joseph, a church whose interior frescoes had been painted by a convict in the town of Iracoubo. Well worth a quick stop and cook group was able to do a bit of cook group shopping at a local vegetable stand. Then we hit the road and drove towards Saint-Laurent du Maroni for the border crossing to Suriname. Danny wasn’t sure what time the last ferry of the day was, so we were told to be flexible as it might be later today or first thing tomorrow morning. At least there were the ruins of the “transportation camp” to explore if we weren’t able to cross over today. As we pulled into town, we went straight to the transportation camp and Danny told us that we would have free time until 4 pm. Apparently, there were only two ferries at 7 and 9 am so we missed the only ferries for the day. The new plan was to catch a ferry tomorrow, hence the free time in town today. We walked around the camp but everything was signposted in French and it didn’t seem that interesting. At the tourist office, we were told an English guide could be arranged at 3 pm. So we had free time to get lunch beforehand. The central market had delicious Vietnamese pho that we tucked into. Two bowls of pork pho, springrolls and drinks for 15 Euros. Not bad for a tasty lunch! Afterwards we walked around town before seeking shade near the breezy waterfront. I took a nap until 3 and then decided to opt out of the tour as I wanted to read my book instead. I read in peace until a shirtless local with a joint in hand came up and started to bother me so I quickly walked back to Spongebob as he screamed obscenities my way. Good thing I listened to my gut because I knew he was looking for trouble when he slid up close to me on the bench. Everyone that did the transportation camp tour came back to tell us it was worthwhile and actually covered a section of the camp that we had not already visited. They got to visit Papillion’s cell and their guide was supposedly one of the prisoners kept here back in the 1950s. No one knew if that was true but it was what he claimed. From town, we drove to look for a bush camp. We ended up driving 50 km south until we pulled up to a suitable location next to a tributary of the Maroni River. I raced Rebeca to a good camp spot and she tripped, fell and warped her sunglasses in her attempt to beat me. I swear I didn’t push her even though it looked suspicious! After setting up our tent, I took a bird bath in the nearby river just as cook group finished dinner (ratatouille, rice and sausages). Several locals had transformed our sleeping area into a makeshift dance club but they cleared out by 8:30 pm. We had plenty of time to watch some shows before bed. Tomorrow will be a super early morning so hopefully we sleep ok tonight.
13 Feb – Apatou (Crique Societe) bush camp – Paramaribo, Suriname
Up at 5 am for a 5:30 departure…ugh! At least the drive to the ferry port was quick and we were the very first vehicle in line, which meant we could catch the 7 am ferry! However, first we had to get stamped out of French Guiana. It should have been straightforward and indeed was for everyone but the Brits. Half of them had passports that said “European Union” which technically wasn’t true anymore and the border official appeared flummoxed on how to proceed. So he read every regulation and rule and a nervous Rob started sweating bullets. But finally, the all clear was given and Rob was stamped out. We crowded onto the “ferry” (a tiny barge) and 10 minutes later, landed in Suriname.