Why this tiny piece of land called French Guyana offers top travel destinations:
- May be a little-visitedt territory, but if you care for nature and/or wildlife spotting, it is a top travel destination and you shouldn’t miss it. You can easily spend a 3-week holiday here. Okay, we spent closer to 3 months (over various visits), but Coen and I have the tendency to not being able to leave once we fall in love with a place.
- Has been one of our big surprises on our South America journey. This overseas department of France lies north of Brazil and east of Suriname. It has few people, lots of Amazon rainforest, a bit of savanna and a long and easily accessible coast along the Atlantic Ocean.
- Offers a diversity of trails for hikers, fun outings for families with kids, and has numerous spots for birding, watching sea turtles or other wildlife. Having said that, it is not a country for those who seek large or imposing museums or suchlike cultural places of interest.
1. Admire 20th Century Architecture in Cayenne, French Guiana’s Capital
A specific reason to visit Cayenne (and Kourou) is the celebration of Carnival in February/March. With a four-day spectacle that includes different parades and a lot of partying until the early morning hours, this is one of the major carnival events in South America.
Check out the Chou Aï Rescue Center (open on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons), where you can hold sloths and learn all about them. Or volunteer rescuing and taking care of them.
Tips on day tours in and around Cayenne:
- Buy Guide Guyane by Philippe Boré (in French, available in most bookstores in-country) was one of the smartest things we did. The book describes 36 hiking trails, some of which are around Cayenne. Most of them are doable with kids and the likelihood of spotting wildlife is high. Of note is the Rorota Trail because of the sloths we spotted there.
- On Saturday at 4 pm you can learn all about cacao cultivation and taste the most fabulous chocolate, which is produced without any artificial or chemical ingredients. Yves Delecroix, the owner of the cacao plantation, is a great storyteller and he does so on his own plantation right above Fort Diamand (a couple of kms outside Cayenne). Read about it here.
- A fun family day excursion is a boat trip to l’Ilet la Mère. The boat Autre Mer departs daily from the port of Dégrad de Cannes in the morning and picks you up in the afternoon. The island has a walking trail and is the perfect place for spotting small monkeys called singe saïmiri. Reservations are recommended (firstname.lastname@example.org or tel:0694 22 22 53).
- To learn about Cayenne’s history and architecture, sign up for a two-hour walking tour with one of the Guyarando guides who give this tour. Don’t forget (if necessary) to ask for a guide who speaks English. Contact info: email@example.com / tel: 06 94 2490 00 (Erwan Castel).
2. Explore the world of French Guiana’s Penal Colonies and Papillon
Although several French public figures have served time in French Guiana’s penal colonies, it is Henri Charrière’s novel (or autobiography, depending on the source) Papillon that put French Guiana on the map. There are two places to visit the ruins of the penal colony that was closed in 1953.
Saint Laurent de Maroni – Transportation Camp
This is the place where the boats with prisoners from France arrived. The transportation camp is downtown, next to the Tourist Office (Esplanade Baudin). You can visit part of it independently but to get a genuine feel for the place and hear the stories of those days sign up for a guided tour at the Tourist Office. The tours take place in the morning and it is best to make reservations in case you need an English-speaking guide.
Kourou – Devil’s Island
Boats depart on a daily basis from Ponton des Pecheurs in Kourou to Devil’s Island, where the most famous ruins of the penal colony lie. The boat will take you there and pick you up late afternoon. The ferry (daily departure at 7.50am) is cheaper than when going by catamaran (which you can combine with a day of sailing). For addresses, check out the Tourist Office (2C Rue Palika, firstname.lastname@example.org).
3. Watch a Rocket Launch in Kourou
French Guiana serves as Europe’s rocket launch site. There are somewhere between five and ten rocket launches per year and you can watch the launch free of charge. Check with the visitor’s centre for the exact dates (email@example.com).
The rocket launch base is worth a visit in itself. There is a large museum and you can sign up with a guided tour by bus on the premises (firstname.lastname@example.org).
4. Spot Wildlife in the Rainforest & on the Savanne
The chance of spotting wildlife is high in French Guiana. There are many possibilities to find the animals, among which are:
- Simply look around when driving in the country. Chances are good you will spot a sloth crossing the road.
- Walking the trails as described in Guide Guyane by Philippe Boré (see above), especially to see butterflies, frogs (among which the poison dart frog) and all kinds of monkeys.
- Taking a boat trip to Kaw when interested in spotting a black cayman and waterfowl. There are day trips as well as multiple day trips with an overnight stay in the wetland. (email@example.com).
5. Sea Turtle Watching in Awala-Yalimapo
Okay, sea turtles are wildlife too, but this topic deserves a separate section because it’s so incredibly beautiful and so accessible. Of the five top travel destinations mentioned here, this is our number 1. We camped here for weeks on end and met up with Jean-Yves research team of CNRS who studied leatherbacks on this beach for eight years.
Between April and August sea turtles lay their eggs and in July/August baby turtles find their way to the ocean. You can camp along the beach, there are a couple of basic accommodations in Awala and Yalimapo (both on the most northwestern point of the country).
There are three kinds of sea turtles here: the leatherback, green turtle, and the olive ridley turtle. The best chance of spotting them is at night, around high tide although the leatherback often frequents the beach during the day as well.
Here’s more on this spectacular sight.
- Air France flies directly from Paris to Cayenne on a daily basis. Air France also connects Cayenne with Martinique, Guadeloupe, Port-au-Prince and Miami.
- By road you can enter French Guiana from Suriname and Brazil. Between Suriname (Albina) and French Guiana (Saint Laurent de Maroni) a ferry plies on the Marowijne River for those with private transport. If you travel by public transport you can take a korjaal/piroque (dugout canoe in Dutch/French) of which there are dozens along the riverfront. Edited to Add, 2016: Between French Guiana and Brazil there now is a bridge to cross with your private vehicle.
- The easiest way to move around in French Guiana is by (rented) car. You will find car rental agencies in Cayenne, Kourou and Saint Laurent de Maroni. French Guiana has a limited public transportation system; it exists mainly in the form of mini vans that ply between towns.
- Check out my article about budget travel in French Guiana
- Enjoy these blog posts on French Guiana or find them on our Landcruising Adventure website.
- Feel free to send me an email with questions when planning a trip to French Guiana, or use the comment section below.