If you are looking for an adventurous immersion into pristine nature, Guyana is the place to go. The small South American country is not well known as a tourist destination, but its natural beauty is exceptional and the very fact that it is little visited guarantees an authentic experience. On our 10-day tour of the country we covered both remote Amazon rainforest and vast expanses of scenic savannah, filled with wildlife ranging from giant anteaters to giant otters and from harpy eagles to jabiru stork.
- Surama: live like the locals, visit the harpy eagle nest
- Rewa: remote Amazon rainforest, birdwatchers’ paradise
- Karanambu: track giant anteaters in the Rupununi savannah, discover the riverine forest
- Caiman House: Yupukari village life
- Kanuku Mountains: boat trip into the wilderness, good chances of seeing rare wildlife, another harpy eagle nest
- Kaieteur: isolated and awe-inspiring waterfall
Most lodges in Guyana are community owned and operated, allowing an experience of local life and guaranteeing the money you spend goes directly to the local Amerindian population. Guides and drivers are very professional and capable, and English is the country’s official language so communication is easy. However, lodges are distinctly spartan: no fans, no lounge chairs (but plenty of hammocks), and often lacking the little touches that make a place charming. But when you’re in such fantastic isolated locations so close to nature it’s easy to forget about that!
Booking directly with the lodges mentioned below is easy (although you need some patience, not all these places have phone lines or internet connections so they might take a while to answer) but transportation is more complicated, and not cheap. Most lodges can help organize transfers. Transportation will depend on the season: a big part of the country is completely flooded during the rainy season, which makes driving difficult or impossible, but going by boat easier and quicker. The rainy season itself (May to mid-August) is better avoided, but you can visit Guyana any other time of the year. Just after the rainy season is a good time to admire the luxuriant landscapes and see birds and monkeys, simply because you are closer to the treetops (the river levels rise several meters). The height of the dry season is better for wildlife watching. You will have higher chances of seeing giant otter, turtles, caiman, tapir, and others, but getting to places connected only by river takes much longer.
Day 1-2: Surama and Rupununi savannah
We flew from Georgetown to Lethem (Trans Guyana Airways and Air Services Limited have regular flights), from where we were picked up by car to go to our first lodge, Surama Eco Lodge. It is sometimes possible to find charter flights directly to Surama or to nearby Annai, but although the drive from Lethem is quite long, it is also very scenic and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it!
The feeling of adventure starts as soon as you land on Lethem’s minimalist airstrip. It’s like you just landed in Africa: Lethem is surrounded by savannah, crossed by red earth roads. I expected to see antelope and elephants any minute. Instead, the only thing you’re likely to encounter are the giant termite heaps dotting the spectacular landscape. Further along the road you will also come across plenty of (wading) birds, including herons, egrets, and possibly the impressive jabiru stork. There are giant anteaters in this area, but you generally don’t see them during the day.
During the rainy season roads can get completely flooded and travel by car difficult, we were there just after and had to wade through a part of flooded road (the water was incredibly warm!) and switch cars to get to our destination, but we could consider ourselves lucky: several other cars and trucks had gotten stuck in the mud!
Surama Eco Lodge is owned and operated by the nearby Amerindian village of the same name. Besides the fact the lodge runs on solar power, “eco” seems to mean mostly that it is very basic. The setting is beautiful however, on a patch of savannah bordered by forests and hills. Make sure you get to stay in a benab (a traditional grass-roofed cottage) rather than one of the tiny and charmless rooms in the shared Guest Cabin. None of them have fans (and you better get used to that in Guyana). It gets very hot during the afternoon, but in the evening it usually cools down. Communal dinners are simple but abundant and tasty. The guides all come from the local community and are very knowledgeable, although not always very communicative. Don’t expect any luxury here, just enjoy the nature. And the amazing starry sky at night!
One of the main reasons we wanted to stay at Surama is the easily accessible harpy eagle nest located in the jungle nearby. The next morning, after a short drive and about an hour’s walk through the forest, we arrived under the enormous tree holding the nest. Harpy eagle couples stay together for life and they raise a chick every 2 to 3 years. Parents take turns incubating the egg and they keep feeding the chick for well over a year. The nest near Surama has been in use for years, you often have a good chance of seeing them. And sure enough, after a short wait enjoying a well-deserved breakfast, the half-grown chick showed up. They fledge at 6 months but stay near the nest waiting for a parent to bring food, although this happens at very irregular intervals: we were not lucky enough to see an adult harpy eagle (yet!).
Besides the harpy eagle, we also saw plenty of scarlet macaw and other birds and heard howler monkeys, although they were not easy to see. Surama also organizes village tours, other nature hikes, boat trips, and even jungle survival training, so if birdwatching is not your thing there are plenty of other options!
Day 3-4: Rewa in remote Amazon rainforest
From Surama we went on into the real jungle. We had Surama’s car drop us off at Kwatamang Landing near Annai and from there we went on by boat to Rewa village, at the confluence of the Rupununi and Rewa rivers. The boat trip took us just under 2 hours, but in the dry season it can take up to 4 or 5, and although you can enjoy the scenery and might see some wildlife, the boat is not exactly comfortable… But the destination is worth it! Rewa Eco Lodge is another community operated nature retreat, and a great fall-out point to discover the surrounding unspoilt Amazon rainforest. The camp is spartan, but cabins are spacious and clean and service is impeccable.
Here you are really in the middle of very dense primary jungle, home to all kinds of birds and monkeys, and of course giant otter, turtles, caiman and tapir. Most of the other Amazonian animals (jaguar, ocelot, sloth…) are around too, but rarely seen. Chances of seeing most mammals and reptiles are higher in the dry season, when the river dries to a trickle. But the lush nature is beautiful just after the wet season. It is a great spot for birdwatching year-round, we encountered three types of macaw, toucans, kingfishers, woodpeckers and lots more (for a more exhaustive list, take a look at Rewa’s bird checklist). We also saw five different kinds of monkey (red howler, spider, capuchin, squirrel and bearded saki monkeys).
Rewa attracts a lot of sport fishers, as the waters here contain plenty of fish, including arapaima, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. But there are lots of other things to see and do. You get appointed a personal guide for your stay, who can take you on a number of activities. The best and easiest way to spot wildlife here is from the water, so we went for several boat trips, at dawn and sunset and even at night to see nocturnal animals. If you want to be active, a hike up Awarmie Mountain offers some amazing views and plenty of opportunity to sweat.
Rewa can also organize multi-day camping trips, for example to Makarapan Mountain or up the uninhabited and thus rarely visited Rewa River. For this you obviously need more time, but I’m sure it would be an amazing experience. Inform in advance about possibilities.
Day 5-6: Karanambu savannah and wetlands
Early in the morning (to maximize our chances of seeing wildlife) our captain and guide from Rewa brought us back, by boat, to Kwatamang Landing. From there we had organized a transfer with Rock View Lodge in Annai to bring us by car to Ginep Landing. Rock View Lodge is one of the fancier lodges in Guyana, but as it is further away from nature than most we decided to skip it. However, if you have the time and if you feel like breaking up your trip for some comfort and luxury, it might well be worth spending a day or two there. We instead headed on to Karanambu Lodge, our next destination, another two hours by boat from Ginep Landing (in the dry season you go directly by car).
Karanambu was founded in 1927 as a cattle ranch by Tiny McTurk. Under the guidance of his daughter Diane McTurk, a conservationist and expert on giant otters, it became an eco-tourism destination. Diane unfortunately passed away a few years ago and the heirs seem still to be figuring out how best to manage the lodge, but it’s still a wonderful place to stay. Karanambu’s grounds encompass savannah, ponds, and the riverine forest along a 30-mile stretch of the Rupununi River and are a great place to see otters, caiman and giant turtles (again, easier in the dry season), birds and monkeys, and especially giant anteaters.
Positively luxurious after our previous austere accommodations, Karanambu is an inviting ranch-style settlement built on a little island of high ground in the middle of the savannah. Rooms are charming, with much more attention to detail than most Guyanese lodges, though there are still no fans. The wooden-roofed rooms are newer and more attractive than the thatched-roof huts that have more insects and bats.
Karanambu seems more expensive than other lodges in Guyana, but as the price includes two activities a day it is actually a very good deal. The lakes and ponds around Karanambu are accessible via water when the river level is high, so we went on quite a few boat trips. There is a nesting site for waterfowl (heron, egret and cormorant) nearby, and an enormous amount of mesmerizing giant Victoria amazonica lilies. The flowers, which bloom only twice, open at dusk and it makes for a nice spectacle to see one unfold its leaves (maybe while enjoying some of Karanambu’s delicious but treacherous rum punch). There are of course giant otters in the area, but we managed to see only a splash of what our guide assured us was one. You also shouldn’t miss Sumuni lake, or rather succession of lakes, for otherworldly scenery and an opportunity to see birds and monkeys.
We spent our mornings tracking giant anteaters, from the back of a jeep crossing through beautiful savannah landscapes. The land still serves as grazing ground for Karanambu’s remaining cattle, but this doesn’t bother wilder animals. Apparently, the chances of seeing giant anteaters here are exceptionally high. We were very unlucky however and only saw a little fox, the only real disappointment of our trip.
Day 7: Caiman House in Yupukari
After another unsuccessful early morning anteater hunt it was time to move on to the next part of our trip. We would be spending the next couple of days with Ashley Holland, a fantastic guide and expedition leader based in Yupukari village who specializes in trips to remote and wild areas of the Rupununi (you can contact him via email, firstname.lastname@example.org). Ashley came to pick us up by boat to bring us to Caiman House, which we would use as a base for the next two days.
Caiman House originated as a field station for research on black caiman, and unsurprisingly, the area has many, although they are a bit harder to spot when the river is high. Different from the other more isolated lodges, Caiman House is an actual house (or rather several houses) located in the village of Yupukari, but it has a lovely Robinson Crusoe feel to it. Rooms are pleasant, there are some nice lounge areas and the place is very charming, the food however is definitely not as good here. And although this lodge was in the least natural surroundings, it’s where we were most bothered by bugs (including a scorpion and a poisonous giant centipede). Long live mosquito nets!
That afternoon we went for a (guided) walk through the village and the surrounding savannah. We were obviously already spoiled when it came to nature walks in Guyana, so this turned out to be a little disappointing. Caiman House proposes some other activities, including a village visit and boat trips, but they seem a little less organized than other lodges (which could be explained by the fact they are first and foremost a research facility). All in all, I found Caiman House a little expensive for what you get, but our trip with Ashley the following day more than made up for that!
Day 8: Kanuku mountains protected area
The next day Ashley came to pick us up at the break of dawn to take us for a day trip upriver towards the Kanuku Mountains. This protected area encompasses one of the few remaining pristine bits of Amazon rainforest, it definitely feels very wild and remote. It has incredible biodiversity and you can find all kinds of birds and mammals here. The banks of the river are the perfect spot for waterbirds, black caimans, turtles, and giant otters (we passed by a den, but they were unfortunately not around). Clouds of butterflies also gather on newly emerged sandbanks and make for a mesmerizing sight.
Our destination was the Mapari creek, which is an amazing spot for wildlife watching and leads up to waterfalls and natural pools that are suitable for swimming. A short walk from the creek is another easily accessible harpy eagle nest. This time we saw the female, she seemed to be hatching an egg but came out to show off (or, more likely, try to chase us away).
We then stopped for lunch and an amazing refreshing swim in the river. After that we went for another short hike, this time in search of Goliath bird-eating spiders. Lured out of their holes by our guides, they are not for arachnophobes. Despite the name, these tarantulas rarely prey on birds, but they have been observed eating anything from rodents to snakes.
Ashley also organizes longer expeditions, up to several weeks of camping in the jungle. He’s an amazing guide with a big love for nature, as is his son who joined us on our trip. He very rightly remarked that South America is not the easiest place to see wildlife, unlike, say, the great African game parks. But if you do, the experience is thrilling and much more authentic. Going for a trip here is of course about wildlife, but also about wilderness, being far from civilization and close to nature. If I ever go back to Guyana I would definitively go on a longer trip with them, daunting as the prospect of sleeping in a hammock in the middle of the jungle might be!
Day 9: Kaieteur falls
Early in the morning Ashley drove us to Lethem from where we flew back to Ogle airport in Georgetown. Here we switched to another small plane, operated by Roraima Airways, to take us to Kaieteur falls. Kaieteur is one of the highest and most powerful single-drop waterfalls in the world, located in the middle of the rainforest in its own national park. It is possible to get there over land, but it takes several days, so most people fly there with a tour group. The views of the falls from the plane are absolutely stunning! Roraima Airways offers tours twice daily, early morning and early afternoon (it’s probably best to call them as their website doesn’t make much sense). There are other airlines too, like Air Services Limited, so shop around for the best price. Flights often depend on having a minimum number of passengers, last minute changes or cancellations are apparently not uncommon.
Once landed, it’s a short walk to the three different viewpoints, each closer to the falls. Although groups are not big, we tried to always walk a little faster than the group to get a few minutes alone at each spot. We found out too late, but there is a simple guest house near the top of the falls and if you can stay an extra day I highly recommend spending a night here. You do have to self-cater and, because the airlines flying to Kaieteur usually do not take passengers only one way, you will probably have to pay for two flights or a charter. But I think being able to enjoy the falls at different hours of the day and in all quietness would be absolutely worth it. On our walk back to the plane we caught a glimpse of a beautiful, bright orange cock-of-the-rock. Our guide told us there are several leks around the falls, and if you stay longer it’s probably quite easy to see them well.
After another scenic flight back, enjoying the sunset views, we arrived in Georgetown shortly after nightfall. We spent the night at Cara Lodge, in a beautiful old colonial house. We were exhausted and opted for dinner at the lodge’s restaurant, Bottle Restaurant, which is actually one of the best in Georgetown. The service was quite slow but the food delicious.
Day 10: Georgetown
Spend a few hours exploring Georgetown before you leave. The city has a distinctly Caribbean feel, very different from the interior and a bit of shock after so much secluded nature. It’s messy with lots of traffic, but there are some beautiful (and some simply outrageous) buildings to admire. Main St is most pleasant for a stroll, as it’s central walkway is lined by trees. When we were there the wooden St. George’s Cathedral was being renovated, but this church, one of the tallest wooden structures in the world, is worth a visit once it opens again.
If you have more time to kill, check out the botanical gardens for some green and maybe some more birdwatching. There is a small zoo which is a little depressing, although it does try to focus on conservation and education and many residents are rescue animals. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be enough money to keep the animals in decent enclosures. You can take a peek at the zoo’s manatees in the pond out front without entering. We managed to not see them, but that is apparently unusual.
That afternoon we headed to the international airport to continue our travels. We combined our visit to Guyana with a few days in Suriname, and a week of beach-time and diving in Trinidad & Tobago. You can of course stay longer in Guyana: there are more areas and lodges worth visiting. I for one would have loved to spend more time around Rewa, and go on a camping trip with Ashley! Oh well, I will just have to visit this amazing country again!
Are you thinking of going to Guyana, or have you been? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!