One of the few remaining unexplored frontiers of tourism, Guyana is South America’s biggest little secret. Sophie Stafford saw this pint-sized paradise of pristine rainforest through the eyes of the native Amerindians.
From the summit of Turtle Mountain, the emerald forest below stretched continuously in all directions to the hazy mountain ranges on the horizon, its dense green surface split only by the lazy curves of the Essequibo River.
The view was breathtaking, not least because it had taken me two hours to climb the steep, winding path to the 300-metre peak, up rocky steps made slippery by lush mosses. Of course, I blamed the 30˚C heat and forest humidity for my discomfort, not the fact that I didn’t get round to renewing my gym membership this year. The red faces of my travelling companions confirmed that, apparently, neither did they!
Little garden of Eden
In November, I was invited to explore Guyana, one of South America’s smallest and least known countries, a pocket-sized paradise squashed between Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil.
Guyana is one of those places that few people have heard of, and as a result it receives only about 2,000 tourists a year. This is probably why 85 per cent of its land mass is still covered by pristine tropical rainforest – one of the last four surviving in the world (the others being the Congo, New Guinea and Amazonia).
Iwokrama Forest covers a million acres, yet forms just a small part of this wilderness. It sits on one of the oldest exposed rock surfaces in the world and has a timeless, almost prehistoric feel. More than 1,000 species of tree crowd shoulder to shoulder here, their dense canopy allowing a gentle light to filter down to the forest floor.
In the stillness, the flight of a blue morpho butterfly is a dazzling flash of azure, while the silence is broken only by the zingy, electric wolf-whistles of the screaming piha, an otherwise dowdy brown bird.
The forest is the heart and home of nine native Amerindian tribes – the Arawak, Macushi, Arikuna, Carib, Wai-Wai, Akawayo, Warau, Wapishana and Patamona.
“When I was a child, my father told me ‘the forest is your supermarket,’” explained Ron Allicock, our Macushi guide, a slim, studious-looking young man with small, round glasses and a knack for storytelling. “Everything you need – clothes, food, medicine – is here.” Ron knows the trees that provide cures for everything from constipation to childbirth, which fruits are edible, which lianas make the strongest ropes and which palm fronds knit together to make a waterproof shelter.
For years, the forest also provided Ron’s father with a livelihood, harvesting the sap of the purple heart – or balata – tree, whose natural latex was once used to cover golfballs, among other things. Though it has since been replaced by synthetic products, many of the tallest trees at Iwokrama still bear the healing scars of parallel diagonal slash marks high up on their trunks.
But the forest’s bounty was also harvested ruthlessly. Guyana was once one of the main exporters of wild birds, reptiles and fish for the pet trade. Archer, the Amerindian guide at the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, would catch macaws by waiting in a fruit tree for the birds to come and feed, or mimicking the cries of a distressed juvenile to attract anxious parents, and then lassoing them with a noose. He sold the birds into a life of captivity for 4,000 Guyanese dollars (£15).
Today, the trade in wildlife is regulated by CITES, so Guyana’s animal population is finding new ways to earn its keep. “When the Government first told us we had to protect our forest, I couldn’t understand why,” said Ron. “I believed that all countries had the same resources. It was only when I travelled that I realised it’s not the same everywhere – you have only concrete jungles. This is why Guyana is so special.”
Through fresh eyes
But it took the arrival of the first tourists in the 1990s to make Ron truly appreciate the wild riches of his home. When he introduced foreigners to the forest, he was astonished by their reactions.
"They were amazed and awed by the colourful birds I took for granted,” he said. As they gawped at the wildlife, he gawped at them. Their delight made him interested in learning more about the species he saw every day. “I never believed I could be paid for taking people into the forest until the tourists came.”
It is probably because Guyana was slow to recognise its natural assets, and their potential as a tourist attraction, that it still has virtually intact virgin rainforest and healthy populations of species that are endangered (and hard to see) elsewhere.
Guyana boasts the largest and most powerful eagle in the Americas – the harpy; the biggest cat in the New World – the jaguar; the world’s largest otter – the giant; as well as the biggest freshwater fish on Earth – the three-metre long, prehistoric-looking arapaima.
An impossible wishlist
This is all very well, but are these charismatic yet seriously elusive species any easier to see in Guyana? Well, from my experience, they are.
On a short boat trip up the Essequibo River, both guides and guests alike were astonished to spot a male harpy eagle sitting in a lichen-festooned tree overhanging the water. Though young and so still quite small, he managed to look suitably disdainful as he flew off to a less public perch upriver, a massive iguana dangling from his strong talons.
Then, when our boat carried its star-struck occupants into dock at the Iwokrama Field Station, we were greeted by ‘Sankar’, the resident black caiman.
That night, having seen two of Guyana’s finest in one afternoon, we were optimistic about our chances of spotting a jaguar. Iwokrama is rapidly gaining an international reputation for its healthy jaguar population, and these beautiful cats are regularly spotted on the old red cattle road from the lodge.
Living with jaguars
As night fell, we stood on the dusty road, peering hopefully into the thick forest, while Ron described his first encounter with a jaguar.
“When I was nine or ten, my friend and I were out shooting fish with arrows when we saw a jaguar slinking towards us. He licked his whiskers and I knew we were in trouble. We only had nine arrows left, so my friend – the best shot – fired first. He was shaking so much, they all flew wide. With our last arrow, I hit the cat in the neck!
The jaguar was not hurt but he was extremely annoyed – he whirled and slunk off into the forest. We knew better than to relax and, sure enough, as we crept down the path home, we spotted him lying on a branch, waiting to ambush us. Two days later, our best racing donkey was eaten by a jaguar.”