Why The Guianas Should be a Backpacker’s Hot Spot and Why They’re Not

The Guianas find themselves almost entirely forgotten within the South American continent. In fact, ask many people from the nearby country of Venezuela and many don’t have a clue where these three countries (French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname) sit, despite the fact that Venezuela shares a border with Guyana. The truth is you can’t really blame the region for forgetting about these three obscure countries tucked in the north-eastern corner of South America. Culturally, physically, and economically they have very little in common. The reason that the backpackers have missed out on these countries for so long borders on confusing. These are my reasons why the Guianas should be a backpacking hotspot, and why they aren’t.

Reasons to go

It’s cheap: Well, it’s not exactly Bolivia cheap or anything, and French Guyana holds it’s challenges, but the truth is that if you make some sacrifices travelling the Guianas can be very cost-efficient. Combined through the three countries I averaged about 35US$ a day. In Brazil, I had to spend between 50-55$ to travel properly.

Annai, Guyana

Annai, Guyana – Click to enlarge

Culture: I’m not sure there’s anywhere in the world where cultures collide so beautifully as they do in the Guianas. Mix he Caribbean, Africa, East Asia and Europe culturally and you have the Guianas. From marooned African enclaves in the jungles of French Guyana to the European urban dwellers in Paramaribo to some still uncontacted indigenous people in the Amazon basin people from all over the world are represented in this small section of the world.

Natural Wonder: Can you name the world’s highest free-falling (no ricochet) waterfall? Kaieteur Falls in Guyana. Beyond the waterfall some of the most pristine sections of rainforest in the world exist in these countries bursting with wildlife.  Furthermore, the coast of the Guianas is home to some of the largest breeding ground for the incredible leatherback sea turtles.  Knowing those things alone makes the average traveller more excited about the countries.

Poison Arrow Dart Frog – Click to Enlarge

Adventure: Backpackers used to relish in the idea of hitting the road less travelled. They used to head to places people hadn’t heard of, places still waiting to be discovered. Now it seems they are more concerned with finding cheap alcohol. Maybe backpackers are getting lazy, or maybe I’m just getting jaded. Regardless the backpackers should be relishing in the opportunity to explore such an amazing place which has to date been left largely unexplored.

Why you haven’t Gone

They are Expensive: Well, that is the rumour anyways. The myth that the Guianas are impossible to travel without deep pockets is untrue and it’s something I proved wrong. I challenged French Guiana, the most expensive country in South America, and managed to spend only 25$ a day on my time there.  Through the other countries I lived extravagantly in private rooms and eating out every day for about 40US$, I could have done it for about 30-35$.

Location: It’s true, if the Guianas were wedged in between Brazil and Argentina more people would stop in and say hi. However, being placed in the obscure locale of between the north of Brazil and south of Venezuela surely doesn’t help.  The nearest city of value to any of the Guianas is Belem, Brazil a journey that will take at least 2 days overland.

Kaieteur Falls

Kaieteur Falls – Click to enlarge

Size: Being a small underdeveloped country without a huge population of tourists means that there are simply not that many flights. Yes there are direct flights between France and French Guiana, but good luck finding regular flights from North America, or even other South American countries. The total population of all three countries is no more that about 1.5 million people. I’m sure most people can name a city within a couple hours drive of where they live of a greater population than that.

Poorly Promoted: As usual, I sent off emails to the country’s official tourism boards before leaving for the Guianas. I received no response, not from a single agent. When I arrived in French Guiana I went to the tourism board to find a great office full of great information. When I asked about my email they said in colourful french, “Oh, you’re Brendan, we have been meaning to get back to you.” In Guyana I learned from one of the members of the private sector’s tourism association that the government’s board is borders on useless and is horribly underfunded. How can people want to visit your country if they don’t even know it exists? For tourism to get a boost in a country it needs a major draw. Peru has Machu Picchu, India the Taj Mahal, and Kenya the wildlife. The Guianas have plenty of draws, but how can a “bug zapper” lead the mosquitoes to its trap if it’s turned off?

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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28 Comments

  1. I’ve loved this post. I’ve often wondered about these countries, if only because we covered South America no less than 3 times in 5 years in high school geography (North America and Europe never, Africa once and Australia twice btw), and yet despite reading copiously about travel I’ve never heard a mention until now. Being addicted to travel writing I’ve also become a bit jaded with certain destinations, even vicariously, so this was doubly interesting and like a breath of fresh air, and since it only costs me the same to get to France as it does to get to the UK or the Spanish mainland, then maybe I should check it out in real life!

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    • Go for it Linda. French Guiana didn’t blow me away but Guyana definitely did, and Paramaribo is now one of my favourite cities. Check it out 🙂

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  2. “How can a “bug zapper” lead the mosquitoes to its trap if it’s turned off?”

    I don’t know, wish for bugs?? Great line, dude, and good info on a largely unreported part of the world.

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    • Haha, I’m glad you liked that line. It came out of nowhere haha.

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  3. Great post! This is actually really helpful.. I have been planning a trip to Guyana/Brazil, but now I think I will make an effort to get to the others 😀

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  4. Great job of promoting a place in the world many know little about. I have enjoyed your posts from regarding these countries.

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  5. How is security there? I read somewhere that crime is higher there than in everywhere else in S.A. other than Venezuela. Is that true?

    Glad you are getting the word out there. I have seen so few articles on these countries.

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    • Georgetown is rough. I wrote a article on it… you definitely have to keep your head up. In Suriname and French Guiana I felt safer than anywhere in South America. I actually hitch hiked almost everywhere I went, so yeah quite safe. So yeah, outside of Georgetown, it’s quite safe.

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  6. Good to know it can be done on a budget. What about safety? I have heard that is a challenge there as well.

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    • Safety is a bit of an issue in Georgetown Steph, but everywhere else is pretty tame. I hitch hiked everywhere without any issues.

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  7. Though the French Guiana is an expensive place, I like it. Because of it’s waterfall, it’s a place of visitors.

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  8. I would like to go there for sentimental reasons. My grandfather worked in Guyana sometime in the 19070’s that’s why my dad spent four years of secondary school there. I’m just sad though that my dad passed away seven years ago. It could have been a memorable trip for us.

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  9. Great post! I’ve wanted to go to the Guianas for so long, just never had the opportunity.

    I like this observation:
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    I don’t think you’re jaded. That was my observation on my first trip to South America (gulp) 17 years ago – when I spent a year doing a solo journey of the continent for a masters in Latin American cinema. My trip was guided by film festivals, but in between each festival I’d spend time travelling and writing. I found the South Americans I’d met – filmmakers, journalists, writers, poets, etc – to be far more adventurous than foreign travellers, most had seen most of their own countries.

    But the backpackers I met at hostels as I passed through places were *exactly* as you described and were the least adventurous people I met. Many would hang out at hostels for weeks, seeing the main sights by day and getting drunk every night with other backpackers at the hostel, some would settle in to a place for a month or more doing that, then move onto the next hostel in the next city in the neighbouring hostel. I like a drink myself but that was ridiculous; I remember thinking *exactly* the same thing you are now way back then.

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    • Well Lara, I guess at least they haven’t changed haha. Maybe on my first trip I was more blind to it, but I definitely see that now.

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  10. Brendan – I was referring to your quote above, but my quote of your quote slipped out. Perhaps you want to pop it in with the comment above?

    “Backpackers used to relish in the idea of hitting the road less travelled. They used to head to places people hadn’t heard of, places still waiting to be discovered. Now it seems they are more concerned with finding cheap alcohol. Maybe backpackers are getting lazy, or maybe I’m just getting jaded.”

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  11. Great post Brendan but it might be good to edit the first paragraph to list the names of the three countries you’re talking about – I don’t think you mention Suriname by name at all. Just something I noticed.

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    • Thanks Tim, good call.

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  12. Hey Brendan, thanks for the info! I myself im doing research for my own backpacking trip in SA, Im picturing an all land travel starting in colombia and hugging the entire atlantic coast of SA all the way down to argentina and go up the pacific through chile, bolivia, peru and ecuador and im having lots of trouble gathering information about these two countries and french territory. I dont know if doing an all land trip around this area can be possible, i would like to stick to a budget the entire time, ive grown out of the whole drink til i get drunk scene and true adventure is my passion so these countries seem right up my alley! Thanks for all the write up!
    Frank

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    • No worries Frank. I’ve gone through the four and it’s fairly easy and straight forward. Transport in French Guiana is expensive but it’s easy to hitchhike. Let me know if you need anything.

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  13. Hey Brendan
    I was thinking of backpacking there starting from Guyana through to F Guiana into Brazil. How is it crossing the boarders and what is the best way?
    Cheers

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    • Olive, either way works pretty simple. There are no struggles really. The only thing is that you’ll likely need to get a Visa for Suriname which is best done in Cayenne. But I’m sure it can be done in Georgetown as well. Have fun!

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  14. I really want to go to those countries. I guess the main question is being a solo woman..is it possible to get around without getting into trouble? Other parts of South America, at least I would meet a plenty of backpackers and tag along but these three countries being underexplored makes me badly want to go, but I am worried at the same time about safety.

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    • Deepa – Not sure you’d have an issue as a solo female although I’m not one so it’s hard to comment. Loads of solo French women in French Guiana so I doubt it’d be an issue. There are loads of solo dutch women so I doubt it would be an issue there either. The only iffy place would be Guyana, but I didn’t have any issues and I think as long as you took the normal precautions you’d be fine.

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  15. Hi Brendan,

    I know a Dutch guy in South Africa name Rene van Son, any family?
    Nice travelblog, I am intending to travel to Suriname, have you any tips on accommodation in Paramaribo?

    Thanks Leon

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  16. Hey,
    I am looking for a possibility to go to the Rain forrest of France-Guayana. We are two Backpackers with a low budget. How we can do it. Do you have adresses for us?

    Greatings from Germany
    Constance

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  17. Hi, my friend and I are spending 4 weeks in Georgetown working in the hospital and would like to then travel south america for a few weeks after. Any advice on how to get to Colombia? We tried looking online but it all seems like flights via Miami! Any overland options? Thanks

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    • Yikes. No flights. Only way is through Miami. I did overland it, though. Although it’s gonna take you 2-3 days. I was insane and did it all in one shot. Coming from Annai I went to Boa Vista, Brazil. Then, I went overnight to Caracas, then another overnight to Maracaibo, then day bus to Santa Marta. If you’re going from Georgetown, you need another day to get yourself to Annai.

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  18. Hi all,
    I am Guyanese American(both of my parents were born and raised in Guyana). If you aren’t ready to take the dive into Guyana(I’ve traveled alot and it’s still the most beautiful place I’ve ever been), try to head to one of our heavily populated neighborhoods in NY, Toronto, or the UK. We have huge populations of Guyanese people in all of those places and you can try our food, music and gain insight into our culture.

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