On Site: Guyana, an Emerging Destination in South America

Guyana, a relatively undiscovered country in South America bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname, has been making moves to promote itself as an ecotourism destination in the North American market. Last summer, the Guyana Tourism Authority partnered with Emerging Destinations and Green Team Global to promote the country to North American tour operators and travel trade, and in our November cover story, we named it one of our Emerging Destinations for that year. This year, we got the chance to head down and see it for ourselves. 

We found a country with a unique, diverse natural environment that included rainforest, savannah and a coastal city, as well as a destination serious about developing a sustainable tourism product. The accommodations we visited in the interior are locally owned, and many of them ran programs to conserve local wildlife, develop economic opportunities for their local communities, or both. 

That said, as Guyana is still developing as a tourism destination, clients should not go in expecting luxury hotels. While accommodations in the city are comfortable, many of the lodges we visited in the interior had limited hot water and either limited Internet access, or none at all. At the same time, those who do take the plunge will have the chance to experience a place that’s truly off the beaten path. 

The Rupununi River (here) and its namesake region teem with exotic fauna and flora, such as these oversized lily pads. // Photo By Adam Leposa 

We flew on Caribbean Airlines, which operates an approximately 5.5-hour direct flight out of New York - JFK to Georgetown, the country’s capital city. Caribbean Airlines also flies there out of Miami (about 3.5 hours) as does American Airlines. American also plans to launch a daily, direct flight out of JFK on December 18. 

Georgetown sits on the coast, at the mouth of the Demerara River, and affords a fascinating mix of colonial history and opportunities for wildlife viewing right in the middle of the city. After a quick stop at our hotel, we explored the city’s Botanical Gardens, where we came face-to-lens with one of the country’s biggest attractions: birds. Despite being only about the size of England, Guyana is home to a whopping 900 bird species, and even in a botanic garden in the middle of the city we were able to see a variety of parrots, woodpeckers and more. 

Guyana is home to over 900 species of birds. //Photo by David DiGregorio

The next day was a whirlwind tour of Georgetown. We started at Bourda Market, the largest of the city’s four open-air markets, where vendors sell fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs to customers as they drive by — there’s no need to even get out of the car. It was our first introduction to Guyanese cuisine, which draws on influences as far-flung as the Caribbean, South Asia and East Asia, as well as from the country’s Amerindians. Later, we visited the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, with its collection of Amerindian artifacts; and St. George’s Cathedral, one of the world’s tallest free-standing wooden buildings. In the National Park, we spotted some of the manatees the city had brought in to maintain its canals. 

Lunch was a real highlight of our first full day in Guyana. We dined at the Backyard Cafe, run by Chef Delven Adams, who also hosted our market tour. The aptly named Cafe has two separate seating areas, a bar and a resident parrot. Chef Adams cooked up a Guyanese meal from the ingredients he had acquired during our market tour, including a whole fish and a slew of veggie sides. The Backyard Cafe is available by reservation only; agents can book either the market tour plus a meal, or just a meal, through an inbound tour operator. 

At Bourda Market in
 Georgetown, vendors offer
 fresh fruit and vegetables
 with drive-through service. //Photo by David DiGregorio

We stayed at two hotels: Kings Hotel and Duke Lodge. Both were clean and comfortable, and both had good Wi-Fi — something that would not be available during later stages of our trip.

The next day we set off for the interior, where we would have the chance to learn more about the country’s ecotourism product. We flew on Trans Guyana Airways, which operates both scheduled and chartered intra-country flights. Be sure to warn your clients to pack light; while exact restrictions can vary depending on the flight, 20 pounds of luggage per passenger is a good rule of thumb. Once you’re airborne, however, the flight is an event in and of itself, providing a view over the amazing diversity the country has to offer. From the low coastal plain surrounding Georgetown, we flew over a massive rainforest (the country is 80 percent virgin forest) to our eventual destination: the Rupununi region, a savannah surrounding the Rupununi River. 

A market tour and lunch at the Backyard Cafe is a great introduction to Guyanese cuisine — here we meet the restaurant’s resident parrot.

The Rupununi was our first introduction to the reason Guyana is sometimes called “The Land of the Giants.” During a day visit to Karanambu Lodge, we had the chance to get up close with giant river otters, one of the native oversized animal species that have given the country this nickname. (Others include the jaguar, the giant anteater and the harpy eagle, the world’s largest eagle species.) Karanambu is home to a wildlife rehabilitation program for injured or orphaned giant river otter pups. Before lunch, we got the chance to watch the lodge’s manager walk two of the pups down to the river, where they took part in an exercise designed to help them learn to hunt fish on their own. During a later boat trip on the Rupununi, we spotted some full-grown adults in their natural habitat, as well as more birds and other wildlife at nearby oxbow lakes, which form when the rainy season’s floodwaters recede. 

In addition to the river tours, guests at Karanambu Lodge can also take advantage of nearby walking trails on both guided and self-guided hikes. Dusk river tours, we were told, are the best bet for spotting capybara, which are most active around that time. The lodge has a maximum capacity of 18 and a wonderfully homey vibe. Travelers should know, though, that there are no hot showers, and Internet access is only available via satellite, making it extremely limited.

From the Rupununi region we drove south, past Lethem, a town near the Brazilian border, to Saddle Mountain Ranch. This eight-room property is a real working ranch, allowing guests to get a glimpse of the traditional “vaquero” lifestyle. We had the chance to witness a cattle branding and castration (not for the faint of heart!), as well as take part in some more low-key activities, including ATV and horseback riding, and a hike up a steep trail to a lookout on Saddle Mountain. On our second day there, we headed out before dawn on an anteater safari to see a few giant anteaters, another one of Guyana’s famous giants. 

A predawn safari at Saddle Mountain Ranch offered us the chance to see the rare giant anteater. //Photo by David DiGregorio

There was no Internet available at the ranch, and showers were sun-heated only. Since not all of the rooms had electric lights, including the shared bathroom in the main building, travelers should bring headlamps. A highlight of the accommodations was the chance to sleep in a hammock under the stars. Tip: The property has its own nearby creek pool, which is a great way to cool off after a busy day on the ranch. 

Next, we headed back to Lethem to board another Trans Guyana flight to Georgetown. We engaged in some flightseeing, viewing the country’s amazing rainforest and waterfalls, and even getting up close with Mount Roraima, the mountain that inspired the jungle setting of the Pixar movie “Up.” The chance to view Mount Roraima is rare, we were told, as the weather is not often clear enough for planes to get close. We lucked out, though, and were treated to a majestic view of the mountain rising out of the clouds. 

Before landing in Georgetown we had one last stop: Kaieteur Falls, the largest single-drop waterfall in the world. Time at the falls is limited, so we ate lunch in the air, allowing us to spend the entire hour we had on the ground on a guided hike to several of the lookout points near the falls. We also saw a Guianan cock-of-the-rock, another local bird famous for its bright red coloration. After that, it was off to Georgetown for one last night’s stay at another hotel, Cara Lodge, before our flight home.

Rare clear weather allowed us to
 get close enough to catch a glimpse 
of Mount Roraima, the inspiration
 behind the setting of the Pixar movie 
“Up”, rising through the clouds. // Photo By Adam Leposa 

Guyana Fast Facts

Booking: Agents are advised to book through inbound tour operators, as many Guyana lodges do not have up-to-date websites. Wilderness Explorers, Evergreen Adventures and the UK-based Bushmasters all offer bookings. We also recommend our guide,
Leon Moore, particularly for birding trips; Moore is a highly knowledgeable regional reviewer for eBird Guyana, a global digital birding project. The best way to reach him is through his Instagram @leonmoore6353. 

Weather: Guyana has a tropical climate. We’d avoid visiting during the wet season, which runs from May to mid-August and mid-November to mid-January in the north, and from May to July in the south. 

Currency: The Guyanese dollar has an exchange rate of around US$1 to GY$210. 

Voltage: Outlets are 110v in Georgetown but can be 220v in other places in the country. 

Language: The official language is English.

Visa: Americans do not need a visa to travel to Guyana. 

Malaria: Malaria prophylactics are recommended when visiting Guyana, although, as we were visiting during the dry season, we did not find mosquitos to be a huge issue. Lodges in the northern Rupununi provide mosquito netting, but netting is not necessary further south, where the climate is drier. 

At Karanambu Lodge, orphaned or injured giant river otter pups are rehabilitated before being reintroduced into the wild. // Photo By Adam Leposa 

South America Tourism Roundup

Here's a quick look at some of the latest developments on the tourism front in South America.

Cities in Colombia are among the most up-and-coming travel destinations in South America this summer, according to a new report by American Express Travel. Cali, which is southwest of Bogota, is showing 67 percent year-over-year growth this year. Barranquilla is also hot, up 47 percent, while in Cartagena — which recently joined the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association — tourism rose 42 percent.

American Express also reports that Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil are booming as well, up 69 percent and 39 percent, respectively, year-over-year. Brazil is getting an added boost by its decision to remove visa requirements for visitors from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan.

Chile stands at the top of the latest Virtuoso Hot 10 — the countries that have experienced the largest year-over-year percentage increases in summer bookings. Chile registered a 410 percent gain, far above second place India’s 173 percent.

Sonesta Hotel Loja has opened in Loja, the capital city of Ecuador’s southernmost province of the same name. It has 73 rooms, including four suites. Guests are greeted with a variety of on-site amenities, such as a full-service restaurant, a bar and lounge, a deli and bakery, business center, gym, pool, hot tub and a Turkish bath. Loja is known as the “Musical and Cultural Capital of Ecuador” for its architecture, cultural diversity, and contribution to Ecuadorian arts, sciences, music and literature.

Pool Terrace at the new, 78-room Sonesta Hotel Loja in southern Ecuador

On December 5, JetBlue will become the first and only major U.S. airline to fly nonstop between New York and Guayaquil, Ecuador, the gateway to the Galapagos Islands (subject to government approval). 

AC Hotels by Marriott recently opened the AC Hotel Lima Miraflores in the Peruvian capital’s Miraflores district. The 150-room / 11-suite hotel is surrounded by boutiques, restaurants and other local attractions. Its AC Kitchen serves European and Peruvian-fusion cuisine and for dining with a view, the Insumo Rooftop overlooks the ocean.

Avanti Destinations has introduced three new customizable wine-focused itineraries in Argentina and Uruguay, a new tour of a pisco distillery in Peru, and seven different winery daytrip tour and tasting options from Santiago, Chile. The company’s itineraries are designed for independent travelers and custom groups of 15-100 passengers and are exclusively through travel agents.

Kensington Tours’ new nine-day “Bolivia Explorer” includes visits to the Salar de Uyuni salt flats; the administrative capital of La Paz; the Witches’ Market; a hike through the Valley of the Moon and the ruins of ancient Tiwanaku. Kensington has also launched a 16-day “Peru and Bolivia Highlights” itinerary. 

Contiki has launched five new trips to Patagonia and Colombia. Patagonia experiences include a boat safari through Perito Moreno Glacier fields, a hike through the wilderness of Torres del Paine, and optional ice climbing at Los Glaciares National Park. In Colombia, travelers can try paragliding or white-water rafting in San Gil, trek to the ‘Lost City’ of Ciudad Perdida and camp overnight at Tayrona National Park.