A visit to Bigi Pan national park has been recommended by several travellers we met and, now that we have done it, i can say it is really worth it. The wildlife, in particular birds, you can see here are amazing and staying a night on the lake is fun. Would have wished for a little higher water-level, so you could swim, but heh that is dry season for you.
Suriname Day & a bit more of Paramaribo
Every 25 November Suriname celebrates its independence from Holland. I am not sure it was such a smart decision given how much the country has fallen behind french guiana, but heh. Still a good party with plenty of live music in the palm garden putting Surinamese cultural diversity on full display. A welcome change from the hospital environment we enjoyed in the afternoon during Laura’s check up…
We also had more time to explore Paramaribo and finally made it to the fortress, which is a mere 5min walk through the Palm garden from Zus & Zo guesthouse. Has a distinctly different feel than most of the city … Nice.
Heading to Bigi Pan National Park
The park is located in the North West of Suriname and takes some 4/5h bus or shared taxi ride. We used the time to continue with Laura’s German lessons we had started for real at Zus & Zo while waiting for transport.
Bigi Pan covers 130,000 hectare – half of which is water (it name big pan comes from the pan like shape of the lake and the river) . Water levels are entirely regulated by rain fall and hence it was good to wait for a few days of rain, as the waterways are very shallow (50cm). To separate the canal leading to the lake from the salt water of the river, there is a barrier over which the boat needs to be pushed.
Birds, Birds, Birds …
Bigi pan is a bird watchers paradise with more than 100 species about, many staying here for winter. To name but a few, just on the way to our lodge we saw kingfishers, the black eagle, brown hawks, owls, the white ibis etc.
Later in the afternoon and after a brief kayak tour we headed further out on the lake towards a sleeping place for birds with hundreds of pink flamingos that can be seen from afar, pelicans, the famous white ibis and the impressive red / scarlet ibis. Sadly, mobile pictures dont do the amazing scenery any justice 📸
On our night tour we also saw caiman eyes 🐊 and a snake 🐍 sleeping in the tree before heading back to our lodge on stilts right on the lake.
Amazing sunrise in Bigi Pan
The night was a decent one albeit a bit short to make it up in time for a beautiful sunrise over Bigi Pan. Pictures speak a thousand words …
Before we headed back to Nickerie, we enjoyed a mud bath with the other (all Dutch) travellers… Fun and apparently good for you.
Nieuw Nickerie, skipping British Guyana 🇬🇾
We had a night in Nickerie as the locals call it on both ends of our Bigi pan tour. While it is the 2nd largest town in Suriname, there isn’t much to see here. However, it eases travel stress given 4/5h one way journeys to / from Paramaribo.
Nieuw Nickerie is the gateway to British Guyana – either through an official ferry (10am daily) about 1h south of Nickerie or by ‘backtracking’ in speedboats from Zeedijk (SRD70 one way). The latter is semi-legal, as the government wants to prop up the use of official ferry services, combat smuggling and prevent accidents that frequently cost lives.
We decided to skip Guyana. We had only 4 days left and would need two just for the commute. That would leave us with a little time in Georgetown, which is a pretty dangerous place these days.
Instead we headed for the city of Groningen… Very early on …
French Guiana (FG) is officially a part of france and different to Suriname or Guyana hasn’t opted for independence. We spent just under week there and came across a few unusual things …
Laura’s 👧🏻 comment: On this trip we had a new member with us – Carsten from Germany. On the first day we started our tour with a visit to the Kourou space center and after many hours finally managed to find a pretty house to stay in the capital Cayenne. We visited Kourou again to experience something incredible – a rocket launch. A unique moment together with new friends from Kourou. Other than that, we again visited the jungle and this time saw many animals.
Paramaribo to Albina & FG river border
Every tour in Suriname begins or starts in Paramaribo. So we found ourselves once more in a by now familiar neighbourhood. We enjoyed mobile network, gambled a bit in one of the many casinos alongside chinese gamblers and Venezuelan staff (yep, we lost our EUR20 stake…) and by chance met a familiar face from our previous trip to the jungle (Suriname 🇸🇷: Jungle life near Raleigh falls & Volksberg) – Carsten from Germany.
He had planned to visit FG too and so we teamed up to travel together. We took a 12.30 bus, the only one on sunday’s, to Moengo and from there a taxi on to albina – the main border town on the river. 3h in total. Not bad.
Our accommodation was basic yet sufficient. We had a snack in town (there was not much to do frankly) and played some strange card game carsten taught us. He won twice 😐
French Guiana basics
FG is a French oversea territory (in fact, its second largest region) and since Belize’s independence in 1981 the only EU territory on mainland America. It has 280000 inhabitants and the highest GDP/capita in South America. Economically it remains very dependent on france and unemployment frequently sits at 20-25%. FG voted against autonomy in 2010.
Back in Europe without a flight …
We jumped straight into on of the many boats that go back and forth between Suriname and french guiana (EUR2,50 one way). There were zero passport checks (though there are checkpoints on the main road either side of the border) with the positive side effect that we would not need to purchase the EUR35 entry visa to suriname again.
On the other side we were officially back in europe. Mobile data and calls come out of your normal plan, you pay with euro’s, the infrastructure and cars looks immediately much better though their remains plenty of craziness.
The border town is called St Laurent du Maroni and is the second largest town in FG. There wasn’t much to see other than the transportation camp where prisoners passed through before ending up on a nearby prison island. Historically, sending prisoners here from france was pretty prevalent.
We jetted off to Kourou in our tiny rental car 🚘
Guiana Space Center (Centre Spatial Guyanaise – CSG)
Our first main stop was at the space centre that is situated here. It launches vega, soyuz and ariane type rockets and most commercial satellites nowadays are launched from here roughly once a month. Its location close the equator allows for lower fuel cost and more payload than at other stations. For the time being, no humans are propelled from here. It is operational since 1968 and was built as a result of the independence of Algeria in the 50’s and the subsequent loss of the (just finished) space station there.
Different rocket types launched from CSG
Before visiting the interesting space museum we got some great news – the following day a vega rocket would propel a Moroccan satellite into orbit. Brilliant… Especially having missed out on the ariane launch right at the beginning of our time here.
Negative impact of rocket launches
Depending on rocket type, aluminium (ariane/vega) and carbon monoxide / dioxide (soyuz) are released at launch. The french space agency created an environmental measurement plan after the infamous first Ariane V launch of 1996. The launch ended in disaster when the launcher exploded 36.7 seconds after lift-off. Nobody was injured, but the explosion highlighted the possible impact of launches on the local environment. So far, studies (arguably commissioned by CSG) suggest just a limited impact on nature about 1km around launch sites.
Vega launch – live!
We returned to Kourou to meet a couch surfing contact of Carsten and had a BBQ at his place. He studies his master in tropical botanics in Kourou alongside many french students, interns, PhD researchers etc. Really fun evening with plenty of interesting conversations of a field i am hardly familiar with.
By 22:42 it was time to watch our first rocket launch – here the video. We watched from the beach rather than the official observation point (that requires a minimum of 2h advance check in). Quite an event as the rocket lit up the night as if it was daytime (well, kind of) and a few mins later the rumbling noise spread from the space center.
Vega are a joint European and Italian program. Its rockets have been launched 13 times (100% success) from here since 2012. It is the smallest rocket of the three at 30m hight, 3m diameter, 137 tons and about 1.4t payload (ariane up to 10t) using a three stage propel its load 700km high into orbit. One launch costs about USD37m.
Shopping in FG – now that’s crazy!
We went shopping several times, for our airbnb and the BBQ in Kourou. The prices were shocking! One of the key issues is that most products are imported by plane from France – many of which were imported to France itself be it from asia or countries neighbouring Suriname like Brasil.
A lot of this has to do with EU agricultural regulation. The latter, as i know well, is often designed to protect EU producers from non-EU competition and FG is probably the biggest loser of this. I mean paying the equivalent of EUR25 for a water melon 🍉 when the same costs EUR2 in Colombia is simply insane. Another reason is not so fertile grounds and the many insects (the pesticides required are one reason why it cant be produced under EU law).
However, my conversation with the agronomist suggests it is possible and there are more local businesses coming to the market like the one of Anne we met in Suriname or as evidenced by roadside vendors of melons and other fruit / vegetables.
Cacao – a distant piece of Laos & self-guided jungle trek
On of the day trips led us to Cacao – 75km away from Cayenne. There lives a small Hmong community from Laos that arrived in the 70s/80s following displacement due to the Vietnam war and continues to live in their typical stilt houses. Best to be visited on sunday for market day.
We also went for a self guided jungle hike nearby though only 6km of 18km total for time reasons. The walk was refreshingly challenging yet animals largely elusive. Back home … Beach & party time. And sweet dreams carsten 😴😉
Cayenne – not that much to miss
Cayenne is official home to some 60,000 people and about of all FG population in the wider metropolitan area. You can cover the main sights in one afternoon like the fortress, botanical garden and historical center with colonial architecture, but you wont miss much if you don’t.
Carbets – late discovery of the real way to travel in FG
After Carsten had left us to travel back to Paramaribo to catch his flight home we weren’t quite clear what to do. I checked out a link our airbnb host had provided (http://escapadecarbet.com). It has loads of outdoor tips and a superb overview of carbets in FG – covered shelters where you can put up your hammock or even get a room. This significantly improved the accommodation options, which are otherwise pretty slim or expensive.
We picked a free carbet near Sinnamary (passing many rusty car wrecks roadside) right in the jungle and with a few basic food and beverage items moved in. We weren’t alone on the first night with two other world travellers also staying there, which made for interesting travel conversations around the fire.
The spot was great for animal spotting from the large ‘blondie’ spiders and their countless kids, jungle rats who came along to pick up dinner, a huge iguana, birds, butterflies and a frog. Additionally we frequently enjoyed the monkey concert.
Daytime was to relax now that we were alone. Bath. Talk. Eat. And… Some driving lessons for laurita. She did really well once she got a little feel for the clutch and succeeded in parking between two water bottles. Who can stop her now 🤔😉🚘
The trip overall was nice, but sadly came at the expense of two full days just in transit from/to Paramaibo. 🎢🚌🏞️
Tasting transport in Suriname
Our first tour deeper into the jungle left pretty early at around 7am from Paramaibo. First up a pretty bumpy 5h bus ride to Witagron (180km). The route is really made for jeeps and not a bus, but heh. Our driver didnt care much and blasted through it with an astonishing 35km/h average.
From there we jumped into long boats for another 4h or 60km up the Coppename river. Going by boat is a little slow in dry season, as the skipper maneuvers zick zag like to avoid sandbanks and rocks. Do expect to get stuck and push the boat – happened twice to us and is fun.
We arrived at the Raleigh falls nature reserve late afternoon. Three nights in hammocks in a simple yet amazing jungle lodge on FUNGU island lied ahead.
My journey to the lodge got progressively worse though, as a headache and a major sunburn plagued me. Straight to the hammock for me and into the caring hands of Laurita 🤗
Laura’s comment: Our time on Fungu island was magical especially at nights all the jungle sounds, the moon and stars and an incredible group of people that made for a memorable time.
Voltzberg – Steep climb, amazing views
On our first full day on the jungle island we hiked for about 8h / 19km and visited the Voltzberg – at 220m the highest point in the area. On the way through the jungle we spotted few animals, mainly ants though 🐜 🐜 🐜, and learned a few things from our guide Wilfried – a Parbo beer & marihuana fueled amerindian surinamese.
The hike up the hills is pretty steep and best done in dry conditions for safety reasons (really not much to hold on to if you slip, rope not reliable). From the top you get a 360 degree view of the surrounding amazon forest. Quite breathtaking 🏞️🏞️🏞️
After about 19km we were done hiking for the day, refreshed ourselves in the river and got a lift to camp by boat just as it started to rain ☔. Who cares!
Raleigh falls – Uninspiring in dry season
The Raleigh falls were a 5min boat trip followed by 2km hike away from our camp. The trailhead is in another lodge that apparently belongs to the president and is run by his younger brother. If it was him, thanks again for the fish meal.
The waterfalls were nothing out of the ordinary and look more like strong currents especially during dry season, as we have right now. But then its less about the falls anyway and more about the time spent in the jungle. Swimming is not advised near the waterfalls, as electric eels are hiding beneath the rocks and could easily immobilise you with a 500 volts kiss 😘 🐠 ⚡
Laura wasn’t feeling great and skipped the hiking part, but in return we enjoyed the river beach near the trail head. The warm and sweet river water is just amazing to swim in. You just need to watch for currents, sometimes sharp rocks and avoid swimming with any open wounds as piranha’s live too.
We met Lisette and Sergio at E’ Tembe restaurant. Lisette is Dutch born, Sergio a Rasta maroon Surinamese. They are a couple for 7y and run a small travel business. They also work at the restaurant certain days where Sergio puts his cooking skills to work. If you, like us, don’t mind improvisation at times, do go with them for a very local and affordable Suriname experience (our 4 day / 3 night tour was €150 pP ex alcohol) – Optimission on tour (no website yet). Just beware that if you are a single woman (or even with partner) expect harassment from some men.
Laura’s comment: The time on the island allowed us to think and reflect about many things in our life, family, personal etc. The company wasn’t too great at times as our host couple had frequent arguments and some guys were at times a little disrespectful. However, our time as a couple was amazing with music, food and thousand stars lighting up the sky at night. ✨
After a stop to resupply a few things for our time on the island, we headed for Sergio’s home village of Marchallkreek. Some 500 people live there in a mix of old and new houses. Sergio mentioned that there is some structure to the village such as all the sister living in one row. Well, i hope they all get on well with each other 😉
Transmigration: Most of the housing are the result of transmigration (here a little youtube clip). This is essentially the relocation of some 25 villages and 6000 people in 1965-68 to make space for an artificial reservoir now known as Brokopondo. The people from Marchallkreek are some of these resettled people. Brokopondo dams the Suriname river to generate hydropower used for bauxite processing generating about 2/3rd of export revenues though gold has risen in importance.
Village governance: Each village has a certain governance structure. The captain is the ultimate person in charge and has up to four basha’s reporting to him. Further up, each tribe has a major as the ultimate leader. Noteworthy different to normal politicians is that the tribal leader are also spiritual leaders. For some time now, tribal rulers and government work together.
After a brief glance around we continued to Brownsberg for the hiking part of the day. Anne, a french girl from Britanny that lives in French Guiana growing fruit and veggies, joined us for the tour. We will, however, return to the village in two days to join their annual thanksgiving celebration.
Brownsberg Nature Reserve
Brownsberg nature reserve is located some 100km from Paramaibo with a plateau some 500m above sea level. Around 10000 animals were moved here as part of the transmigration in the 60’s.
After an adventurous ride to the plateau, which is best done in a 4×4 especially in rain season, we stopped for lunch amidst amazing views of Brokopondo lake.
Then it was hiking time as we explored the jungle and headed for the Ireen waterfall. About 6.5km hike with 300m altitude gain and 2h net walking time.
The waterfall is a nice stop to refresh oneself though its didnt carry much water owing to dry season.
We spotted some monkeys in the trees and some birds and learned about trees and their fruit from Anne and Lisette.
Island life on Brokopondo lake
We left Brownsberg for our home island a little whike before sunset (sun is out 6.30am to 6.30pm here). In a village Affobakka, close to the dam carrying the same name, we stopped at a bar whike waiting for the boat and enjoyed a Parba djogo together. Eventually we ferried across.
The first night was much about a late dinner (tasty lentils & potato made in the local fashion). We all were tired.
Our only full day on the isalnd started with sunrise for me at 6.30am. Anne was there too to watch.
I was still pretty tired after a mosquito kept me awake at night. I brewed a coffee for Laura and myself and we went for an early morning swim. The lake ia very warm and the sweet water right up my street. We fell asleep again right after – you know, one of these really nice sleeps 😴😴😴
After lunch (red beans, chicken and rice) we tried our luck fishing. The lake is full of piranha’s, which as we found out later, taste supernice in particular when BBQed Caribbean style (like jerk chicken in Jamaica – grilled and smoked in a closed up BBQ set) or simpky fried. I got lucky once to catch one (sadly the only one). Great opportunity to inpect the razor sharp teeth of these predators although we learned from Sergio later that these are not the hyper-agressive little Piranha’s that hunt in schools (groups) and dismantle prey in a heartbeat.
Later we briefly popped over to the mainland for some shopping and returned to an amazing sunset – colours galore 🌈🌇
For dinner we had BBQ chicken, spinach from the forest (thanks Anne), bami (indonesian style noodles) and green beans called kouseband. Lekker 😋
That night, laura and i enjoyed watching the stars and listening to music near our house. Admittedly it was very romantic and bonding and chevere 😉 Plus, she is a great dancer after all. 💏 💃💞 🏝 ✨
Seems like i wasnt the only one though keen on spending time with laura, as one of the workers on the island kept on asking her for her facebook details (naturally behind my back) and walking about in her bikini seemed also like free a public peep show for these guys. Seems where they respect mother nature, they don’t embrace the same reapect for couples nor women. Sad, but i guess had to be expected.
Village life in Marchallkreek
And then the island time was up… Back to Marchallkreek to spend a bit more there. The big party for thanksgiving happened last night and we arrived too late for church (protestant), but enjoyed some manjok soup the women were still selling.
Once we had put up hammocks, Quaraisa and her sister picked us up for a bath in the creek. Refreshing. By the river was a lot of action as well. Women cleaned the pots and dishes, presumably from last nights celebrations. Others came to wash themselves. Loads of kids about also enjoying a play in the cool water.
Laura enjoyed her time with the kids and seemingly made a new friend with Quaraisa. We also met Tim – a french man who has been travelling the world for years seemingly getting by with his juggling, music and dance skills. Seems like the perfect companion for Anne.
The evening was mixed. On the one hand another example of zero respect towards women among the maroon men, as two guys basically popped by our camp and before exchanging any other word told (not asked) laura ‘you like me, right?’ and ignoring completely her case to be in a relationship. As i returned i overheard Lisette following up in dutch explaining respect for women – uphill struggle! Anyway, this farce ruined Laura’s mood.
On the other hand, laura’s new friend made a nice scrarf for her and a bracelet for both of us. Very sweet. Thanks a million!
Back to Paramaibo
Our first full night in the hammocks was far from relaxing. Mosquitos were a constant plague (Lisette and Sergio moved into their car having mosquito net). I also had some say technical issues and my constant movement during sleep made some noise. Need to practice this a bit more and there will be plenty opportunities i think
But it was nice to jump back into the creek for a morning swim and then explore the village a little more like the primary school and the agriforesting project of Sergio’s cousin nearby.
After almost 4 days out, we headed back to town. Anne and Tim will catch a lift on the theatre boat to Trinidad while Laura and I look forward to a night in an A/C room 🚿 🛏 🍻 1before the next trip begins.
The dolphin trip made us hungry to see more of the Suriname outside paramaibo. There were several one day tours on offer, but instead of paying up for what generally seem high prices over here, we rented bikes ourselves and headed for Peperpot reserve and afterwards Nieuw Amsterdam.
At 164000 sqkm it is the smallest sovereign state in South America. French Guiana is smaller (91000sqkm), but belongs to France. Some 500000 people live here made up of 27% east indians, 22% maroons, 16% creole, 14% javanese, 4% amerindians and a lot of mixed and other smaller ethic groups. Religion reflects the mixed population with 40% christian, 26% hindu and 19% muslim. Tribal spirituality also plays a major role for maroons.
The country was the last outpost of dutch colonial history until 1954 (originally swapped for manhatten /new york with the english – driving is still on the left hand side). This was followed by a 21y period of self governance before suriname became independent in 1975 – a moment many 50y+ aged surinamese used to resettle to holland.
Total population (‘000)
The president is pretty much a criminal with outstanding warrants for drug dealing in holland and for killing 15 regime critics in the December murders in 1980 – but law was changed in time for his renewed presidency to escape sentence.
The route led us out of town until a steep bridge crosses the Suriname river. Definately not made for walking nor cycling, but with great views of the city, river. And harbour from its top. Laura was sweating. From there you quickly turn left into a more rural street and suddenly cycling was a pleasure.
Peperpot is an old coffee plantation and now a nature reserve. We arrived one of the alternative park gates and cycled the c3km hiking trail through the forest. Nice ride though the only animals we saw were sadly on signposts on the wayside barring a few birds 😐
By the main entrance you then find a little info center (if you speak Dutch, otherwise pictures only) and, more importantly, cold refreshments 😊. Those were well deserved after some 12km in dead hot conditions.
The city is located on the riverbank opposite of paramaibo and a 12km cycle trip from pepperpot. To be frank we actually didnt see much here. The hot conditions called for immediate refreshments and later on a riverside lunch at Het Bastion.
The pricing was more or less Europe like and in USD with 10% mandatory service charge. But a very nice setting as we had the place to ourselves. Further, much to Laura’s liking there was an option to cross the river by boat and thus avoid the bridge we had to cross in the morning.
So all good until we had to pay. While we had checked that visa is fine, it didnt work with their card machine. I left my email and accommodation details and sorted the bill later – giving the cash to my guesthouse who had it taxi’d over to the restaurant. Hopefully the waiter didn’t get into too much trouble for his incorrect information 😬 (he would not remain the last one to make that mistake…).
By 5pm the water taxi arrived and we crossed the river (SRD40) to head back to the guesthouse. Time for a shower and dinner at yet another upmarket place – Bodega & Grill de Waag. Nite, nite…