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 🤔😉🚘
Back to Paramaribo … Oh no, flat tyre… 😕