French Guiana is an overseas territory of France and the only French speaking country in South America. Since it is not independent it is technically part of the EU and the Euro is the currency. It is a great country to explore, but expensive. It is equivalent to paying mainland France prices, for South American services. Even the fruit grown locally is expensive and while it is a treat to be able to buy French items in the grocery store, we definitely paid for it.
We visited French Guiana during the wettest time during the year, and believe me it was wet. They call it spagetti rain since the drops are so big and elongated. Every day we had several downpours and it was hard to keep things dry. On the flip side, we had all the water we wanted. At night we would leave the deck tank intake open and collecting water from just the starboard forward section of the deck resulted in about 50 gallons of water in our tanks every night. It saved some wear and tear on our water maker and even though the water maker can make river water into clean sweet water, there was always a little of an earthy odor that didn’t really appeal to us, so rain water was fantastic and we could use as much of it as we wanted.
The reason people come to French Guiana is to visit the space center in Kourou and the Penal colonies that are found throughout the country, the most notable being the islands around Devil’s Island. I’ve already written about the infamous Devil’s Island penal colony, but the country was littered with prisons and work camp sites. All prisoners came by boat from France to St. Laurent du Maroni and were processed and sent to different sites from there. The worst offenders and prisoners that tried to escape were sent to Devil’s. There were slim changes of escape from the French prisons. If a prisoner did escape there were bounty hunters throughout the region that would return them, the jungle was almost impassable and all the neighboring countries and tribes would also return an escapee for a bounty. Some prisoners even returned voluntarily after spending time on their own in the jungle. Everywhere you drive in French Guiana there are signs, off the road, in the jungle that point to another work camp for another group of prisoners. France separated their offenders and prisoners from their oversees colonies would be grouped together, so there might be a camp just for Vietnamese prisoners patrolled by guards from Senegal, or vice versa.
We visited the another major attraction in FG, the space center, before we left. Instead of taking the boat back 100 miles to Kourou, we decided it would be easier to rent a car and drive back. We watched the Russian Soyus rocket launch out of the Guiana Space Center. The rocket sent two European GPS equivalent satellites into space. 2/3 of the world’s communication launches are sent up from French Guiana because of the proximity to the equator. With the earth’s extra rotational speed at the equator a rocket launched here can use 17% less fuel to get a payload into orbit. The rocket we saw was impressive as the second largest rocket to be sent into space, and they issue gas masks for all observers within an 8 mile radius. Unfortunately for us, although we had reserved invitational seating, we couldn’t get that close because they didn’t allow children under 16 in to the closer viewing decks. Instead we were about 12 miles away and luck was not on our side at the actual moment of the launch. The clouds were so thick we couldn’t even see lift off, but we did hear the countdown and we could certainly hear lift off. We were all a bit disappointed, but about 10 degrees off the horizon the rocket cleared the clouds and we had a fantastic view of it from there on. It looked like a huge comet streaking across the sky. The launch was at 5:45am, so we still had some darkness to contrast with the rocket’s engines. We were even able to see the 4 primary booster rockets get jettisoned and fall back to earth. We were a tad disappointed at first at not seeing the liftoff, we had stayed in French Guiana specifically to watch the launch, we had to rent a hotel room, rent a car and get up at a God awful hour to see it, and although it wasn’t all it could have been, it was still a pretty awesome display of man’s ingenuity and we were happy we made the effort.
Finally our last expedition into the wilderness of French Guiana and on our last day in the country we drove an hour away at sunset, out to a beach at the mouth of the Maroni, in hopes of seeing Leatherback Sea Turtles lay their eggs. May and June are prime sea turtle egg laying times and with the fuller moon we thought this would be a great opportunity to try and see a sea turtle come ashore. There were a handful of other people out there as well as some rangers and we were lucky enough to see a huge 6 foot Leatherback Sea Turtle come ashore, dig her nest, deposit all her eggs and then cover them up. The whole process took about 2 hours and she was so tired you could hear her heavy breathing the whole time. We had been lucky enough to see an Olive Ridley turtle come ashore to lay in Mexico, but the Leatherback is about twice the size and it was fascinating to watch her. Statistically only one of the 50 or so eggs she lays will make it back as an adult to start the process all over. The villagers in the nearby town are encouraged to lock their dogs up during laying season and discouraged from harvesting the turtle eggs as they have traditionally always done, but between the stray dogs, pollution, fishing nets and normal predation, the sea turtles survival teeters on a very fragile slope. All over the world people try to help, and we actually saw rangers release a nest of turtles that had hatched elsewhere, but the turtle’s precious beaches are getting more polluted, the light pollution disorients them and development on the beaches are making their existence a precarious thing.
So, between Devil’s Island, the colonial city of St. Laurent, a turtle laying expedition and seeing a rocket launch we did almost everything you could do in French Guiana. Zander is still hoping to see a Harpie Eagle, a sloth, a jaguar and some poison dart frogs so we will see how we fare before we leave the Guyanas. One of the frustrating things, for me, about traveling by boat and covering so much vastly different ground is we can’t possibly carry guides for all the flora and fauna we see. It is pretty frustrating to see a new parrot, a new monkey, strange plant or reptile and not be able to ID it. I would love to have an app for all the different regions with plants, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, invertebrates and fish accounted for. We have a whole bookcase of guides, but it just doesn't scratch the surface of what we need. We did see Capuchin and squirrel monkeys, Agouti’s, toucans, macaws, the Blue Morpho butterfly, tarantulas and huge millipedes, as well as various unidentified parrots, bats and other birds.
We are now getting ready to sail the boat back down the Maroni and north 225 miles to British Guyana.
|That is the plan|
|checking out the canopy|
|we couldn't figure out why this island wasn't on the chart. It is a wreck|