Nestled between Suriname, Brazil, and Venezuela, Guyana isn’t often at the forefront of the conversation when it comes to South American destinations. In fact, it’s often mistaken for Ghana, the West African nation on the Gulf of Guinea. However, the 83,000-square-mile (214,970-square-kilometer) country boasts an impressive repertoire of unique sights, experiences, and culture. From making the world’s most expensive stamp and building one of the world’s tallest wooden churches to harboring El Dorado, the fabled lost city of gold, Guyana is full of surprises and a burgeoning frontier for ecotourism.
The country’s wealth, however, lies not exclusively in gold, but in biodiversity as well. Guyana’s extensive forests, mountains, waterfalls, and wide array of wildlife make it an ideal destination for eco-tourism, a relatively burgeoning industry that is changing the face of travel in the country.
With numerous eco-lodges and camping sites throughout its interior regions, Guyana is poised to succeed as an eco-tourism and adventure destination. The country boasts the highest single-drop waterfall in the world, a multi-purpose rainforest reserve, and a beach where endangered sea turtles come to nest every year. The country is embracing its natural wealth, opting to promote community-based nature travel rather than traditional tourism. Additionally, Guyana has witnessed the development of organizations such as CATS, a Community and Tourism Services group that is comprised of the Makushi tribe, a local indigenous community, the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, and two private tour and lodge operators.
Some of the best examples of Guyana’s eco-tourism offerings are outlined below.
The Iwokrama International Center was established in 1996 as a non-profit organization. Its goal is to manage the 1,430-square mile (3,710-square-kilometer) forest reserve in “a manner that will lead to lasting ecological, economic, and social benefits to the people of Guyana and the world in general.” In fact, Charles, the Prince of Wales, is a patron of the reserve. Tasked with balancing conservation and sustainable economic activity, Iwokrama is dedicated to furthering ongoing scientific research and developing relationships with the Indigenous communities in the area. The center manages four core businesses: ecotourism, selective timber harvesting, forest management training, and forest services.
Visitors can stay at the Iwokrama River Lodge, located within the reserve. The lodge offers activities such as boating, fishing, and swimming, as well as the opportunity to visit the Kurupukari Rapids and view the nearby petroglyphs. Turtle Mountain is also available to visitors, who can camp at its base or hike to its peak. Alternatively, guests can stay on-site and catch a glimpse of Sankar, the resident caiman, who is said to be older than the lodge itself.
The reserve also features the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, which consists of four viewing platforms in the heart of the forest 108 feet (33 meters) above the ground. Guests can also stay at the Atta Rainforest Lodge, which is also managed by CATS.
Surama, a five-square-mile (13-square-kilometer) Amerindian village located in the North Rupununi area of Guyana, is surrounded by the Pakaraima mountain range, the Burro Burro River, and miles of juxtaposing forest and savanna. Established in 1974, the Eco-Lodge is the epitome of community-based tourism in Guyana and has served as a success story and potential blueprint for other communities. The Amerindian Makushi people are the sole managers of the lodge, with a staff made up entirely of local villagers. As such, the lodge generates a significant portion of the village’s income.
Apart from offering a chance to experience Guyana’s wilderness, Surama has quickly gained recognition for its bird watching activities. Roughly 500 bird species can be found in the nearby forest, 72 of which are endemic to the Guiana Shield, a geographic region that encompasses South America’s northeastern coast. Surama is also home to species such as the capybara, giant river otter, tapir, jaguar, and numerous monkey species. Visitors can partake in guided hiking trips, village tours, river tours, and even wilderness-survival training.
In 2011, Surama Eco-Lodge was featured in National Geographic as one of the Best Hotels in Colombia, Venezuela, and Guyana. That same year, Surama was jointly awarded the Caribbean Tourism Association’s Caribbean Excellence in Sustainable Tourism.
Kaieteur Falls and Kaieteur National Park
While there are dozens of stunning waterfalls in the country, Kaieteur Falls is the highest single-drop waterfall in the world at 741 feet tall and 450 feet wide (225 meters by 137 meters). Kaieteur National Park was the first protected area established in Guyana and one of the first in all of South America.
Named after Old Kaie, the Toshao — or leader — of the Indigenous Amerindian Patamona Tribe, Kaieteur translates to “Kaie’s Falls.” Legend has it that Kaie canoed over the falls as a sacrifice to the gods to save his people from an invading tribe. Some say the rock formations next to the waterfall appear to form a face, and many locals and tourists agree that it could very well be Old Kaie’s face etched into the wall — a permanent reminder of his ultimate sacrifice.
The park itself is home to a number of rare species, among them the stunning Cock-of-the-Rock bird and the miniature Golden Frog. In 2017, researchers with the World Wildlife Fund discovered over 30 new species in Kaieteur National Park, including the Blue Tarantula.
Located in northwestern Guyana, Shell Beach is only accessible by boat. Once there, you’ll find the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society, which was created almost 30 years ago to “manage the ecosystem of the Shell Beach area by promoting the conservation and sustainable utilization of the resources of the area for the benefit of all stakeholders.”
Almond and Tiger Beach are two of the nine beaches that make up the 90-mile (144-kilometer) stretch of coastline denominated Shell Beach. They’re also the nesting spot for four of the eight species of sea turtles in the world — the Leatherback, the Hawksbill, the Olive Ridley and the Green Turtle. Over the years, the beach has become not only a popular tourist destination, but also a safe haven for these endangered creatures to lay their eggs. Its facilities may be basic, but its minimalism and peaceful silence complement the undomesticated beauty of the unspoiled coastline. The rangers trained to maintain the beaches and protect the turtles from poachers are all from the surrounding area and have grown up knowing that this stretch of coast is something special.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the area has fallen prey to coastal erosion and flooding and, in 2017, certain sections of the beach were closed indefinitely. However, it is still possible to visit the location, and efforts to protect the area continue. Visitors can refer to the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society to learn more about environmental initiatives in the area.
Excitement over the country’s natural wealth has begun to gain momentum as infrastructure improves and new tours and opportunities continue to be developed. Guyana’s sheer uniqueness never fails to astound — those who visit can find manatees in the National Park located in the city one day, a 10-foot-long (three-meter) Arapaima fish in the Essequibo River the next, and indulge in a thoroughly rejuvenating swim in one of the many coca-cola colored creeks the day after that.
So, if you’re looking to embark on a hands-on adventure and enjoy an abundance of natural wealth, consider adding Guyana to your bucket list. We’d be happy to have you.