When looking for places to travel in late October, I discovered $500 roundtrip flights to Suriname, a tiny Dutch-speaking country in the north of South America. Having been to adjacent Guyana back in 2016, I was eager to return to this unique and less-known part of the world.
Suriname is notoriously difficult to reach. There are no nonstop flights to the US and the only ways from Los Angeles to avoid changing airlines (which would involve booking two different roundtrip flights) is to fly either via Panama City, Miami (with an extra stop in Trinidad, Aruba or Guyana) or Amsterdam (yes, that would involve two trans-Atlantic flights). The Amsterdam flight runs every day, but the Panama City flight is just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays, making a trip here incredibly inefficient if working a M-F schedule. Adding insult to injury, the return flight back to Panama lands too late in the day to connect so it would involve an overnight stay in Panama. “Luckily” for me, I am currently unemployed and could fly on any day of my choosing. Additionally, I have friends in Panama, making the overnight layover more than palatable.
I booked an itinerary leaving on a Thursday night (for the Friday flight) and returning on the Tuesday flight getting me back to LA that next Wednesday.
Suriname is best known for two things: the Dutch colonial history centered around the capital Paramaribo and the untouched Amazon jungle in the country´s interior. I knew I could see the capital independently but needed the help of a tour company to get to the jungle. I found Jenny´s Tours which organizes dozens of types of tours around Suriname. Most tours require a minimum number of people to run the tours. I asked if there were any tours that already had the minimum number of participants and worked with my dates and was told there was a 3-day jungle tour going to Fredberg. While I originally wanted to only spend 2 days in the jungle, they said that this tour was special. Additionally, a fellow traveler I met on a flight to the Gambia years ago just so happened to publish a blog post on his trip to Suriname/Fredberg and said it was epic. So, I decided to trust them and book. Everything was handled via WhatsApp, and I wire transferred the $300 about a week before the trip.
October 27, 2023: Country 89
After 10 hours of flying plus a 3-hour layover in Panama, I landed at Suriname´s Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport, the country´s main gateway around 16:00. Normally, on an international flight, most of the people look a certain way or are of a certain race. But this flight struck me because of its diversity: I saw people from Australia, the United States, Argentina, Turkey, and the Philippines. Immigration took more than an hour because the daily Amsterdam flight landed just minutes before ours but I eventually made it through and officially into my 89th country!
I heard there was a twice-daily airport bus that goes into the city for less than $1. However, the cab companies and airport employees would not tell me where the bus leaves from. After getting no help, I asked a taxi company for the price of a ride into the city and was told $35. I tried splitting the ride for a bit but found no takers. Despite having paid for an entire taxi, my driver was greedy and was attempting to convince a Dutch man who already had a ride to go with me. While this all happened, the bus departed from a parking lot on the far side of the building. Tired of the games, I started talking to a rival taxi company at which point a man approached me and offered me a ride for $30 to leave right away. I took him up on the offer.
Howard was already driving a Dutch Surinamese woman to her home on the outskirts of town and received permission from her to also take me so he could get some extra income.
The drive into the city took 90 minutes. Partly this is because the airport is 50 kilometers from the city but also because the roads is just two lanes and full of traffic. Apparently, the traffic is omnipresent.
I checked into my hostel (the only one in Suriname), got dinner at a nearby restaurant and went to bed after a very long journey.
October 28, 2023: Journey to Mountaintop
At 8:00, I arrived at the offices of Fred Eco Tours. It turns out that Jenny´s Tours simply acted as a middleman for this particular tour. Eventually the rest of the group showed up. We were 18: three Dutch travel nurses, ten Dutch medical students, two Dutch tourists, two French teachers living in French Guiana, and one Bryce. As a former Dutch colony, Suriname is a popular place for Dutch aid workers. The hospitals here are way worse than in the Netherlands and lack resources. For this reason, having Dutch medical aid workers and doctors-in-training is a win-win. The hospitals get staffing, and the Dutch workers get training and a unique life experience. A similar relationship exists between Metropolitan France and French Guiana. Thankfully, everybody spoke English.
We set out in a Chinese bus graced by an ad for a defunct bowling alley. Here we formally met our guide who explained the history of Fredberg. In 2014, Fred was a 25-year-old Maroon tour guide who was flying with customers from Paramaribo to the south of the country. On the flight, he noticed a large granite monolith and thought it would be a nice place to take tourists. After three attempts, he made it to the mountaintop and, like he had imagined, the views were incredible. After securing the land from a logging company, he founded Fred Eco Tours and started to take groups to the mountain, which he named Fredberg (Dutch for Fred Mountain). Nine years later, Fred is 34 and runs the most popular tour in all of Suriname.
Our drive to Fredberg would take 5.5 hours including two stops. Our first stop was at a Chinese-run grocery store. The second was at a gas station with a small market. There, our guide gave us a snack of fried plantains with a peanut dipping sauce – a true fusion food.
After four hours of driving, we turned onto a dirt road. From here it was only 16 kilometers to our next stop. However, the road was in terrible shape and it took 90 minutes to go those 16 kilometers, as planned.
It was now 12:45 by the time we reached the Fredberg base came. This was an eco-lodge set up by Fred is where we would spend our second night. We ate lunch along with the groups one and two days ahead of us. We also repacked our bags for our night in the mountain. We were only allowed to bring a hammock (given to us by the company), long sleeve shirt, headlamp, toothbrush/paste and 3 liters of water. Everything else would stay at the base camp.
At 3:00, we headed back on the bus to go another 8 kilometers to the start of our hike to the mountain. That ride took 45 minutes and in addition to the bumpy dirt road, we traversed over log bridges!
At 3:45, we arrived and split into two groups: the students and the “old people”. My group headed off to a clay lick to look for the rare “cock on the rock” bird. When we arrived, there were two. Normally, I do not really understand birdwatching, but these giant bright orange birds were special.
We then continued to hike for two more hours through the jungle. The 38-degree heat was brutal, but luckily, we were in shade for nearly the entire hike. It was interesting to see the shifts in the landscape: some areas had much taller trees than others.
Eventually, we reached the base of Fred Mountain. The hike up was strenuous and involved holding onto some railings, but we made it. We dropped our bags off in the summit camp and headed to a viewpoint to watch the sunset and gawk at the endless virgin jungle.
The students had already made it and were chilling and listening to chill house music and John Mayer/Jack Johnson types of songs. I laid down on the granite, which was warm. We all agreed that even if we had to turn back to Paramaribo right now, it would all have been worth it for this moment.
After the sunset, we set up our hammocks. Interestingly, there were no mosquitos on the mountaintop, so we did not need any bug spray.
For dinner, the chef made pasta with an alFREDo sauce. Afterwards, I chatted with the cook who explained to be a bit about Maroon culture. Maroons are the descendants of African slaves who then escaped into the jungle. The slaves lived off the land and created a unique culture based on an amalgamation of African cultures as they came from different tribes and different parts of the continent. Their time in slavery caused them to forget some details of the culture and the new environment forced them to adapt. Marrons speak a creole language with many African words and most people practice a religion called Winti, a form of animism based off various African religious beliefs. There are currently six district tribes and each one speaks a different language and practices a slightly different version of the religion. Fred and all the staff are from the Saramaka tribe.
While many of the Maroon beliefs and traditions are kept hidden from the outside world, one piece of culture that has permeated mainstream Surinamese society is the pangi, a loincloth worn over the shoulder. The history of the pangi dates to slavery when slaves were given a single piece of cloth to wear. Every year on October 10, there is a holiday called Maroon Day when everybody in the country wears pangis and celebrates Maroon culture.
Exhausted from the long day, I went to sleep on the hammock around 22:00.
October 29, 2023: A Sunrise to Remember
At 6:00 we were woken up by the guides to see the sunrise. We walked to a different viewing area on the east side of the mountain that had an unobstructed view of the endless green Amazonian canopy carpet. The Dutch students chose a spot close to camp but I opted to hike along the granite to find a secluded area with a more straight-on view of the scenery.
As the sun started to rise, vibrant reds and then oranges and then yellows started to appear in the clouds. Slowly the jungle began to awaken.
The sun officially rose at 6:22 and all I could think of was Circle of Life from The Lion King. Everything the light touches is our kingdom, Simba!
We hung around camp until 10:00 and then started the hike down. This time we proceeded at a leisurely pace. Along the way, we stopped to swing on branches and look for wildlife. While we did not see anything, the student group found a snake.
At 12:30, we had reached the pickup spot and by 1:15 we were back at the base camp just in time for lunch.
After lunch, we checked into our rooms and started to explore.
The base camp is located on a river that, due to the drought, was very low. The benefit of the low water levels was that the water was extra warm.
We wandered barefoot up the river- a mix of ponds and sand – for about 400 meters. Eventually we reached another swimming spot where we hung out for a couple of hours.
Back at the camp, the “old people” group played Uno and drank a bunch of beers before dinner.
After dinner, the guides set up a fire and invited the students to a dance party. Seeing dancing, I had to join in.
First, every person had to learn a short maroon dance which involved chanting and a lot of hip thrusting and wiggling. To build confidence we took shots of the local rum. Luckily this was the 40% version of the rum but there are also 60% (120 proof) and 90% (180 proof) versions which is insane.
After we all danced in front of the group, the guides scooped up the fire in a shovel and moved it into a more spacious lawn on the other side of the lodge. There we formed a circle and followed the lead of the staff as we danced to Maroon and modern Surinamese music. Maroon dancing reminds me of grinding with somebody at the club except there is no somebody – it’s just you. I laughed because hip thrusting around a fire with Dutch medical students was most certainly not on my Suriname bingo card.
I went to bed around 23:00 after more than two hours of dancing.
October 30, 2023: A Chill Day in the Jungle
Despite the late night, I managed to rally for the group´s 6:30 wildlife walk. The biggest highlight turned out to be a monkey which appeared in camp before we even started the walk, but we did get to see a few birds including a toucan. Wildlife walks in the Amazon are real hit or miss and I personally just enjoyed being in nature and did not care about the birds.
We then ate breakfast, which consisted of six different types of bread and some cucumbers to make you feel better about yourself after eating so many carbs.
The rest of the morning was spent swimming in the river. We were supposed to have lunch at 12, but it was delayed an hour until the group arrived from Paramaribo. Before we could leave, the bus needed to drop this group off at the trailhead and then return to pick us up. This process took 90 minutes, so we did not leave until 16:00, arriving in Paramaribo slightly after 21:00.
There´s no other way to say it: Fredberg was epic!
The highlight should have been the view from the top, especially at sunrise, but it ended up being the Maroon dancing. The scenery everywhere was so beautiful and it felt special knowing you are so far in the jungle. The journey (yes including the long bus) also made the trip special and feel like a real adventure. In addition, it was fun for me to meet all the other travelers and staff members and to learn about the Dutch, Maroon, and French Guiana cultures. My guess is I will have met more Dutch people in these three days than I will on my inevitable trip to the Netherlands.
If going to Suriname, I cannot think of a better use of three days than going to Fredberg.