Guyana is a small country on the north coast of South America east of Venezuela, north of Brazil and west of Suriname. It has the distinction of being the only English-speaking country in South America. It has the distinction of being the least visited non-island country in the Americas.
I picked Guyana because my friend Jeffrey was in the Peace Corps there. I figured that this would be the time to go: I could experience the country through the eyes of a friend and get to experience the village lifestyle. Flying to Guyana is neither easy nor cheap despite its relatively short distance from the US. The cheapest and most convenient routing involved booking three one-way flights on three different airlines, giving myself a day in Trinidad and two in Panama on the tail end. I booked my flights 11 weeks in advance.
Two days after booking my flight (and past the 24 hour cancellation window), I received terrible news: that Jeffrey was being evacuated from the country due to a personal dispute in his village. He said that I should still visit and gave me a list of suggestions. Jeffrey suggested a trek to Kaieteur Falls. After asking different operators on dates, I settled on Dagron Tours’ 4-day excursion. They said I was the only person on the tour. While I would have to pay a good deal more than the listed price, I would be guaranteed to be the only tourist at the Falls, which they said is a once-in-a-lifetime treat. The payment and logistics were finalized 2 weeks before the trip.
On December 23rd, I flew out from LA and had some adventures in Trinidad before heading onward to Guyana.
December 25, 2016: Land of Many Waters
Caribbean Airlines Flight 526 touched down at Cheddi Jagan International Airport at 3:30 pm on Christmas Day. “Welcome to Guyana, Land of Many Waters” the flight attendant said. We then deplaned on a staircase onto the tarmac. The humidity grabbed me as I walked into the airport building.
At immigration, the office asked me “How did you find out about Guyana?” Like it’s a huge secret that this country exists. I responded that my friend was in the Peace Corps and she said nodded.
After claiming my luggage, I was met my Khadir who worked with the tour company drove me into Georgetown- an hour away. The two-lane road was lined with colonial-style wooden houses, various houses of worship, a rum distillery, and a cricket stadium. There were also a lot of animals wandering around and we almost ran over a few drunk people. There were also a ton of potholes. Luckily Khadir knew where they all were and avoided them with ease. We entered Georgetown and headed to the Sleepin’ International Hotel. Khadir dropped me off and told me that I would be picked up around 8am. “In the meantime, stay safe,” he said.
The hotel staff also recommended that I do not leave the premises at night. The sun was about to set, which meant I was essentially under house arrest for the next 12 or so hours. Luckily, the hotel had a pool, bar and restaurant to entertain me.
I went to the bar and ordered a Banks beer and pepper pot- an Amerindian stew- for dinner. The lady next to me was into her phone and did not want to even make small talk with me. The guy on my other side turned out to be awesome. Originally from Guyana, he just retired in the US and is now traveling around the world. He is going to Guyana for 2 weeks then to Argentina to see his daughter then all over South America. He bought me three beers because they were so much cheaper here than in America.
I got tipsy and decided to call it in early since tomorrow was going to be a big day.
December 26, 2016: DEEP Into the Jungle
The next morning at 8am, I met my guide, Omar, in the hotel lobby. Omar was Amerindian and an off-duty ranger at Kaieteur National Park. He also guided Prince Harry’s royal trip to the falls.
We walked over to Georgetown’s famous Staebrook Market and found the minibuses heading to Mahdia. We quickly got into a 12-seater minibus. The bus was painted in the flag of Guyana on the outside. On the inside, there were pictures of scantily clad women and bus rules including “No Smoking” and “Tip the Driver”.
We then waited for 2 hours for the driver to get more passengers. There were other buses going to Mahdia, so our driver had to argue and sometimes literally pull people away from the other bus drivers and into our bus. By the time we left, there were 6 people in the bus- all middle-aged men except me. Despite the sign, one guy-wearing a pink long-sleeved t-shirt- was smoking inside the bus.
Around 10:15, we finally departed. As we were leaving the city, we ran into a roadblock and were forced to bribe the police. Normally, these police tell you there’s something wrong with your car and will either give you a price for a ticket with or without a receipt. In this case, however, the cop plainly asked for a bribe, which we gave. Corruption seems to be a major problem in Guyana- every single person I talked to said it was bad.
An hour-ish into the drive, we passed by the mining town of Linden- the former home of my friend Jeffrey.
We then crossed the Demarara River on a floating bridge and suddenly the road turned to dirt and mud. Civilization was nowhere to be found- this was the jungle. We continued on for another 2 hours until we passed a random house. There, a beautiful lady walked out and into the front seat of the van. She smelled nice. I wondered how someone could look so put-together and stay clean while living in a hut in the middle of the jungle.
45 minutes later, we reached the logging camp of Mabura. The van stopped and we got out and walked into a government building where I showed the officer my passport and Guyanese entry stamp. We then walked over to a nearby café and got lunch- river fish and rice.
Another 45 minutes through the jungle led us to the mighty Essequibo River. The dirt road here was slightly better than before. There, we caught a ferry across along with all the other Georgetown-Mahdia busses.
From there, it was another hour and a half through the jungle until we reached Mahdia. The sun had set and it was now dark. I was exhausted from all the bumps on the dirt road. Madhia reminded me of a California Gold Rush town, except it was full of people. I would assume it is a rowdy place. I stayed in the van while Omar arranged our next transportation leg. It was raining pretty hard.
Eventually, Omar dragged me towards a pickup truck. We got in and set off along another dirt road through the pouring rain.
The truck ride went through some major puddles and over huge bumps. In some places, the road was so steep that we drove over small waterfalls and cascades. The jungle was thick- it felt as if we were traveling through a tunnel of greenery.
After an hour of this, we reached lights and got out of the truck in a tiny village with two structures. One was two stories and was built into a hillside. We couldn’t see it, but we reached the Potaro River, gateway to Kaieteur.
I hung out in a restaurant where Amerindian children were playing pool as Caribbean rap blasted on the loudspeakers. Omar explained that he wanted us to take a boat 45 minutes upriver. I did not want to press on- as I did not feel comfortable going on a boat up a dark river at night. I also wanted to see the scenery during the day.
Omar responded by saying he did not feel “secure” in this village. Disappointed, I gave him the okay to find a boat.
We waited for 20 minutes until a light crossed the water. It was the boat captain who said he was done for the day. We were sleeping here after all.
We convinced some Rasta men to let us stay with them in their hut. Omar set up my hammock and made dinner- canned tuna and bread before we all went to sleep. I was in the hammock. Omar and the two Rasta men were sleeping directly below me. The whole night I could hear them moving and could feel their breath. It was one of the most uncomfortable nights (certainly not the most) I have ever endured.
It was certainly an eventful and unexpected day, but I was getting the adventure I sought.
December 27, 2016: Even Deeper into the Jungle
I woke up early and the Rasta men were gone. Omar was still asleep. My belongings were perfectly safe.
Walking outside, I was shocked to realize that we were in a huge clearing of trees- not in the middle of the jungle as I had thought.
We walked down to the river and caught a boat.
It was a very fast ride. Omar was completely in the wrong for wanting to put me on this boat last night. There was so much to see and it would have been totally unsafe to go in this at night with no lights.
We wound up the pristine river. The boat was going so fast that I actually felt cold.
Eventually, we reached a small but powerful waterfall that stopped our progress. We conveniently pulled over to the side of the river and disembarked at a town.
I walked up a footpath and was shocked to see buildings and trucks. I still have no idea how the trucks made it here. Omar said the locals would ferry the trucks across the river on wooden rafts. Unbelievable!
We met a very nice lady from Brazil. She made us pastries and Omar cut up a pineapple. The lady asked me what I thought of Trump. When I put my head in my hands, she joked that he is going to probably try to build a wall through the Potaro River. She also talked about mining. Apparently the Chinese have set up mining camps here, but do not let the Guyanese work in the camps nor share in the profits. She would like to see the Chinese expelled and have locals work in the mines so they can have jobs. It seems like most people that I have met believe that mining is the path for Guyana to become a rich nation.
The lady then told me that Guyana is much nicer and prettier than Brazil. However, she took out her flip phone and showed me a picture of her adult daughter wearing nothing but a string bikini. “You’ll find lots of women like this in Brazil. Maybe you should take a visit.” I said she made a compelling argument.
We then walked 10 minutes until we reached a permanent jungle camp set up at the top of the falls. A man named Jeff ran the camp and also ran boats upriver. Jeff had to run some errands first, so we had some time to kill.
Jeff’s wife made us a second breakfast- saltfish and a pastry called bake.
She asked if I had any kids. When I told her no, she explained that she started having kids at age 15. She had 12 kids, but lost 9 of them to malaria. That’s why she now lives in a part of the jungle without malaria.
Jeff’s wife then played some reggae oldies on the speakers. I strung up a hammock and took a nap for about an hour.
Jeff returned, we packed up the boat and headed off. Our crew had 5 people: Omar, Jeff, Jeff’s wife, Jeff’s friend, and me. This boat was noticeably smaller and slower than the last boat. I was able to keep my hat on the entire time.
The scenery was changing- we were moving into a mountainous region.
About an hour into the boat ride, we stopped at a mining camp along the river. Jeff asked to borrow a screwdriver to fix our engine. They said sure and Jeff went to work on the engine. The family at the camp asked Jeff where he was headed. “Kaieteur” he responded. They replied “ahhh we have got to go there. People come from all around the world to see it but we still haven’t seen it even though it’s in our own backyard!” While not surprising, I’m actually impressed by these people’s self-awareness. I remember once getting stranded in Williams, Arizona- the closest town to the Grand Canyon and heard that almost none of the locals have seen the canyon or care to see the canyon.
We got back in the boat and continued upstream. Omar noticed a side stream blocked by fallen trees and was concerned. We parked the boat and took a makeshift trail. We then hitched a ride from a shirtless kid on a raft to cross the stream into an active gold mine.
This was a strip mine.
Omar plowed ahead of me and I followed him from afar to inspect the camp and take pictures. The miners were unfazed by my presence and kept mining. They sprayed hoses into the colorful earth. Then they would collect the mud and siphon it up tubes where it would be filtered. Hopefully, they would discover gold and diamonds.
The miners were for the most part quite friendly. They laughed as my boots got stuck in the mud and directed me to firmer ground. One guy taunted me and asked if I wanted to take all the gold and diamonds back to Florida. Not sure whether to take this as a threat, I said no, please keep your gold and diamonds.
After the inspection, Omar approached the head of the camp and explained that this was illegal because it was within the 1km buffer of Kaieteur National Park. They disputed our claim and yelled at us to leave. So we left.
Unfortunately, the raft was on the other side of the river, so Omar swam across to fetch it. We then continued on our way.
About 1km later, we reached another waterfall that impeded our progress. This time, we had to portage the boat and carry it around the waterfall. The established boat trail had some small logs already there. After detaching the engine and moving our stuff, we started to pull the boat. We pulled for about 200 meters passed a sign reading “Entering Kaieteur National Park”.
We then waited for a rainstorm to pass before reassembling the boat and heading upstream.
Now the gorge was quite steep on both sides. Giant waterfalls started to appear in the cliffs. We boated for another 45 minutes until we reached yet another waterfall impeding our progress. This time we pull over and ditched the boat for real. We said goodbye to Jeff and his friend and headed off to the nearby wooden lodge called Tukeit.
There Omar made chow mein for lunch.
Kaieteur Falls was near. All that was between us was a 2-hour hike up Oh My God Mountain- named for its steepness. With full stomachs, we headed off into the jungle.
The steep uphill started immediately. The combination of heat, humidity, and effort caused sweat to pour onto my face. It got so bad that I used my hat as a towel. Eventually, it was essentially soaked.
The trail was so steep that I did indeed say “Oh My God”.
After 90 minutes of straight uphill, we finally reached the top. Another 30 minutes of hiking led us to the Boy Scout Viewpoint of the falls. Unfortunately, Kaieteur is so powerful that it creates its own fog so it was impossible to see the falls from here.
We then walked over to the visitor center to check in. After all Omar and I went through, it was strange to see such clean and well-dressed people.
We then walked over to the Rainbow Viewpoint, the closest view of the falls. Finally, I saw it: Kaieteur.