A true oddity in many ways, French Guiana, or ‘Guyane’ in French (sometimes also spelled French Guyana – in analogy to Guyana
, the former British Guiana) is the only francophone part of South America
. If it were a proper independent county it would also be the smallest one on the South American cone. But it isn’t a country of its own; politically it is classed as a ‘département
(i.e. effectively it’s the last colony in South America). As such, and despite the geographical distance of a few thousand miles, it is legally part of the European Union
(with the euro its currency) and is administered from the French motherland, on which it is also heavily dependent.
In terms of dark tourism, it is the fact that France
used this far-away tropical place as a penal colony
for almost a whole century from the mid-1800s until just after WWII
. The brutality of the penal colony regime came to the wider world’s attention especially though the book and movie “Papillon
”. The most infamous part of the system, Devil’s Island had already become known through the Dreyfus affair. But that was only a small part of the penal colony system. Today two main sites remain and have partly been commodified
Thanks to this dark legacy as a penal colony, French Guiana is probably the least obscure and internationally unknown of the “Three Guianas” (the other two being Suriname
, the former Dutch Guiana, and Guyana
, the former British counterpart). Another reason is that from the 1960s it became the main “spaceport” for Europe, namely the rocket-launch facilities of Kourou
French Guiana’s earlier history
is closely tied up with that of the other Guianas. As the Spanish
left this inaccessible part of South American coast untouched it was for the Dutch
to scramble over it. France ended up with the south-easternmost chunk, also the smallest. Initial attempts by Europeans at establishing a foothold were thwarted by the natives who fended them off … and by the sheer inhospitableness of the hot and humid environment full of disease and a hostile flora and fauna.
too had its part in colonialism
and plantations, here this had less effect on the landscape – especially compared to the coastal strips of its western neighbours. In Suriname
large tracts of the inland just off the coast are visibly marked by the squares of the sugar cane plantation fields – and the drainage canals that made them possible. You can clearly make these out on Google Maps as you scan along the coastal lands. But in French Guiana you’ll hardly find any of that. Instead the coast is still mostly characterized by swampy mangroves.
Still, and just as in the other Guianas, only the coastal strip is inhabited and partly developed and it’s here that almost all the infrastructure is – the hinterland has only the occasional Amerindian or Maroon settlement, but over 90% of the inland Amazonian rainforest is largely untouched and uncharted – the largest proportion of any country in this region. Unfortunately, illegal gold mining (mostly by Brazilians sneaking in in large numbers) is currently threatening this state of affairs, but the French are trying to curb this development.
Given that France
abolished slavery earlier than its neighbours and didn’t import indentured labourers to the scale Suriname
did, the ethnic mix
of the population is not quite as diverse here. A majority of the only ca. 300,000 people in total that make up the population are Caribbean, either born in the country or from other Caribbean territories, especially Haiti, i.e. blacks. Whites constitute only about 14%, and are mostly from Europe rather than born here. In the inland, Amerindians and Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves) dominate the sparse population. There are also a few Asian immigrants, esp. Chinese and a ca. 2000-strong group of Hmong from Laos, who settled here as refugees in 1977 in the wake of the Vietnam War
. Interestingly, it is this latter group that is the most active in agriculture, providing the bulk of the home-grown fruit and veg to the country.
, French Guiana has always been heavily dependent on
. The upkeep of this colony costs the Grand Nation a fortune, but there is no sign of it letting go of this far-away land. Instead France has put a clear stamp on the local culture. Not just linguistically, but also in the architecture, the traffic signs, the institutions & bureaucracy and even the cuisine. One of my favourite lines from John Gimlette’s book about the Guianas
is this: “Sometimes it seemed that the sole purpose of Guyane was just to be French” (p 293). That was pretty much an impression I also got.
a main reason for this insistence on Frenchness is of course Kourou
. The spaceport
was established in 1964 as Europe’s (and in particular France
’s) answer to the American
NASA and the Soviet
, now Russian
, space agency. It was from here that the European Space Agency ESA started launching its “Ariane” rockets. Why here in this far-away land? Answer: the location is almost exactly on the equator, and right on a barely inhabited coast of the Atlantic
. Launching from the equator is an astrophysical advantage (basically exploiting the fact that the Earth’s rotation is fastest on the equator, providing an extra “boost”) that outweighs all the logistic complications that come with having to ship in all the technology, rockets and machinery for producing rocket fuel on site, etc., not to mention the personnel and their housing. In fact the staff are predominately white Europeans – and the local non-white majority population call them “le métros”, and their secured living districts in Kourou “le village blanc”, the ‘white village’. Indeed, the spaceport is mainly a white business largely bypassing the non-white population, which causes some hard feelings amongst many of the locals, yet they too ultimately benefit from Kourou’s presence in that it keeps Guyane French – and this brings benefits, not just quite literally (e.g. for childcare), but also in that the “Guyanais and Guyanaises” can vote in, and even settle in France, Europe, which quite a few have actually done.
The launch facilities of Kourou have expanded over the decades and this included Russia
also launching Soyuz rockets from here (partly to reduce its reliance on Baikonur
- [UPDATE: but now Russia has its own space port and would most likely not be able to use Kourou any longer in any case because of the war it launched in Ukraine in February 2022; so I presume the Soyus pad at Kourou is history]).
Indeed about half the world’s commercial satellites have been launched from Kourou! So in that sense it’s hard to overstate the importance of French Guiana for the modern world. However, in so many other respects it remains “terra incognita”. Not only literally, given all the uncharted jungle inland, but also in terms of tourism. Guyane sees only about 10,000 visitors annually who come here for leisure, not for science or on business, or on administrative or police/military postings. And almost all of these tourists come from France or French-speaking Belgium. When I visited I did not encounter a single other non-French speaker (apart for one guide at Kourou, who was originally from Britain, but conducted the tour in French nonetheless – see below).
On my summer 2019 trip
to the Guianas I came to French Guiana overland
and spent three days/nights here. This was also organized by my Guyana-based operators Wilderness Explorers (see under Guyana
!) and, as elsewhere, they did a brilliant job and everything worked smoothly. My wife and I were dropped off by our Surinamese guide at Albina on the border river
, called Marowijne in Dutch, and Maroni in French. From there we got a river boat to take us across the miles-wide river to a landing stage on the French side. There we were met by our Guyanaise guide, a local called Gladys who had spent many years abroad in English-speaking countries such as Australia
, and whose English was therefore perfect – and given my own extremely limited knowledge of French, this was an important asset. Our driver was also very competent – and the car a big modern BMW limousine. The border formalities were swift, and so we were soon off, first for a lunch break.
The incongruous Europeanness – and Frenchness
– in this tropical oddity became very obvious quickly. The roads were noticeably better, everything was signposted and labelled in French of course, the shops stocked baguette and garlic, and the lunch we had in a restaurant overlooking the river was outstanding in quality, and you could order a “pichet” of wine with it at reasonable prices (very much in contrast to Suriname
). Moreover, since we had technically entered the EU, we were back to European phone tariffs, i.e. we could use free calls minutes to phone friends & family in Europe – from across the Atlantic! We were actually quite smitten with Guyane from the onset.
We then visited
the Camp de la Transportation
in St-Laurent du Maroni
and after that drove to Kourou
for an overnight stay before our excursion to the Îles du Salut
. On our return and after another night in Kourou, the final thing we did in Guyane was visiting the spaceport, which is arguably the main visitor attraction other than the Îles du Salut and the jungle and wildlife.
The Kourou spaceport is officially called CSG – short for ‘centre spatial guyanais’, i.e. Guiana Space Centre. If the launch schedule allows, you can visit the facilities on guided tours, which is what we did. There’s some paperwork and security to clear, then visitors board a coach and are driven into the vast complex of cleared jungle around which the various launch pads and assembly buildings are dotted. The tour is only available in French, but our Guyanaise guide provided some translations. It later turned out that the guy who was delivering the narration on the bus and at various stops in fluent and accent-free French (as far as I could tell) was actually from Britain – and as the group of French visitors watched an intro film about Kourou at the Ariane launch control centre, he took us aside in the adjacent corridor and gave us a summary of the key points in English and also answered question. One of my questions was whether there had been any accidents with rockets at Kourou. Indeed there had been – and one involving a Vega rocket had happened only weeks earlier. But none resulted in any fatalities, just structural damage. That’s why I did not give Kourou a separate chapter here as a dark-tourism sight.
The first stop was at the Soyuz launch pad, where everything was labelled in Russian – in addition to French and some English. It was very quiet at the time, no rocket was there, and so we were allowed to get out of the bus and stand opposite the launch pad right on the concrete exhaust duct that would be filled with fire during an actual launch. I noticed the four lattice-steel towers connected by cables at the top that surround the launch pad – this, it was explained, is to create an approximation of a ‘Faraday cage’, to intercept any lightning. Obviously, given the presence of vast amounts of extremely flammable chemicals for rocket fuel, lightning strikes pose one of the principal risks when operating a spaceport in such a tropical environment.
We also visited a Vega launch pad, and the Ariane launch control centre, and finished at the main CSG control centre which doubles up as an auditorium for visitors during launches. In fact it is possible to witness launches as a visitor from special viewpoints too, but the logistics are complicated, and of course there is never a guarantee that the launch schedule can be kept (e.g. adverse weather can cause delays), so this is not easy to plan. But people say that it is a cool sight to see the fiery streaks of a rocket ascending into the night sky in an arch right over the Îles du Salut (you can find plenty of images of this online).
Finally we visited the attached museum
, which provided a good overview of the European space programmes and the development of the Ariane rocket, but also covered the Soviet
history of the “space race”, including the moon landings.
After Kourou we went for another outstanding lunch – and you really have to give the French this: they made the most of the local Caribbean ingredients and culinary skills (and in Europe I’m not even that fond of French cuisine, but here it was a relief and a revelation). Then we were dropped off again at the landing stage at St-Laurent du Maroni and got a boat back to Suriname
What I did not get to see in French Guiana is the capital
and largest settlement, Cayenne
, which I gathered can be a bit “rough” (whether the name derives from the eponymous type of hot pepper or vice versa is contested; the homophony may well be purely coincidental). Nor did I get to the eastern parts on the Brazilian border, or deeper into the hinterland – that’s because I had reserved inland exploration in the region mostly for Guyana
, so see there.
All in all
, these were some fantastic three days! Not only were they very fruitful in terms of my dark-tourism fieldwork (Îles du Salut
and Camp de la Transportation
) but were also just a joy. The cultural contrasts between the European/Frenchness and the location were the most memorable aspect. And make no mistake: it may all be very, very French, but this is still the Wild Coast and the climate is unforgiving. Nowhere have I ever sweated so much – and that’s despite the heat being only in the region of 30–33 degrees centigrade, but it’s the humidity, often up to 90%, that makes it hard. Basically the slightest exertion makes you sweat profusely. So you have to drink 4–5 litres of water a day and change clothes at least twice. Mornings and evenings are OK, but daytime is sweltering. No wonder the locals take long siestas at midday …
Travel to French Guiana
is of course also possible independently
, provided you French is good enough. Guyane’s international airport south of the capital Cayenne is connected to Paris
, by daily scheduled flights
with the French national carrier. These flights tend to be on the expensive side, though (I guess all the ESA money for subsidized scientists pushes the prices up), so if you’re planning to visit neighbouring Suriname
– or Brazil – as well, travelling from there may work out better. Flights to Suriname from Amsterdam
tend to be somewhat more affordable. Flying in via Brazil can also be an option. At least at the time I was researching this there were no flights
to either Suriname
from/to French Guiana! But you can travel overland, either by bus or by organizing a driver with a car between the border post on the Maroni River in St-Laurent du Maroni and Cayenne or Kourou. There is now also a single land border-crossing point
, namely with Brazil
, by means of a newly constructed bridge over the Oyapock
River, which finally opened after long bureaucratic delays in 2017.
!) within French Guiana can be quite shockingly high
, especially for accommodation
. On average these are higher than in Paris! Budget options are scarce. On the other hand, food & drink
can be more affordable than in France
and of good quality, and you get imported products with ease, as well as local fruit & veg and, in particular, fish (river fish especially). French Guiana doesn’t have the same degree of a rum production tradition as its western neighbours, but it exists on a smaller scale. What I found to my greatest surprise was that Guyane produces some craft beers these days (mostly Belgian
in style), also small scale, but I really wouldn’t have expected this in this tropical and humid climate …
- Guyane 1 - very French, very European
- Guyane 2 - French products in the shops
- Guyane 3 - good food
- Guyane 4 - pricey hotels
- Guyane 5 - crossing the Maroni River
- Guyane 6 - wild coast
- Guyane 7 - rain forest on the ocean edge
- Guyane 8 - mangroves and space port facilities
- Guyane 9 - leaf-cutter ants in the jungle
- Kourou 1 - mock-up Ariane rocket
- Kourou 2 - registration point for the tour
- Kourou 3 - driving through the space centre
- Kourou 4 - Soyuz launch pad
- Kourou 5 - Vaga launch pad
- Kourou 6 - Ariane lauch centre
- Kourou 7 - rocket models and main control centre
- Kourou 8 - space museum
- Kourou 9 - early European satellite