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French Guiana was to France what Australia was to Britain: a dumping ground for convicts. French convicts had a hard time here, as the vast majority died within years from disease and the rainforest covering the country turned out to be a prime breeding ground for malaria.
Since French Guiana's role as a convict colony came to an end in the middle of the 20th century, France's contribution to the country has been a little more favourable. French investment has seen the standard of living in French Guiana become the highest in South America. In the cities and towns, French class is impressed on traditional South American style. French Guiana is the best place to enjoy Caribbean music and the Carnival while drinking coffee at a sidewalk café.
Before the first Europeans arrived, there was no written history in the territory. It was originally inhabited by a number of Native American peoples, among them the Carib, Arawak, Emerillon, Galibi, Palikour, Wayampi and Wayana.
In 1498 French Guiana was first visited by Europeans when Christopher Columbus sailed to the region on his third voyage. In 1604 France attempted to settle in the area, but was forced to abandon it in the face of hostility from the Portuguese. French settlers returned, however, in 1643 and managed to establish a settlement at Cayenne. After several small interuptions by the Dutch and British, in 1667 the area was given back to France.
During the 19th century, again there was a short period when Portugal took over the place and gave it to Brazil, but this only lasted for about 5 years. During the middle of the 19th century slavery was abolished. Also the first shiploads of French prisoners arrived in the area, most of them spending time on Iles du Salut. The islands became notorious for the brutality of life there, centering around the notorious Devil's Island. Famous political figures to be sent to the islands included Alfred Dreyfus and Henri Charrière, who managed to escape. He later wrote a best-selling book about his experiences called Papillon.
French Guiana became an overseas département of France on 19 March 1946. The infamous penal colonies, including Devil's Island, were gradually phased out and then formally closed in 1951. At first, only those freed prisoners who could raise the fare for their return passage to France were able to go home, so French Guiana was haunted after the official closing of the prisons by numerous freed convicts leading an aimless existence in the colony. In 1964 Kourou was chosen to be launch site for rockets, largely due to its favourable location near the equator. The Guiana Space Centre was built and became operational in 1968. The 1970s saw the settlement of Hmong refugees from Laos in the county, primarily to the towns of Javouhey and Cacao.
Protests by those calling for more autonomy from France have become increasingly vocal. Protests in 1996, 1997 and 2000 all ended in violence. While many Guianese wish to see more autonomy, support for complete independence is low.
French Guiana shares international borders with Suriname and Brazil. French Guiana lies between latitudes 2° and 6° N, and longitudes 51° and 53° W. It consists of two main geographical regions: a coastal strip where the majority of the people live, and dense, near-inaccessible rainforest which gradually rises to the modest peaks of the Tumac-Humac mountains along the Brazilian frontier. French Guiana's highest peak is Bellevue de l'Inini in Maripasoula (851 metres). Other mountains include Mont Machalou (782 metres), Pic Coudreau (711 metres) and Mont St Marcel (635 metres), Mont Favard (200 metres) and Montagne du Mahury (156 metres). Several small islands are found off the coast, the three Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands) which include Devil's Island, and the isolated Îles du Connétable bird sanctuary further along the coast towards Brazil. As of 2007, the Amazonian forest, located in the most remote part of the department, is protected as the Guiana Amazonian Park, one of the nine national parks of France. The territory of the park covers some 33,900 square kilometres.
French Guiana is divided into 2 departmental arrondissements.
The Îles du Salut are a group of islands about 10 to 15 kilometres off the coast of French Guiana. The closest town is Kourou from where boats travel to and from the islands. There are three islands: Île du Diable, Île Royale and Île Saint-Joseph. The first one (Devil's Island in English) is probably the best known because of the novel by Henri Charriere named 'Papillon' (Butterfly in English) in which the islands were featured. The islands were used as a penal colony from 1852 onwards and life here was extremely tough but since 1953 the islands were closed as a prison and nowadays the islands are a popular tourist destination.
These small communities are located in the extreme northwest of the country close to the border with Suriname. They are communicties with Amerindian people but the main feature here includes the massive amount of giant leatherback turtles which nest here and lay there eggs on several of the nearby beaches. This occurs during the March to July period and therefore is the best time to pay a visit to these mosquito infected coastline and Hattes Beach is the best one to be a witness of this. There are around 4,500 to 7,500 female leatherbacks making it one of the largest anywhere in the world.
Although up until recent years much of French Guiana was not established as national parks, the Amazon Rainforest is one of the best anywhere in South America because most of it is not used for logging nor are there any roads whatsoever. The main gateways are Saül and Maripasoula, which are only reachable by plane or (more time consuming) boat. The best way is to organise a tour in the capital Cayenne but make sure you will stay at least for 4 or 5 days in the interior as distances are vast because of the slow travelling by boat. In 2007 a new huge Guiana Amazonian National Park was created which, together with the Tumucumaque National Park forms the biggest protected rainforest area anywhere in the world (at around 60,000 square kilometres, 1.5 times the size of the Netherlands!)), forming a zone together with rainforest in Brazil and some Suriname parts.
French Guiana celebrates New Year with the rest of the world on January 1. You can expect fireworks and public concerts.
The Mardi Gras celebration in January or February lasts for an entire month or longer. Every Sunday there are big parades in town where locals form groups wearing costumes based on the year’s theme. Watch one of the parades and you will likely receive a free beignet, delicious fried fritters that are a typical New Orleans snack.
Ash Wednesday marks the end of Mardi Gras. It is a public holiday so banks, government offices and some private businesses are closed.
The day after Easter Sunday, Egg Nyte is an official holiday in French Guiana. The country follows the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, so it falls on the second day of the octave of Easter Week.
French Guiana celebrates Victory Day on May 8 along with France. It marks the end of WWII, when Germany formally surrendered to the Allied Forces.
Place des Palmistes is typically festive during this holiday which is celebrated on June 10. Families head to the park where food kiosks are set up for fun and camaraderie.
French Guiana has a tropical climate with hot and humid conditions year round. Temperatures hoover around 30 °C during the day and above 20 °C at night. The rainy season lasts from January to June. Obviously the drier (but even warmer) season of July to early December is the best season to visit the country.
Cayenne-Rochambeau Airport (CAY) near the capital receives all international arrivals and departures. Air France has flights from Cayenne to Paris, Paramaribo, Miami, Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Air Caraibes flies to Santo Domingo and a few destinations mentioned above.
A bridge is about to be completed between French Guiana and Brazil making it much more easy (and cheaper, bringing the car on the boat used to cost over 200 euro) to travel between those countries. The Brazilian roads are not in a very good shape though so be prepared. The border towns are Saint Georges (French Guiana) and Oiapoque (Brazil). Be sure to have an international driving permit, documentation and insurance. A 4wd is recommended for going to Brazil, though the coastal route towards Suriname and Guyana is quite ok.
Buses/minibuses travel between Cayenne and Paramaribo in Suriname, stopping en route in several other coastal towns and villages. Other than that, there are no direct international connections, you need to do the trip towards Brazil in stages by taking transport to the border and onwards across the border.
Boat travel across the rivers that divide French Guiana (Saint Georges) from Brazil (Oiapoque) and Suriname. To and from Suriname, the crossing is over the Marowijne River from Saint Laurent du Moroni.
Air Guyane Express has flights between Cayenne, St Georges de l’Oyapock, Maripasoula and Saül. Helicopters are available from Héli Inter Guyane and Héli Union Guyane, both at Cayenne international airport.
There are no domestic rail services in French Guiana.
French Guiana has a relatively good functioning road system but mainly along the coastline and several roads leading from Cayenne partly into the interior. Hiring a car is probably the best way of getting around as most destinations outside the main urban centres can only be reached when you have your own vehicle (or doing a tour of course). Avis has one of the most extensive systems in the country. Note that there are hefty fees when leaving your car somewhere else than you hired it from (drop off costs). You can hire cars (and motorcycles) in Cayenne, Kourou and Saint Laurent du Moroni. Traffic drives on the right and your national driver's licence will suffice when it is readable, otherwise an international driving permit is required.
Minibuses travel between the main cities and towns and connect Cayenne with Kourou (1 hour) and Saint Laurent du Moroni (4 hours) and places in between like Sinnamary and Iracoubo. Buses ply the same route but are slower, albeit a bit cheaper. Buses don't run on Sundays. For an overview of schedules and connections, also international ones, see thebussschedule.com.
Most visitors only use the boat that travels between Kourou and the Iles du Salut, but the interior of French Guiana is only navigatable by boat so if you are going on a expedition, this is the way to get around.
French Guiana is not part of the Schengen territory and your passport or ID-card is checked upon arrival even if you're arriving from mainland or Caribbean France. The department is however covered by the directive for Freedom of Movement so EU-citizens have the right to stay infinitely.
See also Money Matters
As an overseas department of France, French Guiana has adopted the Euro (ISO code: EUR, symbol: €) as its official currency. One Euro is divided into 100 cents, which is sometimes referred to as eurocents, especially when distinguishing them with the US cents.
Euro banknotes come in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, €500. The highest three denominations are rarely used in everyday transactions. All Euro banknotes have a common design for each denomination on both sides throughout the Eurozone.
The Euro coins are 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1 and €2. Some countries in the Eurozone have law which requires cash transactions to be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. All Euro coins have a common design on the denomination (value) side, while the opposite side may have a different image from one country to another. Although the image side may be different, all Euro coins remain legal tender throughout the Eurozone.
French is the official language of France, although Creole is widely spoken. The majority of the population speaks French while few understand English. However, some officials, police, and gendarmes may speak English. Because of the presence of many Brazilians and Dominicans, lots of people understand basic Portuguese and basic Spanish. On the Maroni river, Taki-taki is often used.
A typical local dish includes fish and other seafood or game meat served with rice, red beans or couac (flour made out of dried cassava) and can be rather fierce, as they often use liberal amounts of spices. What else would you expect from a region whose capital has given name to the cayenne pepper? You can of course always ask the chef to make your dish less spicy. Guyanese specialties include:
In some restaurants you may find meat of threatened species (such as cayman and certain turtles) on the menu. Think twice before ordering any of those exotic dishes.
Hotels are rather expensive in French Guiana, at many hotels you'll need to spend well over €100 for a night. For cheaper accommodation there are also a couple of hostels that however don't have web pages.
The cheapest accommodation is also the most adventurous one. For a few euros you can sleep in a hammock in a traditional carbet, a shelter without walls. This is the only type of accommodation available in the rainforest.
Tafia is a local hard liquor that is widely drunk and used as medical purpose. One can drink it with lime juice or with salt and it's used in a drink called Planter, excellent. Rum and ti-punch are also common.
See also Travel Health
Proof of a yellow fever vaccination is at all times required to enter French Guiana. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to French Guiana. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in the country, except along the coast and in Cayenne. It is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
There is some petty crime in Cayenne; be careful, especially when it's dark and stay on the main streets. Use taxi's if you can and avoid crowded places like markets.
It is advisable to pay extreme attention not to lose your passport: there are very few consulates in French Guiana as such services are provided by consulates in Paris, so you will be required to go to Paris in case you need your passport to be reissued if you are not an EU citizen.
Some parts of the department are patrolled by the French Foreign Legion, including the Kourou space centre and areas where illegal gold mining have occurred.
See also International Telephone Calls
For cheaper local calls and calls to mainland France it's advisable to buy a local prepaid SIM card. The Alizé cards by France Telecom offer 13 hours of communication for €15.
There are three GSM operators: Orange Caraïbe, Digicel and Only.
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Ask MRMinSF a question about French Guiana
Have traveled extensively in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, and occasionally lead tours here. Am able to answer questions about destinations, wildlife, culture, trip preparation, itineraries, etc.
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