French Guiana

French Guiana is a tiny country of cleaned-up colonial architecture, eerie prison-camp history and some of the world's most diverse plant and animal life. It's a strange mix of French law and rainforest humidity where only a few destinations along the coast are easily accessed and travel can be frustratingly difficult as well as expensive. As a department of France, it's one of South America's wealthiest corners, with funds pouring in to ensure a stable base for the satellite launcher. But not even a European superpower can tame this vast, pristine jungle: you'll find potholes in newly paved roads, and ferns sprouting between bricks, while Amerindians, Maroons and Hmong refugees live traditional lifestyles so far from la vie Metropole that it's hard to believe they're connected at all.

The coast itself has only a few ports or anchorages, but the offlying Iles du Salut (location of the infamous penal colony of Devils Island) are a popular stop for sailors. These islands should only be visited after having cleared into the country. The best anchorage is on Ile St Joseph, although there are no completely protected anchorages. Also interesting to visit is the Ariane Space Centre at Kourou, west of Cayenne, although an appointment has to be made in advance. The Oyapok River, which borders Brazil, is navigable far into the interior rain forest. At the other end of the country, bordering Suriname, is the Maroni River, and is also occasionally visited by yachts. Provisioning is good, but expensive in Cayenne (except for French wine). There is only a limited range of repair facilities. Good provisioning is available in Kourou, where emergency repairs may be possible if the help of technicians from the French space centre can be enlisted. Read more about Brazil;
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Îles du Salut

Known in English as the Salvation Islands, these were anything but that for prisoners sent here from the French mainland by Emperor Napoleon III and subsequent French governments. The three tiny islands, 15km north of Kourou over choppy, shark-infested waters, were considered escape-proof and particularly appropriate for political prisoners, including Alfred Dreyfus. From 1852 to 1947, some 80,000 prisoners died from disease, inhumane conditions and the guillotine on these sad isles. Since then, the islands have become a relaxing delight – a place to escape to. Île Royale, once the administrative headquarters of the penal settlement, has several restored prison buildings, including a restaurant-auberge, while the smaller Île St Joseph, with its eerie solitary-confinement cells and guards' cemetery, is overgrown with coconut palms.

The old director's house has an interesting English-language history display; free, two-hour guided tours of Île Royale (usually in French) begin here. Surprisingly abundant wildlife includes green-winged Ara macaws, agoutis, capuchin monkeys and sea turtles. Carry a swimsuit and towel to take advantage of the white-sand beach and shallow swimming holes on St Joseph. The Centre Spatial Guyanais has a huge infrared camera on Île Royale, and the islands are evacuated when there's an eastward launch from the space center.

In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus (nicknamed “The Papillon” for a butterfly tattoo on his chest) was convicted on charges of treason in France which became one of the most dramatic events in French and European history. Today it’s known as “the Dreyfus affair”. Dreyfus claimed his innocence, but was sentenced to the Devil’s Island. During his time there, he was the only hard-time prisoner who managed to escape nine times. Yes, nine times.

Centre Spatial Guyanais

In 1964 Kourou was chosen to be the site of the Centre Spatial Guyanais because it's close to the equator, is away from tropical storm tracks and earthquake zones, and has a low population density. The center is run by CNES (Centre National d'Études Spatiales) in collaboration with the ESA (European Space Agency) and Arianespace. Three launchers are also now in service, increasing the number of liftoffs to over a dozen per year; this frequency makes it that much easier to coordinate your visit with a launch.

The launch site is the only one in the world this close to the equator (within five degrees), where the earth's spin is significantly faster than further north or south; this means that the site benefits from the 'slingshot effect' which boosts propulsion and makes launches up to 17% more energy-efficient than those at sites further away from the equator. Since 1980 two-thirds of the world's commercial satellites have been launched from French Guiana.

Visit the ESA website to find out the launch schedule and reserve a space at one of the observation points within the space center. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. well ahead of time, providing your full name, address, phone number and age. It's free, but children under 16 are not permitted at sites within 6km of the launch pad and those under eight are not permitted within 12km. You can watch it, reservation-free, with locals at Kourou's beaches or at the Carapa Observation Site, 15km west of the city center.

Space junkies will love the free three-hour tours at the space center, which include a visit to the massive launch pad; phone ahead for reservations and bring your passport. Tour guides sometimes speak English or German; ask when you book.

Trade

French Guiana has two districts: Cayenne, the coastal region, where more than 90% of the population is concentrated; and the larger interior district of Saint Laurent-du-Maroni. The population is largely of mixed African and European descent, but there are also minorities of blacks, whites, indigenous peoples, Chinese, and South Asians. French is the official language, but Creole and other languages and dialects are spoken as well. The population is predominantly Roman Catholic.

French Guiana is largely dependent on subsidies and imports from France. Fishing and forestry are the prime industries, and timber, shrimp, and rum made from local sugarcane are the chief exports. Rice, corn, bananas and other fruits, vegetables, and manioc are grown for subsistence. There are gold (discovered in 1855), petroleum, and other mineral deposits; exploitation, however, has been hindered by inadequate transportation and scarcity of labor. The Plan Vert (Green Plan), adopted in the late 1970s to increase production in agriculture and forestry, met with only partial success.

St Laurent is an intriguing place with some of the country's finest colonial architecture and, even 60 years after the penitentiary's closure, it's dominated by penal buildings and the ghosts of its prisoners. Along the banks of the Fleuve Maroni (Marowijne River), bordering Suriname, St Laurent is also a place to take a river trip to Maroon and Amerindian settlements. It's set up better for tourism than any other town in the country including Cayenne and, if you've been getting frustrated by French Guiana's lack of travel-ease, you'll find it refreshingly easy to organize activities here.

Like

We enjoyed the beauty, peace and tranquility at SLM Marina, Saint Laurent du Maroni on the Maroni River. The SLM Marina people were exceptionally friendly and helpful.

Dislike

The prices for food stuff is ridiculously expensive. We only spend 2 weeks in French Guyana and during this short visit we did not really encounter anything else to dislike.

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