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Old 06-25-2010, 08:59 PM   #1
markharf OP
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French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana

Not many folks seem to make the obvious loop up from Brazil through French Guiana, Suiname and Guyana. The reports I found were sketchy and/or old—a couple of motorcyclists, a group in campers and trucks, a few backpackers (anyone who claims that overland riders travel more adventurously than backpackers might want to reconsider based on the reports I found on the web). The few people I met personally who’d been through that way complained of armed robbers, extortion by military personnel, and other sorts of human vermin. People I’d met who claimed a desire to join me on the route fell away one by one, opting for shorter routes via Manaus or giving up entirely and shipping bikes and selves home from Buenos Aires. Still, the thin line on my map had been whispering to me….and I figure anyplace a Lonely Planet author can survive, surely so can I.

Of course, my original plan was to make the trip before rainy season began….or at least in its early stages. In the end, I managed to arrive in Belem in late May, when the rains were already well underway. This represented only minor inconvenience at first: the boat to Macapa takes 26 hours or so and is unaffected by the weather, and the first bit of road north towards Oiapague is paved and in good shape as far as Calcoene (IIRC). Then it turns to muck, then deep muck, then deep muck at significant incline, interspersed with sections of regular old ordinary clay and muck. This goes on until 30 miles or so before Oiapague, where blessed pavimento returns. If, like me, you are riding an overloaded bike with street tires, you might consider loading your bike on a truck for the worst of it—as I did, to my everlasting embarrassment (first time ever). Or you could just schedule to avoid the rainy season.

Truck traffic is heavy due mainly to the bridge construction. FWIW, the truckers said this road takes just a day from Macapa to the border during dry season, but that it’s very dusty. During the rains, usually two days. Ten years ago, before the road was upgraded, up to two weeks. The favored technique for truckers involves cabling together three trucks which tow each other through the worst sections. They’ll routinely stop to help push stuck cars or, in my case, motorcycles. It’s quite a scene.

The bridge to French Guiana, which the Lonely Planet felt would be finished two years ago, consists of half-completed approaches and abutments on either side of the river. Count on taking the ferry, which leaves from outside Oiapague and costs 30 euros or so. It is necessary to first turn in your temporary import permit a couple of miles away in town, and prior to this you need to find the police station and get your passport stamped—all this for an 11:00 departure (Or was it noon? I get so confused.), so get an early start. On the French side, EU residents need to do virtually nothing at all, but unfortunate North Americans need to find the police station and customs offices and do the usual stuff. It is hot there, so don’t walk around in full riding gear as I did or you risk collapse or other indignity.

Customs will hint that you need to arrange insurance, but in the end it turns out you can’t buy it until Cayenne anyway, and in my case no one asked for it until I was leaving the country several days later….at which point it seemed to be essential, for some reason. Buy in Cayenne, and shop for a good rate.

The road to Cayenne is a delight, mostly through uncut jungle and mostly in very good shape. Note that I was warned not to stop on this section for anything or anyone due to robbery risk. Cayenne is ridiculously expensive—like Paris—but the food is great and credit cards are accepted routinely. There’s a Suzuki dealer with a good selection of supplies, but finding basic Developing World services (welding, for example) was surprisingly difficult. Further from the capital, prices decline somewhat. I found the Devil’s Island tour better than expected, the space center worth a visit, and if you ignore my advice and come during rainy season you can see green turtles hatching by the dozens and making their mad dash to the sea while a short distance away ancient leatherbacks maneuver ponderously, digging nests and laying eggs. Totally remarkable, and worth the price of admission (to the country, that is).

The ferry to Suriname has several departures per day. There is at least one office in town which sells insurance for Suriname, which will be required. Look for it before heading south of town to the ferry. Once off the ferry, the road to Paramaribo is rough, though paved. If it’s been raining and the potholes are water-filled, be aware that some of them are rather deep and abrupt. Here again I was warned not to stop for any reason before “the bridge,” but I’ve no idea how seriously to take such warnings.

I had some mechanical issues and stayed longer than expected in Paramaribo, a perfectly fine town for a day or two but which grew old after that. The city is full of friendly ex-pat residents, and English is widely spoken, even out in the sticks. I did meet up in Paramaribo with the only rider I saw during the whole loop, and the only person I ever met who said that Guyana was fine, friendly and altogether fun….which turned out to be correct. Note that rates given in Suriname for dollars or euros are routinely 20 to 25% higher than indicated by internet sources. Therefore, stock up on euros at ATM’s in French Guiana and change cash in Paramaribo.

The ferry to Guyana leaves only once a day, at 11:00. If you’re trying to make it from Paramaribo in a day you’ll need an ungodly early start. Be there early for customs and passport control, because there’s not much happening to keep you interested for another day if you miss the boat. I stayed overnight in Nieuw Nickerie (which I’m sure I’ve mis-spelled), a less-than-thrilling town with mosquito problems—don’t be walking around at dusk. On the Guyana side I was made to procure not only insurance, but an actual driving “permit,” which took foolishly long in mid-day heat. Be aware that you need to purchase a customs form, and have either Guyana currency or a US dollar or two ready. Exchange rates at the border are terrible, but that’s life.

Per above, people in Guyana were unfailingly friendly, polite, helpful and supportive. I don’t know what to make of all the horrendous stories I’ve heard, but one local told me “There used to be a lot of thieves five years ago, but some of them got old and died and the police caught the rest and killed them.” A cautious person might not walk around alone all over Georgetown carrying large sums of cash….but that’s what I did, and I never felt threatened. I stayed at the Melbourne Hotel, outside the center on Sheriff Street, and I walked around that area at night without any trouble. English is the official language, so you can talk with anyone about whatever you want—a real relief for mono-lingual Norteamericanos like myself.

The road south from Georgetown to Lethem was one of the big unknowns; lots of stories about impassable mud and such. It turned out to be just fine, despite heavy rains during the past month—some short stretches of mud here and there, but nothing even remotely like the Macapa-Oiapague road (or others I’ve seen). I broke my trip at the Iwokrama River Lodge, which was well-worth it for the insights into indigenous lives, jungle ecology, ecotourism and all the rest. Probably, an ambitious rider could make the full route in a day even during the rainy season. The worst sections of road are north of the ferry crossing.

Lethem features a few hotels and other services. The Brazil side of the border features some of those ridiculously serious, self-important, do-it-my-way personnel who seem so out of place in otherwise-friendly Brazil. In my case, they demanded photocopies of everything under the sun, including documents which I’d just received at the immigration office (meaning you can’t just bring photocopies you made in Lethem). It was Sunday, and everything in the local town was closed, but eventually I found the owner of a small shop who opened up for me and made the half-dozen copies I needed…but the whole procedure took 15 minutes on the Guyana side but several hours in Brazil. This close to the border, lots of English is spoken.

Stock up on reais at the ATM’s in Boa Vista if headed to Venezuela; Brazilian currency fetches good rates at the border—about twice the official rates. Change on the Brazilian side for the best rates—about 10% better than in Santa Elena. I made it from Lethem to Santa Elena in a day, but with the abovementioned delay entering Brazil it was a close call. Note that both Brazilian and Venezuelan customs and immigration close at various hours and for various reasons.

The whole loop was quite fun, interspersed with the kinds of frustrating moments which look better and better in retrospect. Culturally there’s a lot going on in that area of South America, with the intersections of Maroon, indigenous, expat, native-born, “Hindu” (i.e. East Indian), Chinese, Hmong and other cultures being particularly fascinating. The jungles are relatively untouched as well, though they’re difficult and usually expensive to reach. Tourists generally come directly from Europe, so overlanders are intriguing to almost everyone—entirely unlike the more traveled routes.

Hope that helps someone, sooner or later.

Mark

(from Cartagena, where I’ve re-joined the mainstream while waiting for the Stahratte)
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Old 06-25-2010, 09:24 PM   #2
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Originally Posted by markharf
I broke my trip at the Iwokrama River Lodge, which was well-worth it for the insights into indigenous lives, jungle ecology, ecotourism and all the rest.
I have really good friends, Jared (Yankie) and Zelda (Frenchie), living and working there, they are moving to Seattle soon and I'm going to meet them when I start my Americas trip

Cool as I'll read the rest of your post now
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Old 06-25-2010, 10:27 PM   #3
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Ya, I'm from north of Seattle and hope to pump more information out of Jared if I ever make it back there. In exchange I've got some Bulgarian friends living in Seattle he might find helpful. Say hello for me if you're in contact.

Mark
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Old 06-25-2010, 11:45 PM   #4
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Will do mate, as I'll be in Seattle in about 7-8 weeks to see them, then heading down towards you, you coming back up are you?

Can't wait to hit those countries, the beautiful nature and the now slightly less, 'unknown' adventure through them


cheers Mark
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Old 06-26-2010, 08:31 AM   #5
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Thanks for the info Mark. I was looking at that route when I start my way north through Brazil. I have found little information about it. Gracias.

The boat from Belem to Manaus looks tempting, but for some reason I have fascination with going overland through the Guyanas and Suriname.

Is it one of those things that you would do again, or is it "been there, done that, and wouldnt deal with the challenges again?"

And BTW, in mucky deep clay and mud with street tires on the bike, I would have tossed my bike on the first truck that came by and offered help. I've done battle with that shit before on an overloaded pig, and I would have gladly put it on a truck if one came by.


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Old 06-26-2010, 08:02 PM   #6
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Hey Markharf,

Thanks for the writeup! There is slim pickins of info on the northeast Guyanas. Some overlanders and a biker is all I've read about other than your experience. Floating up the Amazon is always possible, but overland through Suriname, French Guiana and Guyana captures the imagination.

Hope you have fun in the San Blas Islands sailing up to Panama.

Kindest regards,
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Old 06-26-2010, 08:17 PM   #7
markharf OP
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Glad if the information is helpful to any/many. Vince, I'd be far more likely to do this route again than to ride to Ushuaia a second time, if that's any indication. But I'd make more of an effort to miss the rains.

Mark
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Old 06-27-2010, 06:41 PM   #8
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.... But I'd make more of an effort to miss the rains.

Mark
Good info.
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Old 06-28-2010, 08:17 AM   #9
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If the camper vans can do it a moto sure can, hell of a lot easier river crossings

another valuable piece of info on the net:

http://www.xor.org.uk/silkroute/panam2006/indexold.html
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Old 06-29-2010, 09:05 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by markharf
Not many folks seem to make the obvious loop up from Brazil through French Guiana, Suiname and Guyana. The reports I found were sketchy and/or old—a couple of motorcyclists, a group in campers and trucks, a few backpackers (anyone who claims that overland riders travel more adventurously than backpackers might want to reconsider based on the reports I found on the web). The few people I met personally who’d been through that way complained of armed robbers, extortion by military personnel, and other sorts of human vermin. People I’d met who claimed a desire to join me on the route fell away one by one, opting for shorter routes via Manaus or giving up entirely and shipping bikes and selves home from Buenos Aires. Still, the thin line on my map had been whispering to me….and I figure anyplace a Lonely Planet author can survive, surely so can I.

Of course, my original plan was to make the trip before rainy season began….or at least in its early stages. In the end, I managed to arrive in Belem in late May, when the rains were already well underway. This represented only minor inconvenience at first: the boat to Macapa takes 26 hours or so and is unaffected by the weather, and the first bit of road north towards Oiapague is paved and in good shape as far as Calcoene (IIRC). Then it turns to muck, then deep muck, then deep muck at significant incline, interspersed with sections of regular old ordinary clay and muck. This goes on until 30 miles or so before Oiapague, where blessed pavimento returns. If, like me, you are riding an overloaded bike with street tires, you might consider loading your bike on a truck for the worst of it—as I did, to my everlasting embarrassment (first time ever). Or you could just schedule to avoid the rainy season.

Truck traffic is heavy due mainly to the bridge construction. FWIW, the truckers said this road takes just a day from Macapa to the border during dry season, but that it’s very dusty. During the rains, usually two days. Ten years ago, before the road was upgraded, up to two weeks. The favored technique for truckers involves cabling together three trucks which tow each other through the worst sections. They’ll routinely stop to help push stuck cars or, in my case, motorcycles. It’s quite a scene.

The bridge to French Guiana, which the Lonely Planet felt would be finished two years ago, consists of half-completed approaches and abutments on either side of the river. Count on taking the ferry, which leaves from outside Oiapague and costs 30 euros or so. It is necessary to first turn in your temporary import permit a couple of miles away in town, and prior to this you need to find the police station and get your passport stamped—all this for an 11:00 departure (Or was it noon? I get so confused.), so get an early start. On the French side, EU residents need to do virtually nothing at all, but unfortunate North Americans need to find the police station and customs offices and do the usual stuff. It is hot there, so don’t walk around in full riding gear as I did or you risk collapse or other indignity.

Customs will hint that you need to arrange insurance, but in the end it turns out you can’t buy it until Cayenne anyway, and in my case no one asked for it until I was leaving the country several days later….at which point it seemed to be essential, for some reason. Buy in Cayenne, and shop for a good rate.

The road to Cayenne is a delight, mostly through uncut jungle and mostly in very good shape. Note that I was warned not to stop on this section for anything or anyone due to robbery risk. Cayenne is ridiculously expensive—like Paris—but the food is great and credit cards are accepted routinely. There’s a Suzuki dealer with a good selection of supplies, but finding basic Developing World services (welding, for example) was surprisingly difficult. Further from the capital, prices decline somewhat. I found the Devil’s Island tour better than expected, the space center worth a visit, and if you ignore my advice and come during rainy season you can see green turtles hatching by the dozens and making their mad dash to the sea while a short distance away ancient leatherbacks maneuver ponderously, digging nests and laying eggs. Totally remarkable, and worth the price of admission (to the country, that is).

The ferry to Suriname has several departures per day. There is at least one office in town which sells insurance for Suriname, which will be required. Look for it before heading south of town to the ferry. Once off the ferry, the road to Paramaribo is rough, though paved. If it’s been raining and the potholes are water-filled, be aware that some of them are rather deep and abrupt. Here again I was warned not to stop for any reason before “the bridge,” but I’ve no idea how seriously to take such warnings.

I had some mechanical issues and stayed longer than expected in Paramaribo, a perfectly fine town for a day or two but which grew old after that. The city is full of friendly ex-pat residents, and English is widely spoken, even out in the sticks. I did meet up in Paramaribo with the only rider I saw during the whole loop, and the only person I ever met who said that Guyana was fine, friendly and altogether fun….which turned out to be correct. Note that rates given in Suriname for dollars or euros are routinely 20 to 25% higher than indicated by internet sources. Therefore, stock up on euros at ATM’s in French Guiana and change cash in Paramaribo.

The ferry to Guyana leaves only once a day, at 11:00. If you’re trying to make it from Paramaribo in a day you’ll need an ungodly early start. Be there early for customs and passport control, because there’s not much happening to keep you interested for another day if you miss the boat. I stayed overnight in Nieuw Nickerie (which I’m sure I’ve mis-spelled), a less-than-thrilling town with mosquito problems—don’t be walking around at dusk. On the Guyana side I was made to procure not only insurance, but an actual driving “permit,” which took foolishly long in mid-day heat. Be aware that you need to purchase a customs form, and have either Guyana currency or a US dollar or two ready. Exchange rates at the border are terrible, but that’s life.

Per above, people in Guyana were unfailingly friendly, polite, helpful and supportive. I don’t know what to make of all the horrendous stories I’ve heard, but one local told me “There used to be a lot of thieves five years ago, but some of them got old and died and the police caught the rest and killed them.” A cautious person might not walk around alone all over Georgetown carrying large sums of cash….but that’s what I did, and I never felt threatened. I stayed at the Melbourne Hotel, outside the center on Sheriff Street, and I walked around that area at night without any trouble. English is the official language, so you can talk with anyone about whatever you want—a real relief for mono-lingual Norteamericanos like myself.

The road south from Georgetown to Lethem was one of the big unknowns; lots of stories about impassable mud and such. It turned out to be just fine, despite heavy rains during the past month—some short stretches of mud here and there, but nothing even remotely like the Macapa-Oiapague road (or others I’ve seen). I broke my trip at the Iwokrama River Lodge, which was well-worth it for the insights into indigenous lives, jungle ecology, ecotourism and all the rest. Probably, an ambitious rider could make the full route in a day even during the rainy season. The worst sections of road are north of the ferry crossing.

Lethem features a few hotels and other services. The Brazil side of the border features some of those ridiculously serious, self-important, do-it-my-way personnel who seem so out of place in otherwise-friendly Brazil. In my case, they demanded photocopies of everything under the sun, including documents which I’d just received at the immigration office (meaning you can’t just bring photocopies you made in Lethem). It was Sunday, and everything in the local town was closed, but eventually I found the owner of a small shop who opened up for me and made the half-dozen copies I needed…but the whole procedure took 15 minutes on the Guyana side but several hours in Brazil. This close to the border, lots of English is spoken.

Stock up on reais at the ATM’s in Boa Vista if headed to Venezuela; Brazilian currency fetches good rates at the border—about twice the official rates. Change on the Brazilian side for the best rates—about 10% better than in Santa Elena. I made it from Lethem to Santa Elena in a day, but with the abovementioned delay entering Brazil it was a close call. Note that both Brazilian and Venezuelan customs and immigration close at various hours and for various reasons.

The whole loop was quite fun, interspersed with the kinds of frustrating moments which look better and better in retrospect. Culturally there’s a lot going on in that area of South America, with the intersections of Maroon, indigenous, expat, native-born, “Hindu” (i.e. East Indian), Chinese, Hmong and other cultures being particularly fascinating. The jungles are relatively untouched as well, though they’re difficult and usually expensive to reach. Tourists generally come directly from Europe, so overlanders are intriguing to almost everyone—entirely unlike the more traveled routes.

Hope that helps someone, sooner or later.

Mark

(from Cartagena, where I’ve re-joined the mainstream while waiting for the Stahratte)
I just have to add this to the Ride Report Link Thread!



Note: sometimes Lonely Planet writers don't thrive. I met Scott Dagget in Panama where he had land near Bocas del Toro and he looked like he was suffering- all hung over and over-sexed and stuff.
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Old 06-30-2010, 09:46 AM   #11
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This info is going to help us on our trip planning later
Thanks a lot for sharing
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Old 06-30-2010, 04:17 PM   #12
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I just have to add this to the Ride Report Link Thread!....
Thanks for compiling the good stuff.
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Old 07-01-2010, 06:07 AM   #13
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Hey Mark, Do you have any pics to add to this nice write up? It would be nice to see what you are talking about.

Efrain Martinez
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Old 07-02-2010, 07:47 AM   #14
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Glad to see you made it

Great writeup Mark Thanks for the info. I'll have to file it for when I complete my SA trip
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Old 07-03-2010, 07:12 AM   #15
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Thanks, Jeff. Might see you in B.C. if my bike survives that long.

Martinef, I've seldom got it in me to post text, let alone photos. Those who regularly do are either heroes or clinical obsessives, depending. Most of the time I struggle to find a signal strong enough to track email and a few forums; the waiting time on photo uploads is too much for my limited patience, and editing and downsizing waits for my return home (if ever).

Safe journeys and best of the season!

Mark

(from Panama City, where the sun is suddenly shining and life looks relatively rosey again)
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