A little bit like cycling in Europe: Georgetown to Paramaribo
Being in the Guyanas is a little bit like being in Europe with the different foods, cultures and languages as well as being able to hop between capitals in next to no time. It took us just five days to cycle from Georgetown, Guyana to Paramaribo, Suriname, with plenty of time to chat to friendly locals and enjoy tasty curries at roadside, roti stalls.
We spent a quiet weekend in Georgetown. It didn’t take long to wander past the pretty, wooden buildings that are the city’s main attractions and with little else to do we enjoyed the opportunity to relax in our chintzy guest house, which reminded us of something out of an Agatha Christie novel.
Given the choice we’d have got back on the road sooner but, for the first time in South America, we needed a visa in order to enter the former-Dutch colony of Suriname, which meant hanging around for the Embassy to open on Monday. We arrived early, only to be turned away for being inappropriately dressed. We dashed back to the hostel, rummaged through our panniers and returned in mismatched outfits, but were nonetheless admitted having covered our offending areas of skin. The bureaucratic process took about an hour and we left with our tourist cards for our stay in Suriname.
The next morning we cycled past a school noticeboard pronouncing ‘No school on Tuesday, kite flying at the national park’. It made us think how happy we’d have been as school children if we’d have seen that, and reminded us of the strong wind we’d be cycling into along the coast.
We hadn’t been battling long before we got flagged down by Singh, a local gold and diamond miner, who invited us in for coffee and toast to meet his family and work team. He was just the first of many people we met along this leg who were interested in our trip and gave us much appreciated cold drinks or snacks as we were pedalling along.
The road from Georgetown to the border is built up and at times it feels as like a suburban street. We found constant amusement in the road and estimate we managed to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats in about two hours, as we passed through villages with British town and county names; one minute we were in Hampshire, two kilometres later in Manchester, from where we cycled into Liverpool.
We stayed the night in New Amsterdam, a town about five kilometres off the main road, but the only place with accommodation and food along the route. The town is on the banks of a river, which we’d crossed in the back of a pickup as bikes and pedestrians aren’t allowed on the interesting floating bridge. The drivers were very nice and wanted to take us all the way to the border. They couldn’t understand why we would want to cycle if we could drive. It’s a reaction we’ve often experienced and it’s hard to explain our motivation to people who just don’t get the premise that riding a bike long distances can be fun.
The next morning was wet and we stopped a few times to shelter under verandas. The wet season isn’t due for another month, but the rains have come early and we are getting used to cycling in the wet and the musty smell that follows us around. The rain doesn’t stop locals getting on with work though. During one storm we watched an entire house being transported on a tractor, taking the phrase ‘moving house’ to a new level.
The sun finally came back out and we continued on our way. I’d been having problems all day with my left cycling sandal, the one which I unclip first. The Keen shoes are only a month old, but this foot has been problematic from the start. It finally gave in when we got flagged down by a friendly Rasta called Daryl Dorsett who stopped to give us a bag of fruit, and I wobbled about just managing to get my other foot out before I fell over. Daryl ended up struggling with us for an hour to release my shoe from the pedal. The cleat plate was ruined, but we were able to find a welder who fashioned a temporary solution for us which would do until we found a replacement in Paramaribo.
After a day when it felt we only managed to cycle five kilometres at a time we finally made it to Corriverton, the final town with accommodation before the ferry crossing to Suriname. We spent our last night in Guyana with another curry and were giddy with excitement when we found Cadburys Cream Eggs in a shop, Easter had come early!
We left plenty of time in the morning to cover the 13km to the ferry terminal, arriving relaxed at 6.30am for the 9am crossing. However, we were urgently ushered into the compound as the gates were about to close. Then followed a three and a half hour wait for a boat, a 25 minute crossing and a two hour queue to get through immigration in Suriname.
I’m not sure if it’s normally so bad, it was the Thursday before Easter, but still it was ridiculous. The waiting was made worse by officious Guyanese border guards constantly changing their minds about where we should leave our bikes and yelling at us that we were in the way, even though we were stood where they’d told us.
It was a relief to get on the road in Suriname, our twelfth country of the trip, and to cycle 40km along the new road to Nieuw Nickerie. Much of the route was through thick rainforest, along Dutch-built waterways and we had the road to ourselves to enjoy the noises of the forest.
After a day off there wandering around the canals full of water lilies, we were back on our bikes and making the most of the lull in the wind to cover 160km. The road was flat, although we did have some climbs over bridges which officials had put gradient warning signs up about – they obviously haven’t seen the Andes. We followed the bends through thick jungle and past paddy fields, amazed at the difference from built up Guyana.
Just before lunch, we were surprised to meet two French cyclists. They had bought local, single-speed bikes and were heading to Georgetown. They’re the first cycle tourists we’ve met since Colombia, although I think their approach was a bit more laid back and slower than ours as they had lots of bags, including a guitar.
We stopped for lunch in the old Scottish settlement of Totness but decided to push on towards Jenny, a village marked on a map which we never actually found. We’d been hoping to find somewhere to sleep there, but were forced to push on. We stopped at an army camp to see if we could hang our hammocks there, but they weren’t able to help and recommended the police station in town. The police weren’t at all interested and pointed to a hammock spot in the centre of the main square where about twenty locals were sat. Paddy wanted to sling the hammocks, but I felt that it was too exposed. I dug my feet in and we carried on in silence, hoping desperately that we found something soon.
Fortunately, luck was in our favour, as soon after we passed a tourist camp that was under construction and the workers invited us to hang our hammocks for the night. They were a friendly group made up of a couple protecting the site and family members who fished in the nearby river. We were treated to a homemade curry that burnt our already sun weathered lips. The camp should be open in two years and they will take tourists into the bush to see the crocodiles who roam the waterways.
The next morning was Easter Sunday and we set off early for the final stretch into Paramaribo, stopping for roti and curry for breakfast. We bounced along the road, dodging potholes and gravel that made up the last 40km into town, and arrived exhausted after battling into the wind all day.
We were looking forward to a shower, but first had a tour of the town as it took a while to find a guest house with space. Tourists may have descended on Paramaribo for the holidays, but everybody else had abandoned the city leaving most of the attractions, restaurants and shops closed. We talked to a few bored travellers, but we loved the sleepiness which allowed us to wander around the old colonial centre without the need to do too much.
Georgetown and Paramaribo were relatively close, but they were very different. We relished being able to walk around at night in Paramaribo, something you wouldn’t do in the Guyanese capital. It’s historical centre and colonial buildings were well-preserved, compared to the once-grand, wooden halls and churches of Georgetown whose paint was now peeling. Suriname felt quite Dutch, with everybody getting around on bikes, whilst Guyana reminded us of the British Caribbean, especially with all the cricket matches we saw taking place on a Sunday morning around the parks, stadia and streets of Georgetown.
It was fascinating exploring the two countries and considering the effects of British and Dutch colonial rule on them. They were completely unlike any other country we have visited in South America and next we were off to French Guyana, still a department of France and very much French. The European connection was set to continue and we couldn’t wait to find out more.