Cyclisme en France: Pedalling from Paramaribo to Cayenne
From the Suriname capital, Paramaribo, we set off towards France, our last new country of the trip. French Guyana is a department, rather than a country in its own right, and has all things you’d expect to find on the mainland, including fantastic cheese and wine which we treated ourselves to. We also took a more leisurely approach to being on the bikes, stopping off to explore the many attractions on the road to the capital, Cayenne.
We were late leaving Paramaribo as we had to wait for a cycle shop to open to replace my pedal cleat. Cycling with one foot clipped in and the other loose had left me with weird muscle ache, but we were able to find a replacement plate in a shop specialising in Dutch bikes. By the time we’d got that sorted I was in need of my second breakfast, so we dashed into a roti shop for a spicy fix.
Our late departure didn’t delay us too much, as we’d decided not to cycle out of Paramaribo over the huge bridge spanning the Suriname River. It is two kilometres up and the same down, with just a single lane to share with vehicles. The idea of pedalling it wasn’t attractive, so instead we loaded our bikes into a water taxi for the five minute trip, a much nicer way to leave the city.
From the taxi rank we came out onto the main road and began our bumpy ride towards the coast. The stretch of road from Paramaribo to the border town, Albina, is in a poor state and resurfacing work is underway. There are about five companies working on different stretches at the same time, which meant that at times we were cycling on newly completed stretches with beautifully smooth tarmac, but then would spend another 20km wobbling on stones, dodging pot holes or powering through mud. However, we managed to cover enough distance to reach a total of 16,000km on our trip.
The stretch to Moengo, 100km away, felt different from the West of Suriname. The road weaved through thick jungle all day and the population changed from Indian to black, this being the area where the majority of slaves settled after slavery was abolished in the colony.
We’d been warned about security in this region and the town of Moengo felt less welcoming as we arrived, with people sticking their hands out of car windows gesturing for us to give them money. We asked around for a guest house but kept getting pointed in different directions without success. In the end we found a friendly café assistant who contacted a relative who rented out rooms. It was over-priced, even after haggling, but by this point it was dark and we just wanted to be inside.
The next morning we stocked up in the cheap Chinese supermarket and with no sign of the rain abating we layered up in our Gortex and hit the road to Albina. To get out of town we had to cycle round a drunken group, in various states of undress. I can’t say I was sorry to leave Moengo.
The ride to Albina was more mud, rain and forest, with a few hills added. We arrived in the border town in a torrential downpour and were taken under the wing of a taxi driver who led us to a restaurant and a money changer before picking us up from immigration in his boat and motoring us to France. All very quick and easy.
Arriving in French Guyana was exciting for several reasons. Firstly, it was our last, new country of the trip. From here, we have just one more border crossing into Brazil, where we start heading back towards Rio de Janeiro. French Guyana is our 13th country in South America, which has been much more diverse a continent than we ever imagined.
It was also completely bizarre to cycle out of Suriname into what is officially the European Union. In fact, we learnt that because of EU agreements, French Guyana finds it easier to trade with Europe rather than its neighbouring countries. As a result, most products are imported from the French mainland meaning prices are astronomically high. This is also a result of inflated wages for people who come over to work in local schools and the space centre.
All of this meant that we were left drooling over the pricey, cheese counter in St Laurent de Moroni’s supermarket, trying to be disciplined when choosing between the bries, camemberts and roqueforts. We picked a couple of stinky looking pieces and a bottle of red wine, which we enjoyed with our couchsurfing host, Vanessa. Accommodation prices start from about 45Euros for a basic room here, so Couchsurfing and our hammocks have been our first ports of call for somewhere to sleep.
We took a day off in St Laurent to visit the Transportation Camp where convicts were first interned after being banished from the French mainland. The department once operated as a penal colony where France’s worst criminals were sent and where many died from disease, hunger and maltreatment. The camp held many famous prisoners, including Papillon about whom a book and film were made.
The next day we were back on the bikes and heading towards Awala in the north-west to catch a glimpse of the giant leatherback turtles that come ashore at this time of year to lay their eggs. We slung our hammocks up at the deserted youth hostel and wandered down to the beach in the pitch black, nearly falling over in shock at our first sight of a turtle.
She was absolutely huge, about two metres long, and looked prehistoric. We settled down nearby to watch her work. It looked absolutely exhausting. She took at least an hour to dig the hole, then produced hundreds of eggs, before covering them all back up. It was incredible to watch and to consider how this process had been going on for so many years. The eggs will hatch from July to August when hundreds of little turtles will run down the beach into the sea.
After a late night turtle-watching, we were tired cyclists on the road the next morning. We were heading to the village of Iracoubo and arrived late in the afternoon absolutely exhausted.
There was a village about 20km after Awala where we had stocked up on water, but we’d expected to find something along the route as well so weren’t carrying lots. It turned out there was nothing on the road so we arrived desperately thirsty and sat in front of the ‘huit a huit’ guzzling drinks.
The road was very jungly, so camping in the bush wasn’t an option. We did pass a nice picnic spot about 7km before Iracoubo which would have been great to pitch the tent, but without water we weren’t able to stop. There was a hotel in the village and completely shattered we resigned ourselves to paying 45Euros for the most of basic of rooms. It was a lesson learnt to stock up fully each morning so that we could camp whenever we found somewhere.
The village suddenly went quiet in the early evening and we couldn’t work out why. We learnt later that a night time curfew has been imposed because of a plague of stinging butterflies which come out in force when it gets dark. We were extra glad now that we were inside.
Recovered after a long sleep, we headed back on the road towards Kourou, stopping after 30km in the pretty village of Sinnamary, the birthplace of Chelsea footballer Florent Malouda. Here we stocked up properly and hit the road around the Centre Spatial Guyane, the European Space Centre in French Guyana.
We’d thought from the map that we could cycle straight through, but disappointingly it was restricted and we had a long detour around the site, stopping temporarily at another picnic spot to shelter from a heavy storm.
It would have been brilliant to cycle past the rocket launchers, but we made do with a guided tour around the base the next day. Apart from the noisy school children, it was fantastic. We saw the different launchers, which take satellites up into space, as well as the operations room or mission control as it’s better known.
From Kourou we also visited the Iles de Salut, the Salvation Islands in English. These were where particularly dangerous prisoners were sent as there was little chance of escape from the islands which are surrounded by strong currents and shark-infested waters. For our part, we couldn’t understand why anybody would want to leave. They were beautiful, with wild jungle, palm trees, swimming pools and sandy beaches.
I suppose the convicts didn’t get to really appreciate these finer points though, as they were forced to work during the day and were then shackled in cells during the night. The main island, Royale, has been restored in part and it was nice to get an idea of the way the camp was run with prisoners and warders living next to each other. St Joseph, however, was much wilder and the buildings there are slowly being destroyed by the rainforest. It’s forbidden to walk around the camp because of the danger of falling rock, but like many others we climbed through the fences to get a glimpse of the seclusion cells where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for years at a time.
We enjoyed our last night in Kourou on the veranda of our Couchsurfing host, Vincent, with a bottle of red wine, his housemates and their kittens, sheltering from the persistent rain.
It was a nice place to explore, but it was time to get back on the road towards Cayenne, our final capital of the trip most likely as we don’t think we will make the huge detour to Brasilia. The road was flat but exposed and windy which made for a tough ride into the city.
We stopped halfway in a small village to refuel on coca-cola, cake and cashew nuts and then again at the entrance to Cayenne in a huge Carrefour supermarket, where we were overwhelmed by the choice not usually found in South America.
The city isn’t huge and we easily found the house of our Couchsurfing host Jean to settle down for a few days exploring. After that, we head towards the border with Brazil where it will be ‘au revoir’ to Europe and back to South America proper. It’s time to get learning Portuguese.