French Guiana travel guide
While visiting Cacao you should definitely not miss this museum called Le Planeur Bleu. It is mainly specialised in butterflies and spiders with live and dead species. The owner is extremely passionate about his bugs and gives an animated tour of his extended collection of butterflies in all colours and sizes, gets past other creepy and less creepy creatures to eventually end with his beautiful collection of tarantulas. Unfortunately, due to European laws, he can't have these big, hairy eight-legged creatures walk on your hand anymore but he is more happy to get them out of their cages and show them to you from close-by. For many people seeing these beauties from a distance is already enough to take. Better not be arachnophobic!
Most of the time, there isn't too much exciting stuff happening in Cayenne, except for sitting at a café on the central palm-filled square and watch life go by while drinking a coffee or pastis. The city centre of the capital of French Guiana is small and has a few pretty colonial houses, but nothing too noteworthy to see. The old fortress is pretty much decayed, but from this hill you do get a view over the river and the city. The market, however, is an exciting place and represents the population of this part of the world well: a mix between African, Asian, Amerindian and European.
During Carnival time in January/February, the normally mellow Cayenne totally livens up. The carnival has a unique tradition of Touloulous and Tololos: women wear masks and dresses that make them totally unrecognisable. They invite and seduce men into dances, without the possibility for them to refuse. This tradition and the carnival are on the rise and getting bigger every year.
It might be a surprise to find Hmong villages in French Guiana since they originate from the mountain regions of Laos, Vietnam, China and Thailand. When many Hmong people became refugees after the Vietnam war, several thousands of Hmong people were relocated to French Guiana where they were given land. There are two main Hmong villages in French Guiana: Cacao and Javouhey. They feel very much like Laos.
The Cacao Sunday market attracts many day-trippers from Cayenne. Most people just come to eat the fantastic Laotian food, but you can also shop for Hmong souvenirs such as hats and embroidered cloths.
There are also great walks in the Cacao region, the most known and important one being the Molokai trail that takes you through the jungle in one very long day or in two regular hiking days.
Another popular thing to do in Cacao is to go to the Saut Bief, a pretty river with rapids that make a great place for a refreshing swim after hiking or just to go digest the lovely Laotian food.
Such beautiful palm tree-filled islands bear such a sad history. These islands were named Îles du Salut (Salvation islands) after the missionaries came to escape the diseases on the main land. There wasn’t much salvation on these islands, but prison camps for the French. It wasn’t the worst place of all the French prison camps in Guiana but still life was tough, escape nearly impossible and many people didn’t survive this place. The islands are owned by the space centre and are being renovated. During a rocket launch they get completely evacuated.
The main island, Île Royale, is where you can stay overnight in either guard houses or in a hammock in a prison quarter. There are trails all over the island with beautiful views to the other islands, monkeys, parrots and plenty of agoutis, a rodent somewhere between a rat and a hamster. Île St Joseph is smaller and is also worth a visit. The prison buildings here are decayed and overgrown by trees which gives it an even more spooky feeling. The third island, Île du Diable, is closed for visitors.
Even if you don't have a space fetish, have no idea what exactly is a satellite or have never heard of Battlestar Galactica, don't miss out on this space centre. Because of its proximity to the equator, it takes less energy for a rocket to be launched from here and Kourou is not inside a hurricane or earthquake area. These advantages make Kourou the prime launching site for pretty much all European rockets: Ariane and Vega and also several Russian ones, like Soyuz.
A free tour that takes up all morning leads you by bus to the main sites with guides that give full and understandable explanations (if you speak French, that is). You can see the launching sites of these rockets and get up close to the fire pits and the movable towers where the final preparations before a launch take place. If you plan well ahead or you are lucky, you might even see a launch, which happens nearly every month.
This small town at the Maroni river with cute old wooden French houses makes the border to Suriname and owes its existence to its deportation and prison camp. It is here that all French prisoners arrived to be dispatched to the camps all over the country. Several of the prison houses have been renovated and are now used as offices but one section of the prison remains at it used to be. Here you can visit the isolation cells and other rooms where the prisoners were chained. It is intriguing to see the inscriptions prisoners made on their cell walls, the lines they drew to count the days or the messages they left behind. The most famous prisoner here was Papillion, who wrote a (fictional) story of his stay in St-Laurent and on Îles du Salut and of all his escapes. The book was eventually made into a Hollywood movie. In one cell, his name can still be seen carved in the floor. Whether this is real or fake is a different story.