French Guiana


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South America » French Guiana
September 20th 2010
Published: October 3rd 2010
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I was laughed at by the Brazilians in Oiapoque when I advised that I would cross into French Guiana by bridge - it was due for completion in 2007. However, it is far from finished; in fact, it seems far from started! So, I cross by boat to St Georges from where I catch a shared minibus to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. It is 1.5 hours on the road before we arrive at passport control; beforehand, the road is littered with burnt out cars; the after effects of the French police torching the cars of those illegally entering the country from Brazil.

Cayenne was a bit of a let down; I had expected a vivid blend of French and Carribean cultures but am confronted with a town that seems to be lacking an identity. The town is pleasant enough but the streets and buildings are monotonous and lack any landmarks of any distinction. Even the historic fort overlooking the town is an ill kept ruin scarred by telecommunication masts, water works and an electricity sub station all located within its boundary! Fortunately, I had identified Cayenne only as a base for two specific visits - first to Iles du Salut and, secondly, to the French Space Centre (Centre National D'Etudes Spatiales).

The journey to Iles du Salut is made upon a grandiose catarmaran; a journey which takes 1.5 hours over shark infested waters. Iles du Salut are known in Engliah as The Salvation Islands, however, they were anything but that for prisoners sent here from the French mainland. They were considered escape proof and a favoured destination for political prisoners such as Alfred Dreyuss who was the only prisoner on Devils Island for 4 years being subject to solitary confinement, iron shackles for weeks on end etc, only to be then found not guilty of the charges! This dark history now provides a wonderfully surreal location as a tourist destination and a place to escape to. However, given its location, not many tourists visit the Islands which contain only one hotel in a converted penal colony adminstration building. The accommodation is expensive, however, we opt for the much cheaper alternative of sleeping in hammocks hung from within one of the former prisoner buildings! It is a strange experience and one that I would definitely recommend to others heading this way. Overnighting also provides the opportunity to visit more of the islands which contain many hidden ruins of the times gone past, including solitary confinement cells, the former hospital, lighthouse, morgue, shackle houses, prisoners swimming pool (literally in the sea but sheilded from its waves by large surrounding rocks) and a wardens graveyard which is of such a large size to indicate how well manned the prison was for so long over the years. Overgrown between all these ruins, abandoned buildings and relics of the past is coconut palms which creates an atmosphere akin to a Stephen Speilberg film, almost like you will discover a lost tomb around the corner. We leave after our one (voluntary!) night in a prison and head back to the mainland leaving behind three beatiful islands and head along the coast to Korou - being the site of a more enlightended human endeavour of space flight.

Firstly, getting around and staying in French Guiana is a nightmare for a backpacker. Accommodation is expensive and almost all restricted to bland hotels. There is no public transport (apart from the no. 1 bus in Cayenne which appeared to be going nowhere) and are therefore required to use the shared minibus taxis. These are ok but are infrequent and may leave when full well before their expected departure times! Fortunately we locate the one minibus which departs once a day to Korou 2 hours before its departure and are therefore assured a seat (but only just!) It seems remarkable that the most expensivce country in South America is incapable of providing a public bus service along its one coastal road - this being where everybody lives!

The minibus drops us off at the space centre on the outskirts of Korou and we have a visit of the museum and space centre grounds, including the launch pad! Amazingly the three hour tour of the grounds is free and even more amazingly we are granted half price entry into the museum owing to our attendance on the free tour! The museum is interesting and provides a very informative history of the development of space flight. Consider these not insignificant statistics: the sun is 150 million killometres away. Its light travelling at 300,000 kilometres per second takes eight minutes to reach us. Travelling a the speed of light, it takes more than four years to reach Alpha Centauri, the closest star to the sun. There are millions of galaxies and each galaxy contains hundres of billions of stars!

The tour of the grounds is a little dissapointing. I had expected bright white buildings, clinical straight lines, gigantic engineering marvels etc. However, the site is predominaed with warehouse buildings and aging infasrtucture. The highlights are the new Arianne launch pad and the control rooms for the launches. Staggeringly, the lauch creates temperatures approaching 3000 degrees celcius. To keep the lauch pad cooled, each lauch uses 1 million litres of water! The launch site is the only one in the world this close to the equator (5 degrees) where the earth spins significantly faster than further north or south; this means that the site benfits from from the ´slingshot effect´, which boosts propulsion making the laucnhes up to 17% more energy efficient than sites further away from the equator. Hence, this is the favured site for sending satellites into space; since 1980, two thirds of the worlds commercial satellites have been laucnhed from French Guiana. Our guide advises that space debris is becoming a problem, whilst there are approximately 400 working satellites circling the globe, there are another 4000 defunct satellites circling us with no agreed method of what to do with them. I would have stayed longer in French Guiana to coincide with one of the launches as there is at least one every month but unfortauntely none in September, damn!

We are confronted with another expensive dilmma arriving into Korou when the first accommodation asks for 110 Euros per night and the second (and cheapest) hotel 77 Euros per night. However, the owners of the latter take pity on our overlaiden appearance and suggest that we enquire with the Amerindian community on the beach. So we head off and immediatly locate an open hut on the beach where the owner charges only 6 Euros per night. I say ´per night´ but we only stay until 2.30am owing to another endightment of French Cayenne transport, there is only one daily minibus heading west to the Suriname border but it leaves at 3am! So we arrive into St Laurent du Maroni on the Suriname border at around 6am (why the minibus leaves Korou at 3am is beyond me as there are boats crossing the border to Suriname all day). From there we catch a cab to an Amerindian site to set up a hammock for the night and visit the Arche de Noe zoo, which exists by taking in animals captured from illegally capturing and trading, includng a giant anaconda. However, we are told by the Amerindian couple that it has been closed for three years. Despite this, we have a great couple of hours at their site, having breakfast and chatting about the location before they give us a lift to the border crossing to Suriname, which will form the beginning of my next blog.

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