Into the wild in lush Guyana

Wearing both hiking boots and nightclothes, blearily rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we jerked and bumped our way by jeep across the Rupununi savannah of south-western Guyana. As the sun rose over the Kanuku Mountains, we passed sinewy cattle, plump black vultures and giant Jabiru storks hunched like skinny old men.
Suddenly, a cloud of dust and sounds of hollering men: we were nearing our goal. Jolting to a halt, we staggered out onto the scrubby plain to see a large, furry, absurdly proportioned and clearly disgruntled giant anteater lolloping at high speed toward us, followed on horseback by three Amerindian cowboys, or vaqueros, who grinned as we dazedly fumbled to get out our cameras.
How did I end up in this remote spot, chasing anteaters? First, my maternal grandmother was born and raised in Georgetown, the Guyanese capital, and oft-told tales of monkeys, macaws and boating on the chocolate-brown Demerara River had long stoked my resolve to visit this country.
Second, Guyana is truly off the tourist path — a place, as Evelyn Waugh wrote in “92 Days,” his 1932 travel memoir of what was then British Guiana, “of conflicting cultures and states of development where ideas, uprooted from their traditions, become oddly changed in transplantation.”
Nestled between Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname, Guyana — South America’s only English-speaking country — is a place that rarely registers as a vacation spot. In recent years, however, the country has started pushing to capitalize on its often stunning scenery, abundant wildlife and rich Amerindian heritage.
Arrowpoint Nature Resort
I arrived from London with my two brothers and our mother in the bustling post-colonial capital of Georgetown, and we soon left for the Guyanese interior. Most tours take in the same trail of villages: ours swooped up to the Arrowpoint Nature Resort north of Georgetown, then south through the ranches of Dadanawa and Karanambu and the Amerindian village of Surama in the Rupununi savannah, before looping back up to the Iwokrama research center in the centre of the country.
Wild interior
Once in the interior, you can forget any ideas of rambling off on your own, thanks to a lack of roads and often limited accommodations and food supplies in the rural villages. (And don’t even think about visiting the rain forests without a local guide, unless you are fully prepped in dealing with caiman, black widow spiders and armadillo wasps.)
This isolation has resulted in the emergence of eco-lodges across the country, built with the help of both foreign aid and Amerindian knowledge. In Surama, where we stayed, a tiny Macushi village of about 300 inhabitants set in a five-square-mile patch of open savannah in the northern Rupununi, two four-bed eco-lodges have drawn a steady stream of visitors.
Rainforest and spider monkeys
On our first day in Surama, we rose at 4:30 a.m. to meet our guide, Gary Sway, a Macushi villager whose knowledge of local plants and animals seemed inexhaustible. He led us into the dark canopy of the rain forest, where we stared in awe as spider monkeys jumped and shrieked in the treetops above our heads. “They don’t like people being on their territory,” Gary told us calmly. “Sometimes they start throwing branches or even defecate to make you move away.” We looked up, checked that no monkeys were looming directly overhead, and continued our climb, while Gary identified pink candle-shaped flowers of wild ginger, brilliant blue morpho butterflies and the distant wail of the howler monkeys.
Later that day, we paddled down the Burro-Burro River, spotting colorful toucans and armies of bullet ants, which, Gary told us, are reputed to have the most painful sting of any insect known to man. As the sun started to set, we trudged back to camp, exhausted, ready to turn in as the immense savannah sky filled with stars.
Of course, this level of solitude isn’t for everyone. At the Karanambu ranch, we ran into two Frankfurt-based couples, who, upon finding that Guyana did not provide the on-tap wildlife, chilled wines and lizard-free log cabins that, say, a chic safari trip might, had chartered a private plane to take them back to Georgetown.
And yet it is this lack of frills and modern conveniences that has allowed Guyana to keep its unique, unspoiled beauty, in a way that other South and Central American countries have not.
As we bumped back to Dadanawa ranch from our excursion on the savannah, I turned to one of our guides to ask if she finds it frustrating that so few people visit her country. She paused. “Well, Guyana’s not for everyone,” she finally said. “You can’t go and spot anteaters at dawn if you are in a group of 20.”
 “And,” she added, “Guyana’s special. It’s not a place to come if you just want a vacation — you have to really want to come here. If you don’t, maybe we don’t really want you.”

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