24 hours in French Guiana

The rivers disappear from view, the only means to discover Amazonia in this majestic plant kingdom. French Guiana is the largest of the French overseas departments, and the least populated, with 96% of the island taken up by tropical rainforest.

Natural discovery is therefore inevitable during a trip in a dugout canoe, trek in the wilderness, and a spot of fishing or panning for gold. And here, gold has quite a history. In the 17th century, the country was overrun with a stream of European settlers, all seeking their El Dorado or legendary region literally brimming over with precious riches…

But in the end, diversity has brought French Guiana its true wealth. Just like the local cuisine, 400 years of cultural mix have injected the island’s language and population with a hint of spice: French Guiana Creole finds its roots in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, not forgetting African and American Indian languages.

10.32am Reach for the stars

…Or unhook the moon, depending on which way you are inclined! Head for Kourou (54km from Cayenne), for the Ariane space rocket launch pad, set up in 1979. And you can even attend launches 4-6 times a year from a nearby location, to experience the countdown, the ignition of the engines and the unforgettable spectacle of a satellite launching into space. And outside of launch time, the Space Centre welcomes the public to visit the museum and its immense facilities.

 2.57pm La Chrysalide spreads its wing

Quite naturally, insects that fly off in search of other lands rarely come back with tales to tell. But for tourists, it’s an absolute must, and here is the perfect boutique, specially recommended by Nicolas Feuillatte. Located in a busy shopping street in Cayenne, you will find an array of useful and decorative local crafts, including jewellery, furniture made from local snake wood, pink cedar wood sculptures, local chocolate delicacies, exotic jams and more than 200 types of tea sourced from across the world.

Now in the capable hands of the affable Dominique Marlin, located in the ground floor of a large Creole residence with red shutters, the boutique has also retained its original entomological purpose, and sells over 60 species of insects, including the blue Morpho butterfly - the symbol of French Guiana - the world’s largest spider, grasshoppers and beetles.

8.04pm The Touloulous at the masquerade ball

If you happen to time your visit after Epiphany, in January and February, don’t forget to pack your camera of course, but bring a good costume too. Carnival, celebrated just before Lent, provides the ultimate party experience and even more so as French Guiana celebrates a tradition unlike any other on the planet.

Amidst other weird and wonderful characters, the “Touloulous” take their inspiration from 18th century “dames”, and disguised from head to toe, are the true queens of the ball who invite the men to dance in a sea of colour. When in Rome! The male contingency cannot refuse, and the ladies’ prerogative is to remain incognito, with the aid of masks, gloves, make-up and parades for the more shy and retiring...

Journey of discovery | Published on: 13 July 2012
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