French Guiana, or Guyane (gwee-ahn), is an overseas department of France. The capital, Cayenne, which sits on a peninsula at the mouth of the Cayanne River, was founded by French traders in the 17th century, but actually takes its name from an Amerindian prince. The country is still heavily dependent on its guardian nation for investment and tourism – almost all of the annual 10,000 travellers who reach French Guiana are French or Belgian.
Although tourism is in its infancy, nature-loving travellers can find adventure all over this little-known corner of Latin America, blanketed by thick, lush, undisturbed rainforests. St-Laurent du Maroni, close to the western border with Suriname, is home to the spectacular Voltaire Falls, and seven kilometres further south is the Amerindian village of Terre Rouge – hire a canoe for day trips up the Maroni River. In the Massif Central, the remote, gold-mining settlement of Saül is buried deep – accessible via a well-maintained system of trails.
One place that does attract reasonable volumes of visitors is the Centre Spatial Guyanais, at Kourou, 60km west of the capital. Here you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about rockets at the Space Museum, and maybe even catch a dramatic launch.
Offshore are the Îles du Salut, the site of a notorious convict settlement. Today, monkeys, turtles, macaws and coconut palms are the only inhabitants. Devil’s Island is considered to be the most secure and inaccessible islet of the settlement – the only prisoner to escape was Henri Charrière, who floated all the way to Venezuela in 1944 on a raft of coconuts.
Charrière’s route took him further up the coast to Awala-Yalimopo where, today, you might catch a glimpse of giant leatherbacks laying their eggs in the moonlight, or of tiny juvenile turtles wiggling their way back to the sea.