Exploring Guyana is rarely a passive experience – there’s a temptingly long menu of activities, matching the diversity of landscapes, wildlife and culture. Unsurprising in the ‘Land of Many Waters’, opportunities for fishing and canoeing abound – paddling a traditional dugout along the Burro Burro River is a perfect way to delve into this biodiverse environment. Trails through rainforests, along gorges, up mountains and across savannah offer rich opportunities for hiking, and riders saddle up in the ranches of the Rupununi. Birding and wildlife-watching is unrivalled, with creatures great – jaguar, giant anteater, harpy eagle – and small vying for your attention, as well as chances to contribute to important conservation research projects. And throughout, you’ll be welcomed by people keen to share their heritage and traditions, from indigenous cooking with cassava to market tours in Georgetown.
Artisanal arts and crafts
Guyana produces a rich array of arts and crafts – from hats, mats, bowls and baskets woven from tibisiri straw to balata-wood figurines, from brightly coloured textiles to clay pottery. Many of these super souvenirs are made by the Amerindian community; by purchasing the wares of these grass-roots artisans, you’re helping to provide a vital income source that enables communities to thrive by creative enterprise rather than less sustainable means such as logging and the wildlife trade. The gift shop at the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs stocks a selection of handmade jewellery, clothing, ornaments and sculptures, or you can even visit the small stalls at the Hibiscus Craft Plaza. Look out for projects on the ground too. For instance, the Yupukari Crafters (near Karanambu) make a range of home furnishings – from hammocks to chairs and tiles – that brings income into the village, while the Moruca Embroidery Women’s Group, based in the Santa Rosa and Waramuri area, in Guyana’s north-west, produce textiles embroidered with local wildlife that bring in an alternative income to sea turtle harvesting.
Market tours and cooking classes
Take an expert-led tour of Georgetown’s historic markets – bustling Stabroek, full-to-bursting Bourda – and you’ll get a true taste of what makes Guyana tick: there are few better ways to understand a place than through its food culture. A guide will help you navigate the colourful chaos, identify the exotic ingredients – from blim blim and noni to pawpaw and souri – and help you pick the best ingredients. You can then have a go at making a few classics yourself: maybe cook up a classic pepperpot, an aromatic meat stew, thick with cassareep (a black sauce made from cassava root). Or try recreating the creole dish metemgee, a one-pot mix of cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, plantains and spices boiled in coconut milk and served with duff (wheat flour dumplings), held to be a source of strength and virility.
Preservation of the nation’s biodiversity is intrinsically linked with tourism in Guyana – unsurprisingly, since wildlife and unspoiled natural landscapes are two of the biggest draws for visitors. And you can get hands-on with conservation at a number of sites across the country. For example, at Caiman House in Yupukari village, you can join the study of the endangered black caiman, heading out at night alongside the research crew as they capture, measure and tag these reptiles. And at Iwokrama River Lodge, which hosts an important research centre, you might meet and help scientists studying rainforest ecology and the ecosystem services this spectacular habitat provides.
River kayaking and canoeing
Paddling the rivers of the ‘Land of Waters’ offers an immersive and unique perspective on Guyana’s landscapes, culture and wildlife. One of the country’s great adventures is a multi-day journey through the Rupununi along the Burro Burro River in a traditional dugout canoe, spotting diverse birdlife along with giant river otter, black and spectacled caiman, red howler monkey and perhaps even jaguar and tapir en route. Starting from Surama – where you can learn about indigenous Makushi culture from local villagers – camp on the riverbank and fish for piranha to roast over an open fire.
Guyana is a paradise for birders – more than 820 avian species call its forests, savannahs, mangroves, beaches and plains home. Much of that incredible biodiversity is found in the pristine rainforest that cloaks over 80% of the land. In rich birding locations such as Iwokrama Rainforest Reserve, you might spot a host of vibrant species, with names that provide clues to their colourful plumage: watch for green-tailed jacamar, purple-breasted cotinga, painted parakeet, rufous-throated sapphire, not to mention kaleidoscopic toucans, macaws, prehistoric-looking hoatzin (or ‘stink birds’) and the flamboyant Guianan cock-of-the-rock (pictured above), with its punk-rock orange mohican crest. Birds of prey include the majestic harpy eagle, while wetlands harbour ibis, storks and herons. The country’s strong focus on conserving biodiversity is reflected in the research bases, community-focused lodges and expert guides that enable wildlife lovers to locate and identify its avian wonders.
Indigenous culture and lifestyle
Some nine indigenous nations proudly preserve traditional lifestyles, and you’ll find plenty of opportunities to learn from these indigenous nations whose ancestors arrived in this region perhaps 11,000 years ago. The North Rupununi is home to the Makushi people, many of whom run eco-lodges in the area and welcome guests to learn about the region’s wildlife, language and traditions. It’s an immersive experience: at Rewa Eco Lodge, for example, at the confluence of the Rupununi and Rewa Rivers, discover the nine local uses of cassava, from making bread and farine (a little like couscous) to preserving meat and even making local beer. Elsewhere, ecotourism is being developed in indigenous communities at Karasabai, in North Rupununi; Moraikobai, close to Georgetown; and Warapoka, in Region 1.
Catch-and-release sport fishing
Anglers rejoice: the rivers and lakes of this ‘Land of Many Waters’ shimmer with a variety of fish, ranging from small but ferocious to very, very large. Some you’ll have heard of – piranha, of course, and several huge species of catfish including the ‘lau lau’ or goliath, growing to over 2m long – while others will be less familiar. There’s the arapaima, the world’s largest scaled freshwater fish; the payara or ‘vampire fish’, its lower jaw armed with fearsome needle-sharp teeth; and the colourful lukanani, known as the peacock bass – not as hefty as those giant catfish, but feisty enough to make up for it. Sports fishing, as with other activities in Guyana, is managed for sustainability and the community of Rewa has built an international reputation of excellence in catch-and-release, which is seasonal. The Essequibo, Burro Burro and Siparuni Rivers are among the waterways offering rich pickings for fishing enthusiasts, and lodges offer packages including boat hire and fishing guides; Rewa Eco Lodge is a top pick.
The broad expanse of the Rupununi Savannah is Guyana’s wild west – a swathe of rolling grassland patchworked by some of the world’s oldest and largest ranches. This is the place to climb into the saddle and experience the life of a vaquero (cowboy), driving cattle or simply enjoying the freedom of these widest open spaces. The North and South Rupununi, divided either side of the Kanuku Mountains, have subtly different characters. The (slightly) more visited North is the home of sustainably run operations such as Waikin Ranch, where joining vaqueros as they take cattle out to pasture or round them up is a treat – particularly when a giant anteater makes a guest appearance.
Walking in Guyana is more Indiana Jones than Alfred Wainwright – though there are well-kept trails along popular short routes, longer treks typically involve bushwhacking through dense forest, fording rivers and keeping an eye out for the profuse wildlife en route. And they’re all the better for it: the epic multi-day hikes to mighty Kaieteur Falls, or the arduous trek to Mt Roraima’s base or summit, for example. But there are plenty of shorter but still challenging excursions, including climbs up Iwokrama, Turtle, Awarmie or Surama mountains. All are achievable in a day or less, and all the more enjoyable undertaken with experienced local guides.
Wildlife spotting and photography
Guyana is known for its Brobdingnagian beasts: giant river otters, turtles and anteaters, capybara, black caiman, harpy eagles and of course the elusive jaguar – the Americas’ biggest cat. And while encounters with these behemoths are electrifying, there’s much more to see among the country’s biodiverse habitats – savannahs, mangroves, plains, mountains and the lush rainforest that swathes over 80% of the land. Golden frogs lurk in giant tank bromeliads, huge arapaima fish swimming through the rivers, and howler monkeys, ocelots and boa constrictors swing, slink and slither through the forests. Try to include at least some activities after dark, perhaps a boat trip along the Essequibo River to spot nocturnal species. Wherever and whenever you travel, patience, binoculars and a good zoom lens are boons – but with expert local guides, you’re sure to enjoy unforgettable animal encounters.
For where to stay in Guyana and natural and cultural attractions, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Guyana