Guyana's incredible landscape and teeming rainforests have lured explorers for centuries.
Anita Sethi goes in search of El Dorado
Anita Sethi guardian.co.uk, Thursday 16 June 2005 18.23 BST
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Kaieteur, one of the tallest waterfalls in the world, is hidden in Guyana's tropical heartland. Photograph: Anita Sethi
As we walk through the dense Guyanese rainforest, a sign stops us in our tracks: "This area is an overhang. Proceed at your own risk. 741 feet drop below. Keep away from the edge."
Having travelled thousands of miles to get here, though, I'm determined to go the final inch. I tiptoe to the edge and, lying down flat, my hands clutching the cliff's rough stone, I peer over the precipice to see something that would steal the sleep from the most heat-tired of eyes. A rainbow arches below in an explosion of colour, creating the sudden feeling that the world has swung upside down. The rainbow seems close enough to touch, but I'm not brave enough to try. Instead, I snap it with my camera and scramble back.
Behind me, one of the highest single-drop waterfalls in the world crashes down in a frenzy of white mist. We are at the Kaieteur Falls, hidden in the savannah-filled heart of Guyana, where the Potaro river plunges over the Pakaraima plateau. The tour guide tells us that the rainbow appears every day; that the Falls were discovered in the nineteenth-century by a British explorer; and that according to Amerindian legend, they were named after a tribal chief who canoed over them in an act of self-sacrifice. In the distance we can see Mount Roraima, which inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World - the Guianas were once thought to be home to the lost city of El Dorado and lured the British, French and Dutch in search of gold.
But now the country is overwhelmingly absent of visitors; instead, the past decades have seen streams of emigrants. We are eight amongst just 16 tourists that will land here today and the only Brits in our group; the rest are Americans. Like all of Guyana, this area is untouched by large-scale tourism, and so there are no stalls selling postcards, no internet cafes, no protective fences against the cliff's edge. Situated on the northern tip of South America, Guyana sometimes seems like the underbelly of the Caribbean, the muddy cousin of Latin America, known better for the Jim Jones massacre than for its hidden rainbows. When I told people where I was going on holiday, the usual response was, "Where, Ghana?" Not one person had heard of it. But standing here, surrounded by this vast, incredible landscape, the sheer force of its existence slaps you in the face.
Guyana is developing a market in eco-tourism and the Kaieteur Falls are one of its greatest attractions. As the guide leads us through the surrounding Kaieteur National Park, the sunlight slanting through tiny gaps in the trees casts huge shadows of our bodies on the forest floor. But we are the last thing on our minds. We search for a sight of the tiny Golden frogs, the "jewels of the rainforest", but are rewarded instead by a flurry of wings as one of the largest species of butterflies in South America shoots past in a blur of brilliant blue, too fast to capture on camera. Then the trees start dripping red flowers. The wildlife here is so intense and unpredictable that it constantly jolts me awake, distracting attention from my aching muscles, dry mouth and sluggish shadow.
We've flown here on a 10-seater charter plane as part of a tour organized by the Hotel Tower in Georgetown, Guyana's capital city. Next we fly on to the Orinduik Falls, which lie on the border of Brazil. I watch Kaieteur shrink into the distance, a gash on the earth's surface, its rainbow still visible. Up here, there is a huge stillness; only the click and whirr of our cameras; the sipping of our drinks, the gentle humming of the plane engine, the ticking of a watch. Nobody talks. We all stare, fixated, out of the window. It is as if we are the only people on earth, until there's a sudden movement far below from one of the Amerindians, walking across a clearing in the jungle. Waterfalls, mountains, forests, and more waterfalls - the view from the plane. Indeed, Guyana means "land of many waters", after its 300 waterfalls and the numerous rum-coloured rivers snaking through it.
The Orinduik Falls are gentler than Kaieteur and we take a dip in the mouth of the falls. Orinduik is home to a diamond mining community and we're joined by an Amerindian man, the father of a bemused boy we have befriended. He tells us in a smattering of English how he often rows across the river to Brazil, to go to the nearest shop.
Most people in Guyana will never have been to this beautiful wilderness: they live clustered in the coastal villages or in Georgetown, where we return. It's a drier, noisier, smellier experience, filled with white-washed wooden shops, wooden schools, wooden houses and a great, cast-iron market. Georgetown claims the world's tallest free-standing wooden building - St George's Cathedral, designed by a nineteenth-century Brit. The doors, when we visit, are flung open onto a service, song spilling into the street. Charming colonial architecture is dotted everywhere, much of it weathered. Guyana is below sea-level at high tide (hence the muddy rivers) and so a protective sea wall stretches for miles and buildings are slightly raised from the ground.
We often travel around by "taxi", which involves cramming as many people as possible into a van, invariably with Guyanese music blaring out as it hurtles through the streets, the driver singing along enthusiastically. It's a curiously exhilarating experience - until we pass the first of several road accidents that we are to witness. Drink-driving is an endemic problem here. As the van slows down beside a crowd of people, I glimpse a bloodied body in the dusty street. The van speeds on again, the jubilant music now sounding jarringly discordant.
At the ferry port, we wait for hours in the afternoon sun, street sellers sustaining us with a steady supply of fried plantain crisps covered in mango syrup. Finally, a ferry glides us across the brown river to Berbice. In the village, I lie awake each night, unable to sleep over the monsoon rain which clatters against the thin roof, the incessant chirping of crickets; and the shrill cock-a-doodle-doos that send me stumbling out of bed and into a breakfast of mashed pumpkin, watery daal and jackfruit. The night's rain leaves behind a sweet freshness each morning and our days are all shot through with coconut water, Banks beer and El Dorado rum.
Electricity here is a fickle, ghostly thing. One evening, we are left suddenly sitting in darkness when the power cuts out, so we decide to go to sleep early. Sometime in the middle of the night, the television turns back on, the lights flash open and the taps start running again.
We drive through Berbice, past sugar cane fields where people work producing Demerara sugar, and take a ferry ride across the Courentyne river to Surinam, formerly Dutch Guiana. The capital city, Paramaribo, offers a strangely familiar nightlife experience - Amsterdam's poorer doppelgänger.
Back in Georgetown, waiting for a taxi to the airport, we do a last-minute dash around the street stalls: all I salvage are an oil painting of the Kaieteur Falls (a rather Surrealist interpretation), a shell necklace, a woven basket and as much El Dorado rum as possible, before the plane carries us to a connecting flight at Barbados, and the waters change from brown to a shock of bright blue.
The coastal towns and villages of Guyana feel like being in India, the Caribbean and 1950s England - all at the same time. The interior, though, feels like no other place on earth; it's worth visiting, before the loggers get there.
Way to go
BIWA (British West Indian Airways) fly to Guyana via Antigua, St Lucia, Barbados or Port of Spain from London Heathrow or Manchester International from £605 return. 0870 499 2942
A deluxe suite at Hotel Tower costs $120 dollars per night
Tel: 00 592 2 272011 -14 Fax: 00 592 2 256021
Rainforest excursions can be booked through the Hotel Tower
Trips to Kaieteur and Orinduik Falls cost $100 per person
Parkway Hotel, 4 Main Street, New Amsterdam, Berbice
Tel: 00 592-3-3928
Single room: $7-$11, Double room: $20
Look up the Latin America Travel Association for more information.
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