At the end of May I had the opportunity to travel to Guyana, a place not commonly found on peoples bucket lists. Most people either thought I was going to Africa, or they wondered why I had chosen Guyana of all the other places in South America. While Guyana normally wouldn’t be my go-to country when planning a trip, it was one of the options for a field course as part of my Masters program, and in this case heading to Guyana beat out a lot of the other options that sounded amazing. So what drew me to Guyana - wildlife of course! Rainforests cover around 80% of land within Guyana. Because of the vast forest it is also home to hundreds of different animals - reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians, it is a wildlife-lovers paradise… assuming you’ve got some patience. Known as “the land of the giants” during an adventure in Guyana you might be lucky enough to see giant water lilies, giant anteaters, giant river otters, jaguars (the largest cat in the Americas), the harpy eagle (the largest eagle in South America) or the green anaconda (the heaviest snake in the world). Sounds amazing, right?
Guyana is a birders paradise, which is where my adventure began. Before my course started, I had a full day to explore so I booked a birding tour with Leon Moore where we headed to Mahaica River, which is about an hour west of Georgetown. The tour was an amazing welcome to Guyana and I would definitely recommend looking for a tour with Leon if you ever make it to Guyana! We quickly found scarlet ibis, roadside hawks, tropical kingbirds and yellow headed caracaras… and that was before we even got to the river! While our small group slowly meandered down the calm waters, we came across the stars of the tour, red howler monkeys and the national bird of Guyana, the hoatzin!
With such an amazing start the trip, my expectations were high. But of course, anyone going on a wildlife adventure should know that animals don’t exactly plan their days according to our schedules, especially when they are hidden in dense rainforest. In this ecosystem it is essential that a guide takes you around, to keep you safe and to find the most animals. I stayed in two locations while in Guyana - Iwokrama Research Centre and Surama Ecolodge; fortunately both of them are home to plenty of skillful guides. Iwokrama Research Centre has worked extensively with local communities, researchers, governments and international agencies to manage the one-million-acre Iwokrama forest, making them the largest environmental organization in Guyana. It was the perfect setting for experiencing rainforest adventures. I went trekking through the forest which was a mere 10 meters from where I was sleeping, boating down the Essequibo river learning about their wildlife surveys to better understand changes in their ecosystem, and climbed Turtle Mountain a 5km, 300 meter climb through the forest (where we also saw an orange-breasted falcon - big win in the birding world!). In the two days I stayed here, I saw macaws soaring through the sky, toucans foraging for fruit, tarantulas hiding in the leaves, and beautiful views filled with many more amazing animals.
Now if I have managed to convince you that a trip to Guyana is worth it, perhaps consider looking at a calendar… we went in the beginning of rainy season, which created a few problems, but these also led to some pretty spectacular adventures. The day we were heading to Surama was raining, a lot! Not all of our trucks were able to get to the research centre to pick us up. Instead a few cars that could manage to drive through the deep deep mud would shuttle groups up to the cars waiting beyond the giant hill. I was in the one of the last groups out, and also with a notoriously lucky driver! Within the first 20 minutes of our drive, we had already seen a Tayra (in the weasel family) and a few minutes later we came across a three-toed sloth crossing the road. Sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but there he was, slowly dragging himself across the road. Now you likely already know that sloths move very slowly, so leaving the sloth in the middle of the road was not something we were prepared to do as it could have easily gotten hit by a car driving through the rain storm. While normally, I am a full believer in a hands-off approach to viewing wild animals, this is one of those instances that breaking the rules is the right thing to do. One of our group carefully picked him up and brought the sloth safely across the road - and it sure told us how unhappy it was! Lots of grumbles and growls, sounds that didn’t even look like they would come from an animal that small and adorable. This was another reminder of how important it is to understand animal behaviour - the sloth appeared completely content, and like most sloths, almost looked as though he was smiling. But this sloth was not happy.
Once we got him across the road, we left him in peace and continued on our journey. It took a while, but we finally made it to our pit stop at the Iwokrama canopy walkway. We were grouped up with a guide who hiked with us up to the suspension bridges, and along the way taught us about the trees and ecosystem that surrounded us. When we got to the top we were greeted with a birds-eye view of the forest… but that didn’t last long, it quickly started pouring with rain, and I mean POURING! We ran down the hill but our speed meant nothing, within seconds we were drenched to the core. Thankfully Guyana is a warm country, because we were wet for the rest of the day, until we finally arrived at Surama Ecolodge!
For the reminder of the trip we stayed at this ecolodge which was nestled in the savannah but surrounded by rainforest. Despite the beautiful backdrop, it was the community that left the most lasting impression. The ecolodge is a community-based ecotourism business, with the aim of promoting ecosystem protection, while still providing employment and education for the local community. During our stay we were lucky enough to be taught by several different Makushi people, the indigenous community that lives in the area. We learned from their wealth of knowledge on how they live sustainably with the ecosystem, and cohabitate with the wild animals around them. It was inspiring the be around a group of people invested in conserving their local land and wildlife while learning from them through cultural presentations, games with the kids at the wildlife club, cooking lessons from the local chefs, guided nature walks and assisting in local farming efforts. With all of this going on, it simply became a bonus that I continue to add to our ever growing list of species we encountered - macaws, nightjars, vultures, hawks, kites, and caracaras. Guyana as a birders paradise continued to impress.
The last day of our tour brought more rain, lots and lots of rain. While we all sat waiting for a break in the downpour our hopes of making it to our last stop were rapidly deteriorating. That day we were planned to touch down at Kaieteur Falls, a waterfall about four times higher than Niagara Falls and is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. However, landing here in treacherous rainstorms is tricky, even for the skilled pilots that regularly fly over this beautiful landscape. Thankfully, the storm cleared enough and we were given the go-ahead to take off from the lodge. If you get a chance to take this flight, do it - if you ask, you might get to sit up front with the pilot, it is an experience you won't forget (but also isn’t for those who experience motion sickness, it was a bumpy ride). The ride alone offered spectacular views of the vast rainforest that covers the country and chances to watch pairs of macaws flying around down below. After landing at the park, it is only a short walk to one of three viewing points, each one taking you closer and closer to the falls. It may be easy to get lost staring at the view of the falls, but take some time to explore the surroundings, search for golden tree frogs within the bromeliad leaves, and if you are lucky, you may stumble upon a cock-of-the-rock lek. The falls is a spot well known for offering a glimpse of these birds as males gather to participate in confrontational displays in an attempt to win over the females. Feeling incredibly lucky to have seen four of these bright orange birds while a group of tourists sought the perfect picture, we got back in our tiny planes and headed back to Georgetown. With one last glimpse of the Guyana rainforest, I sat back and enjoyed the views of this beautiful country, thankful for the people, animals and adventure that I was fortunate enough to experience.