French Guiana By Boat

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When we planned our “Three Guyanas” trip, the biggest hurdle was finding a way to get to French Guiana. The “French” part of the name is significant in that the country is more like a state within France than it is a standalone country. We found flights from Paramaribo, Suriname to the capital of Cayenne to be infrequent, with the normal routes from the US heading to Paris before reaching South America. After much research, we decided an overland trip from Paramaribo to Albina on the border was the way to go, allowing us to cross over to Saint-Laurent Du Moroni, French Guiana. Timing of flights didn’t give us enough time to make it into French Guiana and allow us to spend the night in Cayenne so we figured crossing and having a beer would become the goal.

The Three Guyanas
The Three Guyanas

As always, we checked travel.state.gov to determine the visa requirements for all our destinations and French Guiana has a note that reads “U.S. Citizens travelling, or transiting through French Guiana must have proof of yellow fever vaccination”. Although I’m certain Uncle Sam had provided me with one at some point, I didn’t have the International Certificate of Vaccination (yellow card) as proof. Bella did, but hers was over 10 years old, so we planned to get vaccinated. The travel clinic where I received my shot and vaccination card informed me that the regulations had recently changed for yellow fever to eliminate the booster requirement. One shot was good for life, so Bella didn’t need a second.

One of the other details that we needed to make the trip happen was to figure out the tourist card requirement for entry into Suriname. We had read they were available at the airport upon entry, but if we left to go into French Guiana we would need another to get back in the second time. One solution we had read was to buy a multiple entry visa at the Surinamese Consulate in Georgetown, which happened to be just down the street from our hotel, the Herdmanston Lodge.

The Embassy of the Republic of Suriname
The Embassy of the Republic of Suriname
The dress code was not observed by the group of Cubans who entered after us
The dress code was not observed by the group of Cubans who entered after us

We filled out the forms, brought along extra passport photos, and stopped at our hotel to make copies of our entry stamps into Guyana as directed. The cost of the tourist card is $25 USD and the visa is $105 USD. The suggestion was to simply buy a tourist card there and a second one at the airport when we arrived, thus saving $55 each. With our tourist cards tucked away, we were set.

Suriname tourist cards, stamped upon entry
Suriname tourist cards, stamped upon entry

The original plan was to fly into Suriname’s Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport on the night of Dec 29 on Suriname Airlines, spend the night at the Wyndham in Paramaribo, drive to Albina and make the crossing the next day, then spend a second night in Paramaribo before leaving on Dec 31 on Insel Air. Things were going well until Bella received an email from Insel on the 28th stating they had arbitrarily moved our flight ahead a day, leaving us a mere 7 hours in Suriname. The airport is an hour from Paramaribo! We wouldn’t see anything except the airport. Bella called Insel and was told that we were notified according to their policy and that we were not entitled to a refund. The only choice we had was to cancel the ticket and we would have one year from the date of purchase (May 2015!) to redeem our credit. That is less than FOUR MONTHS, and of course there’s a fee for changing the tickets. Thieves!

That left us with the need to find a way from Paramaribo back across the border with Guyana so we could make our flight home from the Georgetown area. Our hosts at the Herdmanston Lodge assured us that overland passage was safe, easy, and cheap. Just an all day affair. They suggested we have our hotel in Paramaribo arrange everything with trusted drivers from their end.

Arriving around midnight on the 29th into Suriname, we purchased our second tourist card to use for that entry and hired a car for the hour drive to our hotel ($35 USD, NOT the $45 initially quoted). We arranged a private car for the next morning to take us to the border crossing, wait for us to cross and return us to our hotel at the end of the day. The driver charged us $600 SRD or $150 USD each. It was steep, but we felt the reduced risk of contracting a driver known and trusted by the Wyndham was worth it.

The next morning, as we began our journey, our driver and his buddy informed us that the border crossing  into Guyana that we were planning for the following day would be impossible due to the New Year. It was only Dec 31, but the story was reminiscent of our Allenby Bridge crossing years prior. This time, we took his word for it and discussed alternative solutions. The first suggestion was crossing illegally, called “back track” in that region. It’s quite common, but the problem with that is that without appropriate passport stamps and the corresponding entry into the computer database, we would essentially be illegal immigrants. Not the ideal status for a couple of traveling professionals who want to keep traveling, as in, those of us who want to remain outside of a Guyanese jail. I guess if we were crossing “back track” and returning to our starting country it would have been ok, but we didn’t have that luxury. We eventually called Gum Airlines (they have a website but it returns a “404 not found” error), a local charter that flies from the smaller Zorg En Hoop Airport in Paramaribo to the Ogle Airstrip in Georgetown. A quick stop to the Gum offices to purchase our ticket and we were on the road again. That ticket cost $440SRD or $160USD charged only in USD. I know, the currency conversion isn’t 4 SRD to 1 USD like it’s supposed to be, but Gum uses “a different currency…” Take it or leave it. We had no choice but to pay the inflated conversion rate. It would save us the $35 cab fare from Paramaribo to Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport and then the $25 cab fare from Cheddi Jagan International Airport to Georgetown that we would have had to spend if Insel hadn’t foiled our plans, as well as saving a couple hours in a car. There are silver linings everywhere, if one looks hard enough.

During the next two hours we stopped twice for beer and, despite stories of dirt roads, we only crossed one stretch of about a quarter mile of dirt. Smooth travels all the way.

IMG_1089
No open container laws in Suriname – the odd one is the local Parbo beer.
IMG_0877
The only stretch of dirt road we encountered

We made arrangements to be picked up in two hours and proceeded with the border crossing. Everything on the Suriname side took place at one booth, both entry and departure.

Suriname Immigration
Suriname Immigration

It was chaos. We lined up, waited our turn, and when we got to the front of the line, it was break time. Seriously, the agent stood up, stretched, drank a bottle of water, and talked with his pals for about five minutes while we just watched and waited like they were animals in a zoo. A quick scan of our passports and a stamp and we were off.

We had missed the real ferry but fortunately there were plenty of small boats like these who would happily take us across for $20SRD.

Boats
Boats – That’s French Guiana in the distance
Our boat was the one on the left
Our boat was the one on the left – Note the “backtrackers” in the distance.  No stamps for them…

The boatman (red shirt) tried to explain to us in Dutch that he wanted us to board his boat on the left by boarding the one on the right, passing through to avoid climbing over the family with eight giant pieces of luggage already in place, and then jumping across to his, just in front of the engine and sit next to the fuel tanks. Oh, switch places with her (Bella) to balance it out. And, before we take off, release the shades from their nails on the left side of the boat to keep the wind from blowing water aboard. All that with pantomimed Dutch coupled with a bit of leading by example.

Tight quarters on the boat
Tight quarters on the boat
Safety first - those nails at head hight are used to hold up the curtains
Safety first – those nails at head hight are used to hold up the curtains

Once the engine was started the guy on the front of the boat realized we were too heavy for the puny engine to pull us off the bank so he had to jump off and give us a push. The whole thing was so much fun, we planned to do it again in less than an hour.

The boat dropped us at the immigration point for French Guiana and we were processed into the EU. Nobody asked to see our vaccination cards. Imagine that…

French Guiana immigration
French Guiana immigration

The welcome sign simply reads “FRANCE”.

France, South American style
France, South American style

Our boat driver called us over to work the deal on our return trip. That’s when Bella realized he spoke French and was trying to explain where to purchase a Suriname tourist card. No thanks, we have that covered!

Saint-Laurent-Du-Moroni - note the EU license plates on the car
Saint-Laurent-Du-Moroni – note the EU license plates on the car

Our visions of a beer over lunch were dashed by our lack of time and our distance from anything  resembling a restaurant. Instead we settled for chips and beer from a grocery store while standing in the hot sun.

The pot of gold at the end of the journey
The pot of “blonde” at the end of the journey

We met a different boatman on that side who said he would take us across for 5€. We processed out of French Guiana (the boatman just walked through with a wave to the agent whilst I was grilled, apparently for lack of a Suriname visa).

Our boat on the return
Our boat on the return

His boat was the one we used for access to boat on our first trip. It was faster, smoother, and less rickety. Either that or we knew what to expect. Regardless, we actually enjoyed it.

Our smooth return
Our smooth return
The real ferry, the only way to get cars across
The real ferry, the only way to get cars across

Back in Suriname we stood on the dock watching the boats back track on both sides of the immigration center, openly flaunting the laws. I guess if you’re a local and don’t need to be legal the other boats only charge 4€.

Illegal immigration in South America in action
Illegal immigration in South America in action

Back inside the same immigration center we left nearly two hours before, standing at the same booth, we filled out forms, presented our unstamped tourist card, and were processed into Suriname.

Suriname immigration
Suriname immigration

We had to hand over our customs form to a guy in civilian clothes who was making out with his girlfriend before we interrupted. The uniformed agents were too busy with lunch and cartoons on tv with poor reception to be bothered. Outside our chariot was waiting, so we grabbed a couple beers for the road and headed back.

It was absolutely exhilarating. Was it worth the expense for two hours? It was a really expensive lunch, that’s for sure. But so satisfying! I don’t know how many would agree with us, but it was darn fun and we felt like we had really accomplished something. It took a lot of planning, we had to overcome obstacles, and we had to have our share of courage. We would not have missed it for the world.

~Freddy

French Guiana By Boat
French Guiana By Boat
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Freddy

I’m an engineer, a veteran, and an avid traveler. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson – “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

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