Hiking in French Guiana – Watch out for Snakes

Tiny Frog in French Guiana (©photocoen)In Cayenne, French Guiana’s capital, we didn’t just suffer bureaucratic rigmaroles (read about it here). One of the things we did was meeting with writer Philippe Bore and his wife after I had bought his guidebook Guide de Guyane. I loved listening to their passion for French Guiana’s natural wealth. I also loved the book – it’s one of the best guidebooks I have ever come across.

Guide de Guyana is an incredibly informative with, among other things, the description of 35+ hiking trails in French Guiana, including extensive descriptions on vegetation and wildlife. The only down-side is, for I suspect many visitors: the book is in French (you can buy it on Amazon.com but we found it in several book shops in Cayenne).

Tasting Cacao and Chocolate on the Fort Diamant Trail

Thanks to the book we walked the Fort Diamant Trail just outside Cayenne. Here we met Yves Delecroix, who weekly gives a presentation about his passion: the cultivation of cacao and producing the best chocolate in the country: Walapulu chocolate. It is also by far the most expensive chocolate we ever bought. Each bar is hand-made, but boy, it’s goo-od! (read about it here).

Young cacao bean

Young cacao bean

Yves Delecroix showing us around his plantation

Yves Delecroix showing us around his plantation

When we drove from Cayenne to Kaw, we walked several of the trails mentioned in the book. We not only encountered the poison-dart frog we were looking for, but also a nervous snake.

Birdwatching and a Priest in Roura

Driving from Cayenne to Kaw, French Guiana (©photocoen)The 70-kilometer asphalt road between Cayenne and Kaw meandered through thick jungle. Only at intervals did we encounter a couple of houses or a guesthouse, and some parking places offering views of the forest and walking trails. The only town in between is Roura – the name is derived from Aroua, the name once given to this place by the Amerindians.

In 1675 the Jesuits arrived and constructed a wooden chapel along the Oyack River. With the aid of slaves they developed the area and cultivated coffee, cotton, cassava and sugar cane. In 1847 a new church was constructed, on the ruins of the chapel. This time it was partly constructed of stone and was called St. Dominique Church, after the patron saint of the village.

Girl in Roura, French Guiana (©photocoen)On our arrival local teenagers lingered on the church stairs. When talking with two of them I tried to figure out what the name was of the lovely black-yellow birds that flew back and forth to the tree right in front of us. The foliage was home to a clan of the same birds; a myriad of nests has been constructed on top of each other. Some birds returned with material for nesting, others with worms for the juveniles that we heard screaming for food.

The girls had no idea what the name of the bird was. As we chatted they told me they are waiting for their bible class. Next to the church was the presbytery and here I met Père Alain Fortune-Sindza. He originally came from Congo, but moved to France where he heard priests were needed in French Guiana. And so, ten years ago, Père Alain felt this could be his next home, moved to Roura and hasn’t regretted this decision.

As we said goodbye he told us to wait, and went inside to fetch something. He presented us with a placemat featuring pictures of the town’s monuments, among which the church and the adjacent, somewhat dilapidated, grocery. On the back of the placemat various flowers were depicted. The priest and I shared an interest in the bougainvillea and heliconias. The latter are bright yellow, orange and red flowers that bring color to the generally overwhelmingly green jungle. Burle Marx, a Brazilian landscape architect, has been the discoverer of many of South America’s heliconia species.

Les Chutes de Fourgassié and a Snake

French Guiana may be expensive in terms of accommodation and food (I wrote an article on budget travel for French Guiana on Matador Network) but it there is an abundance of activities you can undertake without spending a dime. Like hiking, which in French Guiana is free of charge (unlike some other countries in South America that charge 10 dollars or more).

Leaf in French Guiana's Rainforest (©photocoen)

Mushroom, French Guiana Rainforest (©photocoen)

In fact, because of Guide de Guyane we were driving this road in the first place, with the idea to hike some of the trails along the route. A bit beyond Roura are the Chutes de Fourgassié. We parked the Land Cruiser and walked down the forest. We used rocks and roots to keep our feet dry from thick mud that characterized the trail. The roots of Amazon trees never grow deep and many twist above the ground; they often provide perfect ‘stairs’ on slippery hills.

“Watch out!” Coen exclaimed while stumbling back.
I spurted forward, having no clue what to watch out for. I looked around: no big animal to be seen. I turned around and looked at Coen, who stood staring at the ground right in front of him.
“A snake, you stepped right next to it,” he said, pointing his finger at a snake thin as a blade of grass with a luminous green head.

It was blocking our path: I couldn’t go back, Coen couldn’t walk forward. We had no idea if the snake was poisonous. Coen took the opportunity to photograph it from all sides while all his moves were closely watched by the snake.

Hiking in French Guiana - Where is the snake going?

Where is it going?

Snake in French Guiana (©photocoen)

But fifteen minutes later we felt we had thoroughly studied every single inch of the snake. Now what? Coen threw a couple of pebbles at it after I have stepped farther back. The reptile snapped at them but was not interested in moving. Coen picked up a stick and with an elegant hurled the snake into the bushes. It quickly slithered high into a tree. We followed its movements as it elegantly moved up, an image reminiscent of Ka, Junglebook’s snake but in a smaller version. Without any noise and seemingly without any effort it glided up the tree, defying all laws of gravity and using the branches to go from one tree to the next.

The waterfall was a peaceful sight. It cascaded over the boulders as it probably had done for years on end. There was serenity here, a tranquillity full of energy; a place of intense beauty and peace. Light filtered through the foliage on the brook below the waterfall. We leaned over the barrier of a wooden bridge and watched the flowing waters home to fluttering, bright-blue morpho butterflies. Trees had grown straight to the sky. Creepers and lianes had found their way around the trees, forming bridges for snakes and monkeys that want to move from tree to tree.

Tree in French Guiana's Rainforest (©photocoen)

Le Sentier Favard and the Poison-dart Frog

We returned to the parking lot. The splashing of the waterfall disappeared into the background and the soft gurgling sounds of the creek returned, as did the crescendos of five-centimeter-long crickets.

Our final destination was Kaw.

View of Kaw, French Guiana (©photocoen)

 

The poison dart frogs live around a big boulder on top of the hill covered in these still undeciphered rock carvings

The poison dart frogs live around a big boulder on top of the hill covered in these still undeciphered rock carvings

However, we learned that in order to reach Kaw you need to take a boat. We would keep that trip for the following day. We parked in the parking lot and climbed Favard Hill instead. We defied de mosquitoes and found what we had been looking for today: the bright-yellow, bright-purple poison-dart frog.

No, this isn't the one...

No, this isn’t the one…

Here it is, isn't it beautiful?

Here it is, isn’t it beautiful?

You can pick up the frog and even – if you feel so inclined – lick it without any consequences. However, Amerindian used (or maybe still use) the slime of these frogs to put on their arrowheads. As soon as the slime hits the bloodstream is lethal…

We took the boat trip the next day

We took the boat trip the next day

We had gotten a glimpse of French Guiana’s wildlife and were ready for more: Off we sent for Awala Yalimapo, where we’d camp for weeks to watch sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs (read about it here).


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