The Savanna and Iwokrama Forest in Guyana

Annai Travel Blog

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Leaving Brazil behind and entering Guyana
To get to Guyana from Manaus you have to take a 12 hour bus to Boa Vista and then another bus to Bonfim, the Brazilian town on the border. The bus drops you off at the Policia Federal where you can get an exit stamp. Brazil paid for the construction of a new bridge that spans the river separating Guyana and Brazil. The bridge, however, is closed to vehicular traffic and only facilitates the crossing of pedestrians, motorcycles, and bicycles. The Brazilian road is paved all the way to the Guyanan side where the road simply ends and a red dirt track picks up the rest of the way to somewhere short of Georgetown where I assume that the pavement resumes. Moneychangers operate on the edge of the bridge and taxis await to take you into Lethem, a few kilometers away.
Tall tree overlooking the savanna
The immigration affairs are done at the police station by perhaps the rudest immigration officer I have encountered in all of South America. He was barking orders at people and for Guyana they issue you a visa for the exact amount of time that you specify that you will be in Guyana. I requested two weeks since I didn´t want to get stuck and somehow end up overstaying my visa. He asked me to show proof of financial solvency for my stay in Guyana and forced me to physically show him the money, always fun you have to show everyone how much money you have on you. He didn´t think I had enough and was unswayed by my two credit cards so I was forced to dig out some of the US dollars that I had hidden in backpack. This seemed to satisy him and he stamped my passport giving me two weeks in Guyana.
The flatlands of the Guyana savanna


Guyana itself was like another world, certainly not like anywhere else I had been in South America. Not only was the language entirely different but the customs and culture were as well. It reminded more of the Bahamas than anywhere else. For starters, almost everyone, probably 99% of the people were black and though some of them spoke very good English, while others spoke this Caribbean style dialect that was mostly unintelligible and could hardly be called English in any proper sense. The driving was of course all done on the left hand side of the road, typical of a former British colony. Guyana was just as expensive as Brazil, but strangely enough, their largest monetary bill was 1000 Guyana dollars, essentially a $5 US bill, so you have everyone carrying around huge wads of money because credit cards are basically worthless at this end of the country.
The road through the Iwokrama forest linking Georgetown with Lethem
The sheer isolation of Lethem despite its proximity to a very disparate and alien Brazil really gave it the feel of a place at the end of the line, this coupled with its unique linguistic system also made it feel like a place that time had simply forgotten.

The next matter was figuring out how to make arrangements for visiting the Iwokrama forest. Because I had been forced to take the midnight bus from Boa Vista because the earlier ones were full, it was now about 4pm. There was nowhere to make a phone call because the public phones require you to use phone cards which were sold out of the stores in Lethem. I had to borrow someones cell phone to make the call. Lethem is so isolated from the rest of Guyana, and the world, that the cell phone calls from Lethem are actually routed to the US Virgin Islands before bouncing back to Georgetown.
The canopy walkway in the Iwokrama forest
I got through but only to find out that the office was closed for the day. There are minivans that make the 16 hour trip from Lethem to Georgetown every day but the bus only runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, as I later found out. I decided to take a minivan to Anai, near the southern edge of the Iwokrama Forest and in the midst of the savanna. I was crammed into the minivan with several other Guyanese and one guy from Suriname who was in Guyana illegally because when he crossed from Suriname into Brazil he never got an entrance stamp and therefore couldn´t get an exit stamp. Without a Brazilian exit stamp he couldn´t get an entrance stamp to Guyana. He had tried to bribe the immigration officer by slipping a $100 US into his passport when handing it over but that didn´t work and he was told to go back to Brazil.
Bus being loaded onto the ferry at the Kurupakari crossing
Instead he decided to go to Georgetown and then take a bus over to the border and slip across, returning home as if he had never left. Amidst an otherwise uncomfortable and unmemorable ride I managed to see the most amazing thing as we plowed through the rutted out dirt road through the savanna. As I looked out into the pitch blackness encompassing the minivan on all sides I could see thousands of fireflies lighting up the darkness as if someone had placed a giant disco ball up in the sky, truly one of the more unique and most unexpected sights that I have seen on my trip. Since we ended up leaving late, at around 10pm, and we didn´t reach Anai until about 1am where I gladly got out of the minivan and strung up my hammock in the little pavilion at the place called the Oasis for the night.
Thatched roof cabins at the Iwokrama Field Station


The next morning I set about trying to figure out how to get to the Iwokrama Field Station and how to visit the canopy walkway, which were apparently at opposite ends of the forest. The canopy walkway was closer to Annai, about 40km away. At the fancy part of the lodge where I was essentially camping for $5 a night, there was an office and the woman there made some inquiries over the internet via instant messaging about accomadations at the Iwokrama Field Station and she told me that a man was coming down in a few hours with some guests and I could talk to him. About an hour and half later the Operations Manager of the Field Station showed up and he told me all about the rates and how I could arrange transportation. I managed to get a ride with him to the Canopy Walkway where he dropped me off on his way back to the Field Station.
A view of Turtle Mountain from the river


The Canopy Walkway is series of metal trusses about 150 meters in total length suspended near the top of the forest canopy. It gives you a unique view of the forest that you don´t have from the ground. Unfortunately it was out of season so the trees weren´t bearing any fruit and the amount of birds and other animals was very low. I was still able to hear lots of birds and it was a nice enough experience to just be able to walk around amidst the treetops. My guide was a really knowledgeable and from one of the indigenous tribes, he knew everything about the trees and all their medicinal and other uses, as well as hunting and living off the forest. He told me about some of the crazy animals that live in the forest such as a giant spider that builds massive webs to catch birds, and the the arapaima, the largest freshwater fish in the world, reaching up to ten feet and over 600 pounds.
Traveling through the flooded Iwokrama Forest in Guyana during the rainy season
To get back to Annai I had to try to hitch a ride with passing traffic, which is few and far between on this road. At the Canopy Walkway they have radio contact with an office near the ferry crossing where they monitor all traffic into and out of the forest. It is a good system where they keep track of everything and everyone that moves through the forest and if you take too long on the trip you are asked to account for the delays to make sure that you aren´t poaching or logging. In addition the road through the forest is closed everynight for 12 hours at 6:30pm on one end and at 4:30pm on the other, further complicating things. So they radioed to find out if there was any passing traffic and it turns out that there was one vehicle on its way that should arrive in about 30 minutes.
A native man´s catch for the day
On our way back through the jungle to the main road, we saw lots of toucans and other birds all flying up near the tops of the trees, and we heard many more. Finally the vehicle showed up and it was an ancient truck carrying a load of gasoline to Lethem. I hopped in and we plowed over the rough road back towards Annai. After about 30 minutes the truck started to overheat, no surprise really since the truck was probably older than Guyana. We got some water from a nearby river and cooled off the truck and finally made it all the way to Annai.

I had worked out that I could take the bus to the Field Station on Thursday night/Friday morning when it would roll through Annai at around 2am, stopping until 3:30am to arrive just when the road opens up at 4:30am and finally arriving at the ferry crossing at 6am or so.
Me in front of a large jungle tree
I could then spend the whole day and night at the Field Station before catching a bus or minivan back to Lethem on Saturday morning. It would have been nice to stay longer but it was quite expensive and in the rainy season the number of things that you can do are rather limited as most of the hiking trails are underwater. So I hopped on the bus at 2:30am when it arrived and we made it to the ferry crossing at around 6am where I was picked up in a motor boat and taken downriver to the Field Station. The complex looked really nice with thatched roof cabins and a big round central building serving as the eating and office area. I had a good breakfast with the only other guest who was staying there, a swedish guy, and then got to watch a short film on the Iwokrama Forest before talking with one of the workers there who helped me plan out some activities and told me about the Field Station.
The view of the forest canopy from the top of Turtle Mountain
I decided to go on a hike to Turtle Mountain which involved a short boat trip followed by hiking through the jungle to the top of the mountain where you have views over the forest canopy below. The high water level meant that the boat needed to navigate through the submerged trees to reach an alternate landing site where we found a local indigenous man who had just finished hunting and had caught an armadillo and two other jungle rodents and was preparing to smoke them, apparently smoking is the ideal way to prepare armadillo meat. The trail through the thick jungle was hot and humid and hadn´t been used in quite some time as we came upon one section that had been blocked by a downed tree.  We saw several really interesting birds, including one that apparently is really rare and hard to find.
The endless stretch of the tree tops
  But in terms of other animals we saw none, only the tracks of a jaguar along the trail. After a while we eventually reached the top of the mountain and were afforded amazing and sweeping views of the jungle canopy and mountain escarpments off in the distance. From our perch on top of the mountain we could look down on flocks of parrots, macaws, and other birds and listen to the distant sounds of the howler monkeys establishing their territory.

In the evening myself and the Swedish guy set out for a night time boat trip to look for black caimans which can grow to 20 feet in length, and other animals such as boa constrictors. Unforunately after about 10 minutes into our boat trip it started to rain and there was lightning and thunder so we were forced to turn back.
Reflections of the forest on the river
I spent the rest of the night relaxing as I had to get up early the next morning for another big day of traveling as I would attempt to get all the way to Venezuela and had to catch the minivans at 6:15am.

At 6am they took me in the motor boat to the ferry crossing where I got a spot in a minivan bound for Lethem so that I would hopefully be able to get there in time to catch the 12pm bus from Bonfim to Boa Vista so that I could then catch the 4pm bus to the Brazil-Venezuela border, otherwise I would be stuck in Boa Vista for the night. Right off the bat our ferry was delayed because a small boat had sunk and blocking the ferry path so they had to get a crane to come out onto the ferry and hoist the boat out of the water, luckily the ferry was able to hold the weight of the crane and it pulled the boat out of the water.
The treetops protruding from the river at dusk
After crossing the river and registering at one side of the forest we flew across the badly potholed road that more closely resembled the surface of a military proving ground than a road. Our driver was apparently intent on showcasing his driving skills as if this were a  time trial for the Dakkar Rally. This was fine by me but despite all this we actually arrived in Lethem a little bit after 12pm, but I still had time to catch the bus at 2pm. I shared a taxi with this Brazilian woman who also wanted to head to Boa Vista and there was talk about taking a shared taxi to get there sooner. She wanted to stop somewhere first so our taxi driver had to kick two people out of the cab and we headed off to where she wanted to stop. She had us stop at some place right by the river where she was planning to cross the border by boat, illegally.
A crane dredging up a sunken boat so that the ferry could cross the river
She tried to get me to come with her but I refused, the taxi driver was mad at her about this and the people that she had him kick out of the cab and they had a little argument in Portugese. After she left, he informed me that he was in fact an undercover reporter doing a story about the Guyana-Brazil border. He was a proud Guyanan and he continued to rant about how the Brazilians come over and cause all this trouble and then disappear back into Brazil and about the number of people that live in Brazil and cross the border illegally to come and work in Guyana where they money is better. He then went to the police station to report this illegal crossing matter and before we could finally continue on our way to the legitimate border crossing it was 12:45pm.
Navigating through the treetops to get to Turtle Mountain
I finally made my way back across the bridge and got my passport stamped and proceeded to the bus terminal in Bonfim where I just barely managed to catch the bus that was leaving at 1:30pm, not 2pm, and I was on my way to Boa Vista. I arrived in Boa Vista at about 3pm, plenty of time to catch the 4pm bus to Pacaraima on the Brazil-Venezuela border. Due to thunderstorms and rain and other delays we didn´t reach Pacaraima until 8pm. The border was technically open until 10pm but the DIEX office where you get your Venezuela entry stamp closed at 6pm so despite all the distance I had come, I was forced to spend the night in the Brazil, about a kilometer away from Venezuela, and such ends the Guyana adventure.
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Leaving Brazil behind and entering…
Leaving Brazil behind and enterin…
Tall tree overlooking the savanna
Tall tree overlooking the savanna
The flatlands of the Guyana savanna
The flatlands of the Guyana savanna
The road through the Iwokrama fore…
The road through the Iwokrama for…
The canopy walkway in the Iwokrama…
The canopy walkway in the Iwokram…
Bus being loaded onto the ferry at…
Bus being loaded onto the ferry a…
Thatched roof cabins at the Iwokra…
Thatched roof cabins at the Iwokr…
A view of Turtle Mountain from the…
A view of Turtle Mountain from th…
Traveling through the flooded Iwo…
A native man´s catch for the day
A native man´s catch for the day
Me in front of a large jungle tree
Me in front of a large jungle tree
The view of the forest canopy from…
The view of the forest canopy fro…
The endless stretch of the tree to…
The endless stretch of the tree t…
Reflections of the forest on the r…
Reflections of the forest on the …
The treetops protruding from the r…
The treetops protruding from the …
A crane dredging up a sunken boat …
A crane dredging up a sunken boat…
Navigating through the treetops to…
Navigating through the treetops t…
Annai
photo by: AndySD