5-28 Hotel: Hotel Tentiare, St. Laurent du Maroni, French Guiana, 75 Euro (triple)
St. Laurent du Maroni church
Today we were planning to cross over to French Guiana. Since we hadn't spent the extra night in Brownsberg park, we had an extra day, and decided to break the trip in St. Laurent du Maroni, on the French side of the border between Suriname and French Guiana. French Guiana had been used as a penal colony and St. Laurent had been the site where prisoners were unloaded. St. Laurent also supposedly had some of the best colonial architecture in the country, so we thought it would be a good place to break the journey, we didn't want another 16 hour travel day! We had to go back to Avis this morning to get our rental receipt as we had just dropped off the keys the previous night.
Then down to the market area where the minibuses to Albina departed. We were swarmed by helpers as soon as we arrived, but were able to find a shared taxi leaving for the border immediately. The taxi was the same price as a minibus (30SRD), we thought we might be more comfortable in the car, although they are good about not overloading minibuses too much here. We set off about 9:45AM and over the bridge to Meerzorg, on the other side of the Suriname river. This part of Suriname is has a large percentage of the Indonesian population, saw many people out on scooters and Warungs (restaurants) everywhere, with the tropical flora we could have been in Java! Suriname has speedbumps (drempels) everywhere, which seem useless given the potholed state of the roads. Still our driver managed to do 140km/hr (90mph!) most of the way, nearly killing an otter and a hawk that were in the road! Soon the towns were behind us and we were following the thin ribbon of road through a green valley of lush vegetation.
It took about 1:40 to Albina (150kms), which is separated from French Guiana by the Maroni river. There are two daily ferries, or you can hire a pirogue to take you across. As soon as we pulled up to the canoe dock, the taxi was swarmed by canoe operators, sticking their hands and even bodies through the car windows and grabbing a hold of us! We finally picked one guy, who would take us to the police to stamp out of Suriname, then across to the French Guiana side for 10SRD each ($3.60). The canoes are quite long and stable, and the crossing only took a few minutes.
We arrived at the French immigration and surprised the officials to see three Americans coming across not on the ferry! Officially you need a yellow fever cert to enter French Guiana, one of my friends had forgotten his, but the officials never asked to see ours.
French Guiana is an overseas department of France, as such it's part of the EU and uses the Euro. Everything is expensive, even more so than Paris, especially when we're using the American Peso. Peugeots, Renaults, and baguettes abound. It also has the smallest population of any of the Guianas, only about 180,000. It is heavily subsidized by the French government. We had the disadvantage of arriving on a holiday (Whit Monday/Pentecost/Memorial Day) and everything was closed. The architecture here was French colonial, like New Orleans or Pondicherry. We went to have lunch at one of the few open restaurants and got our first shock, 50 Euro for the three of us. Quite a bit expensive compared to the other Guianas. For this reason, many French Guianese go over to Suriname for shopping, we had noticed several French couples in Paramaribo.
Found an ATM which worked for me, but not my friends. The friendly neighborhood bum was also standing around the ATM demanding money but we ignored him. We then went to the Hotel Tentiare to check on a room. This hotel was very nice, a former prison administration building, we got a triple room for 75 Euro that had a loft and a view out over the church. The door had a complicated lock mechanism, which we managed to break when going out!
Our first stop was the old Camp de Transportation, where the arriving convicts were processed. There was supposed to be a tour at 3PM, we arrived to find the gates open but noone there (it was a holiday). We walked about for awhile, they had restored several of the prison barracks but others were still in original condition, now all mouldy and rusting.
Nothing much interesting inside the barracks, just rings in the walls where the prisoners were shackled together. Not a pleasant place even when restored. The Camp was only a processing center, most convicts were later sent onto the Iles du Salut. There is another part of the prison where supposedly Papillon's (Henri Charriere) name is carved but it's off limits without a guide. The prisons in French Guiana operated for nearly a century, from the mid-1800's to the 1950's, when they were closed due to rampant abuse and miserable conditions. Some 90% of the prisoners died from conditions or disease. We went down to the modest tourist office, which was open and had some brochures in English with a walking guide to all the colonial buildings in town. We walked around town some more following the guide, there were some gorgeous buildings, although most are in some state of disrepair this adds to their charm.
There is a huge hospital here, one of the largest colonial hospitals that originally held over 400 beds. Then stopped by a shop to buy dinner. Having been stung by the price of lunch, we feasted on dinner of baguettes with salami, cheese, and a bottle of wine, that only came to 10 Euro total!