French Guiana – Why you should visit South America’s hidden gem

Not many people know about this hidden French territory in South America. After all, who would be interested in a relatively unknown old French colony-turned-overseas-region? But there’s something magical about finding yourself in a completely isolated place, and French Guiana is just that. Mostly covered by forest, and with less people than Pittsburgh, French Guiana is waiting to be discovered.

The biggest city in French Guiana has a population of just over 60,000 people. However what the region lacks in terms of people, it makes up for with life.

It’s home to many different ecosystems, from rainforests to savannas to mangroves. Each one hosts its own plants and animals, making it an incredibly bio-diverse region.

For people more interested in a seaside vacation than rainforests, French Guiana has an incredible array of beaches. All of which are kept pristine and are the perfect place to relax.

And whilst cities in French Guiana may be small, they are big in attitude. Just visit during the Carnival period, anytime between Epiphany in early January to Ash Wednesday in March or April, and you’ll witness a joyful mix of cultures that take to the streets in the form of parades, performances and more.

French Guiana is also a great opportunity to practice your French in a place where the weather hardly dips below 65 degrees.

There’s so many different and unique reasons as to why you should visit French Guiana that it’s impossible to list them all. However here are a few that you can’t miss out on.

The beaches in French Guiana (and the incredible turtles you’ll find there)

One of the best reasons to visit French Guiana is the amazing beaches.

In fact you can find places to stay in the capital, Cayenne, which are just a few steps from the ocean. Letting you enjoy the benefits of both city and beach life.

If you’re willing to travel a few extra miles from the city, you’ll have the incredible opportunity to see both the world’s largest and smallest sea turtles.

You may bump into the Pacific Ridley Turtle, which although still measuring up to two feet in length, is one of the smallest sea turtles in the world, and a protected species in French Guiana.

On the larger side of the spectrum, while roaming the beach you can have the incredible opportunity to see leatherback turtles. They’re the biggest living genus of turtle, can weigh more than 8000 pounds, (which is around the weight of a truck!) and are dinosaurs by definition, having been around since the Cretaceous period.

Why go on a beach trip to Florida or California when you could be sunbathing with dinosaurs? 

Devil’s Island

The evolution of Devil’s Island could be described as a story so poetic that it makes real life seem cliché.

Most notable for its depiction in the movie Papillon, Devil’s Island used to be one of the most brutal prisons on earth, and was part of a prison system off the shore of French Guiana called Salvation’s Islands (which is where the poetic irony begins).

Devil’s Island hosted political prisoners, with a death rate that could climb up to 75% of inmates, and was only closed down in the 1950s.

Since then, an incredible transformation has taken place.

From afar the island looks like a little paradise, all green against a backdrop of blue sky and sea. The palm-trees, ruins, and picturesque view make it a perfect destination to stop and admire.

The old prison is now completely overgrown, as nature triumphs over the injustices that once ruled over this island.

A shuttle runs here from the mainland, and one of the neighboring islands, Île Royale, has a hotel you can spend the night at after visiting. 

Guiana Amazonian Park

Imagine walking under the cover of more than 1100 different species of trees, surrounded by multi-color parrots, frogs, and animals you would only otherwise see in a zoo.

A large region of the Amazon Rainforest is rooted in French Guiana, covering about 40% of the country. In fact it makes up France’s (and Europe’s) biggest national park. Although most of it is only accessible by canoe or air travel, it’s definitely worth a visit.

If you like walking or biking there’s no shortage of trails that take you through the magical forest.

Passing through territories almost completely untouched by humans is an incomparable experience.

The number of unique plants and animals you’ll be able to observe while walking or biking through here is mesmerizing. Whether you’re looking to get your daily cardio in, or wish to experience Earth in one of its purest forms, you’ll be able to in this beautiful part of the world.

For people who prefer traveling by water, there are places to swim (you may even bump into some otters), kayak or canoe.

Kourou Space Center

Just a few miles out of the capital is Kourou Space Center, where you can see rockets before their launch.

There are lots of different ways to explore the Space Center. Walking around the active base feels like roaming about a movie set, or the illustrations for one of Tin-Tin’s space adventures.

You have to book your tour at least two days in advance, but the visit is free!

If you’re interested ia step by step explanations of everything that goes on in a space center, the Kourou Space Center Museum will provide that for you.

And if you plan your trip accordingly, you’ll have the incredible opportunity to watch an Ariane rocket liftoff into space.

Carnival in Cayenne

Hundreds of people walking to the same beat. Everything, from their steps to their outfits, coordinated. It’s Carnival time! Despite being lesser-known, Cayenne’s carnival is one that rivals both New Orleans’ and Rio de Janeiro’s.

It’s main appeal, however, doesn’t lie in the parties or parades – both of which it doesn’t lack. But in the incredible mix of cultures it represents.

The carnival in French Guyana started out with European settlers celebrated a traditional European carnival. Being excluded from the settlers’ celebrations were slaves, who ended up celebrating carnival in their own way, bringing in traditions rooted in their African heritage.

Since then, the two carnivals have merged into one. Creating a blend of European and African customs. The result? A completely unique and rich carnival experience.

If you visit Cayenne during carnival period keep you eyes peeled. Chances are you’ll bump into a parade or wander into a masquerade ball!

French Guiana cuisine

French Guiana’s unique location is reflected in many different aspects of the culture. Some of the greatest examples of this can be found in the region’s unique cuisine.

Although it reflects some elements of better-known cuisines, the French Guinana-niche is one worth exploring.

If you’re daring enough to try the local fare, you can find tapir, paca and other meat from the surrounding forests on the menu.

For those less open to trying amazonian game-meat, there are plenty of other options. Fish, fruits and vegetables are staples of French Guiana cuisine. They are often accompanied by lots of hot spices – cayenne is, afterall, the namesake of the capital. Important for both the flavor and presentation of the dishes.

If you love spicy foods, French Guiana is definitely worth a visit.