Why you should visit Guyana, South America's last wilderness

Kate at Pico de la Nieve - Sarah Marshall
Kate at Pico de la Nieve - Sarah Marshall

Adorned with a crown of colourful feathers, the Makushi chief is a glorious embodiment of his rainforest kingdom.

Deep in the heart of the Guiana Shield, one of the world’s last pristine tropical forests, his community have been living alongside nature for 7,000 years. It is a world that couldn’t be further from my own until he opens his mouth and – to my surprise – speaks in fluent English.

Once under British rule, Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America – making it far easier to chat about ways of life with the country’s nine multilingual indigenous tribes.

But language is just about the only thing that is familiar: dense rainforests reverberating with thundering waterfalls and the roar of howler monkeys are far removed from North Sea shores and rolling meadows.

Cumbre Vieja volcano - Sarah Marshall
Cumbre Vieja volcano - Sarah Marshall

Niche, offbeat and adventurous, the country is a left-field choice for British Airways, which will operate a new twice-weekly route between Gatwick and Guyana’s capital Georgetown (with a short stop in St Lucia) from Monday. Fares start at £499 return.

“We are the biggest UK carrier to the Caribbean, so we know its destinations are hugely popular with our customers and we expect Guyana to be no exception,” says Neil Chernoff, director of networks and alliances at BA. “With more than 80 per cent forest coverage, it is a naturally beautiful country that is largely undiscovered by tourists.”

Whether it is the promise of spotting wildlife or the chance to immerse yourself in indigenous culture, there are plenty of reasons to make Guyana your next great adventure.

Feel the rush of an epic waterfall

National attractions like Kaieteur Falls tend to come with queues, ticket booths and restrictive safety railings. It has none of these.

The world’s largest single drop waterfall – four-and-a-half times the height of Niagara but with less than one per cent of the annual visitors – remains just as nature created it.

 Kaieteur Falls - Kevin Schafer/Getty Images
Kaieteur Falls - Kevin Schafer/Getty Images

Seen from above on a 55-minute day-trip flight from Georgetown, an emerald plateau of thick jungle abruptly caves away as the Potaro River crashes into a deep valley etched into the landscape.

Follow a trail through rocky chasms draped with vines to walk almost to the edge of the falls, where swallows dive into the mist. In the same park, designated in 1929, look out for tiny golden frogs in the rosettes of bromeliad leaves and cock-of-the-rock birds impressing females in a lek (courtship ritual).

Cox & Kings (0207 873 5000) tailor-makes a 15-day Guyana: The Caribbean Amazon tour from £5,295pp (two sharing), including international flights and a day trip by light aircraft to Kaieteur Falls

Experience a unique way of life

In a village originally built as a film set, Makushi couple Glendon and Jean Allicock invite tourists to learn about a culture under threat. Meet them during a stay at Surama, Guyana’s first indigenous ecolodge, with rooms designed in the style of traditional thatched benabs.

Surama Cultural Group - Sarah Marshall
Surama Cultural Group - Sarah Marshall

In an outdoor kitchen, younger members of the Surama Culture Group strain cassava through a woven matapee and roast maggots plucked from nut shells.

There is tale telling, too: Glendon, wearing a jaguar’s tooth necklace, shares the story of how his stepfather tackled the predator with a machete, while Jean explains how local shamans are initiated by spending several months in the forest living on hummingbirds.

Rainbow (020 3131 4707) tailor-makes a 14-night Guyana Nature Experience, including Surama village, from £5,995pp (two sharing), including flights

Get involved with community conservation

In the past, it took Rewa villagers three days to paddle to the nearest town and collect their post. But the arrival of a motorboat has made it easier to access this eco-minded community at the confluence of the Rewa and Rupununi Rivers, who have established their own lodge.

A nearby pool, popular with catch-and-release anglers, contains the world’s highest number of arapaima: an enormous freshwater fish that is able to live for 24 hours out of water. Paddle along the river, through lily pads the size of dinner plates, and look for bubbles on the surface.

Giant lily pads at Rewa - Sarah Marshall
Giant lily pads at Rewa - Sarah Marshall

Back on land, follow rough trails in the forest to find the goliath birdeater –the largest spider in the world by mass and size – or climb nearby Awarmie Mountain for a view of the valley. To connect with more than community life, wander through the camp to reach Rewa’s village square, where – surprisingly – public wifi is available.

Wildlife Worldwide (01962 302086) tailor-makes a 13-day Guyana: Land of Giants tour with a stay at Rewa from £6,495pp (two sharing), including flights

See the sights in a quirky capital

A South American city with a creole culture, Georgetown – Guyana’s coastal capital – is a compelling mix of dilapidated European architecture, quirky museums, wild parks, a cricket ground and stalls selling fiery Caribbean food.

The Gothic-style St George’s Cathedral, built in the late 19th century with a native hardwood called greenheart, is one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings.

Among other remnants of Dutch and British rule is a contentious statue of Queen Victoria, whose head was blown off during anti-colonial protests in the 1950s. Sent to Britain for repair, she now stands in front of the high court but is still missing her nose.

St. George's Anglican Cathedral - Sarah Marshall
St. George's Anglican Cathedral - Sarah Marshall

One essential stop on a city tour is Guyana National Park, where it is possible to hand-feed bunches of grass to tame resident West Indian manatees. And if you don’t have time to travel deep into the jungle, the city’s botanical gardens feature more than 100 species of bird, including the blood-coloured woodpecker, white-bellied piculet and festive parrots.

The Ultimate Travel Company (0203 733 5001) tailor-makes a 15-day Classic Guyana tour with a few days in Georgetown from £5,630pp (two sharing), excluding flights 

Feast on fiery cuisine

Guyana’s cuisine features, among other things, zingy spices and unusual rainforest ingredients – and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay claims the country has “some of the most exciting food on the planet”.

During his visit for National Geographic TV show Uncharted, he cooked with local chef Delven Adams, who runs tours of Georgetown market. He then cooks the ingredients he has collected back at his friendly Backyard Café – literally built in his back garden.

Even if Guyana’s national dish – pepperpot – is not on the menu, Adams can advise on the best places to try it. The fiery beef stew is slow-cooked for several days. (According to local folklore, one chef had his on the go for 75 years.)

Pepperpot - Getty Images/Johnny Mad
Pepperpot - Getty Images/Johnny Mad

Unsurprisingly, given its proximity to the Caribbean, rum is the tipple of choice here. Set on the east bank of the Demerara River, just outside town, the Demerara Distillery makes award-winning El Dorado aged rums using vintage stills. Visit the heritage museum and taste rums in the Barrel Bar, constructed from old oak casks.

Responsible Travel (01273 823700) offers a 13-day Guyana Small Group Holiday with a stay in Georgetown from £5,375pp, including flights. Next departures are on April 1, August 19, and September 9

Discover brilliant birdlife

With more than 840 bird species recorded in the country, this is an avian Arcadia. Some of the best sightings can be enjoyed from the 500ft-high Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, deep in the Guiana Shield.

The walkway comprises a series of suspension bridges, connected by several decks, running through the canopy of the Iwokrama Rainforest Reserve – a protected area of almost a million acres of pristine rainforest that has become a base for scientific research. Tours set off at 5am, with the aim of spotting species such as the green aracari, scarlet macaw, Guianan toucanet and channel-billed toucan.

Cock of the rock bird - Sarah Marshall
Cock of the rock bird - Sarah Marshall

Back at ground level, there is always a chance of running into red-rumped agoutis, tapirs and elusive jaguars (this is one of the best places in Guyana to see them), especially if staying overnight at the nearby Atta Rainforest Lodge, staffed by Makushi Amerindians and Guyanese naturalists.

For most birders, a key sighting is the harpy eagle: a powerful predator capable of snatching sloths with its claws. Experienced Guyanese naturalist and photographer Leon Moore knows where the most accessible nests can be observed; he leads small group tours to Iwokrama and beyond.

Leon Moore Nature Experience can tailor-make an exclusive eight-day Guyana tour focusing on birdwatching and visiting Iwokrama, from £2,939pp (two sharing), excluding flights