There to Here – Exploring the Guianas

There to Here – Exploring the Guianas

Continuing the saga of There to Here ... Join Nine of Cups and crew as we visit the Guianas ... French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana ... from the infamous Devil's Island to bird singing contests to Kaiteur National Park ... lots to see and do. Come on along!

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French Guiana's Cayenne and Cacao

more cayennd and a little cacao I'd read about the Hmong Sunday market in Cacao on several websites and in Lonely Planet. Cacao is a small Hmong village about 70 km (40 miles) south of Cayenne.

Lonely Planet

The Hmong people are originally from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. During the Vietnam War, France and the USA recruited thousands of Hmong people to fight against the North Vietnamese. After the war, Hmong refugees fled and sought political asylum elsewhere. France repatriated several thousand people to French Guiana where their industrious natures and talents have thrived. Not much goes on in French Guiana on Sundays and it seemed a worthwhile trip... so we were off.

welcome to cacao sign

We took the N2 highway, also known at Route de l'Est, heading south and east out of Cayenne. There aren't many major highways in French Guiana... the N1 and the N2. If we followed the N2 to the end, we'd be on the Brazil border. Though we weren't heading all that far, it was still a chance to get into the interior a bit. Several of the roundabouts provided a venue for public statuary which centered more on the AmerIndian tribes, the Wayana and the Wayampi.

amerindian statue in french guiana

Once we left the city limits, the road narrowed significantly and followed the contour of the land up and down (15% grades!) and around hairpin turns. We encountered single lane, wooden plank bridges that clop-clop-clopped as we took our turn to drive across.

narrow plank bridge in french guiana

We reached the turn-off for Cacao, an even narrower road, and were surprised to see several cars making the same turn. When we arrived in Cacao, we were gobsmacked by the amount of cars and people and the gendarmerie (police) directing traffic. There was no room to park closer and we were instructed to park in a gravel lot and walk the 1.5 km (1 mile) into town. Usually this would not have posed a problem, but it seemed I'd broken my toe before we left the boat (while hanging out clothes, no less … don't ask!). David explained the situation to an understanding, English-speaking cop. I showed him my swollen, black and blue toe and he let us pass the barricade into town. We continued wending our way through tiny streets, clogged with haphazardly parked cars and throngs of people. The gods were with us … we found a place to park within a few hundred feet of the main marketplace. Who could have known how popular this place would be?

hmong family in traditional dress french guiana

We headed directly to the market hall for some Soupe Pho. This variation included some coconut milk in the broth and it was even better than the last we'd tried. Slurping, however, seems to be an occupational hazard for eating this soup and it ain't pretty. (Note to self: Never let David hold camera while I'm eating!)

slurping pho in french guiana

Beyond the fruits and veggies, the Hmongs are known for their fine needlework tapestries. Some were large works of art … perhaps recalling scenes from home.

hmong tapestry in french guiana

Some were beautifully intricate geometric patterns in bright colors that boasted hours and hours of concentrated labor.

hmong tapestry french guiana

Other needlework was reverse appliqué, reminiscent of the molas created by the Kuna people in Panama. We looked and pondered whether to buy and in the end, purchased nothing. We have so much aboard already that may never be put to use, we hesitate to purchase more. Photos are the best mementos for sailors, I guess.

hmong reverse applique french guiana

There were also a few pieces of art that we didn't regret leaving behind.

coconut sculptures french guiana

We would have enjoyed exploring the town a bit more, but the crowds kept wandering to a minimum. We returned to Cayenne in mid-afternoon. The city was sleepy...nothing going on at all. All the shops, even the big supermarkets, were closed. All the restaurants were closed, save our hotel restaurant. It was a day of rest for all. Nothing happens on Sundays. We decided it was a good time for a walk. We headed first to the Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur. We were surprised to find it closed and locked up tight.

cathadrale sanit sauveur

We wandered through the Place des Palmistes. There were very few people around. The park was in a sad state. Old, ornate cement planters which lined the paths within the park were empty, chipped and faded. The grass was parched. Park benches needed paint and repair. A monument erected in 1889 commemorated the French Revolution of 1789, but it was hard to read the plaque.

french revolution monument french guiana

A statue of Felix Eboue erected in 1959, honored the first French Guianan-born black to be appointed to a high position in the French government.

felix eboue statue french guiana

Beyond the park, we passed the ruins of an old military installation, now all fenced off. The fencing, however, provided a great canvas for some lively street art which we appreciated.

cayenne street art

From the shore, we could see the muddy water mixing with the Atlantic blue and the grassy peninsula of Pointe des Amandiers not far away.

pointe des amandiers french guiana

Once again, hot and tired, we retreated to the cool respite of our room. All too soon, we'll be sweating and sweltering aboard Nine of Cups, taking advantage of the cool provides as much a pleasure as exploring. We'll head back to Saint-Laurent tomorrow via Kourou and the European Space Center. In the meantime, a cool shower, a cool room and a picnic for dinner. Vacations end all too quickly.

empty wine bottle

Cayenne - French Guiana's Capital City

cayenne_place du coq graphic Cayenne, for which the pepper was named (not vice versa), is the capital city of French Guiana. It's not particularly large, ~120,000 people, but it's Guayane's “big smoke”. Located on the Atlantic at the mouth of the Cayenne River, the city has a mottled history. First colonized in 1604 by the French, the Portuguese destroyed the original settlement, but the French returned in 1643, only to be beaten back by the local AmerIndians. A permanent French settlement was established in 1664. Constant territorial conflicts had the city controlled by the French, Dutch and English over the years, until it was finally returned to the French in 1814. It was part of the French penal colony from 1854 until 1938, although the penal colony legacy is less tangible here than in other areas.

aerial view of cayenne french guiana

Our hotel overlooked the Place des Palmistes a central park on Avenue General de Gaulle, the city's main street. Dozens of palm trees swayed in the light breeze. We were in the heart of Cayenne close to the market, the restaurants and most of what we wanted to see...all accessible on foot.

place de palmistes at night in cayenne french guiana

We were up early to check out the Saturday morning market. It was hot and humid as we walked around the corner from the hotel and down two blocks. The city streets are narrow and crowded. Old Creole buildings show their age and lack of maintenance. It reminded us of New Orleans architecture in the French Quarter … fancy wrought iron balconies, full shuttered windows, bright colors. But these houses were very faded, tired, dilapidated.

old creole house in cayenne french guiana

Place du Coq (Rooster Square) was busy with people milling around and chatting. Homeless men or drunks slept midst the market buzz. Next door was the marché.

place du coque cayenne french guiana

This market was particularly lively. Butchers, lined up next to each other, were on one side of the large market hall. Further down, food stalls with 3-4 stools lined up at their counters, offered everything from fresh fruit smoothies to fried fish to shots of local “rhum agricole” (rum). The stalls were all along the interior perimeter of the market hall and all seemed busy.

food stalls in cayenne french guiana

We decided this was our best opportunity to try Soupe Pho for which the local Asian population (especially Hmong and Vietnamese) are known. We shared a bowl. It came with a separate bowl of fresh lettuce, basil and cilantro leaves, lime wedges, and thinly sliced Scotch bonnet peppers. A myriad of oils and sauces were on the table. The soup was delicious, but as we slurped down the long rice noodles, we were obviously not following standard protocol. A well-meaning cook came around to our table and showed us how to tear the fresh leaves to add to the soup, add fish oil and lime and stir it all up. She cautioned us about the peppers. David tried a rather large bite of pepper and admitted she was right.

pho in cayenne french guiana

The center aisles of the market were devoted to local crafts and souvenirs. All the cheap stuff that you see everywhere (mugs, keychains, ashtrays, shot glasses … all things marked Guayane) overflowed on tables or hung from above. There were, however, some items that showed pride in workmanship. I especially liked the dresses and clothing fashioned from the locally favored, bright-colored plaid fabrics.

bright plaids in cayenne french guiana

Most of the fruits and vegs vendors were outside the main hall, sitting under umbrellas, offering piles of brightly colored fresh produce for sale. Trade was brisk. The temperature rose from hot and humid to absolutely stifling. A street busker caught our attention. A particularly agile contortionist, tied himself in a knot on top of a narrow tower of cans and remained in situ for God knows how long. He deserved a few pence. He was still all pretzeled-up when we left the marketplace.

busker in cayenne french guiana

We headed to the Office de Tourisme, but it was closed. Figures … Saturday mid-morning, why would it be open? We walked past the Place Victor Schoelcher, an anti-slavery activist credited with freeing the slaves in French Guiana (hence the reason the colony needed prison-labor).

statue of victor schoelcher in cayenne french guiana

As we walked by, the local tourist train which previous cruisers had dubbed “the lame train” passed by. No doubt about it … very lame looking. We were doing better on foot.

lame train in cayenne french guiana

Next stop was the Musée Departemental Franconie. We walked past the Hotel de Ville (city hall), built by the Jesuits in 1890 and very well preserved.

hotel de ville cayenne french guiana

The museum only offered limited Saturday hours. The sign on a huge, old building read Conseil General and in faded, barely legible letters below “Musee Departemental”. We had to ask if it was the right place. It was. We paid our €3/each.


museum cayenne french guiana

We were impressed with the 12' long black caiman that greeted us just across from the ticket desk. The jarred snake specimens weren't as appealing and the taxidermied local fauna and birdlife were tired.

black caiman in cayenne french guiana

A special air-conditioned room was dedicated to insects and other creepy crawlers. The coolness alone drew us to the room and kept us there awhile. South America is particularly rich in butterfly species as evidenced by the huge display. We pulled out drawer after drawer of pinned specimens, part of someone's lifelong collection.

butterfly display cayenne french guiana

Tarantulas, though preserved, had the hairs on my arms standing at alert. Learning how tarantulas mate was probably not on my bucket list, but now I know.

mating tarantulas in cayenne french guiana

Upstairs was dedicated to local Bushi Nengue culture, penal colony history and general history about Cayenne. It was mostly paintings and artwork and all informational placards were in French. We muddled through.

bushi nengue display cayenne french guiana

The best part of the museum actually, was the view of our hotel from its front steps.

les palmistes hotel cayenne french guiana

The day was hot, our room had A/C and we were ready for an afternoon siesta and looking forward to a romantic French dinner. More to come...stay tuned.

And no...we didn't forget … Happy Hallowe'en!

happy halloween from nine of cups