Updated: Jun 9
Off the beaten track destinations are what adventure travelers live for. Somewhere that's different. Somewhere that's captivating. Somewhere that's....special. Guyana's wild interior is just that. At a tipping point in its history before Covid-19 took hold this year, we ask wildlife enthusiast and experienced adventure travel guide, Luke Johnson, for his take on 'The Land of Many Waters' and what the future has in store for this plentiful yet complex country.
Before that though, some context....
Guyana - journeying into the unknown
You would be forgiven for not knowing where Guyana is in the world. A country of just 800,000 people, it borders Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname, on the North-East shoulder of South America. Although having a relatively small population, Guyana comprises many different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds owing to its history of mainly Dutch and British colonial exploitation. The largest ethic groups today are Indo-Guyanese (44%) and Afro-Guyanese (30%), followed by the indigenous Amerindian community (9%). With several other ethnicities making up the difference, needless to say that the country is a melting pot of priorities, beliefs and consequently, aspirations for the future.
The discovery of rich oil deposits off Guyana's coast in 2016 and the potential for that income (estimated at several hundred billon dollars) to be invested in Guyana's infrastructure, health and education systems, stoked interest in the country both regionally and internationally. Political elections this year were therefore seen as a watershed for a promising new start, a positive platform for the whole country to spring forward together in a sustainable way. Sadly, things haven't exactly gone to plan. With the highest ratio of oil to citizen in the world (higher than Saudi Arabia even), Guyana's potentially rapid economic development is asking serious questions of it's people and what this means for the future of the country.
Photos by Adventure 176
If non-renewables and political turmoil wasn't enough, the Coronovirus pandemic has further shifted discussion away from it's natural wonders and habitats - long hailed as some of the most untouched and important in the world. With nearly three quarters of the country forested and uninhabited, Guyana is one of very few countries where you can still experience a true sense of exploration and adventure.
My trip to the country in 2013 (lead by Luke) comprised stints by air, dirt road, river and jungle path - without doubt THE best eco-tourism trip I've experienced to date. Howler Monkeys and Caymans at Iwokrama, deafening leaf-tinted waters at Kaieteur Falls, from Bullet Ants to Screaming Piha's and Pink-Toe Tarantulas; Guyana is a haven for eco-tourism enthusiasts. Consequently it supports an entire network of local operators, suppliers, guides, experts and support staff, all of which are currently out of business due to tours coming to a complete standstill. Adventure 176 caught up with Luke during these challenging but still optimistic times:
Q. Luke! Thank you for your time. Can you please introduce yourself and where you are from?
My name is Luke Johnson. I was born in Georgetown [Guyana's capital] but spent my childhood and school years in the countryside on the West Bank of Demerara in Bagotville, a village that in 1848 was gifted to the slaves freed from the Mindenburg coffee plantation.
Q. What do you do for work?
I am a professional tour guide. These are mostly for birdwatchers but also for general nature, adventure, culture and history enthusiasts. I also provide logistics and problem solving services as an experienced local 'fixer', supporting film production projects and other tourism related businesses needing access to remote areas of the interior or here in Georgetown.
Q. How long have you been doing this?
I've been guiding since 2008 and my passion for it has only grown in that time.
Q. How are you holding up during the coronavirus pandemic?
Well, all tourism has ceased and this has had a domino effect on supporting businesses. For the past two months there has been no income and I've had three groups cancel for the remainder of 2020. However, we are planning for a reopening of the borders and tourism businesses around August, depending on how the situation evolves. Put it this way, we're confident that 2021 is going to be better!
Q. How has Guyana's economy been affected?
Guyana has been severely affected. Businesses have had little or no income for the past few months and many employees have been laid off. Beginning in April we have had a partial lockdown and curfew where only essential services are doing business, so this has caused a lot of activity to halt. I understand the reasons why but it's very challenging when so many rely on tourism here.
Q. What do you love most about being a tour leader / guide?
I love being in the outdoors and sharing Guyana's amazing natural landscapes and wildlife. What I love most is helping people to see things on their wish-list...whether a bird, an animal, a place...and assisting them to have the experience of a lifetime.
It's like having a really good story...it's more enjoyable when you can share it with someone. With 75% of our country still untouched there is so much to see and opportunities for adventures abound.
Q. What's your favourite bird in Guyana?
Oh I have many; The Guianan 'Cock-of-the-Rock' for its surreal colour, the Screaming Piha for its body movement when calling, the Harpy Eagle for its eyes, the White-Plumed Antbird for its striking appearance, the Hoatzin (our National Bird) for its prehistoric look.... I can't pick one as I love them all!!!
Q. What's your favourite animal?
Easy, the Giant River Otter. So cute and playful, but deadly at the same time.
Q. What are your hopes for Guyana in the future?
My hope is that we as a nation can understand, before it's too late, the value of our natural heritage that's unsurpassed anywhere else in the world - not only for its resources but for its ability to provide a space where people can enjoy nature as it has been for eons.
Q. Describe Guyana in 3 words.
Pristine. Enchanting. Rejuvenating.
Q. Guyana is one of the lesser known countries of South America. What would you say to someone thinking about visiting in the future?
Your next vacation should be Guyana. It's a once-in-lifetime experience!
Thank you Luke! We appreciate the insights into your wonderful country and wish you all the best for what's in store in the future.
Our take on it is to experience Guyana as an eco-tourist in the next five years - Guyana is on the brink of a potentially huge economic transformation and with that comes more industrial tourism. Experience the Land of Many Waters with a bespoke tour while it's relatively quiet and you wont be disappointed!
If you are interested in guided experiences in Guyana please feel free to reach out to Luke on any of the following:
Photos by Tom Vierus (www.tomvierus.com)
Storytelling | Planet Earth | Underwater
Above picture descriptions:
Pic 1: Luke birding in the pristine rainforest in Surama village heading to Burro-Burro River.
Pic 2: A Yellow-Footed Tortoise aka the Brazilian Giant Tortoise or South American Forest Tortoise (6th largest tortoise species in the world, currently listed as vulnerable). Seen while climbing Turtle Mountain in the Iwokrama Forest.
Pic 3: Luke standing next to a termite mound built by one of the South American species of termites in the Rupununi Savannah (Termite City). Giant Anteaters usually dig at the base of these mounds to feed and are often seen early in the mornings returning to a sleeping site.
Pic 4: Essequibo River from the air.
Pic 5: A Rufous-Winged Ground Cuckoo in the Surama forest. This is a highly sought-after bird because it's very shy and usually follows army ant swarms or peccary herds to feed off the small invertebrates they disturb.
Further reading and sources:
The IMF thinks this small South American country will see economic growth of 86% next year, CNBC, 2019
Guyana Elections 2020, Starbroek News, 2020
Signed Away: How Exxon’s exploitative deal deprived Guyana of up to US$55 billion, Global Witness, 2020
Exploring the wild wonders of Guyana: the world’s top ecotourism destination, StaySure Insurance, 2017
Why Guyana's rainforests are a scientist's dream, BBC, 2017:
Time to end this shameful circus in Guyana, Jamaica Observer, 2020:
Guyana is poised to become a rich country. First, it has to figure out its electoral mess., Miami Herald, 2020:
Guyana ethnic groups, study.com, 2020: