Kourou, French Guiana

Another bus, another river border, more shuttle canoes. This time it’s the Maroni River and it’s a short trip from Suriname, across to St Laurent, to visit French Guiana. This was the French equivalent of England's Botany Bay, in Australia, a receiving station for new inmates, bound for the notoriously brutal penal colony. The first European sighting, inevitably, made by Christopher Columbus. He named it the land of Pariahs. The first settlers were French, in 1503. But the first sustainable colony, based on slavery, was established in 1643.

French Guiana - in a Nutshell

  • French Guiana is very different to the other Guianas. This is a département of France. It sends deputies to parliament, the currency is the euro and the official language is French. The citizens are members of the EU and enjoy the full protection of the French labour law.
  • French Guiana is one seventh the size of mainland France.
  • French Guiana is a département of France, so its official flag is the tricolore of France.
  • It's also expensive, as lots of things are imported from France, but it is the richest area of South America, measured by GDP, per capita.
  • The major commercial exports of French Guiana are shrimp, rosewood essence and rice

Feeling French in Guiana

It’s immediately obvious that we are now in France proper. The sloping curvy gables give way to hipped roofs, verandas, pastel cladding and neutral shutters. There are even grand planation style mansions reflecting the affluence of Kourou, which is home to many of France's top scientists and astrophysicists. This is the base for the Ariane space rocket programme, the launchpad used by many European countries to send rockets and satellites into space. And the road to Kourou is paved and smooth. 

Devil's Island

There is the penal colony, as well as the space station to visit. I’ve wanted to visit Devil’s Island since I left Dustin Hoffman staring out to sea and counting the waves after Steve McQueen escaped in the film Papillon. The more hard-line prisoners were sent from the mainland penal colony (maintained by France from 1852 to 1953), to the Iles du Salut. This archipelago is about an hour out into the Caribbean and consists of the islands: Ile Royale, Ile St Joseph and notorious Devil's Island.

We are taken to Ile Royale. There's an excellent small museum that recounts the history of the place, and the privations that both the convicts and the guards had to endure. A small church, the remains of a hospital, and a very moving cemetery with brick lined graves and memorials. Devils’ Island lies tantalisingly off shore. It’s totally covered in swaying palms- just what you would expect from an authentic Caribbean island. You can just glimpse the ruined cells on Ile St Joseph. Escaping definitely wouldn't have been easy.

Centre Spatial, French Guiana

We’re lucky today - they are running tours of the space centre and Kourou is also more exciting than I had anticipated. It’s a huge area and we have to travel in and around on their special tour buses, naturally we are strictly monitored. It’s very high tech, there are a lot of computers and simulations and explanations about how the satellites are launched and how much money they cost. The best bit is the launch pads themselves, towering white rockets picture perfect against a clear blue sky. Thunderbirds are Go!

Cayenne, Capital of French Guiana

Cayenne (of pepper fame), is French Guiana's thriving main city. Half of the population of French Guinea (300,000) live here, as 80% of French Guiana is covered in rain forest. Busy shops and cafes surround the palm-filled main square, Place des Palmistes. The remains of an old fort overlook this hotchpotch of modern and shabby, colourful Creole houses and street markets and the Atlantic coast beaches. Some guide books say you could almost be on the Riviera. That’s stretching it, I think.

I’m still on crutches, so I’m offered an upgrade to business class on Air France back to Paris. I’m not going to argue about that. This is the longest direct domestic flight in the world.

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