We arrived to Georgetown, Guyana near midnight on a Saturday. We had been traveling for nearly twenty four hours, and had been subjected to horrors only known by those who have flown red-eye, cross country connecting flights on Frontier Air. We were lucky enough to be met by a close friend in Miami, who showed us some of what his city had to offer (more on that later…), before boarding our Surinam Airways flight to Georgetown – the first stop on our inaugural South American adventure.
By the time we made it to Guyana, we felt haggard and raw. We were enveloped by humidity as soon as we stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, and proceeded with our normal course of action – sprinting ahead of folks like madmen to get to the front of the immigration line. Unfortunately, David is never one to pass immigration or customs without a quick frisk-eroo from the local agents, so we were delayed leaving the airport on what was already an exhausting day and change of travel.
The drive and arrival to the city of Georgetown didn’t soothe our sores. As we sped down the two lane highway towards the city, we passed bars and brothels bathing in rainbow neon, all teeming with clientele. The feeling in the streets was altogether too rowdy for after midnight (for a couple of Pacific Northwest shut-ins, at least). We arrived at our airbnb about an hour later, and even a series of padlocked doors later, the sounds of nightlife reverberated around our bedroom. The first hour or so of our trip hadn’t been the smoothest, and I began to question my flippant attitude about traveling to places with less than glowing reviews around personal safety. Did I mention that this was also David’s birthday?
The current narrative around tourism in Georgetown, Guyana is hardly a positive one – that is to say if you can find anything written about it at all. What does exist largely speaks to the prevalence of poverty and street crime in the city. Then there’s all the talk of Jonestown, the last stand of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, site of the largest mass suicide in recorded history. Truth be told, it’s nowhere near Georgetown, and barely a plaque commemorates the place. It’s a monumental tragedy that just so happens to be the best known event in Guyanese history.
If you’ve made it this far, you must have at least some latent interest in Guyana – or at least a morbid curiosity. But, truth be told, Georgetown springs to life in daylight. We were staying in the Bourda neighborhood, but the whole city is so compact that it’s walkable from almost any point (the prime exception being near the barely-international airport at Ogle, which is a good 10km out of town). The only sketchy encounter we had was changing money on a Sunday in the Stabroek Market area, where our car was literally surrounded by men brandishing large stacks of Guyanese dollars – other than this event, we felt very safe in Georgetown. You’ll also likely find that the first thing every taxi driver talks to you about are which neighborhoods are safe and which are not.
Our only full morning in Georgetown we spent wandering the streets of downtown, looking for cheap kitsch and local food. Kitsch we found near the Bank of Guyana, a lovely hulk of modernist beauty smack in the middle of more traditional English and Dutch colonial wooden buildings. In the side streets around Hinck and Robb, there are a number of souvenir hawkers where you can buy hand painted coffee mugs featuring the local and endemic Guianan Cock of the Rock, entomological specimens in plastic cases, and your normal selection of flags and rinky-dink refrigerator magnets. Be aware, though, that right adjacent to this part of town is a stretch of Water Street that is a little less savory – AKA the road where we changed money the day before.
Less than a five minute walk from the Bank of Guyana (north on North Street) is the huge wooden Anglican cathedral of St. George. The building looms large and is likely the most recognizable spot in Georgetown. By the time we reached it, the weather was officially sweltering. That said, the building was empty save a few souls. One of the women working there delighted at having an American tourist in the flesh, and showed me around the building – built in 1892 and at a height of over 140 feet, it is one of the tallest wooden churches in the world. Also compelling in the church was that it was made of local Guyanese hardwoods – including purple and green heart and snakewood trees. The juxtaposition of a British religious structure built with woods harvested from the Guyanese Heart of Darkness was an interesting one (also, maybe not coincidentally, seen in the Church of Peter and Paul in Paramaribo, Suriname).
Meanwhile, outside the church, horses were being impounded for being left unattended on one of the city’s main thoroughfares. A couple blocks from the government buildings. Laid back may be an understatement, and I felt like the Energizer bunny.
Georgetown also allowed us to have a preview into the racial diversity on offer in the Guianas – after leaving the cathedral, we walked into the more East Indian part of town, where we had a Guyanese version of roti, the only dish I would consider doing really immoral things for, and snooped around the outside of a temple featuring a giant cobra statue atop its main hall.
On the way back to our airbnb, we stopped at the Bourda Market – Louise, our airbnb-mate and generally lovely person, recommended we stop there as a somewhat less dodgy (I like that word) alternative to Stabroek. While it didn’t give us the life that other markets in tropical developing nations have given us in the past (we were likely there at an off hour, to be fair), we were met with smiles and kind words from every stall. While we didn’t end up buying anything, a market is always a good way to try and capture a representative snapshot of a place when time is short.
We spent a grand total of about 36 hours in the country of Guyana, and much of our only full day was spent on our day trip to Kaieteur Falls. We explored the city before noon on the day we traveled to Paramaribo, Suriname on Trans-Guyana Airways from Georgetown’s Ogle Airport to Paramarbo’s Zorg En Hoop Airport (one way flights on an adorable prop plane were $180 one way – quite steep!). For this first trip, I think we budgeted a perfect amount of time for an intro to Guyana.
That said, given more time in country, I don’t think we’d necessarily choose to spend it in Georgetown. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed our time in the capital, but the city isn’t really the draw for tourists in Guyana. Rather, time spent at nature reserves like Iwokrama, or treks in the Rupununi Savanna or up Roraima would be better spent than getting to know Georgetown on a more intimate level. However, for a gateway to the region, Georgetown, its attractions and its people were as lovely and welcoming as we could have hoped, despite other sources of information choosing to dwell on the dangers of street crime in the region. Like in any developing nation, keep your street smarts and maybe don’t carry around expensive camera gear (in the city I took all photographs on my iPhone to be less conspicuous) and you’ll be rewarded with a lovely time.
And a shameless plug. Our airbnb in Georgetown is easily the best airbnb we’ve ever stayed in – and that’s saying a lot after twenty some countries of frequent airbnb use. The house is immaculate and a cool oasis removed from the hustle and bustle of the center of town. Our time there included time with the live in PhD researcher, who I forced to give me lectures on topics of my choosing – I cannot guarantee you will receive this same fringe benefit. If you go to Georgetown, do yourself a HUGE favor and stay at this place. They’ll also put you in touch with a taxi company that can take you wherever for market prices – we took them from the international airport (Cheddi Jagan) into town for $30USD.