(April 2018)

I’ve always loved countries nobody visits, and both the remote and difficult have for my whole life held an intrinsic attraction. Why go to Thailand when you could visit Myanmar or Bangladesh instead, ran my contrarian logic. Likewise, why head to Brazil when you can instead visit the Guyanas, an esoteric trio of rainforest-covered recluses tucked away on the northern coast of the South American continent. I landed in Cayenne, the sweaty chief town of French Guiana, whose perfectly exotic name belies its instantly familiar French urban sprawl on its outskirts, crammed with hypermarchés, gas stations and car dealerships like any slice of la Métropole. While the standard shtick about FG is that you can enjoy the best of France in the tropics, I found this to be far from the case in reality. With the exception of a few handsome blocks around its huge main square planted with giant palms, Cayenne is a dirty, run down and thoroughly unlovable place. Looking for its hidden charms was a challenge indeed. Its main museum was stuffed full of ancient, disintegrating taxidermy and was offering a large part of its own art collection for sale to anyone who visited. The locals too were brusque and had none of the charm of their metropolitan cousins. The entire place felt like a forgotten gallic outpost, devoid of identity, racially divided and one that was astonished to see visitors at all. Cayenne is the only real town in the country, and the few other settlements here are all along the coast or just a short distance inland; beyond that it’s pure rainforest wilderness and untrammelled nature, and given what’s been created by man here, long may that last.