Francis, a barefooted vaquero framed by the Kanuku Mountains, steadied his white steed and gestured towards a sparse thicket a few metres ahead. Heel-toe-heel-toe, I crept forwards. There was the slightest rustle, then it appeared: a proud brush, as thick as the tail of four foxes. Partly obscured by shrubbery, its black-grey owner presented a peep show of extraterrestrial body parts.
Minutes later, she ambled onto the open savannah and revealed all: a short mohawk running along her back; a white stripe along her neck; an elongated, beaky snout; mohair-trouser legs and that spiny tail that she uses as a makeshift duvet at night.
Giant anteaters are solitary animals, except when caring for their offspring. “She’ll carry a baby on her back until it’s almost as big as her,” explained Melanie McTurk, managing director of Karanambu Lodge, an eco-tourism destination in the south-western Rupununi region of Guyana.
Seven members of the giant anteater species, classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, roam this area. The sighting promoted an irrepressible grin: a frequent tick during my visit to the South American country.
One of the least densely populated countries on earth, with most people living on the coastal plain, up to 90 per cent of Guyana’s 83,000 square miles are covered by forest. It is dissected by four main rivers and their tributaries, and decorated with waterfalls, four mountain ranges, marsh and savannah. Sitting in the geographical formation of the Guiana Shield, it has cultural influences from Venezuela to the west and Brazil to the west and south: Brazilian vaquero, or cowboy, traditions are found in the Rupununi, for example.
With more than 800 species of bird, and a wild kingdom that includes giant river otters, giant armadillos and arapaimas (one of the world’s largest freshwater fish), it is a dream destination for keen naturalists and will convert the indifferent.
Yet nature is not Guyana’s only pull. Its mix of people – including indigenous Amerindian, East Indian, African, European and Chinese – has forged its cities, architecture and food. And Guyana is the only country in South America with English as the official language; it was once a British colony. Despite all this, British travellers make up just three per cent of Guyana’s visitor numbers. In 2022, there were 7,668 arrivals from the UK, based on data from the Guyana Tourism Authority.
That looks set to change due to a twice-weekly UK–Guyana flight operated by British Airways, which launched in March. Wilderness Explorers, a company that specialises in the Guianas (Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana) and the Caribbean, has seen an “overwhelming response” to BA’s service to Georgetown, said its general manager, Carla Vantull. Other European tourists, as well as Britons, have added to the spike in interest with requests for bookings as far ahead as 2027.
The capital is a patchwork of wooden buildings, including St. George’s Anglican cathedral and homes painted in bright shades, as well as greenery, canals and the turrets of temples and mosques. It has a Caribbean feel: exchanges are typically in creole; Guyanese players hold positions in the West Indies cricket squad; genre-blending singer Eddy Grant is Guyanese-British.
Before sunrise in Georgetown’s Botanical Gardens, the city’s backing track was chirrups and squawks; by 9am at a roadside bar, it became the honks and revs of heavy traffic. On Saturday nights, stalls along the seawall sell food and drink as residents gather to socialise with views of the Atlantic.
Most international visitors will start in Georgetown before heading to interior attractions, including Kaieteur Falls. A single drop waterfall in the Amazon rainforest that’s about four and a half times taller than Niagara Falls, Kaieteur is typically reached by a 45-minute flight from the city. “There used to be a problem filling planes, now there are not enough seats,” said Vantull. There are plans to expand the runway to allow for 18-passenger aircraft (at the moment the planes are 12 seaters).
Kaieteur’s annual visitor numbers are equivalent to Machu Picchu’s daily footfall. That said, a flight to the falls costs around US$280 and the alternative from Georgetown is a multi-day overland trip. Visitors who can take one of these routes enjoy an experience free of poncho-selling stalls, roped off walkways or queues.
My walk to Rainbow viewpoint passed over 2.2-million-year-old rock formations and veered into a section of forest where flashes of traffic-cone orange settled long enough for a guide to identify two Guianan cocks-of-the-rock. With pronounced half-moon crests, puffed chests and their tangerine plumage, the adult males possess the beauty among this bird species.
It is one of the most coveted wildlife sightings at Kaieteur; another is the golden rocket frog. I saw one hidden inside the leaf of a giant tank bromeliad. As long as the nail on my middle finger, and a dangerous shade of yellow, the frog provided a brief diversion from the power of the falls. The relentless rush of water, which is the colour of milky hot chocolate, is surrounded by dense rainforest.
Guyana’s fauna and flora offer regular waterside entertainment. Indeed, it was the urge to nurture a river-dwelling creature that turned Karanambu Lodge into a tourist destination. The protector of the giant river otter was the late Diane McTurk, aunt to Melanie’s husband, Edward. Diane’s father Edward “Tiny” McTurk established a cattle ranch and balata (rubber) collection station at the same spot in 1927. Having grown up at the ranch, before moving for education and work, Diane returned to Karanambu and began to rehabilitate otters who’d been orphaned by poachers after their parents’ pelt.
Karanambu’s animals attracted David Attenborough in the 1950s. Other well-known arrivals have included conservationist Gerald Durrell and Mick Jagger, who visited Diane’s otters. There were none at the lodge during my visit: its education efforts have led to fewer parentless pups.
Plenty live in the river that’s a five-minute walk from the main house, although they remained hidden on my tour. A trip down the Rupununi and its offshoots is a highlight of a stay at Karanambu. I tried to picture the giant river otters. “Everything’s about six foot in Guyana,” joked Melanie before we headed out to the motorised boats.
My guide for the evening was Kenneth Mandook, one of around 12 people employed at Karanambu, and its chief birder. Once we’d pushed off, I swivelled my gaze from left to right as he pointed out the creatures on either bank: pied lapwing, osprey; black-throated mango hummingbird; Amazon kingfisher; nighthawks. Then there was movement high up in branches on the right bank: a group of saki monkeys were climbing from tree-to-tree. We slowed to a stop and witnessed a moment of jeopardy: a youngster tumbling in the air before catching a branch.
Soon after, sitting among the vast pads of the Victoria amazonica water lily provided a quiet interlude. Mandook passed out metal beakers of Karanambu’s passion fruit rum punch.
With crisscross, veiny undersides and umbilical-cord roots, the lily pads protect a small collection of white buds each of which open three times. I willed the petals to part as the drum of raindrops and darkening sky added to the peace of the scene.
After a festival’s worth of river performances, there was a final act. Mandook’s head torch scouted for pairs of reflective spots: then one appeared in the distance. As we moved closer, a shape formed: it was the knobbly head of a black caiman, crouched on a rock.
We recounted it all that evening at the trestle table in the main house. The thatched building doubles as Melanie’s home. Here, I had a taste of Guyanese cuisine. Split pea soup, garlic cassava bread, made from a starchy root vegetable of the same name, “high water” fish that was caught that morning, fried plantain, and steamed callaloo. Ingredients were homegrown or locally sourced. Melanie, who divides her time between Karanambu and Georgetown, has continued the lodge’s tradition of hospitality.
Having spent her youth in Georgetown – back when jaguars were known to stalk through residential areas – she had an interest in wildlife before meeting her husband. Conservation is also ingrained in Amerindian cultures around the Rupununi, she added. “It’s a name for what local people had already been doing”.
Vantull, meanwhile, who grew up in Kamarang, an Amerindian village in Upper Mazaruni, said she “learnt the beauty of wildlife through tourism.”
Back in Georgetown, Carlos Allie, a guide and avian expert, prompted a gasp as each student put an eye to the telescope that he’d trained towards another colourful specimen at the city’s botanical gardens, from toucans to macaws. Urban wildlife doesn’t stop at birds: manatees lurk in the waterways.
Around 10 minutes’ drive from the Botanical Gardens, chef Delven Adams described the origins of the dishes he’d plated up at Backyard Cafe behind his home (visitors must book in advance). The scent of fish curry, with green seasoning, coconut, turmeric and garlic, rose from the table. Lunch closed with a pudding of cassava pone and local coffee.
Adams runs regular tours of Georgetown’s Bourda and Stabroek markets during which customers can sample fruits such as fig leaf banana, golden apple and saccharine slices of sapodilla. His food has featured on the National Geographic television series Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted and he’s soon to open a permanent market cafe. Punters can also try out Backyard Cafe recipes via tutorials on YouTube. “I have enquiries from all over the world; people turn up at my door asking for a table,” added Adams.
He may be bringing Guyanese national pride to the online masses, but it’s best experienced in person.
Even Attenborough’s narration can’t draw out the wonder of clocking an oversized anteater shuffling onto the grassland, just a few metres from your feet, or from salted pineapple hitting your taste receptors on a humid morning in Georgetown.
British Airways flies direct from London Gatwick to Guyana via St Lucia from £499pp return, based on travel from September–November 2023, ba.com. Guyana’s dry seasons are the best time to visit, with the next beginning in September.
Wilderness Explorers offers a 13-night, small group Guyana Nature Experience from $6,425pp, based on two sharing, wilderness-explorers.com.