Perhaps one of the most intimate and underrated travel destinations, Guyana sits on the shoulder of South America. It’s slightly larger than France, but with just 790,000 inhabitants, it’s one of the least-populated countries on earth.
About 95% of the land is ruled by wilderness, from wild savannas and meandering earth-tone rivers to misty plateau mountains, all enclosed by one of the few remaining pristine rainforests in the world. It’s the ultimate spot to disconnect; you will rarely spot other travelers if any at all.
If you’re an experienced traveler with a budget to spend on unparalleled adventures – like staring down the world’s largest single-drop waterfall or going on a nightly paddle to catch caimans – get ready to fall in love.
After my recent family trip to Guyana, these are what I think are the top things to do there year-round (even during the rainy season).
Get local insight on destinations all over the world with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Stabroek Market is the largest market in Guyana © benedek / Getty Images
Stroll and snack your way through Georgetown
Start your trip in the country’s capital of Georgetown. Everybody in this former British colony speaks English and drives on the left side of the road.
Venture into downtown G-town on foot on a workday morning to orient yourself. Downtown has a friendly vibe, and Georgetowners are very welcoming. However, make sure to leave any unnecessary valuables behind in case of theft and see the city most safely during daylight hours.
Start your walk near the State House, where Guyana’s president lives. From there, you’ll find plenty of tasty dining spots. For a taste of France, grab a coffee, sandwich or pastry at Petit Four. If you’re craving Indian flavors, opt for a curry and roti at Shanta’s Puri Shop, a long-standing popular hole-in-the-wall establishment further down the block.
Before heading to Main Street, continue your stroll through the lush Promenade Gardens (accessibility varies with rainfall). Enjoy refreshing coconut water from one of the street carts as you take the shaded route on the capital’s promenade.
Tip:Download WhatsApp on your phone before your trip. Almost everyone in Guyana – even small shops and restaurants – uses WhatsApp to communicate.
Then head south until you reach St George’s Cathedral. Though currently under renovation and closed off to the public, this 143-ft-high structure (one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world) is still impressive from the outside.
Circle around and head towards the river to dive into the thriving bustle of Stabroek Market, the busiest market in the country. Or walk the other way to the less hectic Bourda Market. If you’re feeling adventurous, ask a vendor to help you try a fruit you haven’t eaten before. Sapodilla, anyone?
To cool off after your walk, message the Marriott Hotel on WhatsApp and ask for a day pass to their swimming pool. As the largest in the city, this pool is fit for a palace.
Tip: If you like your cab ride from the airport, get the driver’s number; you might end up with a friend who will make getting around much easier.
At 250m tall, Kaieteur is the largest single-drop waterfall in the world © Victor1153 / Shutterstock
Fall for (not into) Kaieteur
Once you have settled into the capital, check out Guyana’s main attraction: Kaieteur Falls. You can best reach this thundering wonder via airplane from Georgetown’s city airport – or else it’s a treacherous, five-day (minimum) trek through thick rainforest. Most tour operators in Guyana offer day trips to Kaieteur, including transportation to and from the airport, a plane ride with a local airline, a knowledgeable guide and snacks on the ground.
We booked our tour with Wilderness Explorers, one of the region’s most well-known tour operators. Roraima Tours, Air Guyana Tours and Dragon Tours are also popular options; Rainforest Tours is known for its overland treks.
Our first glimpse of the rainforest interior left us speechless (or only capable of “oohs” and “aahs”) when our eight-seat plane emerged from a bumpy storm cloud. Below, a mighty waterfall surrounded by thick untouched green resembled a fantasy world from a video game. The waterfall plunges 250m (820ft) to the bottom of the gorge – five times the height of Niagara Falls – hence the title, “largest single-drop waterfall in the world.”
The falls are named after local chief Kai, who is said to have sacrificed himself by paddling over the drop and plunging into the gorge to restore peace in a tribal war. Some Guyanese avoid the area entirely because they believe it’s mystical and dangerous.
On getting closer to the drop, trembling from the tens of thousands of gallons of water falling per second just a few feet away, it almost felt scary being so exposed to a natural superpower.
Where the wild things are: tracking Guyana’s iconic wildlife
The falls are surrounded by Kaieteur National Park, one of the first protected areas in all of Latin America and the Caribbean since 1929. It’s all part of the 2-billion-year-old Guiana Shield – one of the most biodiverse areas on earth where new species are discovered frequently.
Maybe the most important thing to know for your visit is that Guyana’s most celebrated site is free of human touch. There are no guardrails. No kitschy souvenir shops. No hotels. In the rainy season, you might be the only tourist among local families, scientists or mining managers taking a day off. On the ground, I felt humbled, out of place and utterly powerless in the face of undisturbed nature.
If you feel overwhelmed or begin to experience vertigo, step back and ask your guide to point out the wildlife nearby. You may spot tiny golden rocket frogs, morphos (South America’s largest butterflies) or one of the hundreds of species of birds living behind the curtain of water.
Lime like a pro
When you return to Georgetown from Kaieteur or any other adventure in the interior like birdwatching, fishing, wildlife-spotting or jungle trekking – it’s time to just lime. To lime, or “liming,” is maybe the best Guyanese word. It simply means to hang out. The term is used in other parts of the Caribbean, but in Guyana, liming is a lifestyle – and there are oh-so-many spots to lime around Georgetown.
Start in the home of chef Delven Adams, who returned to Guyana after living in the US and, together with his partner Malini Jaikarran, created the Backyard Café in their suburban home. Adams cooks fresh market-to-table Caribbean-inspired cuisine for a few guests each day.
Reservations should be made days or weeks in advance (and with some persistence) to be one of the lucky few customers. Be on time, or you might lose your seat at the table.
If you don’t make it to the Backyard, try the Oasis Café downtown, another couple-owned, outdoor garden-like bistro that serves cakes, pastries, breakfast sandwiches and a lunch buffet. If you prefer to dine indoors during hot or rainy weather, try one of the Indian restaurants like Aagman, which serves up favorites like crispy fried okra, aka Kurkuri Bhindi, and butter chicken.
Once you get the hang of hanging, go all out on any evening (though Sundays are best) and take a cab to the Sea Wall, deemed the liming capital of the world. The concrete embankment was built by Dutch settlers and has been expanded several times since the late-1800s through labor from settlers, prisoners and locals to protect the below-sea-level shoreline. Over time, it has become a favorite hangout spot.
Good places to start liming are on the corners of Vlissengen Road or Sheriff Street. Check out the Sea Wall’s murals with a drink in hand, listen to the music and then lime with everybody catching a cool breeze at the wall: dates, dance parties, family gatherings and motorcycle parades.
Plan a short trip to Suriname
There used to be a French, British, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish Guiana. The Spanish and the Portuguese eventually folded into Venezuela and Brazil while French Guiana remained. The British and the Dutch left their colonies in (somewhat controlled) independence, leaving what is now Guyana and Suriname, the smallest country in South America.
Leaving Guyana and heading overland towards one of its siblings is an adventure in itself; remote cowboy towns and irregular river crossings dot the journey. To start, go on the day-long trip southeast to Suriname, across the Courantyne River.
While a bridge connecting the two countries is planned, the only official way to cross the river is by ferry. Be warned: it runs on a murky schedule with crossings at least once a day, and there’s little to no schedule information available until you arrive at the terminal.
Leave Georgetown before 4am with a packed breakfast and lunch. Have your e-visa, passports and vaccine requirements ready. Pick an experienced driver as cattle and donkeys tend to do morning jaywalks along the route, and speeding is common.
If your driver drops you off at the ferry terminal and doesn’t take you further (which is common), ask for help locating another driver to continue to Paramaribo – Suriname’s capital. Some drivers make the journey back and forth between the two countries several times a week, and you will most likely find one on board with their car.
After going through immigration, you can grab something to eat (like ice cream and chips) at the kiosk inside the terminal. Once aboard the ferry, enjoy the breeze and lime your way across the bronze-colored Courantyne River.
You won’t know you’ve left Guyana until you’ve passed under Suriname’s flag on the other side. Stay in Suriname for a day or two to explore the untouched jungles of Brownsberg Nature Reserve and the Dutch architecture of Paramaribo before taking the regional airline back to where you started.