Lily Taylor travels to French Guiana and discovers a small slice of France in South America: one that’s home to the ‘Coca Cola’ sea and its very own space centre.
Before my friend moved here for a year abroad, I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of French Guiana – or any of the other Guianas for that matter (Suriname and British Guiana). Throughout the year I heard lots from her about what it was like but still couldn’t really imagine – so there was only one thing for it; I had to see this little-known South American destination for myself.
History and geography
So what’s it like? Well, French Guiana is about 90 per cent rainforest with the odd city cut into the middle, although the biggest settlements are on the coast. The only way of getting there from Europe is to fly from Paris Orly to Cayenne, the capital, with Air France.
French Guiana is a department of France, and it quite resembles a ‘little part of Europe’ in this small slice of South America – though I get the impression it’s almost forgotten by the motherland. In almost every way it’s different to Europe, but it does have the Euro and is run by the French government. Interestingly, although it’s in South America the region is very Caribbean in lifestyle, though its mix of people is rather unique. Many retirees have emigrated from Métropole – mainland France – while it’s impossible not to notice the sizeable Brazilian population and the influence of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Arguably French Guiana’s most famous attraction is away from Cayenne in a smaller town called Kourou. The reason? It’s home to the Guiana Space Centre, a facility used by the European Space Agency thanks to its proximity to the equator.
Among the region’s greatest natural attributes are its beautiful beaches, which stretch for miles and are mostly pretty deserted. Lined with palm trees and warm sand, these beaches really are stunning. Don’t be put off by the colour of the sea, which has earned the nickname ‘Nesquik Sea’ or ‘Coca Cola Sea’ – it may not be the prettiest colour, but the water is in fact lovely to swim in at all times, including the early hours of the morning
French Guiana’s history is rather interesting. Originally, it was used as a French penal colony, particularly its off islands: Iles du Salut, where it’s possible to visit and see what’s left of the prison. This is also the setting for Henri Charrière’s Papillon, the story of an island prisoner and his escape.
I found the local dishes good if a little greasy; many fast food vans line the Place des Palmistes serving savoury crepes and hot dogs. Brochettes are very common here (meat on kebab sticks served with satay or other sauces). For those with a sweet tooth, ice cream is ubiquitous – my favourite was peanut flavour but there are also many exotic fruity sorbets on offer. An excellent place for ice cream in Cayenne is Joe la Glacier, where your choice of sweet treat is served on a waffle.
French Guiana is big on spice, so lots of recipes are hot and seasoned with the region’s famous spice, Cayenne pepper. Often on tables there will be a pot of what appears to be breadcrumbs. This is farofa, which is eaten with almost everything to boost flavour and provide a little crunch. Farofa is made from manioc flour fried with garlic and other herbs and spices.
The main way of getting around in French Guiana is hitching – an unusually safe way of travelling here. Obviously you have to take the normal care and precautions, but as long as you’re with at least one other person it is the most convenient way of getting from A to B. Buses are quite infrequent and walking anywhere in the heat takes quite a while.
> Find out more about French Guiana with our range of travel guides and maps.