If you ended up here you're probably purposefully looking for travel information on Guyana's capital city. Congratulations! You've made a good choice. I spent four days in the city and was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed my time exploring, munching, and to be honest ... sweating. If for some odd reason you ended up here on accident and are like most people in the world, you probably have never heard of Guyana or at most know very little about it. To bring you up to speed, here's some fast facts on this little gem of a nation ....
It is located on the northern coast of South America, one of those countries most people brush past on the map in favor of more well-known regional powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, or Peru. It borders the the Caribbean Sea to the north, Venezuela to the west, Suriname (another place you likely know very little about) to the east, and Brazil to the south.
The area was originally populated by a variety of indigenous tribal groups before it was colonized by the Dutch in 1616. Eventually the area was given by the Dutch to the British in the way only colonial masters think they can give away things that aren't theirs to begin with.
Guyana gained independence from the UK in 1966 but remains a part of the Commonwealth.
English is the official language though most people speak Guyanese Creole.
It's colonial history has lead to a diverse population - Indians (brought as laborers by the British from India), African (brought by the British as slaves), Indigenous Amerindian, as well as small populations of Chinese (also indentured servants) and various Europeans.
It's sadly most famous as the site of the mass suicide by members of the Peoples Temple cult in Jonestown. If this is the only reason you know Guyana, please know it has so much more to offer.
With that out of the way and everyone up to speed, let's focus on what you need to know to have a successful trip to one of South America's overlooked gems - Georgetown!
Let's start with safety because in all honesty this is probably the biggest question people have when considering a trip to Georgetown. The US State Department gives Guyana a score of 2 on its danger scale, meaning visitors should exercise "elevated" levels of caution. A few tidbits of advice given to travelers include not resisting any attempted robberies, leaving any outward sign of perceive wealth such as jewelry locked in your hotel room, and not walking around in the country without a local to escort you. The crime and safety report on the State Department's website also notes that murder and armed robbery are quite common in the country and that petty crimes such as pick pocketing, purse snatching, assault, and unarmed robbery are common in the city of Georgetown, particularly around the Stabroek and Bourda markets. Non-official accounts on the internet such as the TripAdvisor forum on Guyana and other places with travel information often paint a horrific image of crime and danger for Guyana. Long story short - Guyana, and Georgetown in particular, have a terrible reputation.
Headings and paragraphs like the above from an article in the Denver Post in 2016 certainly don't help. Sure, the article ends with a brighter and more positive look at travel in this often overlooked South American nation, but it leads with what bleeds and clearly emphasizes a sense of omnipresent danger.
After having spent several days in Georgetown I will say this and will emphasize that this is solely my personal experience - I understand why there's so many warnings about crime and safety in Guyana but I personally felt the rhetoric is quite overdone and needlessly fear-inducing. By all means, one should be cautious while visiting Georgetown. Unemployment is high and crime does happen at a higher rate than many of your more common tourist destinations, but the idea that you're constantly under siege and at-risk did not match my experience. My first day in Georgetown I worked with my guesthouse's driver to make my way across the city to explore the major sites due to some of the safety advice noting visitors should avoid doing any type of solo exploration. I really enjoyed the vibe and feel of the city and felt very safe and secure during my day of supervised exploration. Based on this, I spend the next two days exploring the city on my own without a guide or driver. I was hassled by a total of zero vendors and encountered zero touts or panhandlers. The only people that tried to sell me anything were the drivers of minibus taxis that plied the roads across the city and suburban sprawl. Locals largely ignored me entirely, nodded quietly as I walked past, or occasionally greeted me with a kind "hello".
I even took copious pictures on my iPhone 7S and at one point carried my laptop computer a few blocks from my guesthouse to a coffee shop to do some research when my plans to go to Suriname were epically thwarted by my own stupidity. I felt as secure as I would back home doing the same. The only areas where I felt like there might have potentially been issues were the aforementioned Stabroek Market and Georgetown's seawalls, though in both locations I didn't necessarily feel in danger when I was there. Stabroek Market and the neighboring area is the nexus of the downtown core - it's a transportation hub, meeting point, shopping mall, and dining destination. It was by far the busiest area of the city I encountered and consequently I always felt like I needed to elevate my level of vigilance. As for the seawalls, I raised my level of awareness for the opposite reason - there were relatively few people in the area which would make isolating a visitor and robbing them significantly easier. Note that on the weekends the seawalls see quite a bit more traffic as Georgetown residents come to eat, dance, and enjoy their free time.
So to summarize my experience - I didn't find Georgetown all that much more threatening or dangerous than most other international destinations I've visited over the years. As long as I exercised my standard travel safety routine such as being aware of my surroundings, keeping expensive jewelry/items out of sight or in the hotel, or making sure you're not standing around clearly lost and confused I felt comfortable and secure. Please note that this is just my personal experience and your own experiences in the city may vary wildly, particularly if you're a solo female or elderly.
This blog has a multitude of focal points and one of those is definitely the unique experiences and concerns LGBT travelers have while on the road in the world. If this section isn't of useful to you, feel free to skip ahead.
Welcome to Guyana, where the situation for the LGBT community is ...... complicated.
Here's some fast facts on the state of LGBT rights in Guyana:
Guyana is the only country in North and South America outside of the Caribbean that still criminalizes same-sex sexual activity.
Same-sex marriage is illegal.
Laws providing standard LGBT discrimination protections do not currently exist in Guyana.
Gender non-conforming behavior including the wearing of specific types of clothing deemed "inappropriate" by local authorities is currently illegal.
As a former British colony, Guyana has maintained many of the legal prohibitions on same-sex activity that were common during the colonial era. The most recent polling of the Guyanese public by the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES) in 2013 revealed that 24% of people responded that they "hate" homosexuals, while 38% and 25% responded as "tolerant" or "accepting" respectively. A slim majority of respondents favored keeping LGBT sexual activity criminal (53%) though the same percentage of people expressed their openness to changing their mind on LGBT rights in general.
Not exactly a rosy picture for the local Guyanese LGBT community and definitely not the most ideal destination for an LGBT traveler. But it's not all terrible news!
The decriminalization of same-sex sexual activity has been near the forefront of Guyana's political agenda for several years now. A previous effort to boot the antiquated colonial regulations came quite close to passing before pressure from religious groups caused the President at the time to remove his support. The current Guyanese President has vocally given his support for the repeal of the so-called "buggery" laws and pressure from the United Kingdom as well as business and social organizations within the Americas has been mounting on Guyana to move away from this discriminatory legal framework. The recent legal battles to decriminalize same-sex sexual activity in neighboring Trinidad & Tobago has also motivated public conversation in Guyana.
While on the ground in Georgetown I twice heard local radios station DJs discussing the decriminalization of same-sex sexual activity. Both times the DJs were 100% supportive of decriminalization and made several passionate arguments as to why these laws deserved to be in the ash heap of history. I casually made commentary to my driver about his thoughts on the decriminalization efforts currently going on in the country and he was generally supportive of the repeal and fairly open to LGBT rights in general. This of course is all anecdotal of course, but I overall got a "slowly getting better" vibe.
Despite the unfriendly LGBT environment there are several LGBT non-profits in Georgetown that actively promote LGBT equality and rights in the city and country. Apps such as Grindr and Scruff appear to function without any interference from the local government but my understanding is that due to the anti-LGBT climate in the country many of the users use fake pictures and often do not intend to connect in person. Gay app activity appears to be frustrating for users but not dangerous like it can be in countries like Russia or Egypt where there's often reports of police sting operations or individual looking to perpetrate hate crimes using them to locate victims. I would say an LGBT visit should use a heightened sense of caution and their own sense of intuition when meeting people on apps. As far as I can tell there are no readily identifiable LGBT bars in Georgetown. Most of the community seems to function by word of mouth or gathering at individual homes/private locations.
Walking around Georgetown I did not see any outward signs of business or homes displaying the ubiquitous rainbow flag. I did encounter a small handful of people that I would say might have been part of the LGBT community but did not have an opportunity to openly discuss this with anyone considering Guyana's LGBT climate being the way it is. I didn't want to make assumptions about anyone nor did I want to make anyone uncomfortable.
Long story short is that Guyana, as you might expect, is not a gay-friendly travel destination. If you're looking for the relative safety of a place like Mykonos or Bangkok this is definitely out of that zone. As a gay traveler I have made the choice to often explore destinations with unwelcoming and even dangerous climates for LGBT individuals, though I realize this isn't for everyone. If you're open to exploring a unique and interesting part of the world despite its LGBT issues, continue reading below....
Generally speaking people get to Georgetown by flying or traveling overland from Suriname by taxi/bus service.
Georgetown has two airport options - the larger international airport (Cheddi Jagan) that's an hour's drive out of town or the smaller regional airport that's about a 15 minute drive from the downtown core (Ogle). Guyana is relatively small with a only about 750,000 people so the frequency of flights in and out of the country is limited and the number of airlines offering service is also fairly small. Arriving from overseas you're best bet is to look at Caribbean Airlines (from Port of Spain in Trinidad and occasional directly from New York City), Suriname Airways (from Miami or Paramaribo), or Copa Airlines (Panama City). Of the three I would recommend Caribbean Airlines or Copa as better options, and I'm not saying that just because a supervisor for Suriname Airways tried to get a $200 bribe out of me that resulted in a screaming match (I linked to this story above). I didn't have a positive experience with the airline but when speaking to the local Guyanese I met while in Georgetown they all spoke very highly of Copa and Caribbean, particularly Caribbean. Suriname Airways and FlyJamaica received universal poor marks when asked. Note that American Airlines will be starting service to Guyana from Miami in December 2018.
Even though Ogle is considered a small regional airport, it does offer limited international flights with LIAT (Barbados and Port of Spain) and one hour hops to neighboring Paramaribo in Suriname on three local airlines (GUM, Trans Guyana, and Caricom). Note that buying a ticket to Guyana from many places in the world can be quite expensive. When looking at flights to Georgetown over the course of several months I actually found that getting a cheap flight to Miami or Port of Spain and then buying a separate ticket onward was much less expensive.
Flying over the vast rain forests that cover the majority of Guyana.
Overland is the other common way of getting to Georgetown and Guyana in general. Guyana is bordered on Suriname to the east and Venezuela to the west, and Brazil to the south. Due to the political unrest and general safety concerns in Venezuela, chances are you aren't looking to come from that direction. If you are, here's a really good write up on the process. Coming overland from Suriname is much more common for travelers in the region, as generally speaking people are making their way across the three "Guianas" (Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana) on a sort of travel pilgrimage. From Paramaribo (Suriname's capital) you can take minibuses early in the morning to the Nickerie district which borders Guyana. You'll exit Suriname and then take a ferry boat across the Courantyne River, enter Guyana, and then pick up another minibus taxi onward to Georgetown.
Stabroek Market is one of the central hubs for minibuses departing for Suriname.
The timeline of the process can vary but generally speaking it takes around ten hours if you hit each portion at the right time. Note that ferries across the river only depart TWICE per day so if you mess up your arrival you may find yourself stuck at the border for a few hours to a full day. You can also travel overland from Brazil but that routing is much less common. If you want detailed information on the overland crossing from Suriname, a simple Google search will give you tons of information.
Visa, vaccination, and passport requirements vary by your country of citizenship and where you visited prior to arriving in the region so make sure you've checked ahead of time and ensure your documents are in order.
As with most cities, Georgetown has a variety of options for getting you to and from where ever you might want to go. Let's quickly look at those options.....
Walking - This is the method I used for most of my trip and the one that I enjoyed the most since it allowed me to travel at my own pace, explore what I was interested in seeing on my own time frame, and really invest in seeing what life was like on a daily basis for people going to work, school, running errands, etc. It's not a perfect option though. Guyana is a country where the average temperature stays relatively static around the year, and that temperature is high and often accompanied with a lot of humidity. Walking around for a full day in those conditions isn't for everyone. Additionally if you're trying to be abundantly cautious while exploring Georgetown, walking around is one of the less "secure" methods of seeing the city, so that's something to consider. Most sights are accessible on foot from the area of the city where most hotels and guest houses are located, but not all are.
Private Driver - This is the other method I used on my trip, though only for my first day and then sporadically after that on an "as needed" basis. If safety is still a major concern for you, this is definitely the route to go. Wary of taxi scams at the airport prior to arriving, I contacted my hotel and asked them to arrange a driver to meet me at the airport. He was super friendly, prompt, and I immediately struck up a rapport with him. We exchanged contact information on WhatsApp (a truly useful tool if traveling internationally) and he agreed to help show me around town the next day. He also helped me with getting to and from Ogle Airport for my day trip to the famous Kaieteur Falls. Working with a "known" driver you trust through your hotel is likely the easiest/safest option for Georgetown. It is, however, also going to be the most expensive. Prices vary so make sure you use your negotiation skills if connecting directly with the driver like I did. If you ask the hotel to arrange for a half day or full day service, you'll likely have to pay a flat fee that's higher than what the driver would charge you directly of course. If you are looking for a reliable driver in Georgetown, feel free to use the "Contact Me" feature above and I can connect you with the gentleman I worked with.
River boat taxi arriving at the Vreed-en-Hoop terminal.
Taxis - Similar to the above, but you're now seeking services from unknown drivers. Official taxis in Georgetown will all display license plates starting with the letter H (for hire). There are set prices for traveling between popular destinations (airport, the city center, nearby suburbs) otherwise you should discuss the price prior to getting into the car. Standard safety advice on using taxis in Georgetown is to contact a taxi service by phone or app and avoid hailing from the street.
Minibus - While Georgetown isn't a city with a metro, light rail, or even standard bus service crisscrossing its expanse, it does have an large network of minibuses which will take you through the city or even out to the far reaches of the country. Other than walking this is going to be your least expensive option though it comes with quite a bit of difficulty and risk. Guyana's road safety record isn't particularly high and whenever I was on the roads during my stay I frequently saw driving behavior that was highly risky and would likely lead to accidents if the conditions were right. Local input on minibuses were that locals of course use them frequently but they're the primary cause of accidents on the road as well. Prices are super inexpensive though, and it's the closest thing you'll get to standardized public transit on established/known routes.
Life jackets while crossing to Georgetown.
Water Taxi - The city of Georgetown is located on one side of the Demerara River. If you're looking to cross to the other side and explore the smaller towns on the other shore or visit the town of Parika (a popular side trek for those tired of Georgetown and the launching point for some tourist boats to nearby islands) you can use the water taxis that leave from Stabroek Market and arrive at Vreen-de-Hoop. From there you can negotiate with a taxi or use a minibus to access Parika or simply explore Vreen-de-Hoop on its own. Cost for the boats appeared to be standard at 100 dollars (.50 USD). The boats only took enough passengers as there were seats and required all riders to wear life vests each time I was on one. Safety on these seemed fairly solid. Payment was made after the crossing when exiting the boat and of course exact change is appreciated as they really don't have the time to break your $1000 bill.
WHEN TO GO
With an equatorial climate, Guyana essentially has two seasons - wet and dry. There are some variances based on whether you're along the coast or further inland, but since Georgetown is a coastal city let's focus on that.
Wet Season - The wet season in Guyana generally happens between mid-May to mid-July and then again between mid-November and the end of January. Wet season of course means you'll likely see much higher levels of rainfall, though they often happen in powerful sporadic bursts of storm activity vs. a constant downpour. On the plus side, the wet season is generally cooler than the dry season. On the down side, it's also much more humid. The increased levels of water also means an increase in the number of insects in Georgetown, so mosquitoes will become much more of an issue during this time frame. Consequently diseases like yellow fever and malaria are a concern, though both have relatively few cases reported in the Georgetown area. Note that with the geography issue noted above, Georgetown tends to have heavy flooding during the wet season.
I visited during the dry season which means umbrellas were reserved for protection from the sun, a common practice by both men and women in Georgetown.
Dry Season - The dry season in Georgetown means higher heat but less humidity. Tourists tend to favor dry season over wet season and consequently more visitors arrive during this time frame. You're never likely to feel swarmed by travelers like you would in other cities during high season.
WHAT TO SEE
Is Georgetown serving you historic realness and sights galore the way some other capital cities like Paris or Beijing? The internet will likely tell you that's a firm "no". But like many things on the internet, I say ignore that and decide for yourself. Personally I felt Georgetown was definitely worth spending some time exploring and was not just some place to sleep on your way to and from more exciting places in the region.
So what would I recommend you stop by and see while in Guyana's largest city?
Of course one of the places in the city that is often listed as the most dangerous area of town is also one of the most interesting. Oddly enough the market's unique iron and steel metal structure was designed and built by Edgemoor Iron, an American company based in ..... Delaware, of all places! You'd think a giant metal structure in the middle of Guyana's tropical heat might not be the best material to use when constructing the city's busiest commercial area. And you're probably right. But there it is in all its searing metallic glory.
As mentioned before, Stabroek is the heaving, seething heart of Georgetown. It's crammed full of vendors selling anything your heart desires. You want some gold jewelry? They've got it. SIM card? Got it. Pineapples? Got it. Car tires? Dozens of 'em. If you're hungry there's plenty of street side vendors and even a few counters where you can sit down for some grub. It's also the beginning and end point of almost every minibus heading out into the city and further afield. As the city's primary gathering place it's full of people and quite an interesting place to observe life in Guyana. Just keep your wits about you and your eyes peeled.
St. George's Cathedral
The Guyanese will proudly proclaim that St. George's is the tallest wooden structure in the world though my research indicates its most likely the tallest wooden church in the world, and even that's based on rather iffy internet information to be honest. Regardless, this cathedral is one of the "can't miss" sights in the Guyanese capital.
The church is over 100 years old and is affiliated with the Anglican church, a holdover from the days of British colonialism. Even if it's not the tallest wooden building in the world, the wood itself is quite beautiful. The dark tones contrast nicely with the white panels and purple stained glass, giving it a unique tropical feel that isn't usually found in an austere church environment. When services aren't being conducted you may find yourself the only visitor in the entire building, as was the case when I dropped in. The resident Anglican nuns seem to have a "spidey" sense for visitors though and will no doubt appear after a few minutes to greet you and then ask you sign the guestbook.
Much like another famous colonial city sitting along the Caribbean Sea (New Orleans), much of Georgetown suffers from the threat of flooding. The coastline often is subject to severe erosion and many early colonial settlements along the coast were washed away as the sea crept inland. After the colonial governor's residence was swept away in 1855, construction of the seawall began and has slowly evolved over the past two centuries. Many portions of the wall are directly on the sea shore while other portions, like the one pictured below, has a significant amount of shore accessible beyond the barrier.
While the entire coastal length of the city of Georgetown is covered by the seawall, it actually extends well beyond the city itself. There are a total of 280 miles of wall along the Guyanese coastline. While relatively deserted during the week, the seawalls become a social gathering spot during the weekend in Georgetown as it's a popular location to lounge, eat food, and socialize. If you're someone who prefer exercising outdoors instead of the gym, the seawall is a great place to find uninterrupted areas for running, Note that the seawall is also a location identified as having a higher probability of criminal activity due to its isolation and lack of people in many locations, so just like Stabroek market remain alert when visiting here.
Independence Arches & Botanical Gardens
Georgetown's Botanical Garden serves as a quiet little urban oasis. Admittedly the city itself is quite small and I never really felt like there was much "hubbub" to overwhelm me, but for many of the city's residents it serves as a place to relax amongst nature and get away from city life for awhile. With tons of green space and tree lined boulevards, there's also a relatively small zoo within its bounds. I did not frequent the zoo as I am not a fan of zoos in practice or as a concept. Your views might be different. There are ponds dotting the area near the zoo where I was told several manatees live, though I never got to see one myself despite patiently waiting for one to surface. In a quiet corner of the park is also the Seven Ponds monument, a tribute to former Guyanese presidents. Arthur Chung, Guyana's first President, has his tomb next to this monument.
Right outside the Botanical Gardens is one of Georgetown's Independence Arches. I say "one of" as there are several throughout the city. As far as I could tell there was the one just outside the Botanical Gardens, another along the road that runs parallel with the seawall toward Suriname, and another on a major road through the city near the Demerara river. The arches themselves are rather lackluster and in comparison to other world monuments are pretty unimpressive, but they symbolize the Guyanese breaking free of colonialism and are worth seeing if you have the time. And if you're in Georgetown, you probably have some.
La Repentir Cemetery
Another thing Georgetown has in common with New Orleans is the need for above ground cemeteries. Both cities run the constant risk of flooding and the high water table along the coastline makes burying bodies difficult. Consequently the custom of building graves above ground became popular in both locations. As you can see in the picture below, Georgetown is often inundated with water from the Caribbean sea and rainfall that has a hard time soaking into the already saturated ground, so the cemetery often appears to be "floating" in a shallow lake.
Yes, I'll admit that a graveyard is a bit of an odd "sight" to see when visiting a new city. But it's a unique part of the city's landscape and actually gives you a little insight into the geography of the area. The above ground tombs are a way that locals have adapted to the unique features of the land the city was built upon. Much like graveyards in New Orleans or even the famous Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, the tombs often feature unique design and decorations that catch the eye. As a place where the dead have been laid to rest, I would caution you to practice extreme respect and caution when visiting La Repentir.
As noted in the "Getting Around" section, the Demerara River forms the western border of Georgetown and is filled with ships carrying cargo from Guyana around the Caribbean and also smaller water taxis bringing people to and from Vreed-en-Hoop.
Water plays a huge role in the geography and daily lives of Georgetown's residents, so any opportunity you can take to explore the river is one that will give you some insight into life in the capital. A bit further south along the river from the major ferry terminals is the Harbour Bridge, a 1.25 mile long structure connecting the two sides of the river that's floating along the river on giant pontoons. The bridge is one of the more unique features along the river and will (theoretically) soon be a thing of the past - construction on a new bridge is scheduled to begin this year and open in 2020 upon which time the existing floating bridge will be scrapped.
This isn't a specific sight to see in the city per se but it was indeed one of my favorite things about Georgetown. Wandering through the various neighborhoods around the capital revealed numerous houses built out of tropical woods that were slowly decaying under the withering heat and humidity of the equatorial climate.