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Off the Grid in Suriname, South America

Eleanor Hughes

Contributor

Suriname situated on the north-eastern coast of South America is one of the smallest countries, land-wise, on the continent. With eighty per cent of it covered in pristine rainforest and rivers, most of the population of 570,000 is located on the coast. Before the Dutch took Suriname from the English in 1667, it was occupied by Amerindians. The Dutch imported African slaves to work the sugar, coffee, cacao and cotton plantations and when slavery was abolished in the late 1800s contracted workers were brought from Java, India and China. Hence, Suriname has a hugely diverse population. Unsurprisingly, but not what you expect in South America, Dutch is the official language.

Paramaribo

If flying into Suriname, visitors arrive in Paramaribo, the capital city.

The Dutch influence can be seen in the historical centre where wooden, two and three-storey, Dutch colonial homes, built between 1680 and 1800, still stand. Their large balconies and dormer windows make the streets of this UNESCO World Heritage site look very European and picturesque.

Time can be spent visiting the simple but beautiful soaring Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, apparently the largest wooden building in the Western Hemisphere. Check out the Amerindian, Maroon and colonial items, including a replica 19th Century apothecary, in the restored, brick buildings of Fort Zeelandia on the side of the brown Suriname River.

Take a guided tour to find out the history of old plantations or visit the open-air museum of Fort Nieuw Amsterdam. It’s a short taxi ride from town to Leonsberg where a boat can be caught across the river to a jetty close by. Not your regular fort – dykes were used to protect, not walls – there’s a gunpowder room, carriage house and renovated plantation house, amongst others in the large grounds. Old prison cells house an interesting timeline of Surinamese history with separate rooms dedicated to each immigrant/settler group. Much of the information is in Dutch.

Visiting Bigi Pan

On the coast, Bigi Pan, an 8 square kilometre lagoon, is part of a 680 square kilometre wetland system joining the Nickerie River to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s home to one hundred and twenty different bird species at some time throughout the year. A birdwatcher’s paradise, it’s best viewed in February-March and end of July-November.

Overnight tours give a better experience of Bigi Pan. Alternatively day trips are available from Paramaribo or Nieuw Nickerie, the nearest town, and a three to four-hour taxi or bus drive from Paramaribo.

From Nieuw Nickerie visitors are driven a short distance to Nickerie River where low-to-the-water longboats motor along the river a few hundred metres before turning off to a dyke access. This 8.5 kilometre waterway is lined with dense vegetation. At the end of the dyke, Bigi Pan is a surprise. It’s immense.  

On the Lake

The wooden structures, built on stilts, dotted in the lake are a surprise too. Lodges, they provide basic accommodation with rooms, or alternatively sleep in hammocks out on the deck where, in the humid climate, it’s cooler. Meals are simple but substantial.

Watch the sun set, somewhere between 6 and 7p.m. year round, before taking a boat trip up the dyke in the pitch black night to spot by torchlight the glowing red eyes of caiman, closely related to alligators and crocodiles. Snakes, camouflaged on tree branches can also be seen. A night here is extremely relaxing – the only noise being people’s voices, and on a clear night stars brightly sprinkle the black sky.

During the day catch a bit of a breeze on a birdwatching boat trip. Whizz across the brown water populated with bleached white trunks of dead trees, killed by the seawater which flows into the lake. It’s like an apocalyptic world, the feeling more enhanced given that you’re unlikely to see other humans. Flying fish skim across the surface. Heat wafts off the water which has the temperature of a tepid bath. Only 60 -80 cm deep, it’s too shallow for motors in places and boatmen may have to disembark to push the boats. Spot heron resting on grassy, low-lying islands in swampy waters and scarlet ibis decorating dead branches resembling magnolias from a distance. Other birds to be seen are macaw, toucan, pelican, parakeet and woodpecker. Fifty bird species migrate here from North America. Birdlife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations, lists Bigi Pan as an important bird area.

Also inhabiting the white and red mangroves of the rivers and creeks, and the black mangrove-forested swampy coast are forty different mammals and thirty fish species.  

The Upper Suriname

The area known as Upper Suriname is reached by longboat from Atjoni, a small port approximately 4.5 hours’ drive south of Paramaribo on the banks of the Suriname River.

Looking like somewhere you’d find in Africa rather than South America, Atjoni is a colourful, chaotic place with a multitude of boats. Their destinations are Maroon villages dotted along the river. Inhabited by descendants of 18th and 19th Century escaped slaves who established themselves in the forest, the villages consist of thatched or corrugated-roofed wooden dwellings, a few concrete buildings in larger villages. Pass by settlements where children play on riverbanks and locals wave as they go about washing dishes, clothes or themselves in the river which is so important to their existence – for fishing and transportation of goods and people also. There are no roads.

Life appears simple. In Nieuw Aurora, a larger village, days are spent providing or preparing food and going about daily routines - cassava grinding to make flour for flatbread, grinding maripa nuts for cooking oil, hunting tapir or rabbits for meat, fishing… Men work on building boats from the trunks of trees, children attend a small school.

Book a few days in a riverside lodge, they range from basic to luxurious, and learn about the Maroon culture by visiting a village, swim in river rapids, go caiman spotting in the evenings or just watch river life go by. The simple existence will have you forgetting the outside chaotic world.  

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