Visited in April 2016.
I started my Caribbean part of the tour by flying from Paris to Cayenne. I was picked up by my couchsurfing (more info at this website: www.couchsurfing.org) host’s father, Jean-Marc at the airport and it was a short drive to the capital. He spoke a little English and I spoke to him in my broken French, but we were able to converse without a problem. He showed me around the center of town for a few minutes, which was no more than a few main streets and the tallest building around five floors high. Since it started raining, we decided to go to his crib.
What surprised me about Cayenne was that she looked exactly like mainland France. Well, it was France after all. You will not be surprised seeing baguette stores, Carrefour, transactions in Euro and even use the Carte Vitale (The French medical card). French was the main language and very few people spoke English.
Famous for the Space Center
French Guiana was my third French overseas department after New Caledonia and Reunion. I came to learn that she was famous for the space center. Fortunately, I was able to see the rocket launch the next day. Jean-Marc drove 100km from Cayenne and we saw a rocket launch LIVE. The rockets were developed in Kourou, a town about 60km from Cayenne. The town strives on the Guiana Space Center and in addition, you can enjoy the beautiful beaches, go horseback riding or simply do water sports. We visited Kourou to get a feel of the town and the size of the space center facilities. Unfortunately, we were unable to enter the grounds, since it was highly confidential and it was the day of the launch.
Note: it is possible to enter the grounds of Guiana Space Center, but you need to provide your passport or credentials a few days in advance.
The Rocket Launch
Around the 100km mark from Cayenne (there is only one main road that goes from East to West), we stopped in the middle of the two lane highway and parked on the grass. I was not sure why he stopped there, because there was not a person in sight except for the summer bugs in the air. Although, I was quite sure what Jean-Marc was doing, since he told me that he has been watching the rockets for the last few years.
There was a big patch of empty grass land that ran for a few hundred meters. He told me to gaze beyond the land towards the sky and that the rocket will launch in precisely two minutes. He knew exactly the time of the launch, since this information was published in the news/internet. “30..29..28..cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un.” I heard a thundering noise from far away and saw a pencil-like rocket blazing through the sky. It did not look big, since we were 50km away from the launching point, but the noise was as loud as a jet plane at one of the air shows. I took pictures of the rocket as it disappeared in the sky.
I spent the next couple of days hanging out with my host Stef. She was a doctor and owned a clinic. A successful woman at the age of around 30, she was from Reims (famous for champagne), but decided to take a chance to start a new life in French Guiana of all places. That was a brave move to make, leaving everything behind and coming to a new place. She was a soft spoken lady and did everything to make my stay in Cayenne comfortable. Besides, she spoke very good English, not common for French. She showed me Cayenne. Very close to the center, there were a few beaches, but they were not the prettiest of all. The water was dirty and muggy and not a single soul lounging in the sun. I thought the Caribbean was supposed to have the most beautiful beaches, but to my surprise, no. The center was very small with one main open plaza with a nice bar to hang out. The bar was inside the Hotel Les Palmistes (http://www.palmistes.com), a small place that looked out to the plaza. There were very few clients, since I was there around 4pm in the afternoon, but that did not stop me from having my first drink in the Caribbean. Well, what do you think I ordered? The Caribbean is famous for rum, so I naturally ordered the Planteur. Not knowing what it was, a tall colorful cocktail was placed in front of me. I smelled some kind of strong alcohol with a mix of pineapple and orange juice, along with a hint of bitters. I sipped on the tasty, yet sweet drink, looking out at the plaza. There was not a soul out there, as the sun scorched and the humidity was going right through my clothes.
Leather Back Turtle Nests Eggs
On one night, Stef told me that we should go watch the leather back turtles lay their eggs. Around 9pm, we headed for one of the beaches famous for the laying. The beach was cold and the waves were gushing to the shoreline, but we waited quietly for a turtle to show up. I was told that this beach has at least one sighting per day, but we waited for 30 minutes until this gigantic turtle about 3 meters long came up towards the shore. It had a teardrop-shaped body and a large pair of front flippers to push its body towards the high ground. Once at the high ground, the turtle used its flippers and made a hole in the ground and nested about 50+ eggs. This whole process was truly amazing. We watched the nesting from behind the turtle. We were so close to her that I could have touched her skin with my hand. The turtle did not notice us because they have very bad night vision on land. The contrast between the dark forested area and the brighter, moonlit ocean provides directionality for the mothers. They nest towards the dark and then return to the ocean and the light. After laying, she carefully back-filled the nest, disguised it from predators with a scattering of sand. The sand was all over the place and the turtle made many different moves to hide the eggs. How cool! Now, that was a once in a lifetime show.
Not sure what to see or do while you are there? Here are some of my favorites:
Attractions: Place des Palmistes, Remire-Montjoly Beach, Fort Ceperou, St. Saviour Cathedral, Vieux Port, and the other beaches around town.
Restaurants: Les Palmistes, Les Pyramides, La Marina, and Restaurant Paris Cayenne.
Getting around from the airport to the city center
Taxi: The published fare at the airport to the city center was €35.
Public bus: I was told that there is a public bus for a few Euros. Inquire at the information desk, since I was picked up by my host.
Rental cars: There were rental car outlets in the airport and in Cayenne.