On the road to Suriname’s astonishing Brownsberg nature reserve, there is no such thing as a tourist. Plying this rugged route, which connects the country’s metropolitan heart to the depths of its ravishing rainforest, the traveller lives life alongside the locals and begins to feel strangely at home.
My voyage into the heart of South America’s little-known jungle begins at 7am in the capital, Paramaribo, on a bustling street named Saramaccastraat. Last night’s rains have passed, the tropical sun has begun its burn, and all around me are the signs and symptoms of life in a poor but ecologically blessed corner of Amazonia.
An army of dilapidated minivans, the ubiquitous wagis of Suriname, line both sides of the street, their chassis coated with red bauxite dust. The aromas of fresh fish and wild game waft from the Central Market, behind which the black ebb of the Suriname river slinks north toward the sea. An entrepreneurial man holds court, a pair of haggard capuchin monkeys perched on his shoulder, two-for-the-price-of-one. Every few feet or so, ancient Maroon women crouch at the curbside, hawking fresh oranges, bananas and pampelmous.
Suriname, Old Dutch Guiana, is the closest thing left to a forgotten land. Nestled above Brazil on the northeast shoulder of South America, it is the continent’s youngest, smallest, least-populated and arguably least-travelled country. Most westerners struggle to locate it on a map, and are stunned to learn it is home to the earth’s largest tract of pristine tropical rainforest.
With sky-high inflation, near-zero population growth and an export economy based largely on dwindling bauxite reserves, one might expect Suriname to become the next victim of clear-cutting by multinational logging corporations. But slowly, and against all odds, it is rebranding itself as a paradise for eco-tourists.
The hope is that Suriname will thrive by renting out its forests instead of cutting them down, generating ecotourism on a par with Costa Rica, where it now dwarfs the timber industry. Over the past few years, countless tour operators have sprung up in Paramaribo, offering a range of eco-experiences: visits to the Caribbean’s largest nesting ground for leatherback turtles (Galibi), three-day treks to the summit of a sacred rainforest mountain (Kasikasima), jungle stays beneath a remote table-top peak (Tafelberg), and memorable birdwatching (Central Suriname nature reserve).
All the trips are considerably more affordable than similar excursions in more developed countries. They become even better value, of course, when you eschew tour companies and do everything yourself – hence my hammock, bug net, blanket and backpack of canned food. Once traded to the Dutch by the British in return for a little island named Manhattan, Suriname remains virgin territory for the modern backpacker. And the time to go is now, because if entrepreneurs have their way, Suriname’s relative obscurity won’t last forever.
The Brownsberg nature reserve, where I’m headed, is one of its oldest parks. It is the easiest place to lose yourself in the dense, dripping mass of the jungle, just a four-hour drive from Paramaribo. With arguably the country’s finest rainforest views, this is where every newly-arrived tourist should spend a day or two acclimatizing, before setting off on more ambitious adventures.
I find a wagi headed for Brownsberg and wedge myself into the last empty seat. A rice sack is perched precariously above the man next to me. It bulges with worrying weight – in the tropics, I’ve learned, rice sacks are the ideal vessels for transporting live snakes.
Saramaccastraat is the gateway to Suriname’s lush rainforest interior to the south. But for the Maroons on my wagi, Saramaccastraat is also the start of a journey home. The Maroons are descendants of west African slaves who began escaping the Dutch plantations 400 years ago. Those brave fugitives founded a new society in Suriname’s teeming jungle, and today, most Maroons still live in vaguely African villages, on remote shores of Suriname’s major rivers. The only way to reach them is by long-distance wagi rides along poorly maintained roads.
Our child-driver, Joseph, punches the gas, and we leave Saramaccastraat in a cloud of exhaust, only to spend the next two hours running down supplies on the outskirts of Paramaribo. Each time we lurch to a stop, the old man to my left (Benjamin) swears under his breath, the young woman to my right (Lily) sucks her teeth in anger, and the rice sack above us threatens to slip from its perch.
Finally, with the new supplies tied haphazardly to the roof, we leave the capital, joining the southbound Martin Luther King Highway. Buildings give way to pastureland, and the start of Surinamese savannah. The bauxite refinery at Paranam looms, a post-apocalyptic warning of what’s to come.
A collective groan rises up and Joseph turns the music down. We hang a left onto the Afobaka Highway and Benjamin grips my thigh with his gnarled fingers. The boy at the wheel floors it. A familiar, bone-rattling clatter rises from beneath our feet.
The Afobaka is renowned as Suriname’s worst road. It was cut through pristine jungle to service the hydroelectric dam barricading the Suriname river 20km to our south. The majority of traffic on this route – VS Naipaul dubbed it The Red Road because of the waste bauxite on its surface – is massive dump-trucks or 18-wheelers loaded with fresh timber. Its surface is a rutted, rust-coloured, potholed nightmare.
Our wagi sounds like it’s about to burst apart: a high-pitched whine of metal shearing against metal. Somehow, we go faster. No one speaks. We swerve left and right to avoid the oncoming trucks, their wakes coating our windows in viscous red mud. We brace ourselves against each other, trying to minimize the bruising and the pain of our bodies colliding.
And then my worst fears come true: the rice sack above us slips free and lands on Benjamin’s lap. Lily screams. I nearly jump into her lap and she nearly leaps through the window. Benjamin just laughs, lifts the sack carefully from his thighs and places it softly beneath his feet.
After two hours, we hang a right onto a smaller road, and, after about 20 minutes, the wagi falls eerily quiet. The road is paved. The punishment is over. Soon we’re cruising down the main drag of Brownsweg, one of the largest villages in Suriname’s rainforest. On one side are traditional Maroon settlements, clusters of huts with wood siding and zinc roofs. On the other a glimpse of a likely future – bulldozed plots of land for government housing
We pull over beneath an enormous fig tree and everyone tumbles out into the sun. Someone releases the hatchback, a mountain of gear crashes to the earth, and some passengers claim their belongings. Not me. Joseph and I are continuing towards the mountain.
Just south of the village, Joseph guns the engine, and we swerve up a steep muddy incline, where we’re engulfed by tangled rainforest. The air grows cooler and the light turns a surreal shade of green. Everywhere I look, something is growing, stretching, reaching for the sun. The abundance is stunning, especially compared with the barren highway.
At the summit, I’m welcomed at the small visitor’s centre by a friendly teenage girl, who despite her youth, is a Surinamese tourism official. She hands me a map of the hiking trails and shows me to a modest hammock camp, complete with sinks and flush toilets. Joseph promises to pick me up in two days. I hang my hammock and open a can of tuna as the sun drops down.
Built on the top of a jungle mountain, Brownsberg is about as rustic as an ecotourism destination can get. For those who prefer beds to hammocks, three guesthouses can be rented by the night or week. Each lodge is equipped with a small kitchenette and can sleep 4-8 people, and each has a terrace overlooking the teeming jungle 500m below. Electricity is provided every night via generators, and clean drinking water via the rain. Brownsberg’s ecological footprint is small indeed, highlighting its dual roles as tourist camp and education centre for Suriname’s youth.
Halfway through my meagre dinner, I hear cackles of laughter from around the visitor’s centre. Upon investigating I find four German tourists holed up in Leki Tongo (Lick Your Lips), the park restaurant and bar. They have just seen the most beautiful sunset of their lives, and are celebrating with bami kip (fried chicken and noodles) and jugs of Parbo beer. Three hours later I return to my hammock, tipsy and shivering. It is as if this park were in the middle of nowhere and not a stone’s throw from civilisation; the Germans and I are the only ones here.
Over the next two days, the pounding of the wagi leaves my bones as I soak up life inside Suriname’s majestic jungle. I hike the maze of forest trails, stalk rumbling armadillos and take regular baths beneath the reserve’s numerous waterfalls. I come across a playful troop of bearded sakis, one of Suriname’s eight species of monkey, and track them through the canopy. Screaming piha birds electrify the air, and flocks of toucans shriek from the canopies of fruiting trees.
With the walaba trees in full bloom, countless hummingbirds zip to and fro. On my way back to camp one evening, alone and with the sun setting, I find a startling sign embedded in the dirt: a feline paw print. Jaguars are known to haunt this reserve at night.
Finally, the night before I leave, my new German friends and I hike out to Mazaroni Top – the famed viewpoint looking out upon the Brokopondo valley. Suriname’s vast interior lake, the reservoir created by the Afobaka Dam, shimmers in the fading light, and from its shores stretches unbroken jungle all the way south to Brazil. The air chills, the sun melts to red on the horizon, and as if on cue, a mournful howl like that of a pack of crazed dogs rises from the surrounding bush. Red howler monkeys, the loudest land animals on earth, are claiming their territory for the night.
These are the sights and sounds of the Surinamese rainforest experience. Packaged tours are becoming more popular here, and it will soon be impossible to go anywhere without a cushy bus-seat, a guide and a group of total strangers. But I find it hard to imagine fully appreciating places like Brownsberg without having first earned the experience, painfully, on the tremendous Red Road.
This is western nostalgia of the worst kind, of course. It’s hard to disagree with the idea that a more professional version of ecotourism is Suriname’s economic future. But having spent many months navigating my way through this surreal little country, I feel the best way to travel here will always be packed shoulder to shoulder in a village wagi, or walking through the jungle gloriously alone.
Way to go
Flights plus a two-night stay in the capital, Paramaraibo, starts from £939pp with Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315, journeylatinamerica.co.uk). Price includes flights with KLM via Amsterdam from Heathrow. Regional departures are available for an extra £30pp.
Where to stay
The Brownsberg Eco Camp has hammocks from around US$15 per night and lodges sleeping up to eight from $120-220. Trips can be arranged through the Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname (stinasu.com). Journey Latin America also offers stays at the camp (with transfers).
Suriname Tourism Foundation: 00 597 424878, suriname-tourism.org/cms