French Guiana travel guide

French Guiana is a tropical backwater with intriguing highlights to satisfy the curious traveller: from rich wildlife encounters to cultural curiosities that sound like the setting for a Evelyn Waugh novel, including the launch site of the European Space Programme, chilling ruins of notorious penal colonies, and isolated indigenous communities.

Tucked between the Brazilian Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean, the sparsely populated country harbours an abundance of plants and animals, well protected in parks and reserves. As an overseas French département, French is the official language. With the Euro as its currency, prices are on a par with Europe, not cheap.

Despite its lack of beaches and swampy coastline, exploration of the jungle-clad interior reveals rewarding sights. St Laurent is the best gateway, an appealing colonial city and former penal transportation centre. Guided tours of the prison are available, and boats go down the Marowijne River, to visit Amerindian and Maroon villages. The welcoming locals have handicrafts for sale, and you can trek to beaches where leatherback turtles lay their eggs.

French Guiana’s most notorious penal camp was on the Iles du Salut, which include the infamous Devil's Island where political prisoners were held. Some 80,000 men died here from cruel hardship, disease and execution. Alfred Dreyfus was the most famous inmate, but it was Henri Charriere who recreated the camp’s horrors in his book, Papillon. Tours of the restored ruins relive this grim history, lightened up by the island’s rich wildlife, including parrots, monkeys and turtles.

By way of contrast, the other major attraction for visitors is the Ariane Space Station, Europe’s satellite launch centre. From the small coastal city of Kourou you can visit the centre, and watch rocket launches. Nearby are some decent beaches to lounge on afterwards, or visit the village of Sinnamary, where an Indonesian community sells handicrafts and art works.