Eco-tourism prevails in the country's largely unspoiled wilderness, which is home to an astounding diversity of wildlife. Along the coast, nature lovers can explore bird-rich marshes where caimans lurk and Atlantic beaches where turtles nest in droves. Inland, vast savanna stretches to lushly cloaked mountains, and rivers slice through steamy jungle.
Traveling through this pricey French outpost can be challenging (especially for those who don't speak French) as the country lacks a well-developed tourist infrastructure. Less experienced travelers will benefit from using a tour company. Intrepid travelers will welcome the adventure.
1 Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands)
of a murder he did not commit. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at the penal colony on Devil's Island, one of the infamous Îles du Salut where shark-infested waters lash the rocky shores. After surviving 12 years of horrific conditions he escaped to Venezuela. The book and movie, Papillon, recount his ordeal.
Today, a trip to the islands, about 11 kilometers offshore from Kourou, brings his story to life. Most arrive at Île Royale, the largest of the three islands and the former administrative headquarters for the colony. The buildings have been converted to hotels and tourist facilities, and an abundant array of wildlife now inhabits the island including macaws, monkeys, and agouti.
At the gift shop, visitors can buy postcards stamped "Devil's Island," while the harbor now welcomes cruise ships where prisoners were once disgorged. Île St Joseph was reserved for solitary confinement for those prisoners at Devil's Island, and Île du Diable (Devil's Island) is now closed to the public.
2 Hattes Beach (Plages les Hattes)
es Hattes at Awala-Yalimapo is the most important single nesting site in the world for giant leatherback turtles. During the peak season from April to July, more than 80 leatherbacks lumber up the beach in a single night.
Their eggs hatch between July and September. This 3-kilometer stretch of beach is also an important nesting site for green turtles and, on occasion, Olive Ridley and hawksbill turtles. Before heading to the beach, visitors can learn about these gentle creatures at the small local museum.
Also at Awala-Yalimapo are many Amerindian settlements. Travelers can cruise up the Maroni River to a permanent traditional village.
3 Guiana Space Centre (Centre Spatial Guyanais)
Apparently, rockets and rainforests are a good mix in Guiana. In 1964, the French government chose this jungle-fringed slice of equatorial coast near Kourou for a space center thanks to its low population density and distance from storm tracks and earthquake zones.
Three separate organizations operate here: the European Space Agency; the French Space Agency; and Arianespace, a private commercial enterprise developing the Ariane rocket. Aided by French-speaking guides, visitors can view a film tracing the history of the Space Centre and tour the Jupiter Control Centre and Ariane facilities. The free tours last about three hours.
A highlight of a visit to French Guiana is the chance to view a space launch from the jungle. The center conducts up to nine annually, and visitors can witness the spectacle by reserving a free ticket in advance (or just head to the beach and view it from there). See the website for launch dates.
Also here, the Space Museum illuminates the history of space through seven themed modules. Audio-visual and slide presentations provide added details and include the preparation and launch of Ariane from the Space Centre.
4 Tresor Nature Reserve, Kaw
A 1.5- to 2-hour drive from Cayenne, the wildlife-rich marshes of Kaw cover thousands of square kilometers. The Tresór Nature Reserve encompasses a huge area of the Kaw ecosystem and is a great place to observe black caimans, a smaller relative of the American alligator, as well as a rich diversity of bird life such as the scarlet ibis.
Travelers usually explore the wetlands on guided tours aboard local boats that vary considerably in comfort. When booking boat tours, be sure to ask about shade canopies and seat cushions. Options include day or night trips as well as a 24-hour excursion with an overnight stay in an Amerindian-style hut. Although this is one of French Guiana's most accessible wildlife areas, it is still well off the beaten track.
Within the Tresór Nature Reserve, Mont Favard features hiking trails, petroglyphs, and plentiful purple and yellow poison dart frogs.
5 Remire-Montjoly Beach
At Remire-Montjoly, those seeking a beach fix will find Cayenne's best stretch of sand and sea. Fringed with palms and lush greenery, this narrow, strip of golden shoreline is great for sunbathing. The silty waters are not ideal for swimming, but decent enough for a quick dip after a hike in the nearby nature reserve. Fort Diamant presides on the point of the Cayenne Peninsula, and visitors can also see the ruins of an old sugar mill. From the town of Rémire-Montjoly, the scenic 5 kilometer Rorotá Trail (Sentier du Rorotá) ascends Mahury Mountain with the chance to see wide-eyed sloths clinging to the trees.
6 Pirogue River Trip
Paddling along a jungle-fringed river in a local boat is an exhilarating way to explore French Guiana's seemingly impenetrable wilderness. The rivers flow through the heart of the steamy jungle and are the best way to travel between remote villages and see wildlife in its natural habitat, including capybara, caiman, and monkeys. Typically, guides offer cruises in pirogues, dugout canoes carved from local wood.
One of the most popular rivers to paddle is the Maroni River, on the border of French Guiana and Suriname. This is the country's longest and most populated waterway and provides a chance to encounter Amerindians and Maroons and learn about their culture. The 263 kilometer Sinnamary River cuts through the Amazon rainforest. Peaceful pools and swirling rapids punctuate this unspoiled, wild waterway. Another option is the Oyapock River. Rich in gold mining history, it offers both a wilderness experience and a chance to meet Amerindians and Brazilians who make their home along its banks. On the Approuague River, paddlers will find the highest rapids in French Guiana as well as pristine forests.
7 Camp de la Transportation
In the border town of St Laurent du Maroni, at the chilling Camp de la Transportation, prisoners arrived for processing and transfer to penal colonies throughout the territory. After walking through the same gates as former inmates, Alfred Dreyfus and Papillon, visitors will see rusty shackles and solitary confinement cells with tiny windows. Abundant foliage has softened some of the grim history here, but the impression of past brutality lingers. Self-guided tours are free, or for a fee, French-speaking guides will take travelers on a more detailed tour. Look for Papillon's name engraved in one of the cells.
8 Place Victor Schoelcher Market, Cayenne
For a spicy snapshot of local life, travelers should explore Cayenne's main market in Place Victor Schoelcher, a town square named after the man who ended slavery in French Guiana. Exotic aromas waft through the air, and the market stalls brim with tropical fruits, perfumes, fragrant spices, and Asian-inspired snacks. Visitors can relax with a hot bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup, sip tropical juices, pick up some fresh-plucked produce, or purchase locally made handicrafts and souvenirs.
9 Musée Départemental De Franconie, Cayenne
Near the Place de Palmistes, Cayenne's liveliest plaza, the Musée Départemental De Franconie offers visitors an overview of the country's history as well as its flora and fauna. The museum tucks into a simple wooden Creole house built in the 19th century by the Franconie family. Exhibits educate visitors about indigenous people, colonial history, and the penal colony. Of note are the large stuffed black-caiman and the Butterfly Room.
On the Comté River south of the capital, Cacao is a popular day trip from Cayenne. Hmong refugees transplanted from Laos in the 1970s are the main ethnic group in this small Asian village of wooden stilt houses. Sunday is the best day to visit when the popular market features Hmong embroidery and weaving as well as local noodle soups. The insect museum, Le Planeur Bleu, is also worth a stop for its extensive bug and butterfly collections as well as impressive specimens of scorpions and spiders. From the village, travelers can also embark on a scenic hike through the misty jungle, or paddle the river in a canoe.