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Time to rethink it

Guyana is trying to cultivate a new image and finally shed the Jonestown stigma.

May 29, 2011|Jeff Greenwald

KAIETEUR NATIONAL PARK, GUYANA — Wary of jaguars, Wally Prince creeps around a cave formed by overhanging boulders. A few small bats drop from the rocks, flutter about and find new resting places. Born in Guyana, our guide is a man on a mission.

"Watch out for pit vipers," he says, sneaking around a tree. "Those are mean guys. Imagine a rattlesnake 8 feet long. With no rattle."

There are many things to be wary of in the rain forest: jaguars, anacondas, fierce bullet ants whose sting feels like a gunshot wound. I would very much like to see a jaguar -- or even a colorful frog. But our goal on this hike is the elusive cock-of-the-rock, one of Guyana's most colorful birds. Prince is taking us to one of their leks, where the males engage in display behavior.

We climb a bit, tiptoeing around the cave. Prince stops and puts his finger to his lips. Suspended among the trees like a persimmon is a brilliant cock-of-the-rock. We train our binoculars on this odd-looking bird, whose head resembles the feathered crown of a Hawaiian king. The bird casts us a sidelong glance; we are not the admirers he's been waiting for.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 02, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Guyana travel: In the May 29 Travel section, an information box accompanying an article on Guyana said Virgin America flies to Georgetown, Guyana. It does not; the correct airline is Virgin Atlantic.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 05, 2011 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Travel Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Guyana travel: In the May 29 Travel section, an information box accompanying a story on Guyana said Virgin America flies to Georgetown, Guyana. It does not; the correct airline is Virgin Atlantic.


Tourists sought

Looking for obscure creatures in an obscure country sums up the Guyana experience. Though the place is an environmental Eden, it's unknown to most people -- who, when they think of Guyana, think of one thing only.

Let's face it: Jonestown is the elephant in the room. Few people know anything else about Guyana: that it's a little bigger than Washington state -- with about 15% of the population. That it's the only English-speaking country in South America, with the largest percentage (80%) still covered by virgin rain forest. Or that within those pristine forests dwell about 8,000 species of plants, many of which live nowhere else on Earth.

Viewed from the air, that rain forest looks like a tightly woven carpet. I feel uneasy: If our plane runs into trouble, there's virtually no place for us to land.

Guyana, too, is in a precarious position. By deciding to conserve its forests -- and forsake big industry -- it must now make good in the travel and birding worlds.

A few well-appointed lodges, such as Surama, already cater to international visitors. New ones are springing up or being improved. In 2005, Canada's international development agency funded a harrowing walkway, 90 feet in the canopy, near the fledgling Atta Rainforest Lodge. And just before Christmas, the Iwokrama Research Centre & Lodge optimistically ordered four cases of crystal wine glasses.


A harsh forest

My visit is hosted by the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, an American agency supporting Guyana's attempts at community-based tourism. Our small group of journalists and tour operators has nine days to sample nearly every attraction the country has to offer.

On our third afternoon we arrive at Maipaima Eco-Lodge, several hours by four-wheel-drive from the southwest border town of Lethem. Our rooms are rustic, but the food is delicious: fried rice, stewed vegetables and baked chicken, with fried plantains in cream for desert. When I compliment host Guy Fredericks (a member of the Macushi, one of Guyana's nine Amerindian tribes), he invites me into the kitchen "to meet the head cook." As I duck in, he points upward: a huge tarantula has nested in the grass ceiling. "That's Shirley," Fredericks says. "We take our advice from her."

The next day we rise early for a grueling, 10-mile hike to Jordan Falls, a local landmark. Contrary to shampoo commercials, there is nothing gentle about the rain forest. Dripping with sweat, we slog through creeks and over slippery rocks. Fredericks stops every 20 paces to listen for the call of a bell bird, look for toucans or examine a medicinal plant.

The rain forest is not for everyone; its sweltering closeness can seem claustrophobic. Even Fredericks admits it's not second nature. "Every time I do this, it challenges me to my limit," he says, panting. After working for six years in Brazil, Fredericks returned home, gambling that Maipaima's attractions could generate income for the region.

When we arrive at Jordan Falls, that pipe dream seems possible. Wild waters cascade from high in the rain forest, fanning out over a broad stone cliff. There's a fantastic panorama across the jungle and distant hills. We swim in Jacuzzi-like pools, enjoy a fresh-cooked dinner and sprawl on the warm rocks, staring at the stars. It's a gem of a place -- and, in a country that gets fewer than 2,000 tourists a year, we're among the first 100 foreigners to visit.


Word spreads

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