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Finding local, community-based tourism (CBT) experiences is one of my favourite things to do when we travel. These are never truly comfortable (who needs to be comfortable anyways!), but they offer an incomparable glimpse into people’s lives that isn’t possible any other way. I figure it’s worth giving up a bit of comfort for this unique experience!
I also love sharing these experiences with my kids. I’m worried that by the time they grow up our communities are going to be so uniform that many of these great cultural experiences will no longer exist. I want them to appreciate and embrace the incredible diversity found in our big wonderful world!
There are a number of CBT lodges throughout Guyana, which was one of the things that peaked my interest in the country. These CBT initiatives are working to maintain Amerindian culture while providing sustainable employment and income opportunities in the villages to avoid mass-migration to the larger cities or out of the country. We chose to visit Surama Eco Lodge, which is a CBT lodge that’s owned and operated by Surama Village in North Rupununi, Guyana.
Surama Guyana is a small Makushi village of around 320 people, perfectly located on the border between the Rupununi Savannah and the rich Amazonian rainforest around the Buro Buro river. The Surama Village Eco Lodge was opened in 2004 and is one of the longest standing and best developed CBT lodges in Guyana. Our guide told us that around 80% of the employable members of the village got their income (either directly or indirectly) from the Lodge. It’s truly sustaining their village.
Arriving At Surama Eco Lodge
We were picked up at Atta just after breakfast. The drive from Atta to Surama was short, only about 45min. We turned off the highway at Surama junction (the overnight stop for the mini-buses going from Lethem to Georgetown) and were back in the rainforest.
Along the way we saw a red-rumped agouti (turning into the theme-animal of our trip) and a handful of different birds. Upon arriving we settled into our Benab, a traditional thatched-roof hut typical of this area. It had one queen bed and two twins, each with their own mosquito nets, a fan, ensuite bathroom (with cold shower) and a small table where we could store our things. We had a few little ants so learned to put everything safely away quite quickly!
Our first day at Surama was a lazy day. We spent the morning relaxing and napping! We ate lunch with Marvin (our guide) and an American lady, the only other guest, who was in the village doing research on natural dyes for yarn and fabrics.
After lunch we went back to our rooms for some more down time. It gets so hot in the afternoon that everything stops for siesta. I was so hot I had a cold shower just to cool down, then put on the fewest clothes possible and had another nap! The girls worked on some homework, and Randy read.
(Kacela watching the sunset outside our benab, and the afternoon view looking out the window.)
Surama Cultural Presentation
At 4:30 we got back into the 4×4 and drove a km or so down the road into the village of Surama. They put on a welcome presentation for us where some members of the Wildlife Club did 4 dances. One of the songs was written and performed for Prince Charles during his visit to Guyana!
I loved the idea behind the Wildlife Club. Every Saturday many of the kids from the village come together to learn about the plants and animals in their environment, and how important it is to preserve them. The elders also pass on their culture (language, stories, songs) during club meetings. There are now Wildlife Clubs in many Amerindian communities throughout the Rupununi and they come together annually to compete.
Side note: We had the option to watch cassava bread making as well, but opted out of this as I didn’t think the kids would’ve sat still for long enough to enjoy it. I regret this decision a bit! Cassava bread is such an integral part of their culture I think it would’ve been quite special to be a part of the preparation. Oh well…another time I guess!
A Visit To The School
Our second day in Surama was a bit more action packed compared to the first day! After breakfast we were going to go for a walk in the forest, but decided to forego it and instead we walked into the village to visit the school. We ended up seeing quite a few different birds on the walk into the village, including macaws, parrots and a few different kinds of parakeets (plus lots of yellow-headed vultures).
we also saw a number of traditional houses, and some baby cows (Kacela’s favourite!).
First we visited the nursery school (3 & 4 year olds) and the girls introduced themselves to the class and told them their age, grades and where they live. The little kids all went around and said their name and age. Most were pretty shy but one girl was quite outgoing and said not only her name, but the names of all the kids who were too shy to say their own names. There’s one in every crowd!
The nursery school had a swing set, teeter-totter and a slide. After seeing the kids, the girls had a little swing outside. They also pointed out that there wasn’t any play equipment at the primary school, just a grassy field. I think it’s because it’s too hot outside during the school day to play!
From the nursery school we went to the primary school (Grades 1-6). The girls introduced themselves in every class and asked the kids what they liked most in school. It seemed like they were a bit younger compared to our girl’s classes, for example the kids in Grade 3 were mostly 7, and the kids in Grade 2 were mostly 6. The grade 2 and 3 classes were practicing their printing, and Randy & I were floored by how neat their printing was! It’s obviously something they focus on because they printed better than most adults.
We spent a fair bit of time at the school, and they seemed genuinely happy to share, especially with our kids. All 6 classes were in one long building, with each grade separated by a chalkboard. Classes were small, with the largest being 17 kids in the grade 5/6 split.
The grade 4 class was learning multiplication and division (just like Calais), and in Social Studies they were learning about the different types of ethnic groups in Guyana just like Kacela was learning about different ethnic groups in Canada. It was fun for the girls to make the connection and see the similarities (and differences) of a school in a different country.
A Trip On The Buro Buro River
That evening we went on an hour-long forest walk to the Buro Buro river. The girls started off with a spring in their step, even helping to carry the paddles for the boat! It didn’t take long however, before the heat wore them down and the paddles were handed over to Marvin.
There’s a small camp at the edge of the river where the adventurous can spend the night. It looked seldom-used and it sounded like only the occasional student or research group used it. We were ecstatic to see it because it meant the end of our (long-ish) walk in the heat!
The bank leading down to the river was quite steep, so Marvin decided we should head upstream to where it was a bit easier to access. Unfortunately this meant walking through some tall grass, full of little ankle-biting bugs. Neither of the girls were very impressed, and Calais almost had a revolt half way there (and it was only a 10min walk!). I convinced her to keep moving forwards (thankfully she was wearing shoes and not flip flops!) just to find NO boat when we arrived.
Thankfully Marvin didn’t make us walk back through the grass. He was perceptive enough to know the girls would NOT be impressed, and he was MUCH faster without us! Before long, he was coming up with river with our boat.
The girls took turns helping Marvin paddle upstream. I’m not sure how much it actually helped, but they enjoyed themselves. We didn’t see a whole lot of wildlife, but enjoyed the a relaxing trip on the river. There were a few birds on the trees, and some nesting in holes in the river-bank, but that was it. We got out for a few minutes at the small beach at piranha bay (but didn’t see any pirhanas!).
I’m not convinced it was worth the hot trek in the forest, but at this point we’d spent enough time in the jungle that we may have been a bit de-sensitized.
One of the biggest things driving the girls TO the boat, was the promise they didn’t have to walk BACK from the boat. However, unbeknownst to us, our ride ended up having to take a sick person into FairView, so we started walking back. Marvin was hopeful we’d be picked up along the way, but there were no guarantees.
Since we weren’t aware of this (I was a
bit very perturbed that he hadn’t at least mentioned this to us), neither Randy nor I brought our headlamps along. Luckily though, we both had our phones! Once it got really dark we each gave the girls one of our phones to light the path. Nothing ate us along the way, except for the mosquitos and other annoying biting bugs, and Kacela made sure she stayed in the middle of the group just incase a Jaguar was stalking us!
About half-way through the hike, well after full dark, we saw headlights piercing through the shadows up ahead. We were rescued! The girls were pretty excited (and so was I!).
A Pink-Toed Tarantula
During dinner I mentioned that we hadn’t seen any scorpions or tarantulas this time in the rainforest, likely because we opted out of doing any night walks with the girls. Marvin piped up and said that there was a resident pink-toed tarantula living in the tree right beside the dining room.
Immediately following dinner we walked to the tree DIRECTLY beside the dining room. Sure enough, about 2ft up the trunk, the pink-toed tarantula was just hanging out. She was incredibly pretty with a blue’ish hued body and little pink toes on all eight legs. I’m sure glad I said something, I would’ve been sad if I that tarantula would’ve been there the whole time and we wouldn’t have seen it!
Know Before You Go To Surama Eco Lodge
Getting To Surama
- Surama Eco Lodge is located deep within the interior of Guyana, and difficult to get too. There is an airstrip, but I got the impression that it wasn’t used much! It’s easiest to visit as one stop on a multi-stop trip in the interior.
- Transportation in this part of the world is EXPENSIVE!!! This is due to the exorbitant cost of fuel and the fact that it’s so disconnected from the capitol, Georgetown.
- You can arrange with the office for 4×4 transportation from just about anywhere, but it does start to get expensive. There’s also the ability to take the local buses between lodges (or at least from Surama Junction to different lodges). This can all be arranged with the Surama eco lodge office.(Example prices; Surama to Annai $20,000 GYD ($130 CAD), and the public bus from Annai to Lethem is $4000 GYD ($26 CAD) per person).
- You can take the bus from Georgetown to Lethem and get off at Surama junction. From there I’d suggest arranging for the 4×4 Landcruiser to pick you up as it’s too far to walk in the heat. It would also be easy to do this on in reverse, as Surama junction is the over-night stop on the trip from Lethem to Georgetown.
Staying At Surama
- There are a few different accommodation options available at different price points, although they’re all variations of “basic”.
- Wifi is available at the main office for $500 GYD ($3.20 CAD)/30 min. It wasn’t fast, but was good enough to check email and do a few basic things.
- During dinner each night someone came in to spray for mosquitos and put down our mosquito nets.
- The rooms were swept and had a basic cleaning each morning.
- All electricity is provided by large solar panels, and it was sufficient to power the fan at night (and during siesta) and charge our phones and computer (yes, we traveled into the Amazon with our computers…I didn’t want to leave them behind in Georgetown!).
- Food was homemade, simple and delicious. Each meal had one meat option, a veggie or two, and lots of carbs (always!). It was traditional Guyanese food, but nothing too unusual. There was minimal selection compared to the other places we stayed in Guyana, but that was to be expected. We didn’t need options, we just needed a good food, and we got it!
- I was impressed because our cook was working out of a make-shift kitchen, under a tarp, behind the dining room! They’re expanding the main lodge (dining room and kitchen), so had moved the dining room into the hammock-house. This didn’t leave any space for the kitchen, so they just moved it outside.
- For a special diet, they’d need a significant amount of advanced notice because there’s not much available anywhere close to Surama. Anything special would have to be brought in from Georgetown.
Our accommodation was basic but comfortable. We had large mosquito nets around each bed and an attached bathroom with (cold) running water. Our benab had a double bed and two single beds, perfect for our family!
The rooms definitely were NOT air-tight!! We had a pair of bats living in the thatch, thankfully just beside Calais’ bed so the droppings ended upon the floor and not on her! There was also a little frog that appeared to like the toilet, and a slug that made it’s way up the shower drain after each shower.
I figure these are just a part of sleeping in the jungle, so we weren’t overly bothered by them!
The benab had large windows that we could open to let a lovely breeze through. There was a consistent breeze during our visit, which flowed through the open windows and kept us (almost) comfortable inside our hut. Apparently it’s not always breezy though, and can sometimes be very still and stifling hot. Luckily, there’s a fan in the room to take the edge off.
Other accommodation options are the smaller cabins, as well as cheap hammock accommodation (bring your own hammock!). My suggestion, if you are planing on slinging up a hammock, is to make sure you have one with an attached bug net!
What To Pack
You’re in the jungle so pack accordingly!! As with the rest of our time in the interior of Guyana, we liked having one outfit for our activities, and a second outfit for siesta time.
- Bring lots of bug spray, like this DEET-free option containing Picaridin, which is just as effective.
- The local mosquito repellant, Crabwood Oil, is available for purchase in the small gift shop at Surama as well. However, it’s super stinky and potent, so you’ll want to dilute it with coconut oil or lotion.
- Sturdy shoes for hiking (these Keens Terradora are my fav for travel because they’re very light weight).
- Long, loose pants and a comfy, quick dry shirt for hiking. We wore shorts hiking, but would’ve been more comfortable (from the bugs and branches) with our legs covered.
- Siesta clothes – a sundress for the ladies (this Columbia dress is my current fav…it packs up small and is super light weight); comfy shorts and a second quick-dry shirt for guys (this Ex-Officio shirt is Randy’s fav for a quick-dry, light weight option).
- A hat or ball-cap to keep the sun off your head when walking to and from the village (not as important if you’re going to get a ride each time).
- Headlamp (or cell phone light) for walking back to your cabin after dark, like the USB-chargeable Black Diamond Iota.
How much does it cost to visit Surama Eco Lodge? And How To Book It!
We booked directly through Surama via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and it was incredibly easy and straight-forward. Lisa was flexible, gave us lots of information about options for onward travel and responded quickly to email. Just remember that internet isn’t reliable or fast, so don’t do anything last minute!
Food & Accommodation Costs
Benab accommodation: $15,000 GYD ($95 CAD)/night.
Breakfast: $1870 ($12 CAD)/adult (kids half price)
Lunch/Dinner: $2840 ($18 CAD)/adult/meal (kids half price)
Head tax: $2000 ($13 CAD)/adult, $1000 ($6.50 CAD)/kid
Culture presentation: $25,000 ($160 CAD) without Cassava bread making, $50,000 ($320 CAD) with bread making.
Short jungle walk: $ 2500 ($16 CAD)
Village tour: $ 2000 ($13 CAD)
Burru Burru river tour: $ 10,000 ($65 CAD)
Mountain hike: $2,500 ($16 CAD)
Guide: $4000 ($26 CAD)/day
4×4 Atta To Surama: $20,000 ($130 CAD)
4×4 Surama to Village return: $4000 ($26 CAD)
Truck Surama to Village: $1000 ($6.50 CAD – one way only)
4×4 Surama to Lethem: $46,000 ($295 CAD)
If you’r thinking about visiting Surama, pin this for later!