Max Johnson is founder of the Great Canadian Travel Company ( www.greatcanadiantravel.com), which specializes in unusual trips. He recently developed a trip offered year-round to Suriname and French Guiana, on the north coast of South America. Johnson, 58, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Q. Suriname is a small tropical country most Americans have never heard of. What’s the appeal?
A. It may sound a bit cocky, but Suriname is what Costa Rica would like to be: It has extraordinary rain forests and access to them is very simple – there are about a half-dozen good lodges in the center of the rain forest that are fly-in. The wildlife is spectacular and the flora is amazing and virtually untouched by tourism. In addition, the capital, Paramaribo, is delightful and quirky. It looks like it’s made of leftover bits of Amsterdam from the 1850s.
There are some fabulous one-day and overnight trips that take clients out to the old plantations and to old Indian villages. People who really want to get into the bush can fly south from the capital, travel by motor canoe, and stay in an Indian village that hasn’t changed in 500 years.
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Q. Suriname is a former Dutch colony, but so are popular Caribbean destinations like St. Maarten, Aruba and Curacao. How is Suriname different?
A. It’s jungle, for a start, and there’s little obvious sophistication. But it is a developing country and while there’s not a whole lot of cash around, you don’t have the poverty you’d see in, say, the Dominican Republic.
It’s a country of extreme tolerance. In Paramaribo, for instance, the mosque and synagogue share a parking lot. Suriname is a melange of people – Indian, African, European, Chinese and South Asian.
Q. And they speak Dutch?
A. Absolutely. But English is widely spoken. There are probably 12 other languages. Suriname has a fairly well-developed tourist industry – but it’s all aimed at the Netherlands and Belgium: There are up to two flights a day from Amsterdam. The hotels and restaurants are all there in Paramaribo; we’re just introducing a new market to it.
Q. What’s December weather like?
A. It’s always humid. The temperature is probably about 85 for a high, with a couple hours of torrential rain – usually around 6 o’clock, in time for the first rum punch. You sort of dive into a bar for rum or coffee until it passes. There’s no drizzle or rain all day, then it all comes down in a big lump. The payoff, of course, is the most incredible vegetation.
Temperatures don’t change a lot on the equator. The biggest seasonal difference is that water levels are a little lower in summer, so wildlife spotting is a little better November through May.
Q. What do the rain forests look like?
A. An endless jungle. At the fly-in camps – we use Kabalebo – you first learn about the jungle, and how many different levels are between the ground and the 150-foot top tree canopy. Each level supports a different kind of ecosystem.
This is serious jungle, but you’re fine as long as you go out with guides or stay on paths. There are certainly mosquitoes, but nothing like the ones in Manitoba. There are animals: ocelots and jaguars; there are pumas but they’re difficult to spot. There are many varieties of monkeys. The wild animals are more wary of us than we are of them.
Q. How long are these trips?
A. Ten days; another three if you add French Guiana. One night is out in a place in Suriname called Bakkie, which used to be an old slave plantation. Bakkie almost died when those times ended – the government said everything had to go. But the plantation was purchased by a granddaughter of a slave; she and her husband, who is Dutch, are bringing the town back to life. They consider slavery a horrendous part of the past. But it’s over and they’re happy to talk about it.
Q. Other attractions?
A. A wonderful side trip into French Guiana, which is actually a part of France. You can have armadillo for dinner ... with a small pichet (pitcher) of rosé. Another fascinating thing about it is Devil’s Island: You can go out and see the notorious prison.
About 15 times a year, if you get to one Indian village, by canoe, you can watch a space rocket take off: The European space agency uses Kourou, in French Guiana, as its launchpad. It’s pretty bizarre – being 100 miles from anywhere, at a place with no electricity – watching that.