French Guiana- A European penal colony and space port!

NOTE- this blog post ( and many others ) contain video links.  I know it takes time, but I encourage you to watch the videos.  They truly enhance the story we are telling.  I welcome your feedback and suggestions.  Thank you.

Another ferry boat ride?  Yes, we entered French Guiana on another ferryboat. The dividing line between Suriname and French Guiana is a wide, powerful river.  When we drove off the ferry we quickly realized that we were driving on the right side of the road again. Mike breathed a sigh of relief and we stamped our passports into France!  france.jpg

We drove into the nearest town St. Laurent du Maroni to locate an ATM. We needed to quickly get our hands on this countries currency, and you know what the currency is? Yep, we are in France, which is a part of the European Union so we will be using Euros throughout this country.  france euros.

St. Laurent du Maroni is possibly best known for the transportation camp and prisoner processing center that existed here in the 1850’s . These buildings were the first stop for thousands of prisoners who arrived here from France on freighter ships. transportation camp.JPG They were processed into the system at this location. They were divided by nationality, ethnicity, dangerousness and general shiftiness. Some stayed in these prison cells, some were allowed to work for local families, others were sent to prison work camps across the countryside and the riskiest were shipped out to Iles de Salut.   (if you click on this link you can read more about it)  You may recognize this information from the movie “Papillion” which was a story about a prison break from that island.  (here is a link to the 2018 remake of the 1973 classic both are good movies! )   French Guiana was originally developed to be a penal colony for France without much consideration for the indigenous or the long term effects of this development model. transportation prisoner garb.jpg

For our first night in French Guiana we parked at the marina/tourist info center.  It is located right by this unknown shipwreck (and wooden statue) and near the transportation camp.  All of the action is centrally located! transportation shipwreck.JPG

Nearby is a large bronze statue that I found to be quite sad.  The man has torn pants, bare feet, a wide-brim hat and strong shackles on his ankles.  He seems to be contemplating all that he has lost, and what lies ahead of him.  No doubt just how many of them arrived and existed in the heydays of this prison-based country. transporation slave.JPG

After a day of shopping, laundry and errands in Maroni, we turned toward the beach and went to Mana. This small, indigenous settlement is located at an active turtle nesting area with strict preservation rules.  Fortunately it wasn’t turtle season, so our dogs could play on the beach and enjoy the mild weather. beach nica and pacha.JPG

We spent several days camped there, as the ocean breezes were refreshing and it felt good to relax. We saw a jellyfish that may be a Portuguese Man O’War.  We did not swim in the murky waters.

During one of our hikes through the jungle that grows along the beach, this beautiful little owl flew out and landed on the path in front of Geneva. We suspect that it was upset because Pacha was disturbing it as she trounced through the bushes and jungle nearby. beach owl .jpg  During our beach break we cooked outside on the skottle and met an interesting traveler from Germany who was passing through.

We were also treated to a little rainbow and a beautiful, full moon.  The full moon also brought an extreme tide the next day.

We hiked the beach during the lowest tide, and found a long sandbar out into the ocean. During the low tide there were a lot of little, clear fish jumping out of the water and flopping in the tide and waves. Pacha saw these little fish and went crazy chasing them. We all had a fun time in the special low tide. beach posing with dogs.JPG

beach view campsitebeach campsite

The beach time was great, but it was time to explore more of French Guiana. A little research showed us that the use of a facility called a “carbet” (which loosely translates to “cover”), was common for camping.  So we began looking for carbets to camp near as we traveled through French Guiana. We found several of them and they included wooden structures of various sizes with designated parking areas. The covers were perfect for hanging hammocks or setting up tents.  Most carbets seemed to be constructed near small creeks and swimming holes. Here are some of the carbet campsites we enjoyed as we drove around in French Guiana.  campsite carbetcampsite carbet1campsite geneva and nicacampsite palmscampsite relaxing dogs

While relaxing and sipping our coffee one morning, we saw a slight movement outside the door.  When we looked, a tiny, little red deer had emerged from the thick jungle.  She munched on the grass without seeming to notice us.  Of course, when I moved to take the photos, she startled and vanished back into the thick jungle.

One interesting thing we learned about in French Guiana is that many people have a very active relationship with their pet songbirds. We saw several caged birds in interesting places and our curiosity was high. Then we picked up three young men, walking along a road with birdcages. We offered them a ride on the back of the camper and asked them why they had their birds with them. They explained that it is typical to take your bird out on Sundays for a walk or a ride or a trip somewhere. This explained why they had walked a half-mile in one direction with birdcages in one hand and machetes in the other, and were now headed home. That is also why we saw birdcages at grocery stores, at the Mercado and at the beach. We even saw birds in cages going for motorcycle rides.  bird at the beachbird at the storebirds for a walk

Clearly these birds get around. And in this video you can hear the pet songbird singing over the noise of the marketplace.

This market was an interesting place.  It is located in Cacao village, which is recognized as a Hmong village.  The Hmong people came to French Guiana as refugees in the late 1970’s after the Vietnam War.  They have developed an extensive settlement and produce most of the locally grown produce in French Guiana.  jungle view.JPGWe enjoyed a delicious traditional meal at the Hmong Sunday market and then camped on the riverside nearby.hmong market meal   The dogs enjoyed relaxing in the grass.  Can you find two dogs in this riverside photo?

riverside pacha and nica.jpg
Can you spot both dogs in this riverside relaxing photo?

You may have noticed that Pacha is often on-leash and Nica is off-leash in our photos.  This is because Nica is a land-dog and Pacha has turned into a water-dog.  Whenever she has the opportunity, Pacha is in the river, the mud or the waves and bringing her special wet-dog smell (or worse) into the house or truck.   This photo shows the result of one such escapade in the muddy river bank.  She was simply chasing crabs, and these muddy socks were the outcome! riverside pacha muddy.JPG

While we were camped at the riverside near the Hmong village, a large military truck pulled up near us.  Several camouflaged men unloaded a boat with a motor and an arsenal of machine guns.  They also loaded several large crates onto the boat, then they all took off up the river.  A little research revealed that illegal gold mining is big industry in the jungle rivers of French Guiana and the French military is dispatched up the rivers to destroy these illegal mines.  This is dangerous business for all parties, but is done to protect the environment and the assets of France.

riverside military guys.JPG
I would bet that these French military men did not imagine they would end up in the hot, humid, steamy and dangerous jungles of French Guiana on assignment.

For the next part of our adventure in French Guiana we would visit the European Space Agency Station.  They are headquartered in Kourou, French Guiana.  Due to the proximity to both the ocean and the equator, it is considered nearly the perfect location from which to launch space shuttles.  The city of Kourou exists for the purpose of supporting those launches and the thousands of workers that are employed there.  More than 7,000 people work at the facility on a regular basis, and that number increases during active launch windows.  .Kourou graffiti.JPG The international importance of this space launch facility makes Kourou a real melting pot of residents.  Not only does the European union launch from here, but also Russia, India and several other countries.  All of these countries send employees to work on their projects here in French Guiana.

For a very special birthday treat we signed up for four hour tour of the entire facility on Mike’s birthday.  We rode around on an air-conditioned bus and looked at various launch pads and towers all across the huge facility.  selfie smiling.jpg The first launches from here were the Vega.  Currently the Ariane launches are the most frequent, they send up satellite related equipment almost monthly.  The Russian Soyuz also launches from here and has an extensive facility. space mike with models The control rooms were very interesting.  We learned a little bit about how the communications technology and complete management of each launch are controlled from deep within these bunkers in the control rooms.  No one is actually at the launch site, for safety reasons.  These control rooms are in an auditorium setting, and foreign dignitaries are often in the audience.  Also the companies that have equipment aboard are invited to send representatives to watch.

As we drove around the acres and acres of land, we were able to see several of the launch towers from very close.  The cooling areas underneath were very impressive, as was the sheer size of each structure.  space esa tower mikespace at ESA launch sitespace tower cooling tunnelspace tower esa  space vega tower.JPG  We were also able to ride through the Russian portion of the grounds and see their fuel tankers and the Soyuz launch area. It was strange to see Russian text, in a French country, in South America.  Wrap your head around that!  space soyuz fuel.JPGspace soyuz russian.JPGspace soyuz russian1.JPG After the tour ended, we proceeded to grab a geocache on the public portion of the facility.   It was fun to find a geocache in the tail portion of this old, unused rocket.  Pacha seems to be awed by the size.  space scraps pacha and mike.jpg One part of this special day that I hesitate to mention is the way Mike’s birthday morning started…

We had camped at a launch viewing platform area for the night before the big tour.  We drove through open gates and found two cars parked up there.  One person was jogging the path and another couple was walking a dog.  So we parked on a level corner and settled in for the night.  When we attempted to leave the next morning (to go to the facility tour) we found that we were locked in.  Apparently someone had come in the night to lock the gate, without checking the parking area!  We were very worried that we would not make it out in time for our tour.  Quickly we called a friend we had made in Kourou to ask for help.  She called her daughter who works for security at the ESA.  And within about 20 minutes, we were released and raced to the tour bus!

After our tour, as we were headed to a special birthday dinner for Mike, we were nearly run off the road by this interesting caravan going down the highway toward the European Space Agency.  Moving big, secret stuff at night….. hmmmmm?!

All of this fun stuff happened on Mike’s birthday.  What a fun way to celebrate another turn around the sun. space astronaut mike

But there was one more really exciting aspect of our time in Kourou.  We had lined up our visit so that we could witness a launch of an Ariane space shuttle.  space launch shuttle mike.JPG Clearly Mike was very excited about this opportunity.  Even Pacha was happy to be able to witness such an exciting event.  space launch arianne pacha .jpg   We talked to our local friends who suggested that the best view of the launch was on the public beach in town.  This was perfect, as we could also camp there overnight.  So we settled in to our spot to await the countdown.  space launch military parking.JPG As soon as we were parked and relaxing in our chairs in the shade, a military truck arrived.  This truck was carrying a stinger missile launcher.  Mike went to chat with the military guys (wearing his SpaceX t-shirt from the aborted mission we tried to see in Cape Canaveral in Florida).  They were super friendly and took photos of his shirt and the camper.  Then they explained that their job is to shoot down anything that threatens the Ariane shuttle or anything that enters the trajectory during the launch cycle! Since the barrel was aimed right over the top of our camper, we were glad to see that there were no threats to the launch!

When the countdown got closer, we joined the other people that were seated on the nearby beach.  We all watched the sky for the tell tale glow and white cloudy trail, because the sound would not reach us right away.  space launch audience.JPG And then…. there it was!  (these videos show the launch and even the boosters separating. Sorry about the wind noise)

And then it was gone, and there was nothing but smoky trails in the sky! space launch trails.JPG

One minute the huge rocket is there at the launch tower, and the next it is flying through the atmosphere.  Amazing, really.

There is quite a bit more to see in French Guiana.  So I will stop here and we will drive on to the next location.  Remember to sign up to receive these updates by email (we do not sell or share your address) and watch for part two of French Guiana.

driving pacha and mike


2 thoughts on “French Guiana- A European penal colony and space port!

  1. Great post! I love following you! I’m living vicariously thru your journeys. Happy belated birthday Mike. The video of your dog skipping over the water is amazing! Safe travels

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