Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th December, 2014
French Guiana was long notorious as a penal colony, among whose renowned detainees were Dreyfus and Papillon. Thousands of less famous prisoners died in the territory’s camps, both on the mainland and on Devil’s Island. But in recent times, La Guyane (to give it it’s French name) has been better known as the launching pad for the European space programme. Yesterday afternoon, when I looked up from the book I was reading by the side of the sea in the capital, Cayenne, I saw a rocket shoot up into the sky from the base at Kourou. Cayenne itself is steamingly charming, compact and filled with attractive wooden houses painted in pastel shades. More than half of the small but youthful population are immigrants, from Brazil, Surinam, Haiti and China, among others. There’s still a French military presence — not least to try to curb illegal gold prospecting — but the overall atmosphere is pretty sleepy even in Cayenne. There are some hotels and restaurants, but unlike the nearby Caribbean Islands, French Guiana has not been highly developed for tourism, wherein lies much of its appeal. And although it is hot and humid, a strong sea breeze along the coast means that there are plenty of spots to sit and read or write or just think, far from the madding crowd.