"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, tarantulas, 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.
FOR THE RECORD:
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. —
We climb a bit, tiptoeing around the cave. Prince's eyes light up as he puts his finger to his lips. There, 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.
Looking for obscure creatures in an obscure country sums up the Guyana experience. Though the place is an environmental Eden, it is known to few people — who, when they think of Guyana, think of one thing only.
Jonestown is the elephant in the room. When a dramatic event puts a tiny place on the map, the two become almost inseparable. In Guyana's case, people know little else about the country. They don't know 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, Guyana's vast rain forest looks like a tightly woven carpet. I feel uneasy: If our plane runs into trouble, there's virtually no place to land.
Guyana is also in a precarious position. Because it has decided to conserve the forests — and forsake big industry — it's trying to raise its profile 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 canopy walkway, 90 feet high in the trees, 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 group supporting Guyana's attempts at community-based tourism. Our small group of journalists and tour operators has nine days to sample the country's attractions.
On our third afternoon we arrive at Maípaíma Eco-Lodge, a rough 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 our 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 toward a huge tarantula nesting 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. We slog through creeks and over slippery rocks, dripping with sweat, up and down along steep trails. 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 closeness can induce claustrophobia, and it's sweltering. Fredericks admits it's not second nature. "Every time I do this, it challenges me to my limit," he says, panting. After working six years in Brazil, Fredericks returned home, gambling that that area's attractions could be turned into an income stream.
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 infinite 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.