If the pace is rough for us, the evolution of eco-tourism in this South American backwater is equally challenging for Amerindians. Sitting on the bank of the dark Rupununi River, a few yards from the pastoral Rewa Eco-Lodge, I'm joined by local manager Dicky Alvin.
The word "tourism," Alvin says, was alien to his village and had to be explained — along with "eco-lodge" and "en suite bathroom." And Rewa's construction — which took four months and considerable resources — was a leap of faith. Then the locals opened the doors, stepped back and waited for the crowds. The first year, a single visitor came. The second year, there were two.
Business is picking up. There were 80 visitors in 2009 and 140 in 2010. As occupancy grows, the Amerindians are warming to the relationship. "Before, tourists were scary," Alvin recalls. "Almost like wildlife. Now we have learned not to fear them and that they can be very friendly."
A long way down
Most of the lodges scattered through Guyana's rain forest and savannah offer similar attractions: lush foliage, exotic birds and the chance to spot jaguars, monkeys or threatening reptiles. But the country's signature attraction is breathtaking Kaieteur Falls, plunging into the Potaro River with a drop five times the height of Niagara.
After landing at the small airstrip near Kaieteur National Park, we begin our short hike to the headwaters. There are cocks-of-the-rock here, to the delight of the birders. I tell Prince my obsession: to see Guyana's famous golden frog. I like frogs. In early 2010, after seeing Disney's "The Princess and the Frog," I tried to snag "frogprince2010" on gmail, to no avail.
The golden frog is a poison dart frog, endemic to this part of the Amazon. It is found only in bromeliads, perched near pools of water that collect between the tropical plant's broad green leaves.
Golden frogs are skittish and will vanish into their private pools if disturbed. With the mighty waterfall roaring in the background, Prince moves slowly from plant to plant, parting the leaves to peer inside. Finally, with a wide-eyed grin, he waves me over. I peer inside. The tiny amphibian seems lost in thought, serene in his (or her) chlorophyll cave. I set my camera to macro and snap several pictures.
"Can you send me one of those?" Prince asks.
"Of course. What's your email address?"
"It's frogprince2010," he says. "
I didn't believe it, either. But so it is.
We continue to the edge of the river canyon and watch Kaieteur's waters sluice into the foam below. It's a mesmerizing sight, but not the best metaphor for Guyana's emergence as a destination of choice. For that, I'd have to choose the Victoria amazonica water lily. Guyana's bud is just opening — but when it blooms, the flower will be quite a prize.