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Demerara sugar, cayenne pepper, paramaribo, aluminium oxide: the history of the three Guianas is one of commodities and colonial exploitation.

The territories were discovered by French, Spanish and English explorers in the 16th century, and their river valleys made into plantation colonies by the Dutch and English.

Dutch-speaking Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) is the smallest sovereign state in South America and was given to the Dutch by Britain in 1667 in exchange for New York; full independence was granted in 1975, shortly after Guyana had become independent of the United Kingdom in 1966.

After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Louis XV sent 12,000 settlers to French Guiana to colonise the region. One and a half years later only a few hundred survived. The Île du Diable (Devil’s Island) was the site of penal settlements from 1852 until 1946 and more than 70,000 French convicts were deported to French Guiana between 1852 and 1939. It is a French overseas department, and the only colony in mainland South America.

Top five attractions 

  • The mighty 750ft-high Kaieteur waterfall (almost five times higher than Niagara), Guyana.
  • The Karanambu ranch, Guyana, where Diane McTurk lived and cared for abandoned baby river otters. Her family continue to run the ranch.
  • The road leading to Iwokrama field station, Guyana, the best place to spot the elusive jaguar.
  • The European space centre in Kourou, French Guiana.
  • An overnight stay on the notorious prison islands of Îles du Salut, French Guiana, as featured in the Dustin Hoffman film, Papillon.

Best city 

Paramaribo, Suriname, is the most pleasant of the three capitals, with the Saramacca River winding through it and views of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as a true melting pot. Spot Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim temples, synagogues and churches as well as Dutch colonial wooden clapboard houses, and then eat from a choice of Indian, Chinese, Javanese, Creole, Amerindian and European cuisines. There’s also a cool jazz festival every October.

Souvenir to buy 

White rum from Cayenne, a hammock from Georgetown and a jazz CD from Paramaribo.

Quirky Guianas 

French Guiana is the only South American country to have a space centre, Kourou.

Read 

‘Surinam’ by Andrew Westoll (Old Street Publishing). An impassioned account of history and modern-day mysteries of this largely ignored nation, which has some of the most pristine rainforest in Latin America.

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