For a geography challenge, ask a stranger to find Suriname on a map. The blank look you’ll likely receive is one of the reasons Lonely Planet guidebook refers to Suriname as one of the top “under-the-radar” travel destinations in the world. As the smallest of all the South American nations in both size and population, Suriname is easy to overlook.
The nation’s relative anonymity on the world stage is an advantage for travelers looking for a real adventure. Nestled at the top of South America between Guyana and French Guiana, Suriname offers a lightly settled Caribbean coastline and a dense, wild interior where visitors can immerse themselves in raw, unspoiled nature. By understanding the nation’s unique history, you can plan a vacation to Suriname that maximizes the country’s status as a last frontier while taking advantage of new biodiversity initiatives.
History with A Twist
Think South America and you think Spanish or Portuguese. Neither of these languages is dominant in Suriname, because the country traces its history through colonization by the Dutch. Christopher Columbus sighted it in 1498 and the Spanish claimed it in 1593, but it was the Dutch who ultimately began settlements in 1616, claiming the country as their own in 1667 under the name Dutch Guiana.
Most colonization stories include tails of wild exploitation, but Suriname’s story features more benign neglect. For centuries, it was a secondary possession, never deeply settled by Europeans and barely financially supported. Plantation attempts failed as slaves fled to explored corners of the jungle and the Netherlands focused on its more profitable East Indian colonies. Developmental quirks – such as driving on the left – lingered after Dutch norms changed. The local population was an unlikely mix, with more than 25 percent of ‘locals’ hailing from East Indian homes, with Hindu and Muslim traditions dominating the Roman Catholic culture prevalent elsewhere on the continent.
In 1975, after some decades of moderate economic success as a mineral exporter and increasing autonomy, Suriname declared its independence with Dutch consent. The country runs as a democracy now, though it has taken almost 30 years of coups, contested elections, and internal strife to get there. In many ways, the nation is still emerging.
Visitors will find the country’s unusual history on display in architecture, cuisine, and customs. Buildings blend Dutch architectural norms with East Indian and South American influences. Thanks to large Hindi, Creole, and Japanese populations, the cuisine is often incredibly spicy. The capital, Paramaribo, boasts the only adjacent synagogue and mosque in the world, and the two facilities share parking lots in peace. After all, with a total national population of just 491,989 in 2011, the most ethnic and religiously diverse nation on the planet mandates that everyone has to get along.
An Open Plan for Adventure
Suriname’s unusual history adds up to an open plan for adventure for visitors. The nation does not have a lengthy history of robust tourist development and the local economy is driven more by mineral and resource exploitation projects. Visitors are therefore not bound to any pre-established ‘tourist trails’ and can customize their vacations to suit their preferences.
The vast majority opt for an extended trip into Suriname’s dense rainforest areas. Much of the country has never been fully explored, even by modern travelers. Even before the arrival of colonial settlers, the native tribes tended to hug the coast with their settlements. Venturing inland means taking a trip away from modern civilization and out into the largely untouched natural beauty of the South American jungle, leaving behind planes and cars for dugout canoes and trekking.
There are key points to be sure to see, including dramatic waterfalls, jungle peaks, and wild nature preserves. The Raleigh waterfalls are Suriname’s biggest and most popular waterfalls, and many guests combine a trip to the falls with a stay in a local village and hikes to some of the country’s jungle peaks. The Voltz mountains and Mt. Kasikasima are popular climbing spot, though the second can be reached only by a multi-day dugout canoe journey.
The waterfall, mountains, and many Native villages lie within official nature preserves. More than a third of the nation has been set aside as preserved space. Though the country continues to base its economy on resource development, the government is making strides in preserving the biodiversity of the country as a whole. Eco-tourism projects are encouraged, though national funding is limited due to the country’s tight financial situation as a whole with its modest $3.3 billion (USD) GDP.
Protecting the Raw Beauty
Among all the protected elements of Suriname, the most famous is the Central Suriname Nature Reserve (CSNR). It was created in 1998, a time when the country itself was in the midst of a sharp political upheaval. However, even in a state of flux, the government was able to partner with Conservation International to establish a 16,000 square kilometer site to protect the raw beauty of the rainforest as well as several key river watersheds.
In 2000, the country received some recognition for its preservation efforts when the United Nations designated the CSNR as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The designation recognized the unusually pristine state of the rainforest in Suriname and the incredible plant and wildlife diversity of the space. CSNR is home to more than 5,000 known plant species, 400 unique birds, and iconic South American animals such as the jaguar, giant armadillo, tapir, and sloth.
Recognition and praise for its eco-tourism based system has helped prevent Suriname from going the mass-development route. It also guides the government in making decisions on future mining and development projects, since environmental groups now have a seat at the table thanks to the many miles of preserved space. One recent example of this has been a decision to postpone development of tropical hardwoods in the interior after environmental lobbyists and Native groups objected. The case can now effectively be made for preservation from an economic and international perspective.
Suriname’s modest size may keep it off the radar for many travelers, but those who can appreciate adventure and unspoiled nature will find it to be an ideal destination. Escaping into the jungle in not just possible, but encouraged. Lonely Planet doesn’t have to be the only one who knows what’s lurking under-the-radar in the modern travel age. With an open, flexible spirit, anyone can take advantage of South America’s last frontier and journey to that most attractively anonymous of nations, Suriname.