article from May 19, 2011
By Jamie Douglas
If you are one of the many Northerners who are planning to retire to a warm climate and perhaps a step back in time, you should know about French Guiana. If you value solitude and a truly tropical climate, a simple yet affordable lifestyle, with daily flights to Paris and Miami, fresh croissants in the morning, and affordable “beachfront living,” or watching the occasional launch of a rocket shooting into outer space, you will be delighted with what this French overseas department has to offer. It is one place that is not overrun by hordes of other expats.
Like all other French overseas territories, Guiana is considered to be included in Metropolitan France, and therefore is administered from Paris. The head of state is the French president, the currency used is the euro, and it is part of the European Union.
Being in the tropics, located relatively close to the equator, will of course make for hot days and warm nights. The rainy season is the full six months here, from January to June, but except for an occasional tropical storm, things could not be too bad, as the French Space Agency is using this region for the launch of all their highly successful Ariane 4 and Ariane 5 rockets, with fewer weather related delays than NASA suffers at Cape Kennedy. The facility was wisely moved here from the Algerian desert in 1963 by General Charles de Gaulle. In view of the current roaming bands of Polisario and Al-Qaeda in Algeria, this certainly was a move ahead of its time. As a consequence, it also helped raise the standard of living tremendously for some but not all of the inhabitants of this section of the north coast of South America.
This small country in a remote part of the South American continent does suffer from high unemployment, but a large part of that is due to the more traditional type of lifestyle the indigenous people and descendants of the runaway slaves have settled into. By contrast, about 60 miles to the north of the capital, you will find Kourou, home of the 1,700 or so employees of the French Space Port. You will get a chance to mingle with real rocket scientists!
A large segment of the population is still living in Amazon Rainforest Basin, needing very little from the outside world, but they are counted in the census, and therefore listed as unemployed, which skews the figures a bit.
Serious medical care is concentrated in the capital, Cayenne, as is most of the business activity. The city is noted for its annual month-long Carnival celebration, which runs every weekend during the Carnival season and features finely feathered dancers, costumes such as the ones encountered in Bahia, Brazil or in the Caribbean and, of course, the accompanying debauchery that has become the tradition among the mix of cultures that you encounter in the country.
You will need a yellow fever certificate to enter French Guiana. Dengue is not unknown, and being hot and steamy near the equator, bugs will certainly be present.
I spent a few months in Cayenne and thoroughly enjoyed myself. To call it multicultural would be quite an understatement. If you are the adventurous type who wants to wander through relatively untouched rainforests, there are many rivers to navigate by boat. You will experience flora and fauna that rival that of New Guinea, which is located around on the other side of the globe, north of Australia.
French Guiana is also the home of Devil’s Island, where the infamous Papillion was incarcerated. These days, they are building a luxury resort on the island to boost the economy with tourism.
As for neighboring Suriname and Guyana, the best advice is to stay away from there. Guyana’s top tourist attraction is Jim Jones’ temple, where 900 followers committed mass suicide.
This is a place that would not be recommended for those who are sensitive to heat or those who hate bugs. The beaches are not the greatest, but you will benefit from a very reasonable cost of living, as many things are subsidized by the French government – such as wine!
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[Image of a river boat in French Guiana via Wikipedia]
I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.