French Guiana


Dense equatorial forests, colonial towns and a major space centre are among the faces of French Guiana, a region of France on the north-east coast of South America


French Guiana is a non-souvereign overseas département (département d'outre-mer) of France.
Settled by the French in 1604, they used it as a penal colony between 1852 and 1939, which included the infamous Devil's Island. In 1947 it became an overseas department of France. Since then, many indigenous French Guianians have called for increased autonomy, although only around 5% favor independence from France, partly due to the vast subsidies from the French government.

Its capital is Cayenne. It has borders with two nations, Brazil to the east and south, and Suriname to the west.

Its 83,534 km² have a very low population density of less than three inhabitants per km², with almost half of its 229,000 people in 2009 living in the urban area of Cayenne, its capital. French Guiana's currency is the euro.


The History

In January 1500, two years after Christopher Columbus’s voyage, Vincent Pinson explored French Guiana. In about 1643, searching for Eldorado, companies such as France Equinoxiale and Cap Nord began colonizing French Guiana.

In 1644, Governor Poncet de Brétigny built a fort on Cayenne’s highest slope. He called it Cépérou after a Galibi Indian chief.
One after another, the French, Spanish, British, and Dutch settled in French Guiana during the 17th century, all of them driven by a shared desire to discover Eldorado.

In 1852, to rid itself of its prisons in Toulon, Brest, and Rochefort, France decided to set up penal colonies in French Guiana. From Camp de la Transportation to the Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands), more than 80,000 prisoners would be sent to French Guiana and to the infamous Devil's Island (see below). These included Dreyfus, Papillon, and Seznec.


In 1946, French Guiana became a département of France. Since 1982, the Loi de la Décentralisation (the French law on decentralization) has optimized the creation of Regional Councils. Today, French Guiana consists of two arrondissements, the Cayenne Prefecture, Saint-Laurent du Maroni Subprefecture, 19 cantons, and 22 communes.


The Geography

About 7000 km (4350 miles) separate French Guiana from mainland France, an 8½-hour direct flight. Located in the northeast of the South American continent between Suriname and Brazil, French Guiana covers an area of 84,000 km² (about 32,500 square miles) and is 1/5th the size of mainland France.

Its natural borders are the Maroni River to the west, the Oyapock River (see below) to the east, and the Tumuc-Humac Mountains to the south. The coastal strip extends for 350 km (about 220 miles) along the Atlantic Ocean.


Beyond this strip begins the great Amazon rainforest. The only way to penetrate this area is through its great rivers and waterways, which form an extremely dense river system.



French Guiana enjoys an equatorial climate. It’s hot, but quite comfortable, thanks to the trade winds that constantly blow along the coast.

Average annual temperature: 26°C (79°F) with highs of 33°C (91.5°F).

For sunbathers, the best months are:

- mid-July to the end of November, the main dry season,

- March to mid-April, the little “March summer.”

For those who don’t mind the rain (hot with intervals of sunshine)

- January and February, (the light rainy season as well as Carnival),
- Mid-April to the end of June, the main rainy season (when leatherback turtles lay their eggs).



What to see?!

Natural splendour and an abundance of wildlife mean that there is the potential for tourism, but this is inhibited by a lack of infrastructure.

Main cities

Cayenne, the administrative capital of French Guiana


Kourou, the city which hosts the space center and Arianespace


Saint-Laurent, located on the Maroni river, which forms the natural border between Surinam and French Guyana.


Saint-Georges, on the Oyapock river, which is the natural border between Brazil and French Guyana.



Historic sites
Since its first inhabitants arrived, French Guiana has been shaped by a varied and exceptional history, demonstrated at many well-known sites.

Îles du Salut (Île Royale and Île de St-Joseph). Nine miles (15 km) north of Kourou, this small archipelago, consisting of Île Royale, Île Saint-Joseph, and Île du Diable (Devil’s Island), was used for the creation of a penal colony in 1852. Today, it is an enchanting place where you can enjoy a walk around the remains of the prisons and a swim in the crystal-clear water. The Îles du Salut are also a favorite place for big-game fishing.


Mount Favard

Just over 40 miles (70 km) southeast of Cayenne, near the Kaw Swamps, this magical spot has preserved traces of the presence of French Guiana’s first inhabitants, the Arawak and Karib Amerindians. The hiking trail is the ideal way to penetrate the mysteries of that pre-Columbian period and discover the period’s remains.

The ruins of Favard House and its sugar kettles and mill recall the region’s colonial past, when sugar cane, cocoa beans, and coffee were cultivated.
You can see a true copy of this carved rock, made in synthetic resin, on the ground floor of the Guiana Tourism Committee’s offices in Cayenne.


Camp de la Transportation

Constructed in 1854, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a subprefecture (administrative center) of French Guiana, now has 19,211 inhabitants. It was built as a reception center for convicts and contained a prison community until the end of the Second World War. In close to 90 years, between 50,000 and 70,000 convicts were sent to Saint-Laurent. Many of them knew Camp de la Transportation and its enormous buildings, which housed between 4,000 and 5,000 prisoners, watched over by 250 prison guards. Many prisoners were held there before transfer to the forest camps and other detention centers. Others served sentences determined by the tribunal maritime (marine court) for acts committed in French Guiana. These sentences were added to and combined with prison sentences that were already very long. The tour of the Camp de la Transportation, undergoing complete renewal, will allow you to better understand French Guiana’s historic heritage.



Iracoubo Church

Constructed at the beginning of the 19th century, the town of Iracoubo was made famous by the arrival of Father Prosper Raffray.
He was in charge of the church, which was painted entirely by hand by a famous convict named Huguet.


Not to be missed: The Church of Saint Joseph – The Amerindian village of Bellevue – Bathing at Morpio Creek

More info at:


What to do?!

Guiana Space Centre

The Guiana Space Centre is located 34 miles (54 km) from Cayenne, in Kourou.
Accompanied by an experienced guide, you’ll get to watch a film retracing the history of the space complex and then explore the JUPITER control center and the Ariane launch facilities, where you might see an Ariane 5 launch vehicle in its huge structure.

The Guiana Space Centre is an active launch center, so tours and opening hours for visits are subject to change. All this information will be confirmed when you book and register your visit.


To visit the Guiana Space Centre

Phone : 05 94 32 61 23
Fax: 05 94 32 17 45
E-mail :


The Space Museum

A temple of information on space activity in Europe and around the world, the Space Museum, located at the entrance to the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, offers exhibitions on the conquest of space as well as presentations, using a wide range of multimedia techniques and various activities.

This center of scientific and technological discovery, unique in French Guiana, offers you thematic tours, varied interactive activities, full-scale models (satellites, launch vehicles, and others), scientific and technical films, exhibitions, a multimedia area, and a museum shop.

Visits: Available for groups, same-days visits, Saturday visits. Guided visits by reservation on +594 32 61 23.

Monday-Friday 8 AM to 6 PM – Saturdays 2 PM to 6 PM
Admission - Adults: 6 €
Children under 10: 3.8 €

Phone : 05 94 33 53 84
Fax: 05 94 32 17 45
E-mail :


The Craziness of Carnival

Do you want to explore the world … French Guiana’s Carnival, the longest in the world, is one of a kind! The celebrations start in the first week after Epiphany and finish on Ash Wednesday.
During Carnival, each Saturday evening, the “dancings” are invaded by mysterious toulous, women whose disguise covers them completely from head to foot. They lead the festivities until dawn. At daybreak, after all the swinging, regain your strength with traditional blaff, a court-bouillon of fish and shrimp subtly spiced à la créole. After a restful morning, the festivities start again… Nèg’ marrons, sousouri, and other jé farin will lead you through the town’s main streets to the unrestrained rhythms of the Carnival bands.


Carnival Dates: January-February


Ariane Rocket Launches

Being at an Ariane launch and watching the vessel as goes into orbit is an unforgettable experience. Take part from one of the nearby sites and witness an amazing conquest. Feel the tension during countdown and the power of the ignition of the first-stage rockets and Ariane’s majestic lift-off.

For about 25 minutes, you can follow Ariane’s flight on a giant screen displaying the launch’s video transmission, holding your breath until it reaches orbit.

Request an invitation by e-mail or fax. Include each visitor’s last name, first name, date and place of birth, and contact information (address, phone, and fax number) and send your request to:

Phone : 05 94 33 31 22
E-mail :

Four to six launches are scheduled each year, most of them taking place on weekday nights. Certain observation sites are reserved in priority for launch clients. Invitations are subject to the availability of space, date, and level of demand. Unrestricted access (no time limitations or age restrictions) to the Carapa observation site. Open to the general public (1500 spots). Information from CNES at +594 33 42 00 or the Kourou Information Point at +594 32 25 40.

More info at:


The language

French is the official language, although Creole is widely spoken. The majority of the population speaks French while few understand English. However, some officials, police, and gendarmes may speak English. Because of the presence of many Brazilians and Dominicans, lots of people understand basic Portuguese and basic Spanish. On the Maroni river, Taki-taki is often used.


The economy

The ethnically-diverse population enjoys one of the higher standards of living on the South American continent. The French social security system is in force, and subsidies from Paris prop up the economy.
Outbreaks of street violence in the 1990s, fuelled in part by high levels of youth unemployment, were also seen as manifestations of tension between the region and Paris. But support for greater autonomy, and particularly for independence, is tempered by the reliance on subsidies.
In January 2010 voters rejected the option of increased autonomy in a referendum, with 69.8% voting against on a turnout of 48%.
France occupied the territory in the 17th century. The Dutch and Spanish also settled the area.
Until the 1930s the mother country dispatched convicts to penal colonies in the territory, including the notorious Devil's Island. Many of the tens of thousands of convicts succumbed to malaria and yellow fever.
Another former penal settlement, Kourou, is home to a European Space Agency rocket launch site. The facility has been a boon to the local economy, accounting for a significant slice of GDP, and has given the territory a strategic value.



The European Space Center at Kourou has brought a corner of French Guiana

into the modern world and attracted a sizable expatriate workforce.



The Markets

Fruit and vegetable markets are a good way to learn about Guianese culture and an opportunity to try the local specialties on the spot…

In Cayenne
Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays on Avenue du Président Monnerville.

In St-Laurent
Wednesdays and Saturdays until about 1 PM in the market square, Place du Marché.

In Cacao
Every Sunday until about 1 PM – Laotian specialties and crafts.

In Javouhey
Every Sunday (starting early in the morning) – Laotian specialties and crafts.

In Kourou
Tuesdays and Fridays in the new town and Saturdays in the old town.




The food is superb in French Guiana. Nearly 400 years as a cultural melting pot has given French Guiana’s cuisine inspiration, originality, and passion, with a wide range of tastes and spices. Influenced by Europe, Africa, India, and Amerindian traditions, all the flavors of the world are found in French Guiana—and your taste buds will thank you. It’s good. It’s delicious. Creole cuisine is waiting for you.

The spices

Nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and chili peppers.
French Guiana used to produce these spices, and they remain a basic ingredient in local recipes.

Culinary Specialties

« Blaff »: A court-bouillon that gets its flavor from onions, garlic, celery, and basil.


« Pimentade »: A kind of court-bouillon with tomato sauce.

« Rôti cougnade »: Broiled fish

« Colombo »: A spicy stew of meat and vegetables with curry.

« Awara Stock »: the awara is a palm tree; the pulp of its fruit is used to make a stew containing chicken and fish boucanés.
This dish is eaten during the Easter and Pentecost celebrations. It’s a symbol of welcome for special guests.


All these dishes are accompanied by generous helpings of rice, red beans, or couac (a sort of semolina, more or less fine, made from roasted manioc).

French Guiana’s waters are full of fish, so there’s a great variety of fish and shrimp prepared in number of ways.
From the small sea-bob, similar to Breton prawns, to giant shrimp, which you could almost mistake for scampi, the seafood is presented in a variety of forms, including marinades (fritters) and kebabs… a real feast!

If you happen to visit French Guiana, it won't been long before someone offers you a Ti Punch. Just remember that, if you accept, according to local custom the second drink is obligatory or you risk insulting your host. Rum is of course a specialty of the West Indies and this drink is one of the simplest and most popular ways to enjoy it.

Normally the ingredients are placed on the table along with a few glasses and spoons and everyone mixes their punch to their liking. If you can't find bottled simple syrup, make you own by boiling equal parts of sugar and water, until the sugar has dissolved. Allow to cool before using in your ti punch.

Try it!


Ti Punch Cocktail Recipe


- White rum
- Simple sugar syrup
- Lime wedges
- Ice cubes (optional)




Squeeze a lime wedge or two into a glass, then drop them in the glass and crush with a spoon.
Stir in the syrup and then the rum.
Add ice cubes if desired.
Sip slowly.
Have another!


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Catherine Castelain
Date Last Modified: 4/3/15
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