James and Jayne Pearce discover theirs is the only yacht in the country cruising up the mighty Essequibo River in remarkable Guyana

You don’t see Guyana as you approach it from the ocean, its low-lying coastline perfectly camouflaged against the hazy tropical horizon as the sun rises. And yet you sense it in so many other ways: the pungent petrichor of South American rainforest, the towering white thunderheads away in the distance, and even in the way the sea itself changes.

The deep blue of the Atlantic slowly gives way to beige, then caramel, and finally to rich chocolate-coloured waters. This is your sign that the swirling estuary of the mighty Essequibo River awaits.

Scouting for adventure

Sailing on Scout, our 2021 Garcia Exploration 45, we’d spent the last year travelling down from Maine to the Caribbean – taking in the east coast of the US, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos, before putting her through her paces along the Thorny Path towards the Windward Islands. A few months of island hopping later, we found ourselves anchored south of 12°N, sitting out the first part of the 2023 hurricane season.

The eastern Caribbean is famous for its cruising, but sometimes it feels like everyone else knows it too. We’d appreciated the safety of buddy boats, good charts, and well-trodden paths, but by October Grenada’s busy anchorages were starting to feel a little too familiar and we were itching to get back out to the deep blue. So we hatched a plan for a radical change of scene.

The Pearce’s Garcia Exploration 45 Scout in bluer Caribbean waters. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

With the hurricane season still in effect, we were limited to heading south. Tobago would be a comfortable overnight passage… but where then? Our insurance company wasn’t enamoured with the idea of us visiting Venezuela, so our eyes moved further down the chart and rested on Guyana. That looked perfect for a month’s getaway!

It would be a solid multi-day bluewater passage in both directions, and would give us a glimpse of the vastness of continental South America. Best of all, it looked like we’d be able to sail upriver once we got there, giving us a chance to try out Garcia’s famous lifting centreboard design and Scout’s resulting 3ft 9in (1.14m) draught.

There were just a few problems: we didn’t know anything about the country; no-one we knew had ever sailed there; and we weren’t even sure if there was anywhere to go if we did!

Caribbean in South America

Geographically, Guyana is located on the north-eastern coast of South America between Venezuela and Suriname. Culturally, however, it considers itself firmly Caribbean, and boasts a complex, diverse, and sometimes sorrowful history, shaped by centuries of indigenous culture, colonial rule and immigration.

The earliest inhabitants were Amerindian Arawaks and Caribs. The Spanish first glimpsed the country in the late 15th century, but it was the Dutch in the 17th century who established permanent settlements, importing enslaved Africans to develop plantations for sugar, cotton, and tobacco. The British next took control, followed by an influx of indentured labourers from India, China, and Portugal. The historical foundation for the complex ethnic makeup of today’s Guyana runs deep.

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The country’s fortunes recently changed dramatically with the discovery of significant offshore oil reserves, bringing the hope of economic prosperity to the otherwise poor country – though also leading to much debate over environmental sustainability issues.

The first leg of our adventure led us from Grenada to Tobago. Heading south-east in this part of the world requires some patience, and we waited to ensure there were no likely hurricane risks, and for the tradewinds to swing far enough north to offer a comfortable point of sail.

Even with good winds, however, this was our first experience of the Equatorial Current that runs along the northern coast of South America and up towards Barbados. It took at least a knot off our usual speed and required a much closer reach than we’d expected.

Tobago was the perfect stopover. Mountainous slopes of rainforest tower above the deep, protected anchorage of Charlottesville, and its sleepy quiet was a welcome contrast after the hustle and bustle of Grenada.

Local ferries provided a useful visual guide as to where the deepest water was to be found in the river. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

Knowledge of the Equatorial Current fresh in our minds, we knew the 300-mile passage to Guyana would likely not be a quick one. A three-day window of lighter north-easterly winds opened up and, although the thunderstorm capability was forecast to be high, we figured it was our best chance at a feasible point of sail. We also wanted to keep relatively far out from the Venezuelan coast to avoid any unwanted attention and the stronger currents.

Our strategy was to depart pre-dawn, motor-sail 50 miles due east from Tobago, then turn south-east, staying almost 100 miles offshore for most of the trip.

For the first two days, everything went to plan: an easy close reach with dolphins for company, and just a few gentle course changes to avoid squalls and sparse traffic. We spotted only one fishing boat as it circled its trolling grounds, easily visible on AIS, and with a friendly, waving crew.

On the last day of the passage, the 15-20 knot wind proved stronger than forecast, and we couldn’t resist making the most of it. The downside? We found ourselves barrelling towards the poorly charted (and shallowing) coastline, not at dawn as hoped, but in the darkest hours of midnight. Since we were relying on the morning’s 2m tide to enter safely over the bar into the mouth of the Essequibo river, we needed to kill some time.

Heading upriver towards Hurakabra. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

The mighty Essequibo

Anchoring in the growing chop was out of the question so, bleary-eyed, we reefed the main and staysail, and spent a few hours beam-reaching up and down the coastline with our 9ft centreboard down. It was fast and sporty sailing, but in the pitch dark, just 15ft above a muddy estuarine shelf, and with the added challenge of avoiding a fleet of poorly-lit Guyanese shrimping boats, it wasn’t quite the relaxing end to the passage we’d expected.

We were happy to see the dawn, and lifted our centreboard to finally turn towards the wide mouth of the river that welcomed us.

Stretching over 600 miles, the Essequibo is the longest river in Guyana, running south from its Atlantic delta through the lowlands, meandering through dense virgin rainforest, and up into the mountainous interior. We hoped it would give us a taste of river exploration and an unusual cruising experience. When researching the trip, we discovered we were set to be only the second yacht to enter the river all year.

At its entrance, the river is so wide you can barely see land. Only once our sails were down, and we were safely over the shallow bar, did the morning light slowly reveal towering native trees lining the two shores of the estuary.
As we headed further in, they came into focus, the sounds of exotic tropical birds got louder, the brown of the water got richer and redder, and we started to glimpse small villages and homesteads populating the shoreline.

Exploring while anchored by Baganara Island. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

Maybe it was the hypnotic drum of our engine after three days at sail, maybe it was the heavy, humid tropical air, or maybe it was our tiredness from the passage, but we sensed that even time itself seemed different here. Our new clock was the languorous ebb and flow of this vast tidal waterway, coupled with the diurnal pulse of the jungle and its fauna. Within an hour of entering the river, we were spellbound.

Into the rainforest

Heading south, the wide estuary soon became a braided delta. Numerous waterways wound between densely wooded islands, with evocative names like Kwatano, Akuraikuru, and Kukuritikuru. Showing 20ft or more, the depths of the channels seemed surprisingly safe, but we soon learned that the deeper water was often closer to the shore than in the calmer central parts where silty shoals formed. The muddy water is absolutely opaque, and apart from barely discernible changes in the surface eddies, identifying shallows was a real challenge.

Thankfully we’d discovered a couple of useful cruising guides for the Essequibo, one from Chris Doyle, and another by the RCC Pilotage Foundation. Both were almost 10 years old, but still provided invaluable route information, even though the charts of some shoals seemed to be drifting out of date.

As for Scout’s digital chart plotter, it seemed like many of its unreliable soundings were from a long-gone imperial era: we noticed Navionics proudly declare a ‘fresh water spring hereabouts’, text that sounded like it had probably originated from maps of a 19th century expedition.

Bartica is a frontier town on the very edge of the jungle. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

Our first night’s anchorage was by the Lau Lau Islands, two uninhabited slivers of rainforest in the middle of the river, about 25 miles from the mouth. The holding was fantastic in what we presumed was thick mud, and we were thankful for it, since diving on the anchor without any visibility would certainly be in vain, and because we expected to swing dramatically with the current against the tide.

We had time to take the dinghy for a quick ride around the two islands, gunk-holing up little creeks, through mangroves, and deep under the rainforest canopy, surrounded by the most incredible cacophony of bird song and rainforest sounds. But the 6°N sunset crept up quickly on us, and we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the river rushing past the hull, and the evening calls of roosting parakeets and the howler monkeys on shore.

The next day, we pushed on upriver, winding our way from one bank to the other, trying to find the deepest channels. We were constantly accompanied by bright yellow butterflies from the shore, and the swallows that darted around the boat trying to catch them.

Unsurprisingly, all charted markers were absent, but the Doyle waypoints continued to give us a broad idea of where to go. Observing the route of the daily river ferry (which we were sure must draw more than us!) gave us the final clues we needed to pass between the shoals, promontories, and rusted hulls of river boats long-wrecked on the eastern shore.

Remains of the Dutch Fort at Kyk-Over-Al, once a colonial capital. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

Our destination was the town of Bartica, at the confluence of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers. This little mining town is about as far as you can navigate before shallow rocks, tight meanders, and raging rapids prevent further progress.

As a result, Bartica has a real frontier feel, its main purpose being a beachhead for transferring miners, goods, and digging equipment from river barges onto gigantic off-road trucks that push onwards into the interior. During the week, it’s an easy-going town, with life focusing around the vibrant fish and fruit market on the dock.

At the weekend, the miners return out of the jungle, their newfound gold, diamonds and bauxite in hand, ready to trade for cash. A pulsing bar and nightclub scene comes to life, allowing this melting pot of pioneers to let their hair down.

We anchored just off the docks in 15ft of water, with enough space to avoid the wash from the colourful wooden water taxis and local boat traffic. Many communities here have no road access, so small skiffs with big old Yamaha outboards serve as the transport of choice.

This far upriver, the tidal effects are lessened, but we quickly learned that giant afternoon thunderstorms pass over the river almost daily, gusting enough to move us around significantly. Fortunately, as the only yacht in the country, we had plenty of swing room.

Despite its position far upriver, Bartica is a port-of-entry, serving both river traffic like us and the refugees who cross the forested border from Venezuela. As we walked through town to the police station, which doubles conveniently as the immigration office, we heard a unique blend of music and languages: part Caribbean, part Indian, part Asian, part Hispanic, and part Amerindian.

Derelict colonial-style house. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

Frontier adventures

For a few days we explored, stocking up on local fruit and vegetables, and failing at an aspirational attempt to hitch a ride on a truck to an interior gold mine. We instead decided to move Scout across to the western shore to the peace and seclusion of the Hurakabra River Resort. This lodge’s previous owner did much to promote the region to sailors prior to the pandemic, and though it’s now under new ownership, it remains a safe anchorage and welcoming destination for boats.

Caretaker Sherman provided local advice about the river, and showed us around the grounds. His wife, Lorinne, prepared wonderful local fare, with chicken kebabs and callaloo soup high on the list of memorable dishes. We hadn’t fancied making our own water from the muddy river, so were happy to be able to use the lodge’s showers and laundry, as well as top-up our rainwater supplies from the lodge’s tank.

Hubakabra served as a great base, nestled between river and rainforest, and a place to relax between our local adventures. For one excursion, we took Scout further up the Cuyuni-Mazaruni river system to anchor at Fort Kyk-Over-Al, a small island with an abandoned 17th century Dutch fort that was once the colony’s capital.

Still but muddy waters. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

We headed over to Baganara Island, where the currents were light enough for a few days of jungle kayaking. For one very memorable night, we anchored behind Grass Islands, the roosting site for thousands of local parakeets. It was spectacular, watching and listening to them noisily returning home at sundown in pairs – though their equally noisy departure again at sunrise was less amusing.

Sherman and Lorinne were also kind enough to offer to watch over Scout if we left her. We took one of Bartica’s express water taxis back down the river to Parika, the main port on the delta, then from there it was an easy trip by road to Georgetown, the country’s capital, and a bustling city of yet more multicultural influences and contradictions. Old docks and seawalls flank once-elegant colonial residences and the crowded kaleidoscope of Stabroek market juxtaposes the stark white exterior of St George’s cathedral and glossy new western hotels.

Georgetown offered us the chance to make progress further inland. We took a light aircraft flight over the country towards its most southern region, Kaieteur. The journey was eye-opening, as we passed over the same untouched rainforest we’d seen from river level, and then over mining country, the scars of alluvial extraction obvious from the sky.

Spectacular 200m-high Kaieteur Falls. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

Finally we approached the tall sandstone cliffs and flat-topped peaks of the Guiana Highlands and landed on a small airstrip at the head of a precipitous canyon. A short walk through the forest took us to the lip of the canyon for a highlight of the whole trip: a view of the majestic Kaieteur Falls tumbling 200m over the escarpment, and crashing down into the rainforest below. At full capacity it’s considered the tallest and most powerful single-drop waterfall in the world.

A country in flux

As we reluctantly departed Kaieteur National Park, we were struck how this magical but little-visited corner was representative of Guyana itself. It’s a wonderful gem of a country, but not well-known as an international destination beyond some limited and adventurous ecotourism.

On one hand, this was fabulous, allowing us to feel like we were really getting off the beaten path. On the other we hope more get a chance to experience this unique place for themselves before it changes.

Because there’s no doubt that Guyana is changing. The scale of the boom from the oil discoveries is astonishing, putting it on track to become one of the world’s largest oil producers within decades.

In the last few days of our trip, we felt the impact of this. No doubt in part because of the oil fields, neighbouring Venezuela scheduled a referendum on whether western Guyana was considered its own territory, a claim which would put Essequibo and the town of Bartica on the frontline of a disputed border. With the vote scheduled for the start of December, accompanied by some alarming rhetoric, we decided it was time to leave.

National pride in Bartica. Photo: James and Jayne Pearce

So we lifted Scout’s anchor from the ochre waters and started our journey back towards the sea. With both the river’s current and tides in our favour – not to mention a proven track we could follow in reverse – the Essequibo carried us, like a 4-knot magic carpet, back towards the Atlantic.

We crossed the sand bar, passed the shrimping boats, and watched the water imperceptibly change from orange towards the deep blue of the ocean. Just as subtly as they’d appeared into view a month earlier, the shores of the country slipped out of sight behind us.

A few hours later, Scout was romping downwind towards the Caribbean proper, with the Equatorial Current now in her favour, and her sails up again at last.

Both of us were pensive on the fast and uneventful three-day passage. While quietly happy to be heading back to some sort of cruising normality in St Vincent and the Grenadines (where we certainly weren’t going to be the only yacht in the country), our thoughts were tinged with the sadness of knowing that we’d reached the end of a truly magical experience. Guyana had been an unforgettable adventure, which has left an indelible mark on our cruising souls.

• Since the Pearces’ trip, the political situation between Venezuela and Guyana has calmed, with diplomatic discussions reducing much of the tension that was present in the region at the end of 2023.

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