French Guiana

Cayenne, French Guyana

There’s a little piece of South America that I’ve never been to. It’s a French Overseas Territory. Although it’s not a self-governing country or a member of the UN, I had to come here for the sake of really knowing our planet and seeing everything. Besides, there’s a unique site here that I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.

Place Leopold Heder, Cayenne

The capital of French Guiana is Cayenne, just like the hot pepper. It’s refreshing to see a town named for a food instead for a king or a fort. My guess is that this town was named for its weather. On the north coast of South America, just 5° north of the equator, it’s quite warm here — and humid! Because of its isolation, Cayenne feels like an outpost. There are only two airports from which you can fly to or from French Guiana. One is Paris. The other is Martinique, which is where I was last. Coming here from Martinique was an obvious detour — and a direct flight. Me voila!

Cayenne has a colonial feel with 18th century buildings and plazas filled with fountains and palm trees. Since there are vast jungles nearby, many buildings are built of native wood.

Las Palmistes Hotel, Bar & Restaurant

I only had two days to spend in Cayenne. My first day was spent wandering around the city getting oriented. This place is so quiet and removed from the tourist track, the museums were closed. When I bought gas for my rental car, the guy at the service station told me I was the first American he’d ever met.

Plage de la Cocoteraie (coconut grove)

This big yellow building with the wide verandah was the perfect place to pause for a tall, cool drink — with rum in it, of course.

Being on the coast, Cayenne has beaches, but they’re not very appetizing. Muddy rivers flow from the jungles into the Caribbean near here. So, the water and the beaches tend to be brown from all the silt.

Chinese products for sale

Thankfully, there are plenty of parks where people can sit in the shade and enjoy the cooling trade winds.

Although I didn’t see any Americans here, I was surprised to see lots of Chinese. Most of the shops in Cayenne are run by Chinese. The shelves are stocked with Chinese products. I’ve seen this sort of modern colonialism in Africa. I didn’t expect to see it in South America.

Model of the Ariane 5 rocket

Beaches, colonial buildings and Chinese shops aren’t the reason I came to French Guiana. Seventy kilometers northwest of Cayenne is Europe’s Spaceport.  This location was chosen in 1964 for four reasons:
• Proximity to equator: Easy launch of geosynchronous satellites
• Velocity gain due to Earth’s rotation (1650 kph)
• Flight path over uninhabited area (Atlantic Ocean)
• Region not affected by hurricanes or earthquakes

Ariane launching pad

I’d been hoping to see this place for years. Although the 3-hour tour is free, not many people come here. There were only a dozen people on my tour. There’s also a great space museum. The tour involves driving through the jungle to various launch sites. Although there were no launches on the day I visited, I was pleased just to see the launch pads and visit the main control center. Note: The next launch is scheduled for June 22, 2022.

Unlike at Cape Canaveral, public tours are permitted to visit the actual control room from which launches are managed. This part of the tour gave me goosebumps! Since 1990, there have been about 8 launches per year from this site, all unmanned satellites. NASA sent the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit from here last December.

In February 2022, Russia suspended its satellite launches and recalled all its engineers and technicians. So, there won’t be any more Soyuz rockets launched in the near future.

Cayenne is a long way from anywhere, but well worth the visit. This was a personal goal to visit this site at least once in my life. Coming into French Guyana, I had to be vaccinated, but that was about it. In and around Cayenne, there were few masks worn.

As a spoiler alert, here’s how I’ll travel to my next Caribbean adventure. In fact, I’m already aboard!