Thousands of years ago, Guyana’s native inhabitants settled on the coastal plains of Guyana, but later migrated to the deep interior regions of the country to find a means of survival and freedom from colonial invasion. The rich landscape, brimming with fertile land, food and water must have been a treasure to withhold. It still is. Till date, indigenous peoples live all across the country, some in more remote locations than the others.
The first settlers of Guyana are known as the Indigenous Peoples (Amerindians) and can be distinguished by their features. The nine distinct indigenous groups are Akawaios, Arawaks, Arecunas, Caribs, Makushis, Patamonas, Warraus, Wapishanas and Wai-Wais. Even between these, some are more prominent that the others. Inter-ethnicity marriages in Guyana are common, so you may find mixed race families when travelling through the country. You will also find people of different indigenous groups in the cities, as many of them have homes and businesses in Georgetown, but the largest part of the population occupies far-flung villages across the length and breadth of the country.
As a visitor, spending time in and with an indigenous family is one of the best experiences you can have in the country. You get a peek into their lives of those who stay in the villages and survive by the means of sustainable farming, hunting and fishing. You can see youngsters – despite being partially urbanised – wield a bow and arrow with confidence.
The best part is that if you speak English, you won’t need an interpreter, as English is Guyana’s national language.
Which regions do the Indigenous Peoples call home?
Even though the communities have become more fluid and people have started migrating to different parts of the country, one can broadly assign areas which are occupied by a certain group. The Warraus, Arawaks and Caribs mostly occupy the coastal regions in the northern part of the country with the Akawaios, Arecunas and Patamonas occupying the forested highland regions of the country. The Makushis and Wapishanas hold sway in the savannahs of the North, Central and South Rupununi and the Wai Wais can be found predominantly in the deep south of the country.
Living off the land
One of the most unique characteristics of the Indigenous Peoples is their ability to live off the land. Many of them are great agriculturists, others are excellent hunters and gatherers, while some are also known to be expert horticulturists and or experts in traditional medicine. Each community is skilled to live off the land with ease, using the jungles and the rivers as their main source of food, income, and good health. This tradition has been handed down from generation to generation.
The one thing that is bound to strike you when you visit an indigenous community is their ingenuity in using available natural materials to make exquisite pottery, beads, jewellery, utensils, boats and elaborate homes. For those looking for gifts for loved ones or that special souvenir, skilled artisans expertly prepare unique pieces which are sold in gift shops and in the villages.
Best ways to have amazing encounters with the locals
During your trip to Guyana, you’re likely to find a number of occasions to meet and spend time with indigenous people. Here are some ways to have a peek into local life from close quarters:
1. Community-Owned and Led Lodges
Community-owned and led lodges are entirely managed by the local villagers. Apart from tasting the local food, meeting people, seeing their homes in the villages, you also get to see cultural shows organised in the evenings. Most of these villages have cultural societies that encourage youngsters to learn the local music and dance. The effort of the elders allows them to have a connection with their language and traditions.
2. Pakaraima and Other Safaris
The 4×4 Pakaraima Safari has an interesting circuit that covers about 14 villages between Georgetown to Lethem, enroute to the North Pakaraima Mountains. The safari uses the outskirts of the villages as a base to pitch tents at night, hang hammocks in common areas and even take their help to cook food. Most of the homes of the village are spread over a large area and not in a small clutch. Yet, you can walk around and meet the friendly people of the regions. Villages like Karasabai, Tiperu, Rukumota, Murabaiko, Yurong Paru, Monkey Mountain, Tuseneng, Paramakatoi, Kato, Kurukabaru, Itabac and are all along the way to Orinduik Falls. The other three safaris organised in Guyana tread the deep-south and other regions of the country. These also offer similar exposure to the indigenous groups.
3. Rupununi and Sand Creek Rodeo
If you’re visiting the Rupununi or Sand Creek Rodeo, you’re likely to encounter many Makushi and Wapishana natives from Lethem and around. Since this is an annual festivity, many vaqueros from different ranches and their supporting cheerleaders from the villages arrive on the Easter weekend. Many of them also put up food and souvenir stalls. The balata art practiced in Nappi village off Lethem is particularly famous.
Days Tours to Communities
If you can’t spare an entire week to experience the Indigenous way of life at a community lodge, there are some shorter day trips you can take from the central hub of Georgetown on the coast or from Lethem in the Rupununi Region.
1. Santa Mission on your way to Arrowpoint
Just an hour and a half from Georgetown, you can find yourself ready to begin an adventure at the Arrowpoint Nature Resort. However, just a few minutes before you arrive at the resort, Santa Mission welcomes travellers ready to get away from the city and enjoy a weekend in nature. Here you can learn about the Indigenous practices of the people. Don’t forget to get a souvenir from their local craft shop just before you leave!
2. Wildlife Spotting and Birdwatching in Karasabai
Travelling from Lethem but only have time for a quick day trip to a hotspot? Then you are in luck! If wildlife spotting and birdwatching are your fancy, then Karasabai is the stop for you. This community has a healthy population of the glowing sun parakeet. This endangered species is one that many birdwatchers travel from far and wide to spot. The beautiful sunset like colours of its feathers and friendly gaze make it one of the star birds of Guyana! If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to see the giant anteater and other exciting species.
3. Village Tour of Surama
The true mark of immersing yourself in a culture is experiencing their everyday life. If you are travelling from Lethem or in the area of Annai, the Surama Village must be a stop for you. This was the first indigenous village to embark on community owned and led tourism in Guyana, and is still one of the leading villages to this day. A tour of the village includes speaking with locals and visiting the main meeting points for the community and the Surama kids at school. The school visit allows travellers to engage with the kids and learn about their culture through their eyes, and learn about your culture from you.
Honour our Indigenous People
You will encounter a brilliant array of cultural differences in Guyana. To make the most of your visit and ensure it’s mutually rewarding, we recommend the following Visitor Code of Conduct for Indigenous Tourism:
• Plan Ahead
Research local customs, social norms before or when you arrive in Guyana, especially when planning to visit our indigenous communities. Evaluate the credentials and practices of tour companies and guides, and determine from them the extent to which your visit will benefit the Indigenous communities you visit.
• Follow the Rules
Ensure you secure permission to visit Indigenous communities before arrival, especially if you are not travelling with a tour operator or staying at a community-owned eco-lodge. Respect the rights of community landowners and stick to areas that are open to visitors. If you’re not sure, ask. Remember the usage fees you pay to visit communities support indigenous people’s livelihoods.
• Show Your Respect
Always ask permission first before you take any photos. It is such a simple thing but it is so important. Also, be mindful of traditions and cultural etiquette during your visit. Make an extra effort to learn and listen, which is encouraged over talking especially when an elder is speaking.
• Support Local Culture
Consciously spend your money in local communities that offer locally produced meals, products and handicrafts. Your expenditures will benefit the people you meet and in some cases, the entire community. It also encourages communities to preserve their cultural heritage and increases local pride.
• Engaging in the Sacred
If you are invited to partake in a spiritual ceremony of some kind, try to be unobtrusive. Also keep in mind that many events are sacred and are not open to the public.
• Keep Guyana Wild
Help protect Guyana’s abundant wildlife. The same wildlife you hoped to see may be served during your visit. Reduce demand by not contributing to the problem.
• Be Mindful of Waste
Recycling is uncommon and plastic waste is often burned or buried. If you have to purchase disposable plastic items, pack them out with you.
Travel Better with Guyana: Guyana is working hard to conserve its vibrant wildlife and ecosystems and protect its culture and heritage. We realise that it is often difficult to understand how you can support these aims and make a difference when you travel. That’s why we’ve set out to help you by creating Visitor Guidelines For Sustainable Travel. All passionate globetrotters, curious culture seekers and bold adventurers are encouraged to do all they can to leave a positive impact on the people and places you visit in Guyana.