The Guiana Shield is a two-billion-year-old geological formation covering 270 million hectares across six countries. Among leading academics, scientists, and conservationists, it is well-known as an eco-region of global and regional significance for its wide variety of ecosystems and rich biodiversity. Perched in the midst of the shield, like a precious jewel in a majestic crown, lies Guyana, a land crisscrossed by rivers, dotted with hundreds of waterfalls, expansive pristine rainforests and towering mountains.
One iconic mountain range is the Pakaraimas, a vast expanse of flat-topped mountains that spreads through Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. South of the Pakaraima range, surrounded by its breathtaking landscapes and fascinating folklore, is the indigenous community of Karasabai, an emerging destination for community-led and owned tourism.
Getting There and Overnighting
Karasabai is located at the far southern end of the Pakaraima range of mountains, and to get there from Lethem, is a two-and-a-half hour drive. There is a daily bus service from Lethem to the village, or you can charter a 4×4 vehicle for a more exhilarating ride. Charter flights are also available into the heart of the village.
There are several options for clean and comfortable yet rustic accommodations on site at the Government Guest House and the more basic Amerindian Hostel, both of which are fully solar-powered. Or you can stay at the new Kezee Eco Lodge, which offers stunning views of the mountains and access to all of the local trails.
What to do
Karasabai is well known by serious birders as it is one of the few locations globally, and the only location in Guyana, where the sun parakeet (Aratinga Solstitialis) can be found. Known locally as Kezee or “flying jewels”, sun parakeets are an important motif in Karasabai’s tourism identity. Birding opportunities to see these flying jewels are available by land or water.
River Tours and Wildlife Spotting
If you are eager for a river experience that has a wilderness feel, a tour on the scenic Ireng River is a perfect choice. The journey begins at early sunrise (or before sunset) where you will join a waiting 4×4 vehicle. From the village you will crisscross through the savannahs; there are many chances to appreciate the surrounding beauty of the lush vegetation and the towering mountains in the distance. Be sure not to miss the large termite mounds which stand proud across the sweeping landscape and possibly a giant anteater feasting on them.
Upon arrival at the riverbank, a two-hour boat trip will take you up the serene river. If you are fortunate, you will get a glimpse of the flocks of sun parakeets that descend to feed on the wild fruits. There is much to see on your river journey and if luck is on your side, you might see the prized pink river dolphin frolicking in the water and perhaps the grey river dolphins, especially in the months of May and June which is the prime season for viewing same. Chances are your boat captain will guide you to the most frequented pools.
Be sure to have your camera in hand. The riverbanks are also dotted with pristine sandbanks, perfect nesting and basking sites for giant river turtles.
Hiking and Mountain Climbing
Away from the river, there are several opportunities for mountaineering amid the wide expanse of mountains, of various sizes and terrain, depending on your fitness level and appetite for adventure. The easiest and most popular mountain hike is on Saddleback Mountain which has a cleared trail and a benab rest stop, with the added attraction of a cave full of archaeological treasures.
You can also enjoy a savannah excursion by renting a bicycle for a local, or travel further afield via an all-terrain vehicle and visit the beautiful Corona Falls. There are also tours available through the lush cassava farms in the area, most of which have their own farine-processing huts. Farine is a traditional indigenous staple made from cassava roots, and chances are you will get to sample some during your visit.
The Spirit of the Community
Back in the village there is a wide range of handicraft including intricately-carved woodwork pieces depicting the various wildlife you encountered on your visit. Hand-carved from an extremely rare wood, known locally as ‘tigerwood”, several sizes of jewelry boxes are available; the most sought after boxes are those adorned with the giant river otter and sun parakeet forms.
The village is also seeped in folklore and a visit would not be complete without campfire stories about Karasabai and the mythical personality of Makonaima. The story of Karasabai is that its name is derived from the Macushi phrase “Kala sa pai”. “Kala sa” means treasure chest and “pai” refers to the deepest part of a body of water such as in a river, lake or creek.
Travelling overland? Karasabai is the first stop for the annual North Pakaraima Mountain Safari which is held in Easter. Also, in September, it is the site of the many cultural celebrations held during Indigenous Heritage Month.
To visit Karasabai, it’s recommended that you arrange a tour through one of the guides or tour operators licensed by the Guyana Tourism Authority.
(Article and Photos contributed by Mrs. Annette Arjoon-Martins)