From baby-cradle water lilies to stretch-limo river otters, South America’s only English-speaking country surprises. But can it push further – protecting its tropical rainforest and indigenous culture – with a clever carbon-offsetting plan? I explored all this in travelgirl magazine's summer 2011 issue...
Text & Photos by Amanda Castleman
Nostrils flaring, the Giant River Otter surges towards my dinghy. Teenager Belle hasn’t reached her species’ six-foot span yet. But she and her companion Philip can still bite the heads off live piranhas. And rumor has it they chewed up a horse whisper pretty good last week. Those red-rimmed eyes – scarlet as a macaw’s wings – make me regret declining trip insurance.
I traveled to Guyana – a lime-wedge-shaped South American country squeezed between Suriname, Brazil, Venezuela and the Atlantic – expressly to see these creatures. In my mind, they resembled the sea otters of my Pacific Northwest home: all jolly grapefruit cheeks and puffy two-ply fur. But here on the coffee-colored Rupununi River, all I can think is, "man, that’s one massive water weasel. I hope she doesn’t like white meat, because after an especially overcast Seattle winter, that’s all I am.”
Beside heavyweight otters, Guyana also has manatees, jaguars, giant anteaters, pink dolphins, the world’s largest alligator (black caiman) and its most heavyweight rodent (the hairy, 140lb capybara). Eight types of primates live there, including Gumby-limbed spider monkeys. Smithsonian experts continue to count bird species, whose number has already flown past 800, including man-sized Jabiru storks. Among its tropical plants, the national flower – the Victoria amazonica water lily – blooms up to 10 feet in diameter and has pads big and burly enough to support an infant.
That’s all eye-strainingly awesome. But zoom to panorama for the bigger picture: the fact that 80% of Guyana remains wild – the globe’s largest swathe of intact Amazonian rainforest. And the 45-year-old country plans to keep it that way.