Hello, everyone. I am a U.S. citizen who recently returned from a self-organized trip to Suriname. There don't seem to be many detailed trip reports available in English, so I felt that I should post some of my experiences for other travelers planning to do the same.
Past travels have taken me to Africa, the Balkans, Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and neighboring Guyana. Despite this experience, Suriname presented several unexpected challenges that made a solo journey frustrating at times. Nonetheless, I enjoyed some of my all-time favorite travel experiences there, and would not discourage Anglophone visitors from discovering what it has to offer. Here I will include some warnings of possible difficulties, but also showcase the many excellent attributes of South America's smallest independent nation.
Getting to Suriname was a challenge in itself. Because I live very close to Toronto, I decided to drive there and catch a Caribbean Airlines flight to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, connecting after a LONG layover on a Surinam Airways flight into Paramaribo. Out of curiosity, I tried adjusting dates and times to see if this was standard procedure. If visitors are arriving from the United States or Canada, it seems that they cannot avoid the very long (usually about 15 hour) layover in Port of Spain. I was traveling on a tight budget, so could not afford overnight accommodation in Trinidad. This meant that I had to sit up all night watching my bags in the airport. This made me exhausted before even touching down in Paramaribo, which was somewhat problematic. Dutch visitors have the option of flying directly from Amsterdam, but if you live in North America, consider yourself warned: The journey to Suriname will be deceptively long!
The Surinam Airways flight arrived in Paramaribo late at night.
For some time, Suriname was known for having strict visa policies that frequently changed without warning. The most recent literature stated that American citizens could purchase a tourist card (25 USD) upon arrival at the airport. Upon exiting the plane, I reached the counter for tourist cards, which was deserted. I was one of only several foreigners arriving on the flight, and the others seemed to be either Caricom members or Dutch citizens who had arranged paperwork in advance. I waited patiently at the tourist card counter, periodically glancing down the immigration queue to make eye contact with a military police officer who could assist me. When someone finally arrived, he seemed rather agitated. I presented my passport, itinerary with proof of an onward plane ticket, and 25 USD. This is where my problems started. After receiving the payment, the man requested more. I asked him if there was an additional charge, to which he responded that there was. It was a large one at that: 50 euro.
I had encountered these kinds of requests, known in some countries as 'cadeau' or 'gift', on a semi-regular basis in parts of Africa. In Suriname, it caught me by surprise. The U.S. State Department website, guide books, and forum posts on multiple websites had never mentioned extortion schemes. I was faced with a major dilemma. I was only carrying Surinamese and American dollars, there was no ATM machine where I could obtain euro, and the uniformed official was fluent in English, meaning that I couldn't feign ignorance as I sometimes had in Cameroon or Egypt. "I don't have euro", I told him. "Then you aren't coming to Suriname", he said with a smile. I stood there stunned as the immigration queue cleared out. I was now standing alone in the airport, with no way to request help. I was also sleep deprived, and desperate for a bed.
About ten minutes later, the security official suggested that I "find someone to help." Almost on cue, a plain-clothed civilian appeared out of nowhere, and told me that he could give me euro for Surinamese dollars... but only at a terrible exchange rate. I had no choice but to lose a considerable amount of money. I quickly had my tourist card, and exited through customs. As I entered the arrival area of the airport, I saw the 'euro man' and security official having a good laugh. They were clearly friends who had coordinated the whole thing. Not a good introduction.
Because flights to and from Paramaribo are rather infrequent, taxi and shuttle drivers only seem to show up as needed. My long delay had given the other arriving passengers enough time to leave the airport, meaning that activity had ground to a standstill. All of the airport shops and restaurants were closed down for the night, the ticket counters were deserted, and the only noise came from some arcade games in a corner. I had no local telephone or number to call, and sat for a good hour or so in the arrival area before any other human beings appeared.
Finally, a professional driver for Garage D.A. Ashruf arrived. Very courteous and helpful, he arranged a shuttle to Paramaribo for myself and two local residents who appeared out of nowhere. The shuttle left right on time and dropped me off at Guesthouse Albergo Alberga in Paramaribo. The ride took about an hour, and I was charged exactly what we had agreed upon. Good!
Be warned that the streets in the old inner city of Paramaribo are very narrow and become extremely dark at night. Cars typically park on the sidewalks, making it difficult to see what may be up ahead. I was exhausted when I arrived at the guesthouse, but those wishing to walk around at night should bring a good flashlight.
Guesthouse Albergo Alberga was a good value. I chose a small room with a fan (air-conditioning is also available). A nice swimming pool and patio are located on-site, laundry services are available, and cold drinks are in the lobby for purchase. Breakfasts can be arranged in advance. The price of my room was higher than that quoted by a guidebook published just last year. This may have been due to natural rises in costs, or because, as one man stated on another part of my journey, "foreigners always pay more." Naturally, I fell asleep promptly and slept through the night.
The next morning, I found my way to the bus departure area in Paramaribo (ask around), and climbed aboard a bus to Lelydorp. The destination stickers on these buses can be difficult to spot, but they are located on the inside of the windshield near the top corner. For example, the sticker for Paramaribo to Lelydorp buses will read "P-L." The ride was smooth and didn't take long.
Arriving in Lelydorp, I set out for the local Butterfly Garden, which was a long yet enjoyable walk from the village center. I stopped several times to speak with local people, who were very friendly and helpful. The only tense moment came from a wandering water buffalo that began to rapidly approach as I walked by. Some visitors may prefer to arrange a taxi.
The butterfly gardens are beautifully manicured and well worth the price of admission. I found the entire staff to be very kind, informative, and accommodating. Tours are offered in both Dutch and English, and are fascinating. Visitors have the option of walking independently through a massive screened in butterfly exhibit lush with native plants and water fixtures, touring the breeding facilities to see a variety of dazzling pupae and hungry caterpillars, standing inside another area reserved solely for the iconic blue morpho butterfly, visiting a museum of mounted specimens with a one-of-a-kind mural exhibit upstairs, or learning about efforts to breed indigenous red-tailed boa constrictors for export to European and American markets. This last aspect was complicated. On one hand it discourages further collection of wild-caught specimens, putting less pressure on local ecosystems. On the other hand, the housing for the snakes (and their prey) left a lot to be desired, and some appeared to have skin infections or other illnesses. This was the only downside to an otherwise world-class facility, which also includes a lovely walking trail through a forested grove and a really neat gift shop featuring locally-made handicrafts and a variety of fun butterfly-themed merchandise. A day well spent!
After returning to Paramaribo from the buses that leave in front of the Lelydorp market, I decided to explore the Waterkant area, just a short walk from the guesthouse. There are some excellent waterfront restaurants in this district serving up some of the diverse and tasty dishes that Suriname does best. I highly recommend the bami: soft Javanese-style noodles stir fried with an assortment of crisp green vegetables, garnished with a warm peanut sauce, cool shredded cucumbers, fried crispy onions, and a good helping of sambal: the distinctive Indonesian hot sauce that really finishes off a superb dish. I also had a memorable helping of salt fish with flavorful West-African style rice and another variation of hot pepper sauce that makes these meals so delectable. The restaurant owners were all friendly and curious about what had brought me to Suriname. By day, the Waterkant was an excellent place to take in Paramaribo.
By night, however, the atmosphere changes quickly. The sun sets fast over Paramaribo, and, as in most cities, a different sort of crowd emerges. I have dealt with aggressive pan-handlers and troublemakers in many cities, but those who spend time along the Waterkant in Paramaribo were the most challenging that I had ever encountered. I tried every technique, from smiling kindly and making eye contact to walking by purposefully and ignoring their persistent requests. A small group of them became particularly aggressive, and began to follow me. I decided to request help from a passing Surinamese couple, and the three men (heavily intoxicated) were quickly fended off by the husband. The husband warned me that the Waterkant has become increasingly sketchy after dark, and that it was best to stay in after sunset. I understood this, but was disappointed after reading from so many sources that Paramaribo is famed for a unique nightlife scene along the river.
Very early the next morning (before sunrise), I took a boat taxi from Plattebrug (on the Waterkant) to Meerzorg, in hopes of walking some trails at Peperpot Nature Park. The early risers along the waterfront were very helpful in guiding me to the correct boat, which left right on time and barely charged anything. It was an exciting and refreshing experience to glide across the river in a korjaal packed with a diverse mix of passengers. The sunrises over the Suriname River are spectacular! Arriving in Meerzorg, I presented a map and tried as best as possible to explain where I hoped to go. The taxi driver took me to a police station to use an English-speaking officer as a translator, which I appreciated. It was a short ride to Peperpot.
The 2015 Anglophone guide to Suriname states that visitors may purchase a special pass and enter through the main gates as early as 6:30 AM, but this no longer appears to be the case. I was frustrated to wait almost two hours, but any frustration that I had felt quickly melted away upon meeting the staff. What a great team! A world-class visitor's center is currently under construction, detailing the fascinating story of how this former slave plantation made a gradual and inspiring transition into a lush nature park available to the entire community. The facility arranges school field trips, workshops, birthday parties, guided walks and special events for all types of visitors. We had an excellent talk about the roles and responsibilities of nature parks around the world. The forested Mopentibe trail takes visitors through a nice stretch of land with a surprisingly remote feel. I was thrilled to see squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, golden tegus, poison arrow frogs, a variety of colorful birds and butterflies, and the largest cicada that I had ever seen. I had hoped to see some snakes, but didn't spot any. The staff had some photographs on hand, however, and it was thrilling to see the vibrant Amazon tree boas and other species spotted on the trail just days prior to my visit. I loved the tasteful WWF-funded signage that encouraged respect and stewardship toward the diverse flora and fauna of the park. Littering appeared to be at a minimum, and the other guests whom I encountered on the trail all seemed to be enjoying themselves and respecting this outstanding local resource. Excellent!
When I returned to the river to catch a boat back to Paramaribo, only one boatman was waiting, and his korjaal was empty. I told him that I wouldn't mind waiting for it to fill up, but he insisted that he could take me back immediately. These boats typically only leave when full, so I was suspicious. I enlisted the help of a nearby taxi driver to translate for me and make sure that we were on the same page as far as cost. Something still seemed suspicious, but both men assured me that I would not be cheated. I boarded the boat. Like clockwork, as soon as we reached the middle of the river, the boatman requested a 'gift' of 20 USD, which I did not have. I was not happy, and explained that I couldn't give him this additional 'hidden' charge.' Angrily, he steered the boat around and ended up stranding me on a rocky shore next to a crowded and unfamiliar market. I had to ask around for directions and return to the guesthouse with a taxi. Along the way, two of the people whom I asked for directions requested 'gifts' in exchange for their help. Neither seemed satisfied with 5 SRD, and followed me relentlessly, requesting large sums of American money. This was proving to be a big problem.
Independent backpacking is a relatively new phenomenon in Suriname, and, because of the challenging geographic terrain, many places simply cannot be visited independently. I had signed up three weeks in advance to do a trip to Brownsberg Nature Park, but was aware that a minimum of three guests was needed to confirm departure. Unfortunately, I was still the only guest to have signed up by the time that the tour was scheduled to leave. This is another frustrating aspect of travel in Suriname for independent tourists. Most sites in the interior are only accessible as part of an organized group itinerary, leaving lone travelers with few options. Even if reservations are made weeks in advance, one cannot know for sure whether a trip is confirmed until the very last minute.
For myself, the only way of reaching the interior seemed to be visiting Bergendal Eco-Resort, about a 2-hour drive from Paramaribo. Buses leave on a regular basis several days per week from the Hotel Krasnapolsky in central Paramaribo. I had heard mixed things about the resort, and was aware that standard accommodation could be expensive, but learned that it is possible for campers to rent hammock huts and sleep on the beach next to the adventure center. This last-minute change in itinerary proved to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my trip!
I traveled to Bergendal with the staff, on an excellent air-conditioned bus that left right on time. Upon arrival, it didn't take long to see that this resort is truly world-class. All of the staff greeted me with smiles and kind words, quickly directing me to the adventure center via boat, and helping me to get settled in. Lots of exciting activities are offered here, including zip-lining and kayaking, and they looked like tons of fun. Due to my budget, however, I was content to enjoy exploring the beach and the nearby 'Tarzan Trail' through the forest. Capybara tracks in the sand, some quick glimpses of agouti, the sounds of howler monkeys and an abundance of cane toads (in their natural habitat!) all made for an outstanding wildlife experience. A nearby mango tree drops fresh fruit on a regular basis, and the ruins of an abandoned slave plantation make for a solemn yet inspiring contrast between past and present.
Hans (one of the zip-lining specialists), Astrid, and the entire team at the adventure center are a genuinely fun, friendly, and informative group of people who made me feel right at home. I spent only one night at Bergendal, but was already sad to leave the next morning. Several people from the nearby village also introduced themselves, making for some fascinating discussions.
One of the most fun activities came like a dream in the middle of the night. A group of Saramaka villagers showed up after dark to light a large bonfire, sing, dance, and make friends with guests. I had an excellent time talking with visitors from Paramaribo and participating in the festivities. Looking up at a clear sky filled with stars while the ancestral African voices carried across the water... this is what I came to Suriname for!
Sleeping in the hammock hut was a wonderful experience that I am sure to always remember. Traveling to the main resort for meals can be pricey, but the cheap cost of camping on the beach made it worth it. This is a relatively new venture that I am eager to support. Thank you to the entire staff for an excellent stay!
The return to Paramaribo was non-eventful. Upon returning, I needed to hurry straight to Leonsberg Pier for a boat tour with Waterproof Tours. Upon arrival, I was met by Biko: a fun, talented, well-educated guide with a great knowledge of the local estuarine ecosystem and the rare Guianan dolphins that call it home. Biko is not only a nature interpreter, but also a skilled musician with a strong dedication to preserving traditional arts. His tour was professional and accommodating, and I would highly recommend it. We spotted numerous dolphins from a close distance, yet adhered to all international dolphin spotting guidelines. The journey included a stop at a small Indo-Surinamese village, where we sampled local snacks and spotted an abundance of bizarre mudskipper fish crawling through velvety green canals.
When I returned to the guesthouse, I was immediately confronted by a very aggressive pan-handler waiting outside the door. I repeatedly tried to get the attention of a desk attendant to enter, but this was not working. The man became increasingly angry and insistent (reaching out and grabbing my arm), to the point at which I hailed a passing taxi (just in time) and asked to be taken back to the Hotel Krasnapolsky. I was reluctant to stretch my budget any further, but the area close to the Waterkant was indeed seeming more sketchy, and I had some concerns about the presence of security near the guesthouse.
The Hotel Krasnapolsky requests an unusually high security deposit on each room, which made me suspicious... but rest assured, this deposit was refunded after I checked out. The rooms were very clean, spacious, brightly lit and well kept, complete with hot water and free poolside breakfast. This was a nice way to wrap up my short stay in a country that appeared to have much more to offer.
The area immediately surrounding the Hotel Krasnapolsky is very nice and clean, lined with high-end shops and restaurants and teeming with well-dressed people. The cultural diversity of Suriname truly is one of its great strong points. It was refreshing to see so many families and friends of diverse origins literally walking hand in hand. Every color and creed seemed to be represented, and all were getting along. In this sense, Paramaribo can be a true inspiration for the entire world!
One aspect of the city that I found unfortunate was the abundance of trash thrown into the canals, piled in front yards, and laying along the river. Suriname has a lot going for it, and it is a shame to see so much littering in an otherwise beautiful country. I am unclear of the waste disposal program used in Paramaribo, but perhaps it could use some adjustment. It would be a shame to see the city become increasingly polluted over the years.
Some very nice souvenirs (including traditional handmade crafts) were available in this district.
I returned to the airport on time, and encountered no difficulties clearing security. Upon arriving in the departure lounge, however, a bizarre incident unfolded yet again. A uniformed official approached me with a small unmarked package wrapped in paper bags and asked if I could take it with me on the flight to Trinidad, because he "exceeded the carry on limit". When I refused, he became angry, and insisted that I transport it. Loudly, I exclaimed "I THINK I KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE IN THAT PACKAGE!" which was enough to make him quickly turn around and sail off into a corner. Frightening. I carefully checked all of my bags before boarding.
After another terribly long layover in Trinidad, I was back home.
I hope that this information will be helpful, and not entirely discouraging. I am still quite frustrated and confused about some of the things that happened to me in Suriname, but it is a nation with tremendous potential. I am still unclear about the complicated history of Surinamese/ U.S. relations, but welcome anyone informed on the subject to comment and explain why I may have experienced some of these difficulties. I am not seeking conflict, but simply wish to understand if my passport and nationality may have caused tension for some reason.
I would like to thank all of the wonderful Surinamese people whom I encountered, and wish them all well in their endeavors. I would also like to wish a safe and rewarding journey to any other North American travelers hoping to make the journey down to beautiful Suriname!