Grab your most adventuresome girlfriend ( I'm thinking someone along the lines of Jessa from the hit show "Girls", who just got out of rehab so would probably jump at the chance to get out of town) and escape to exotic Suriname, the land of Tarzan and Jane. There's a good chance you won't bump into another American the whole time you're there. I discovered this during a recent visit after receiving an invitation by Sunny Land Tours to join a handful of American travel agents who were invited to explore Suriname so they could promote this undiscovered gem to their clients (since less than 1% of visitors are Americans)!
Here are my top eight reasons why you should visit:
1. Bragging rights
You definitely won’t hear a lot of chitchat about Suriname when you gather round the office water cooler. When I told people I was going, including some veteran travel writers, not a single person knew where it was. They all couldn’t wait for me to report back when I returned, so you’ll definitely be able to hang with the cool kids.
FYI: Suriname, the smallest, youngest, least populated country in South America, is bordered by Guyana to the west French Guiana to the east, Brazil to the south, and Atlantic coast to the north. Approximately 500,000 people live here with about half of them clustered around the capital city of Paramaribo.
2. Fascinating mash-up of people and culture
A brief history lesson to explain why: the Dutch began to settle here in 1602 followed by the English. The Dutch traded New York for Suriname to the English in the 1667. (Such a deal!) They used West African slaves to work their coffee, tobacco and sugarcane plantations. The plantation owners were notoriously cruel even for those times, so many slaves escaped deep into the rainforests, where they established an independent society, based on hunting and agriculture. Many of their descendents, known as Maroons, still live in these jungle villages although in the last few decades, they have become increasingly urbanized. After slavery was abolished the Dutch imported workers from Indonesia, China, and India generating the cultural chop suey that now characterizes Suriname.
The result is an interesting mixture of fusion foods, religions and architectural influences. For example, there are over 20 languages spoken here. The official language is Dutch, from back in the day when Suriname was a colony of the Netherlands but English is widely spoken in the capital, Paramaribo, as well as Sranang Tongo, an English-based creole language used by the younger population.
3. A laid-back, compact capital city that can be easily be explored on foot or bike
Paramaribo (about an hour’s drive from the airport) is also affectionately referred to as Para, Parbo or the “Wooden City” for its historic, Dutch Colonial, white clapboard buildings. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the last ten years. Highlights include the postcard pretty, flag-filled, Independence Square in front of the Presidential Palace and Fort Zeelandia, a star-shaped fortress built by the British in the 1650’s. There’s a small museum inside, worth a quick peek, even though none of the signs are in English. On Sunday morning the Square will be brimming with locals who bring their caged songbirds here to compete in a tweeters version of “The Voice”.
Tip: Sunny Land partners with Orange Tours, a local company that offers over 30 eclectic city/jungle tours ranging from half-day city tours by foot, bike or bus. Options include a sunset, pink dolphin-spotting river cruise, guided explorations of plantations, historic plantations and nature parks or more extensive trips deep inside the rainforest. Their experienced guides were exceedingly knowledgeable, friendly, professional and exceptionally proud of their country. Tip: Sunny Land uses Orange Travel for their tours and I was most impressed with their friendly professionalism and knowledge. Shout out to my favorite guide, Gio, who after learning I was a foodie went out of his way to make sure I got to sample plenty of exotic taste treats.
4. Fun shopping at the International markets
Para has some of the best ethnic markets in South America. The grandmother of them all is the waterfront Central Market, a cacophony of exotic sights and smells. The immaculately clean main floor is filled with Asian and Indian stalls selling a variety of local meats, seafood and produce. So-so clothing is upstairs. The not-to-be-missed part is the 'Witch's Market', where you’ll find piles of herbs, spices, shells and bones, which can be used to make up some serious voodoo concoctions. Our guide surreptitiously pointed out an herb named “kill somebody”. Note that many Maroons have stalls here and they are fiercely opposed to having their picture taken.
Other worthwhile markets scattered about the city are the Chinese Market, where you’ll find fresh produce and a variety of tasty dim sum, the Javanese Market for durian and perhaps some smoked stingray, and the colorful orchid market filled with native plants.
5. Unique religious monuments
I was blown away by the number of churches, temples, mosques and synagogues found in such a small city, yet everyone plays very nicely together.
The Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, built in the 1880’s, is the largest wooden structure in the Western Hemisphere. It was recently restored to its original magnificence.
Tip: Time your visit when services are held to hear Father Esteban Kross sing. He is renown for his voice and is rumored to become the next archbishop.
In the center of town you’ll find a magnificent wooden Synagogue, the Neveh Shalom, the only active Synagogue today in Paramaribo. One interesting characteristic of this synagogue is its sand floor, a reminder of all the years the Jews wandered the desert. Even more unique is that the synagogue sits right next to an Islamic Mosque and both co-exist in peaceful harmony.
Tip: Call ahead to arrange a tour with Stanley Beck. A native of Suriname he moved to Israel many decades ago. He and his son recently returned for two years in order to teach the remaining Jews Hebrew so they could read the torah.
6. Round-the-world restaurant choices
Para’s eclectic heritage is readily evident in the ethnic fusion food choices sprinkled around town. Whether you’re craving curry, Dutch pancakes, sushi, spicy chicken satay, peanut soup, tortellini, cassava stew, Baked Alaska, dim sum or vegetarian, you’ll find them all readily available. Dining establishments range from pricy Chinese restaurants that specialize in local shrimp dishes and elegant, date-night dining rooms offering European entrees (starting at $50) to Warungs, Javanese food stalls, serving bami goreng (fried noodles) and nasi goreng (fried rice) where you can fill up for a few dollars.
Tip: If you just can’t decide exactly what you’re in the mood for head to Spice Quest. Talented Chef/owner Patrick Woie, a local, who after graduating from the CIA in Hyde Park returned to open two restaurants, the casual Dumpling #1 dim sum house and his upscale Spice Quest. Popular menu items here include ceviche, Grilled Black Angus tenderloin, smoked duck breast with duck liver terrine which you can enjoy al fresco in the tropical garden or in the authentic Japanese Tatami Room, for around $100.
7. Get out of town and head to the jungle
The main reason that people come to Suriname is to explore the pristine rainforest which covers a whopping 90% of this country. For a real Tarzan/Jane experience you can spend days traveling deep into the undisturbed tropical Amazonian forest, uninhabited except for a few traditional Maroon or Indigenous villages.
But for a more civilized taste of the jungle, we jumped into one of Orange’s comfy mini-vans for the 90 minute drive to Bergendal Eco & Cultural River Resort, a lush, tropical haven located on the banks of the Suriname River.
A variety of individual lodges are scattered about the property, offering a choice of either rainforest or riverfront views. All are nicely appointed with tropical furnishings, air conditioning, comfy mosquito-netted beds, plenty of hot water in the showers and either a deck or balcony.
For the next few days we were able to be as active or slug-like as we wanted. Some of the options included a hike to a waterfall in Brownsberg Nature Park (the chattering monkeys, poisoness spotted frogs, exotic flora and fauna- many are used for medicinal purposes- were interesting although the waterfall was actually more a water trickle) canoe or kayak down the river, mountain biking, meander through the Heritage Village (an old slave town), visit a Maroon village and see how they live, zip line through the rainforest canopy, or simply laze around the nicely- landscaped infinity pool, doing nothing more than ordering tropical fruit drinks from the bar.
Although I’m usually a capital Type A, I loved my cozy river bungalow and spent many relaxing hours on my deck, reading a book or watching the boats drift by.
I’ve been on many zip-lines around the world so I wasn’t going to stir my stump for this until I heard some guests raving about it. Designed by a top team from Costa Rica, this was the best zipping I’ve ever done. I also joined a couple for a guided walk through a nearby Maroon village, complete with stores, a few “bars”, church, cemetery, medical post, a school, and agricultural plots.
Nightlife here was nill except for a lively performance one night by the Maroons, who entertained us with authentic singing and dancing. Their clapping hands took the place of instruments.
The buffet meals were adequate and plentiful although hardly inspired, however Chef Fredrik will soon be offering gourmet ala carte dining, featuring his fave cuisine, Italian food. In the meantime, you might want to stock up on cookies and snacks in Para.
Tip: Although the whole staff is anxious to please, if you have any issues or concerns talk to Sylvie. This dynamo runs the adventure center and also has become the official go-to person for Sunny Land tour guests.
8. Hassle free tour allows you to just pay, pack a bag and show up
Although I’m not usually a tour person, Sunny Land Tours, does a good job meeting a variety of needs. This affordable escape starts at under $1500 for eight days including air from Miami (about 5 hours including a stop over in Aruba) all transportation, 4 nights at Krasnapolsky hotel in Paramaribo, a city tour, 3 nights at the Bergendal Eco & Cultural River Resort (including activities), and about half of your meals. Other tours and activities are offered ala carte, which allows you to select only those which pique your interest.
Tip: Americans can buy their mandatory tourist card upon arrival at the Paramaribo airport for $25. Be sure to stop in the office for your card before you queue up in the customs line.