Harpy Eagle, one of the top things to do in regenerative tourism guyana

Interview with Luke, Friends of Wallacea Guyana Tour Guide and Manager

In preparation of our awesome tour to Guyana, we sat down with Luke, Friends of Wallacea’s local Guyana Tour Guide and Program Manager. 

Tell us a bit about your background!

I’m a naturalist and birdwatcher, and I also lead all types of tourist tours, including general wildlife, history, and culture. I live in Georgetown, but that’s not where I originally grew up. I grew up on the West Bank of Demerara, which is what you would call, sort of rural area or Guyana’s countryside, and I went to school over there. I was born in Georgetown, and now I’m back living in Georgetown again.

Could you tell us about Georgetown, Guyana?

Georgetown is our capital city, our most populated area, and Georgetown is rich in history. There are lots of historical buildings and sites, we have the tallest freestanding wooden building in the world here. It was also a trading post for the Dutch and for the British for a very long time. So Georgetown is rich in history, but also Georgetown is where you truly see the melting pot that Guyana is. Apart from the nine indigenous nations, our ethnic thread in Guyana is also made of five other ethnicities. That is why the motto of our country is “One people, one nation, one destiny.” Because we’re made of six different ethnicities, you have the indigenous, Europeans, Africans, Indians, Portuguese and you have Chinese. 

Our main economic activities are agricultural. Sugar cane, rice, fruits and vegetables: when you walk in Georgetown, especially if you visit the market, you’ll be inundated with the amount of fruits, veggies, and fresh fish. All of our fish come from right up the coast. You can actually go to the supermarket, and you see live fish on the table. 

Doing a tour around Georgetown is a learning experience on so many levels. I have had guests coming from places in all the Caribbean countries, and they were amazed by the amount of color and everything else that you can find in Georgetown.

Georgetown, capital of Guyana

With over 235 000 inhabitants, Georgetown is the most densely populated city in Guyana. 

How did you get interested in conservation in Guyana?

I got involved in conservation and tourism by accident. I was a firefighter at the time, and we were having a conversation one day in the break room about the way Guyana was developing, and I was lamenting the lack of opportunities for people to interact with the natural world, specifically in the field of birdwatching. I was there, sitting in the office that day, saying to my colleagues, “You know, it is a shame that even though we have so much pristine forest, that 80% of our population lives on 20% of the land, there isn’t an organization that promotes birdwatching in Guyana.” And my immediate superior said, “Who told you that there is no organization promoting birdwatching? I know one, it’s right opposite my home”. 

We got off at 8 AM the next morning, and I went to this man’s home… and true to his word, across the street was the office of the Guyana Amazon Tropical Birds Society. So I went, I knocked on the door and I met the president of the society, Gajendra Nauth Narine, and the rest is history. I joined the society, I did bird research at this society, and I even became the coordinator of this society. And I just kept going from there, and eventually I left the fire department.

What is your favorite Guyanese tradition?

As a matter of fact, most Guyanese grow up with an intimate interest in birds, because we, Guyanese, usually have birds as pets. Everybody grows up seeing, knowing about birds, catching birds… You notice most of the older men in the neighborhood would have little finches or seed-eaters in cages. Every Saturday and Sunday very early in the morning, all of them would get together at a specific location, and they would have a bird race. Basically, a bird race is a singing competition between seed-eaters. They put these birds in cages, one bird per cage, on a pole, and somebody judges the number of responses and there’s a winner. 

That is actually something that would be cool for people to see when they come to Guyana, a bird race in action. I was practically put off from it, because when I went to my mom to ask for money to buy my first bird cage, she said “How would you like for me to lock you in your room, feed you through a little hole in the door?” I was like, “I won’t like that.” She said, “Birds and men are alike.” And that put me off from the bird racing. But as a Guyanese tradition, I mean, there is nothing much you can do about it, and it’s cool to observe.

Why is Guyana such a special destination for birdwatchers? 

I think that Guyana is a great location for birdwatching because, first of all, we have quite a few Guiana Shield regions, we have a lot of them that are quite easily accessible. We also have highlighted birds that people would really like to see, like Harpy Eagles, Guianan Cock-of-the-rock. Many are pretty easy to see, especially if you visit certain locations. Research done by the Guyana Amazon Tropical Birds Society has officially recorded 877 species (with a further 33 added but not included as yet in the official checklist). Of the 877, 48 are Guiana Shield endemics, 27 are endemic to the tepuis, and 147 are migrants (26 austral and 121 boreal).

Now, most of the birdwatching is concentrated inland, but also the coast offers some really exclusive species. For example, we have birds like the Blood-colored Woodpecker, this is a Guiana Shield endemic. It’s only found between Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. We also have a lot of mangroves along the coast, so we see mangrove specialty species like Mangrove Rail, Mangrove Cuckoo, as well as birds like American Pygmy Kingfisher, Rufous Crab Hawk. Some of these are birds that are high on some people’s lists to see. So Guyana is an amazing place to come and see. We have a lot of pristine forests, so a 12 to 14-day birding trip in Guyana could easily give you 400 to 500 species.

Harpy Eagle, visible via Guyana Tour guide

The harpy eagle is the largest by weight and most powerful eagle in the world and is an iconic animal in Guyana.

Since you are a bird lover, are there any birds you particularly like? 

Our national bird, which is the Hoatzin and that is a vegetarian bird, has a stomach like a ruminant. It actually eats the food, and then regurgitates it to have a second stage of digestion. And that bird, you can go very easily on a half-day, day-trip in the morning from Georgetown and you see it because it lives only along freshwater rivers where there are swamps.

And our national bird is considered to be a far-off relative of Archaeopteryx. Because it lives over the water, the young are prone to predation from other birds of prey, like eagles, and their method of escaping is that they jump over-board, and they have claws on their shoulders that they use to claw their way back up to the nest, but only the young. It’s really a bird that you must see; it has a strange appearance. That’s our national bird.

Hoatzin, the national bird of Guyana

National bird of Guyana, the Hoatzin has a unique prehistoric look.

Why do you think Kaieteur Falls is a must-see in Guyana?

Kaieteur is the largest single-drop waterfall in the world, and when you fly into it, that is an experience you must have because it’s completely surrounded by forest. There is no one living there. When you fly to Kaieteur, you see high mountain ranges all around, and then it looks as if somebody just took a shovel and stuck it down right by Kaieteur and just scooped out a little drain going to the Essequibo river. That’s how wonderful it looks. It’s completely out of this world. It appears out of nowhere. You are flying over what I like to call “a broccoli carpet”, miles and miles and miles of unbroken rainforest. And then, suddenly, there is this little scooped out in the middle of it, with Kaieteur plunging over the edge. 

And when you go to Kaieteur, because of the elevation, if you’re into birds, there are some birds that you see there. You have Orange-Breasted Falcon, Cliff Flycatcher, Roraiman Antbird, Roraiman Antwren, Peacock Coquette, and then there are the Swifts that live actually behind the face of the waterfall. Kaieteur is really unique. 

If you stay overnight, it’s a completely different experience. Because that’s the time when you get to see the Swifts coming behind the falls. They come in the afternoon, you stand in the falls, and it’s like a jet passing, they look like rain. They’d actually be diving past your head, and you just see little black things, full speed. And then they go down in the gorge, and they go back up behind the waterfall. That is amazing.

And because of the elevation and also the terrain, Kaieteur is very rocky, the soil is very cool and there are plants that grow only there. So you have the Giant Tank Bromeliad, with the Beebee’s rocket frog that lives in it. You also have carnivorous plants that grow on the ground, and they give out a little sticky substance that catches flies and other insects and then the plant devours them. Kaieteur is an entire ecosystem, with its own special plants, insects, birds.

 Kaieteur Falls from above

The largest single-drop waterfall in the world, Kaieteur Falls, is home to a unique ecosystem.

What do you think makes Warapoka an incredible destination compared to places you’ve been to in Guyana?

As with most indigenous territories, there is some development, but they have also maintained a lot of the creative culture. So they make craft, they actually have someone in the village who is spearheading the continuation of the craft. They make ornamental crafts, they make dolls, they also make usable stuff like trails, mats, all kinds of things. They are really creative when it comes to art and craft. And also the Warau are very open and welcoming to people; they are really happy to have you in their village. 

Every single day we had somebody who was really into what they did. This was different from other locations. In other locations, when you go to the location, you’ll have one guide who will take you to everything. But in Warapoka, when we went fishing, we went with the fishing people. When we went to craft, we had a craft guide. So the person who was interacting with us was somebody who was really into what they did, and that made it very special. 

In a lot of areas that you go to in Guyana, while you get to interact with people, the difference with Warapoka is that you get to see their daily activities more. The distance between people’s houses is just a stone’s throw. I can throw a stone from the lodge to the neighbor’s house next door. So you’re completely surrounded by the local people. If there is a cultural event, the whole village comes out. The whole village! When we arrived, they did a cultural presentation. So, it is a village of people that are really keen to show people their way of life, and they take great joy and pride in doing it. When you go there, you feel like part of the community.

Warau traditional dance

The Warau community of Warapoka welcomes tourists with traditional dances. 

During your time in Warapoka, did you get to witness any particular local knowledge? 

Because of where we’re located in South America, coffee has been grown in Guyana for thousands of years. The Warau also offer a unique way of enjoying coffee. They had roasted coffee, and they served it with coconut milk instead of animal milk. And the whole process is done by hand, so they grate the coconut and squeeze it, and everything. You can actually participate in a part of the roasting… And it’s a really nice experience. Going to Warapoka feels almost like being on another planet.

green coconuts in guyana. your guyana tour guide can cut them down

Coconut milk is used by the Warau to make coffee. 

 

How do you think tourism is going to improve the life of the Warau community in Warapoka? 

I would say, it’s quite evident how modern life and interacting with indigenous way of life can be a good thing, because before now, they didn’t have the Internet and all of that, and now, because of these modern developments you can see that they really want to show what they have to the outside world. And they are working very hard at preserving it as well, because that is something that can easily be lost. Also, what is going to help them to be able to protect what they have more, is that when there is no employment in the village, people go off, especially young people, to where there is more economic opportunity. 

 

When young people leave, the older people have nobody to pass on the tradition and knowledge to. But now, because Warapoka is getting on board with tourism, all the people actually executing the product are relatively young in Warapoka. And that is really a good thing, because they have something to keep them in the village, and they are also finding a lot of joy, in not only learning what their ancestors did but also passing it on to visitors. I think it was great to see so many young people involved in the project and showing that great level of enthusiasm to keep it going. 

What sort of travelers do you think would enjoy going to Warapoka?

Anybody who wants to be in a natural environment that is as undisturbed as possible and who wants to enjoy pristine wilderness areas should go to Warapoka. Regardless of your interest, if you like birdwatching, nature in general, or if you like culture, and interacting with people; Warapoka is great for you. Warapoka doesn’t call for a great amount of fitness either, because most of the terrain, even if you go hiking, is pretty much flat. There’s a few very slow inclines and nothing much. 

River and rainforest Landscape in rural Guyana sunset. Let your guyana tour guide take you

One of the stunning landscapes you can expect to see in Guyana. 

Is there anything you think people traveling to Warapoka should know before going?

Just come with an open mind. Don’t expect five star luxury, don’t expect air conditioning, your accommodation is simple but comfortable. Food? Amazing! Guides and activities? Wonderful! But to really enjoy what Warapoka has to offer, come as if you’re coming on a school trip. Leave all your preconceived ideas behind, come to learn. And when you come with that mindset, you’re going to enjoy yourself. Because it’s a whole different kind of experience, it’s different from any other experience I’ve had in any other indigenous village or location across Guyana. It’s really unique.

Any other last words for travelers to Guyana?

Leave behind all your preconceptions, all the dangerous foreign travel advisories, put it all behind you! Put on your shoes, buy a trip and get here!

From the melting pot of Georgetown to the wild beauty of Kaieteur falls, stopping by the culturally rich village of Warapoka, do not wait any longer: book a trip with us to come and see everything with your own eyes with our awesome Guyana tour guides! 

 

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