An ancient penal colony, Saint-Laurent du Maroni has the character of a town built by and for criminals. St Laurent borders the Maroney River in western French Guiana, and 70 years after the colony closed, the remains of the camp are not hard to find.
If you’ve read Papillon’s book, you’ll want to see for yourself what the author went through. The wide, muddy Maroney River forms a natural border with Suriname and promises endless ecotourism: you can travel through native jungles, visit Amerindian tribes, and discover exotic wildlife that most of us only see in movies.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Saint Laurent du Maroni:
1. Traffic Camp
Life in the French exiles of the 1930s and 1940s is revealed to the world in Papillon, the autobiography of former prisoner Henri Charlier.
Whether you’ve read the book or not, you should take a guided tour of the facility where new prisoners arrive for processing.
Most of the old prison buildings are in good shape and, if creepy, give a good idea of what the prisoners are like: you’ll see individual cells and learn about torture methods.
Charrière’s cell was also preserved before being sent to the Alcatraz colony.
Among the prisoners’ other graffiti, the word “Papillon” was etched.
2. Little Paris
When you arrive in Saint-Laurent du Maroni, go to the tourist office and ask for a flyer with an itinerary for the city centre.
Affectionately known as Little Paris, these streets came together with the expansion of the POW camp in 1887. The atmosphere at this time was even more grand as more officials and bureaucrats came to the town of Saint Laurent du Maroni.
Information boards in French and English tell about the Governor’s Residence (now the county’s seat), the Maritime Court, the Town Hall and the Old Bank, the Church of Saint Laurent and the Joffre Barracks (now the gendarmerie headquarters).
3. Center d’Interprétation de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine
The former kitchen and canteen of the transport camp has been turned into an exhibition space.
The daily lives of the 70,000 criminals who passed through these gates between 1852 and 1938 are shown here. There are sketches, photographs and artifacts here that recall the crossing of the Atlantic from the port of Saint-Martin-de-Rey in western France to Saint-Laurent du Maroni.
Then there is an exhibit in the old dormitory that shows when and how the town was built, and some of the challenges it may face in the future.
4. Camp de la Régation
About 15 kilometers along the Maroney River is another former prison camp, open for tours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
In criminal law, “de-escalation” means that repeat offenders have little hope of freedom before being sent to Guyana: after years of hard labor, they were sent to the colony and are now in the village of Saint-Jean.
Here, some 18,000 people were given additional rights, such as being able to enter into work contracts, provided they never attempted to leave the colony.
The buildings were repurposed to house immigrants from Eastern Europe after the war, and more recently as barracks.
In front of the camp is a contemporary sculpture by Bertrand Piéchaud in memory of the prisoners.
Place Flore Lithaw has a market every Wednesday and Saturday from 07:00 to 14:00. If you want to get a taste of Saint-Laurent, there is no better place than this.
You’ll spend their day with local residents, capturing snippets of conversations in Guyana Creole and phone calls from friendly stall owners. Then there’s the tantalizing spectacle of tropical fruits and vegetables, like tapioca, banana, papaya, mango, yam and rambutan, some of which you’ll know and others exotic you might need to ask about.
The restaurants in the market are cooking up the aroma of local Chinese food, Bushinengué (Creole), Hmong (South Asian) cuisine, which complements the smell of the market.
6. The banks of the Maroney River
Just steps from the river, Saint-Laurent’s tourist office is a great place to stop for a picnic or gaze at the wide, dark-green Maroney River under swaying palm trees.
Cool breezes blow by the water, and there is a kiosk selling fresh tropical juices, ice cream or crepes.
As you wander, you will notice something that looks like an island at first, but is actually a shipwreck covered in tropical vegetation.
This is the Edith Cavell, a British merchant ship that ran aground in 1925 and was left here after a failed tow.
7. Île aux Lépreux
Adventure opportunities abound in Laurent-du-Maroni, but you don’t have to go on a grueling expedition to escape civilization.
The island of Île aux Lépreux is uninhabited because, as the name suggests, it was a quarantine zone in the past.
Those times are long gone, and now it’s a semi-wilderness space for quiet walks.
There are typical Amazonian huts in the forest, called carbets; these are shelters without walls, designed to help keep people cool at night.
On this island they are equipped with benches where you can stop for a drink or have a picnic.
8. Saint Jean Forest
Another field excursion close to Saint-Laurent is a jungle trek to a prison camp in Saint-Jean that has been recaptured by the forest.
This camp was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is connected to Saint Laurent by rail.
But some 70 years after it closed, you may need an experienced guide to point out evidence of this missing compound.
Whether you’re walking or mountain biking, much of the trail’s fun comes from the tropical flora, as you pass through palm fronds or step over the buttress roots of giant hardwood trees.
9. La Charbonnière
This season at Saint-Laurent has a kind of updated history.
This community was established in the mid-1980s to house members of the Maroons (descendants of runaway slaves). They fled Suriname’s civil war, which lasted until 1992. La Charbonnière is by the river, where locals paddle canoes on the banks, unloading fresh fruit for shops and markets.
It’s still a low-key part of Saint-Laurent, but the village residences are lovely chalet-style cottages clad in wooden shingles.
10. Rhumerie Saint-Maurice
Open to visitors in the morning, Rhumerie Saint-Maurice is the last remaining rum distillery in French Guiana.
About five years ago, the facility was modernized at a cost of 8 million euros and is equipped with the much-loved La Belle Cabresse, an award-winning white rum 50-55% by volume.
In the store you will find rum that has been aged for three or seven years, of course you can try it before buying.
The good thing about finding the source is that bottles bought at the distillery are much cheaper than those in other towns around Guyana like Cayenne or Kourou.
11. Maroney Canoe Tour
If you’re an extrovert looking for a pure adventure in the Amazon, you’re in luck in Saint Laurent.
Tropic-Cata and Cosma are two of the few operators that can take you to Maroni in a traditional canoe that can easily accommodate the whole family.
You can choose from a two-hour excursion to a two-day overnight expedition to Western French Guiana.
This will require jungle treks, outdoor cooking and trips to remote villages to meet native American Indians.
12. River Cruises
If trekking along the river seems sweaty, there are cruise lines on the pontoon next to the tourist office.
Offers the same type of experience: exploring the Maroney River, its creeks and tributaries, watching wildlife, and visiting American Indian villages hidden deep in the jungle.
But the upside is that you’ll be doing it on a modern yacht in the comfort of a comfortable living room and deck from where you can bring everything in.
13. Les Chutes Voltaire
Among the most beautiful waterfalls in French Guiana, Les Chutes Voltaire is located south of Saint-Laurent du Maroni.
It takes an expedition to get there, but you’ll find companies in town to take you on a 4×4. Even after a long jungle trail, it’s still a 90-minute walk.
But your perseverance has paid off handsomely with the exhilarating sight of the river descending 35 meters down a series of waterfalls.
Bathing is allowed, and the sloping rock of the lowest waterfall is smooth enough that you can use it as a slide into the pool below.
In French Guiana, the forest around the falls is full of wildlife, some of which require wide berths (caiman, python, tarantula!).
There is another country on the left bank of the Maroney that you can visit by ferry.
Albina is just a small town, but between February and August it is the stepping stone to the Galibi resort at the mouth of the Maroni.
It is an amazing place, protected as a nature reserve, with beautiful beaches, unspoiled forests and the largest Amerindian village in the Caribbean.
But what sets Galibi apart is that the beach is a nesting ground for several species of sea turtles.
The sight of sea turtles emerging from the ocean and zipping back and forth on the beach is something you won’t soon forget.
15. Guyana Food
Saint-Laurent’s cuisine is Creole cuisine, a fusion of Chinese and South Asian flavors.
“Smoked” chicken is a classic here, with richly marinated drumsticks grilled on an enclosed grill to soak up the smoky flavors of the sugar cane.
The same can be done with cod, which is also deep-fried into balls and served with a hot sauce.
The versatile cassava is grown in abundance around Saint-Laurent and is traditionally a staple food for the poorest. But now it’s often used as a healthier alternative to potatoes, or stuffed with chicken or fish and fried.
It can also be ground into flour for use in cakes, breads and cookies.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Saint Laurent du Maroni, France
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