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Palawan Travel Report

Palawan Travel Report

Date of Visit: March 2017

Introduction

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Recently I flew to the Philippine island of Palawan to do some diving and snorkeling in the stunningly beautiful turquoise waters which surround the town of El Nido.

Getting There

Getting to Palawan is very easy, thanks to frequent air connections from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport by Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air and Philippines Air Asia. These airlines fly multiple times a day into the Puerto Princesa airport, which is located downtown in the provincial capital of the same name. At the time of my visit, a big, new, modern terminal was under construction.

One thing that surprised me about Palawan is just how long the island is – stretching 450 km between the islands of Mindoro (to the north) and Borneo (to the south). Reaching El Nido (250 km to the north) requires a 5 hour mini-bus transfer from Puerto Princesa. There are lots of private operators running buses along the route so competition is fierce, buses run often and a ticket will cost you no more than 600 peso’s (US$12).

Accommodation

Little El Nido is one busy tourist town. Rampant development has converted this (once quiet) fishing village into one big backpacker hostel with a few upmarket ‘flashpacker’ places in between. The streets of El Nido are packed with guest houses and I had no problem getting a room as a ‘walk in’.

If you wish to overnight in Puerto Princesa, you are spoilt for choice. I stayed at the newly opened, immaculately clean, well-run and very friendly Casa Belina – they’ll provide free airport transfers if you request it.

 

El Nido

Snorkeling

There are many operators in El Nido selling the same four island hopping/ snorkeling packages – package A, B, C & D. You can view the different packages here. Due to a lot of competition – prices are kept low, with a typical day out costing just P1,200 (US$24). Included in this are boat transfers around the islands of the national park, drinking water, lunch and snorkeling equipment.

Snorkeling trip at El Nido, Palawan

On our way to our first snorkeling spot for the day.

 

Helicopter Island, El Nido, Palawan

Approaching ‘Helicopter’ island, our first snorkeling stop for the day.

 

Snorkeling trip at El Nido, Palawan

Approaching another remote beach where we would break for lunch.

 

Palawan Travel Report: Snorkeling trip at El Nido, Palawan

Another stunning snorkeling spot.

 

Palawan Travel Report: Snorkeling trip at El Nido, Palawan

The sheer, limestone uprisings of the El Nido National park provide a dramatic backdrop to turquoise bays.

Diving 

If you wish to dive, you’ll find a good choice of dive shops along the main street adjacent to the beach. I chose to dive with Palawan Divers who offered three dives (including boat transfers, all equipment and a buffet lunch) for under US$100. We also had a professional underwater photographer join us for the day so I’ve been able to include some images from the dives below.

Palawan Travel Report: Diving at El Nido, Palawan

Descending into the turquoise waters of El Nido Bay on my first dive for the day.

 

Palawan Travel Report: Diving at El Nido, Palawan

Enjoying the diving.

The waters around El Nido are part of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area – the largest marine sanctuary in the Philippines. Divers & snorkelers are required to pay P200 (US$4) to enter the waters of the park but are rewarded with an abundance of marine life and a vast array of corals.   

Clown Fish at El Nido, Palawan

A beautiful Clown fish

A highlight of the day was swimming over a huge field of cabbage corals at South Miniloc. This coral garden was first discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the 1970’s. The fields are home to large schools of yellow snapper.

Yellow Snapper at South Miniloc

Yellow Snapper at South Miniloc

As a marine protected area, the reserve counts 447 species of coral, 5 species of marine turtles, 888 species of fish and 1700 species of crustaceans – in other words – it’s a diver’s dream!

Hawksbill turtle, Palawan

A magical rendezvous as I approach a Hawksbill turtle

About taste2travel.com

Other blogs from the region – Video: Diving Sipadan

Panama Travel Report

A decorative Panama Hat.

Panama Travel Report

Date of Visit: 14/07/2017 – 25/07/2017

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Panama flags

Panama flags

Introduction

I’ve just completed a twelve day trip to Panama, my 4th visit to this dynamic Central American destination. For years the government has focused on building bigger and better infrastructure and the good news for travelers is that (due to it’s efforts) accessing Panama has never been easier. The route network of Copa Airlines’ (the national carrier) continues to grow and today, the airline provides frequent connections to most major cities in the Americas (and to some European cities) from their hub at Tocumen airport in Panama City.

New Norman Forster-designed airport terminal, Tocumen Airport

New Norman Forster-designed airport terminal.

All of this increased aviation activity has resulted in Tocumen airport becoming the busiest in Central America – a true regional hub. It has also meant that the existing terminal is operating beyond capacity. To remedy this, a new Norman Forster designed terminal is currently being built. This is due to open later this year and will solidify Panama City’s regional ‘hub’ status.

Panama Travel Report: Old Town Panama City

Old town charm, Panama city

Sights – Panama City

Casco Antiguo - Panama City

Casco Antiguo – Panama City

Once on the ground, there are many attractions which make Panama appealing to tourists. Panama City offers a wealth of history and is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Antique Spanish religious art in the old town.

Antique Spanish religious art in the old town.

The city was founded by the Spanish in 1519, who were led by local Indians on the short crossing from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish then used the crossing to transport their treasures from their new world Pacific-coast colonies in Central and South America back to Spain via the Atlantic.

Casco Antiguo - Panama City.

Casco Antiguo – Panama City.

Today, the beautiful old town (Casco Antiguo) is my favourite place to spend time in the city. This UNESCO listed heritage site is slowly being renovated one building at a time, so with each return visit there’s always something new to explore.

Casco Antiguo, Panama City.

Casco Antiguo, Panama City.

The narrow cobbled streets (hopefully one day they’ll make them traffic-free) are lined with historic churches and lead into quiet, leafy squares. Everywhere there are bars, cafes, restaurants, shops and artist studios – a great place to meander, sight-see, relax and pick up a souvenir or two. In between the renovated properties are old abandoned properties (their stone facades propped up by support beams) which await renovation. It’s all very photogenic.

Awaiting renovation, Casco Antiguo - Panama City.

Awaiting renovation, Casco Antiguo – Panama City.

Outside of the old town is the new town – a modern, bustling city – complete with shopping malls, soaring high-rise office towers, traffic-clogged streets and fancy hotels.

Panama City skyline.

Panama City skyline.

The new town is made up of different districts, including the financial district. Construction cranes are a permanent feature on the Panama skyline as new buildings pop-up at a frenzied pace.

The F&F tower in the financial district has won architectural awards

The F&F tower in the financial district has won architectural awards

Sights – Outside Panama City

Miraflores Locks, Panama City

Miraflores Locks (now the old locks) – located a short drive from Panama City

Outside of the city, there are a plethora of travel options. Top of most visitors’ bucket list is a trip to the Panama Canal locks. There are three sets of locks between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The closest to the capital (Miraflores locks) can be visited on an easy half-day trip. Here you’ll get to watch ships pass through the old historic locks, while the newer, larger locks are out or sight in the distance and not open to the public. However, if you visit the Gatun Lake locks (Caribbean coast) you will be able to see the mega-sized ships passing through the new locks (opened in 2016).

The 'sliding' gates on the newly expanded Lake Gatun locks.

The ‘sliding’ gates on the newly expanded Lake Gatun locks.

 

MSC Antigua entering Lake Gatun locks.

MSC Antigua entering Lake Gatun locks.

 

The MSC Antigua can carry almost 9,000 containers.

The MSC Antigua can carry almost 9,000 containers.

 

Gatun Lock on the Panama Canal.

MSC Antigua inside the lock being lowered to the level of the Caribbean sea.

After the canal, you can spend your time relaxing on the Caribbean coast; sailing around the beautiful San Blas islands; exploring old Spanish coastal forts; diving/ snorkeling or heading to the other side of the country to spend time meandering along the Pacific coast.

Playa Blanca on the Caribbean island of Isla Grande.

Playa Blanca on the Caribbean island of Isla Grande.

Once you’ve had enough of sun, sand and beach you can venture into the central highlands, where you’ll find lush, green rainforests clinging to the sides of extinct volcanoes. It’s on the slopes of these volcanoes where you’ll find cafe fincas (coffee farms) growing the famous Geisha coffee bean (US$260/ kg), which Panama is famous for. A great base for exploring the highlands is the town of Boquete, which you can read more about in my blog – Bird Watching in Panama.

Hummingbird at Finca Lerida

Hummingbird at Finca Lerida

Eating Out

American Trade Hotel, Casco Antiguo - Panama City

Restaurant at the American Trade Hotel, Casco Antiguo – Panama City

My favourite place to explore dining options is the old town, where there’s always a new restaurant/ cafe opening somewhere. On this trip I returned to my favourite old town cafeSuper Gourmet – which is especially good for breakfast and lunch. It’s owned by a friendly and informative American (Blaine) and it’s one place where you can try a cup of the famous Geisha cafe. I especially recommend a slice of their lemon pie while you sip on of their amazing Panamanian coffees.

My favourite bar in the old town is the newly opened The Strangers Club. The bar is part of a group of hipster cocktail bars, known as the ‘Employee Only’ bars which span the globe from New York City to Macau, Singapore, London and Miami. The cocktails, food and service are all amazing. If you are looking for a special night out then this is the venue.

Accommodation

Old Town, Panama City

Old Town, Panama City

As for accommodation, Panama City offers the traveler two very different options – you can stay in a beautifully renovated guest house/ hotel in the old town or in a modern, high-rise hotel in the new town. Many of the new hotels are located along the bay front, where – thanks to a 5 km long footpath/ cycle way – you can join locals in the evening to exercise/ promenade. My pick of the modern bay front hotels is the Hard Rock Hotel, which combines 5-star accommodation with a themed experience (like staying at the Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of fame) and offers an amazing breakfast.

Shopping

Panama Hats on sale in Panama City,

Panama Hat shop in Panama City,

The old town offers wonderful shopping from upmarket boutiques, artist studio’s to cheap and cheery souvenir stalls. In the new town you’ll find the biggest and best shopping mall in Panama – the sprawling Albrook mall. This is popular with visitors from throughout the region who come here to shop in stores not available in their home countries (and at reasonably cheap prices). Also worth checking out is the Multicentro mall (in front of the Hard Rock Hotel) and the larger Multiplaza Pacific mall (more upscale with lots of branded shops), which is a short taxi ride from the Hard Rock.

Panama Hat advertisement in Panama old town.

Panama Hat advertisement in Panama old town.

About taste2travel.com

Other blogs from the region – Feature: Panama Bird Watching

Colombian Fruits

Feature: Fruits of Colombia: 'Flores' by Botero, Medellin, Colombia

Colombian Fruits

Date of Review: 26th of April 2016

Introduction

I’m temporarily residing in Cali, Colombia. Each day I go to my local market to buy some of the fresh fruit, which grows in abundance here. There is always a large variety of fruit, some of it truly exotic. I was curious to try all of these and thought sharing the tasting results in a blog would be a good idea.

Due to the topography of the country, Colombia is perfect for growing all types of produce, from tropical fruits on the hot, humid coastal plains to cooler climate fruits high up in the Andes mountain range to really exotic stuff in the hot and steamy Amazon basin. No matter what the required growing condition Colombia can provide it.

It was all very delicious and something I will repeat again elsewhere. Without further ado, here are the fruits in question.

 Yellow Dragon FruitYellow Dragon Fruit

English Name: Yellow Dragon Fruit

Spanish Name: Pitahaya Amarilla

Texture: Soft, leathery but firm skin/ soft and mushy fruit inside (like a kiwifruit)

Taste: Mild sweetness, slightly tart aroma, very much like a kiwifruit

Origin: The cactus this fruit grows on is native to Mexico. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage:

  • Used in fruits salads
  • Used in fruit juices with other fruits

 

NaranjillaNaranjilla

English Name: Naranjilla (translates from Spanish as ‘Small Orange’)

Spanish Name: Naranjilla (Ecuador & Panama)/ Lulo (Colombia)

Texture: Gritty skin, feels like sandpaper / soft, mushy, translucent pulp inside

Taste: Slightly tart citrus taste – like a lime

Origin: The plant this fruit grows on is native to northwestern South America (Colombia, Ecuador)

Local usage:

  • Used as a juice
  • Eaten with a sprinkle of salt
  • Is also great in a Pisco Sour

 

TamarilloBisected Tamarillo

English Name: Tamarillo or Tree tomato

Spanish Name: Tomate de árbol

Texture: Just like a regular tomato/ soft fruit inside which peels away easily from the skin.

Taste: Slightly acidic like a combination of passionfruit and tomato.

Origin: The tree this fruit grows on is native to the Andes region (Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile). The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage:

  • Blended with water and sugar to make a juice
  • Used to make jams, spreads etc.
  • Blended with chili peppers to make a hot sauce

 

Banana passionfruitBisected Banana passionfruit

English Name: Banana passionfruit

Spanish Name: Curuba

Texture: A member of the passionfruit family, the skin is soft, just like a banana. The fruit is orange in colour with black seeds and scoops out just like a passionfruit.

Taste: Tastes sweet

Origin: The vine this fruit grows on is native to the Andes region (Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile). The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage: Used in juice, normally with milk – like a smoothie

 

Yellow-skin watermelonBisected yellow-skin watermelon

English Name: Yellow-skin watermelon

Spanish Name: Sandia Amarilla

Texture: Same as a regular watermelon

Taste: Similar to a regular watermelon but slightly more subtle in flavour

Origin: Hybrid watermelon developed in Asia

Local usage: 

  • Eaten raw
  • Used in juices
  • Used in fruit salads

 

GuavaBisected Guava

English Name: Guava

Spanish Name: Goiaba

Texture: Soft smooth skin/ firm pink pulp with numerous hard seeds

Taste: A little sweet and a little tart

Origin: The tree this fruit grows on is native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage:

  • Eaten raw
  • Used in juices
  • Used in jams
  • Used in fruit salads

 

 

Star FruitBisected Star Fruit

English Name: Star Fruit

Spanish Name: Carambola

Texture: Thin, smooth, waxy skin/ crunchy, juicy, fruit.

Taste: Tart, sour, slightly acidic

Origin: The tree this fruit grows on is native to southeast Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage:

  • Used in fruits salad
  • Used in fruit juice
  • Eaten with a squeeze of lemon

 

GranadillaBisected Granadilla

English Name: Granadilla

Spanish Name: Granadilla

Texture: A member of the passionfruit family, the skin is hard and slippery/ fruit consists of black seeds surrounded by a gooey, transparent pulp (just like a passionfruit).

Taste: Soft, sweet taste

Origin: The vine this fruit grows on is native to the Andes region (Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia). The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage:

  • Eaten raw
  • Used in fruit salads

 

Custard AppleBisected Custard Apple

English Name: Cherimoya or Custard Apple

Spanish Name: Chirimoya

Texture: Hard outer flesh/ soft, creamy fruit with large black seeds

Taste: A mellow sweet taste/ like a cross between pineapple and banana

Origin: The shrub this fruit grows on is native to the Andes region (Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia). The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage:

  • Eaten raw
  • Used in juices
  • Used in ice-creams and yogurts

 

Cape GooseberryBisected Cape gooseberry

English Name: Cape gooseberry/ Goldenberry (USA)

Spanish Name: Uchuva

Texture: Feels like a cherry tomato/ soft, mushy fruit with small seeds inside

Taste: Has a sweet, mildly tart flavor

Origin: The plant this fruit grows on is native to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage:

  • Used in juices
  • Used in fruit salads
  • Used as a garnish for desserts in restaurants

 

Yellow passionfruitBisected Yellow passionfruit

English Name: Yellow passionfruit

Spanish Name: Maracuya amarilla

Texture: Same as a regular purple passionfruit (but much larger) with a hard, slippery skin / fruit consists of black seeds surrounded by a gooey, yellow pulp

Taste: As tart as a regular passionfruit

Origin: The vine this fruit grows on is native to the Amazon region of Brazil. The fruit is now cultivated worldwide.

Local usage: 

  • Used in juices
  • Used in ice-cream, yogurt and baking
  • Popular in a Pisco Sour for those for find the ‘Pisco’ taste to be too strong

 

Feature: Fruits of Colombia: Finally time to enjoy these fruits and other less exotic ones in a fresh fruit salad

Finally time to enjoy these fruits (and other less exotic ones) in a fresh fruit salad with some Greek yoghurt

 

About taste2travel.com

Other blogs from the region – Panama Bird Watching, Panama Travel Report

Panama Bird Watching

Panama Bird Watching

Date Visited: March 2016

Introduction

A break from the Caribbean Island blogs…

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful Panamanian town of Boquete.

Feature: Panama Bird Watching: Hummingbird at Finca Lerida

Hummingbird at Finca Lerida

Boquete lies 60km from the border with Costa Rica in the Panamanian highlands at an elevation of 1,200 metres. Because of this the town has a mild climate and has become a favoured retirement location for North Americans.

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The town is also popular with tourists due to the variety of activities on offer in the area. You can climb a volcano, raft, hike, swim in hot springs and so much more.

Boquete is a major coffee growing region so the cafes here sell exceptional coffee.

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Green-Violet eared hummingbird at Finca Lerida

The highlands around Boquete are lush and green due to the constantly changing weather, which sweeps in from the Caribbean sea, moving over the mountains onto the Pacific Ocean. The forests in the area are an excellent place for bird watching.

 

Finca Lerida

The Gambling bird at Finca Lerida

The Gambling bird at Finca Lerida

Located 5km up a steep hill behind Boquete, Finca Lerida (elevation: 1600m) was first established by a Norwegian engineer who had worked on the Panama Canal and was looking for a place with fresh, clean air to spend his retirement. He established the Finca with his wife in 1924.

The Gambling bird at Finca Lerida

The Gambling bird at Finca Lerida

Today the Finca is a luxury hotel with a restaurant and coffee shop. It’s surrounded by lush, well tended gardens, which attract a variety of birds.

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Female Scintillant hummingbird

The estate is primarily a coffee plantation and you can see the beans being processed next to the coffee shop. The Finca is famous for growing the “Geisha” bean. At US$260 per kilo, this is the most expensive coffee in the world.

The famous Geisha coffee

The famous Geisha coffee

On the slopes above the estate are 6km of walking trails, which will take you deep into the highland forests. Here you have a chance – but just a chance – of spotting the elusive Quetzal. I hired a guide (Eddy) and spent several hours with him in search of the Quetzal.

The elusive female Quetzal

The elusive female Quetzal

We got lucky! We found a male and female sitting almost side by side in two different trees. Eddy said he had never seen such a thing. They sat for 15mins while I photographed them.

The equally elusive male Quetzal

The equally elusive male Quetzal

Eddy was very excited, telling me I was very lucky to see such a site. When we returned to the Finca he told all the staff what we had seen. It was a good morning.

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The tiny female Scintillant hummingbird is about 5cm long

After the walk I spent some time in the garden of the Finca photographing hummingbirds and others. A female Scintillant hummingbird had built a nest on a coat rack outside one of the guest rooms and was sitting on two tiny eggs.

Female Scintillant hummingbird

Female Scintillant hummingbird

 

A coat rack serves as a nest for a tiny Scintillant hummingbird

A coat rack serves as a nesting site for a Scintillant hummingbird

 

Nesting female Scintillant hummingbird

Nesting female Scintillant hummingbird

 

Feature: Panama Bird Watching: Each Hummingbird egg is about 1.5cm in length

Each Hummingbird egg is about 1.5cm in length

Accommodation

If your budget allows, you can splurge and stay in the beautiful rooms at Finca Lerida. Otherwise there are more reasonably priced options down the hill in Boquete from hostels to hotels.

I stayed at hotel La Casa de Abuela, which I would recommend.

There are many hotels/ hostels in town so no need to book in advance, however if you wish to you can find accommodation on booking.com

Eating Out

There is an excellent restaurant onsite at the Finca and you should ensure you try the estate coffee, which is available from the coffee shop.

Being a popular tourist destination Boquete is full of restaurants, cafes and bars. I especially recommend the craft beers sold at the Boquete Brewing Company. They have a help-yourself popcorn machine, which keeps everyone happy.

Visa Requirements

Some nationalities require visas for Panama – check your visa requirements prior to arrival.

 

Getting There

By Air

International flights into Panama arrive at Tocumen International Airport. The airport is a major hub for the region, providing daily connections throughout the Americas and beyond.

By Road

You can access Panama from Costa Rica crossing the border either on the Caribbean coast from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola or inland on the Panamericana highway from Paso Canoa.

Either way you will need to transit through the city of David where frequent buses do the run up the mountain to Boquete.

 

Getting Around

Boquete is nice and compact, everything is within walking distance. Taxis and buses are available if required.

 

About taste2travel.com

Other blogs from the region – Panama Travel Report

Cayenne Carnival

Feature: Cayenne Carnival

Cayenne Carnival

Date of Visit: January 2015

Introduction

Carnival in French Guiana takes place each year between Epiphany in early January and Ash Wednesday in February or March. Every Sunday during this period, there is a parade on the streets of Cayenne, making this the longest running of any carnival in the Caribbean region.

Feature: Cayenne Carnival

Carnival à la Cayenne is a cultural tradition of the French Guianese Creole, its origin traced to carnival customs long practiced in Europe. It debuted during the beginning of colonization when settlers took part in carnival, forbidding the slaves from participating. Defying the ban, the slaves practiced carnival in clandestine ways, seeing it as a way to regain some freedom.

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The ornate handmade masks continue being/ are an integral part of Mardi Gras culture. To this day they symbolise the notion of freedom, of escaping class constraints and social demands. Wearing masks during the festivities lets us all become equal, individuals can mingle with the masses and ultimately everyone can be whoever they’d like, at least for a few weeks.

Feature: Cayenne Carnival

Feature: Cayenne Carnival

Feature: Cayenne Carnival

Feature: Cayenne Carnival

Accommodation

Hotels are in short supply in Cayenne (and elsewhere in the territory). It’s always best to book in advance using an online agent such as booking.com

I stayed downtown at Hotel Le Dronmi, which I would recommend. The hotel is conveniently located to everything of interest plus it’s on the parade route.

 

Eating Out

This is a former French colony – need I say more. Lots of good food available in this town.

A great place to chill out and people watch is the terrace at Les Palmistes. This is the quintessential bar/restaurant in Cayenne. Located across from the square of the same name.

 

Visa Requirements

Some nationalities require visas for French Guiana – check your requirements prior to arrival.

 

Getting There

By plane

French Guiana’s main international airport is Cayenne – Félix Eboué Airport, located south of the city centre. There are two flights a day to Paris served by Air France and Air Caraïbes. There are also services to Martinique, Guadeloupe, Paramaribo (Suriname) and Belém (Brazil).

There are no buses to the airport, so your alternatives are to rent a car or take a taxi (€35 to central Cayenne).

By road

From both neighboring countries (Brazil and Suriname), you will need to cross a river by ferry into French Guiana. The border crossings are easy and straight-forward.

From Brazil, you will arrive in Saint-Georges de l’Oyapock from where you can travel by bus to Cayenne. In 2011, a newly built bridge was completed (at a cost of $33 million) linking Brazil and French Guiana, but it is still yet to be opened.

From Suriname you will step off the ferry in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni from where you can take a bus to Iracoubo and transfer to another going to Cayenne.

 

Getting Around

Public transport is sporadic throughout the country. The best option is to hire a car. This is a French territory so roads are in excellent condition.

 

About taste2travel.com

Other blogs from the region – Suriname Travel GuideFrench Guiana Travel GuideGuyana Travel Guide