As an old penal colony Saint-Laurent du Maroni has the distinction of being a town built by and for convicts. Saint-Laurent is next to the River Maroni in western French Guiana, and 70 years after the colony shut down the remnants of camps are not hard to find.
If you’ve read the book Papillon you’ll want to see firsthand what the author went through. The wide, muddy Maroni River forms a natural border with Suriname and promises endless ecotourism escapades: You can hack through primeval jungle, visit Amerindian tribes and spot exotic wildlife most of us have only seen in movies.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni:
1. Camp de la Transportation
Life in French penal colonies in the 30s and 40s was revealed to the world in Papillon, an autobiography by the former inmate Henri Charrière.
Whether or not you’ve read the book, you should take the guided tour of the facility where new prisoners arrived to be processed.
Most of the old prison buildings are in decent shape and give a good if grisly sense of what it must have been like for a prisoner: You’ll see the solitary cells and learn about torture methods.
Also preserved is Charrière’s holding cell before he was sent off to the Devil’s Island colony.
Here among other graffiti by prisoners the word “papillon” has been etched.
2. Petit Paris
When you get to Saint-Laurent du Maroni drop by the tourist office for a leaflet with an itinerary of the town centre.
Known affectionately as Petit Paris, these streets came together as the prison camp expanded after 1887. With more officials and bureaucrats coming to the town Saint-Laurent du Maroni took on a grander air at this time.
There are information boards in French and English telling the story of structures like the Governor’s Residence (now home to the sub–prefecture), the Maritime Court, the town hall and old bank, the Church of Saint-Laurent and the Joffre Barracks (now the headquarters of the Gendarmerie).
3. Centre d’Interprétation de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine
The former kitchen and mess hall at the Camp de Transportation have been turned into an exhibition space.
Here there are displays on the daily life of the 70,000 convicts who came through these doors between 1852 and 1938. There are sketches, photographs and artefacts recalling the voyage from the port at Saint-Martin-de-Ré in Western France across the Atlantic to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni.
Then in the old dormitories there’s an exhibition showing when and how the town was built, and some of the challenges it may face in the future.
4. Camp de la Rélégation
About 15 kilometres up the Maroni River is another former prison camp, opening for tours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
In penal terms “relegation” meant that people who had committed repeat offences before they were sent to Guiana had little hope of ever being free: After years of hard labour they were sent to this colony, now in the village of Saint-Jean.
Here some 18,000 people were granted extra rights like being able to contract for work, on the condition that they never attempted to leave the colony.
These buildings were reused to house immigrants from Eastern Europe after the war and more recently as a barracks.
There’s a contemporary sculpture in memory of the convicts by Bertrand Piéchaud in front of the camp.
At Place Flore Lithaw there’s a market every Wednesday and Saturday from 07:00 to 14:00. If you want to get a feel for Saint-Laurent there’s no place like it.
You’ll rub shoulders with residents going about their day, catching snippets of conversation Guianese Créole and the calls of friendly stallholders . And then there’s the enticing spectacle of tropical fruits and vegetables like cassava, bananas, papaya, mango, yam and rambutans, some of which you’ll know and other so exotic you may need to ask about.
Mingling with the scents of the market are the aromas of local Chinese, Bushinengué (Creole), Hmong (South Asian) cuisine being prepared at the market’s restaurants.
6. Banks of the Maroni River
Saint-Laurent’s tourist office is just a few steps to the riverside, which is a good spot to stop for a picnic or just contemplate the broad dark green Maroni River under swaying palms.
There’s a refreshing breeze by the water and a kiosk for fresh tropical fruit juice, ice creams or crêpes.
As you wander you’ll notice something that at first looks like an island, but is a actually a shipwreck overcome by tropical vegetation.
This is the Edith Cavell, a British Merchant Navy vessel that ran aground in 1925 and was left here after efforts to tow it failed.
7. Île aux Lépreux
Opportunities for adventure abound in Laurent-du-Maroni, but you don’t have to embark on gruelling expedition to escape civilisation.
The river island Île aux Lépreux is uninhabited because, as the name will tell you, it was a place of quarantine in days gone by.
That period is long gone, and now it’s a space of semi-wilderness for quiet walks.
There are typical Amazonian huts in the forest, known as carbets; these are shelters with no walls, designed to help people keep cool at night.
On this island they’ve been fitted with benches and you can pause for a drink or picnic.
8. Forêt de Saint-Jean
Another wild excursion close to Saint-Laurent is the jungle trek to a prison camp in Saint-Jean that has been retaken by the forest.
This camp was set up at the start of the 20th century and was connected to Saint-Laurent by rail.
But some 70 years after it shut down you might need an experienced guide to point out the evidence of this lost compound.
Whether you do it on foot or by mountain bike a lot of the joy of the trail comes from the tropical flora, as you push through palm fronds or hurdle the buttress roots of massive hardwood trees.
9. La Charbonnière
There’s history of a more recent kind in this quarter of Saint-Laurent.
This neighbourhood was built in the mid-80s to house members of the Maroon ethnic group (descendants of runaway slaves). They had fled the Surinamese Interior War, which rumbled on across the river until 1992. La Charbonnière is next to the river, with locals landing canoes on the banks and unloading fresh fruit for shops and the market.
It’s still a down-at-heel part of Saint-Laurent, but the village’s dwellings are cute chalet-style huts coated with wood shingle.
10. Rhumerie Saint-Maurice
Open to visitors in the mornings, the Rhumerie Saint-Maurice is the only rum distillery remaining in French Guiana.
The facility was modernised around five years ago at a cost of €8m and the much-loved La Belle Cabresse, an award-winning white rum with 50-55% vol.
In the shop you’ll find rum that has been aged three or seven years, and of course you can try before you buy.
A good thing about coming to the source is that bottles are much cheaper at the distillery than if you buy then in other towns around Guiana, like Cayenne or Kourou.
11. Maroni Canoe Trips
If you’re an outward bound type who wants an unadulterated adventure in Amazonia you’re in luck in Saint-Laurent.
Tropic-Cata and Cosma are two of a few operators that can take you out onto the Maroni in a traditional dugout canoe that can easily seat a whole family.
You can choose anything from a two-hour jaunt to a two-day overnight expedition into Western French Guiana.
This will entail jungle treks, cooking outdoors and journeying to remote villages to meet Indigenous Amerindians.
12. River Cruises
If slogging along the river seems like too much sweat there are cruise companies based at the pontoon next to the tourist office.
The same kinds of experiences are on offer: Exploring the Maroni, its creeks and tributaries, wildlife-spotting and visits to Amerindian villages hidden deep in the jungle.
But the advantage is that you’ll be doing it in the comfort of a modern yacht with comfy living quarters and a deck from which you can take it all in.
13. Les Chutes Voltaire
Among the most beautiful waterfalls in French Guiana, Les Chutes Voltaire are south of Saint-Laurent du Maroni.
It takes an expedition to get there, but you’ll find companies in the town to take you in a 4×4. Even after a long jungle track there’s still a 90-minute walk.
But your persistence is richly rewarded by the uplifting sight of the river descending 35 metres along a series of cascades.
Bathing is allowed, and the sloping rock on the lowermost falls is smooth enough that you can use it as a slide into the pool below.
As ever in French Guiana, the forest around the falls teems with wildlife, some of which needs a wide berth (caimans, anacondas, tarantulas!).
There’s another country on the left bank of the Maroni, which you can visit by ferry.
Albina is just a small town, but between February and August it’s a stepping stone to the resort of Galibi at the mouth of the Maroni.
This is stunning place, protected as a nature reserve, with gorgeous beaches, unspoiled forest and the largest Amerindian village in the Caribbean.
But what makes Galibi remarkable is that the beaches are a nesting site for several types of sea turtle.
The sight of turtles emerging from the ocean and shuffling up and down the beach is something you won’t soon forget.
15. Guianese Food
The cuisine in Saint-Laurent is Creole, soaking up Chinese and South Asian influences.
“Smoked” chicken is a classic here, with richly marinated chicken legs barbecued on a closed grill to absorb the flavour of the sugarcane smoke.
The same can be done with cod, which is also deep-fried in balls and presented with a spicy dip.
The versatile cassava is grown in huge quantities around Saint-Laurent and was traditionally a staple for the poorest . But now it’s often used as a healthier alternative to potatoes, or stuffed with chicken or fish and deep fried.
It can also be ground into a flour and used to make cakes, bread and cookies.