Weirdly kind of wonderful

John Gimlette is delighted and dumbfounded in equal measure by Suriname, but can't help falling in love.

IF I WERE to design the perfect city, it would be like Paramaribo. It would all be painted white and have a river running through it. There'd be plantations and fruit trees and little canals would ripple through the centre. There'd be no business district or overbearing banks and nothing would be taller than a church. At the heart of it all would be a little purple fortress, like a hatful of mansions. There'd be no trains or Tubes or public lavatories. By day, the presidential palace would glow like a wedding cake and then, by night, it would turn green and flare like a planet.

As for embassies, there'd be only nine, including a tiny bungalow for the entire US. But temples would spring up out of the foliage, along with stupas, pagodas and funeral ghats. There'd also be a mosque and a synagogue, huddled so close that they'd share a car park. Meanwhile, the police would be called the Korps Politie and would wear white gloves and ride around on bicycles. There'd also be an alligator in the city's pond, eating all the strays.

Oddly, this was once one of the greatest cities of the 18th century. In 1674, the British had swapped Suriname for New York and were lampooned for their folly. Under the Dutch, the colony grew fabulously rich on sugar and became a Georgian treasure. And that, broadly speaking, is what it remains today.

I spent my first day falling in love with Suriname and the rest of my time wondering quite why. It wasn't that I ever fell out of love; just that things stopped making sense.

Isolation, I now realise, explains a lot. About twice the size of Ireland, Suriname is stuck up on the north-east shoulder of South America. Forest covers 90 per cent of it and the trees run straight into the sea. There are no natural harbours, no railways and hardly any roads. Without a plane, it takes weeks to get inland. The jungle is slashed by thousands of rivers and new creatures are always tumbling out of the dark. To some, it's hell. To others, it's an ecological paradise.

But bewilderment soon set in. How, I wondered, had Suriname ended up with square coins? Or a banknote for 2½ dollars? And why were all the advertisements in English, a language only a few understood? The big poster at the time depicted a woman in a state of advanced ecstasy under the banner: "Did you already find spice?" I simply couldn't imagine what she wanted me to buy. Everything began well when I booked into a guest house in Paramaribo. It was a wooden building with an old slave house at the back. The other guests were mostly Surinamese and treated it like home. Some left their babies at reception. When I commented on this, I was told: "Everything's a bit crazy here. You should try the shopping."

I soon got the idea. The shops all looked normal at first, selling jeans and drums and crossbows. Then I saw that the largest shop sold only Christmas baubles and that some places opened only at lunchtime, or on Wednesdays, or for a few hours at dawn. Even when they were open, they were confusing; there was a Soviet-style queuing system and some items, such as cloth, were still measured out in Dutch feet or Rhenish els. More straightforward was the witches' market, where you could buy anything from a cure for husbands to a bundle of tampons grown in the forest.

In the middle of the city was a large grassy field, known a little grandly as Independence Square. This was the Paramaribo I loved. Around it were palm trees and mangos, the wedding-cake palace and a splendidly crooked old courthouse, which looked like the backdrop to a Rembrandt. I noticed it wasn't just me; everyone loved it here. Each afternoon, people would appear with kites and easels, or would dance in the grass.

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It was hard to think of a city that looked so readily happy.

But there was another presence in the city and that was the maroons.

These were the descendants of slaves who'd escaped into the forest. They looked different from everyone else, in their breeches and togas. Often they behaved as if they owned the city, which worried everyone else. In 1762, the maroons were so numerous they threatened the colony. Eventually, the Dutch were forced to grant them the interior and that's where they've been ever since. Now there are 50,000 maroons and - although the Dutch left in 1975 - an old standoff continues. No one visits the interior unless the maroons agree.

Despite this, I enjoyed my trips inland. The maroons had long ago re-formed into tribes and lived secretive lives. On my first outing, I flew 320 kilometres inland to visit the Saramaka tribe. Although, at Awarradam, they'd built a pretty lodge for visitors, they were reluctant hosts. Anthropologists say it's their ancestral dread of re-enslavement. Anyway, everything was hidden from view: canoes, paths and villages. Even their farms were tucked away, deep in the jungle. But it was also a beautiful world. Their houses were like little wooden cabinets, decorated with the art of Ashanti, circa 1730.

After that, I made several more trips inland. My last involved a canoe ride up the Marowijne River. There were 12 of us on board, including a cook, a guide and Jacobus, the boatman. Jacobus was a Paramaccaner maroon and barely acknowledged us. Being aloof and alone was, I suppose, the secret of the maroons' survival. Once, I asked him about the tooth around his neck. "Jaguar. I kill him," he said and then never spoke again.

Ahead, a fabulous landscape unravelled. Although the Marowijne was almost 1.6 kilometres wide, it was barely navigable. The water looked as if it had been ploughed and then thrown down the stairs. Sometimes we saw whole islands of vegetation hurtling past, like gardens on the move. Along the length of the river, there were 87 sets of rapids, each one a squall of gnashing and froth.

We stayed opposite a maroon island, at a camp named Loka Loka, in rooms like beach huts. By day, the entire landscape seemed to slide past, steaming and restless; at night, there was a constant rumble like some great migration of watery hooves. Each morning, Jacobus took us out on the river.

Once, we went swimming in the rapids, which was like plunging into a washing machine that's rinsing out old trees.

On our last day, we went into the jungle. Being Suriname, everything was slightly outlandish. Here were armoured trees, towering waterfalls and spiders as big as your hand. Some creatures were so surprised to see us they didn't move. Poison dart frogs just sat there, tempting us to touch. And this was only the beginning of a weird world. Beyond us lay 90 per cent of Suriname, barely explored.

Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge by John Gimlette is published by Profile.

Trip notes

Getting there

Via Europe, KLM Airlines flies to Paramaribo from Amsterdam. Via the US, American Airlines flies from Miami to Paramaribo. 1300 939 414, flightcentre.com.au.

Touring there

Contours Travel includes Suriname in its 13-day Best of the Three Guianas itinerary, from $5630, twin share. 1300135391, contourstravel.com.au.

Guyana-based Wilderness Explorers offers two-week, tailor-made trips to Suriname from about $7635 for two. +592 227 7698, wilderness-explorers.com.

Getting around

In Paramaribo, you can hire a bicycle for about $16 a day. However, beyond the city, there are few roads. On these, minibuses (or "wagis") are plentiful and cheap. A taxi from Paramaribo to the border with French Guiana can be arranged from about $83. All other transportation is by small plane. Visits to the maroons are best arranged through an operator.

Staying there

In the Saramaka's territory, a stay at the Awarradam Lodge costs about $738 for three nights, including flights. This trip can be arranged locally through the government agency METS. +597 477 088, surinamevacations.com.

A trip up the Marowijne river (to Paramaccaner territory) can also be arranged locally, through Blue Frog Travel. +597 420 808, bluefrogtravel.net.

Albergo Alberga is excellent, inexpensive and basic, with a small swimming pool; bike rental available. From $23 a night. +597 520 050, guesthousealbergoalberga.com.

Zus & Zo is a lively backpacker guest house; bike rental available. From $20 a night. +597 520 905, zusenzosuriname.com.

Hotel La Petite Maison offers old-world charm on the waterfront. From $75 a night. +597 475 466, hotellapetitemaison.com.

The Hotel Torarica is a large, modern hotel on the river, catering mostly to Dutch tourists. From $83 a night. +597 471 500, torarica.com.

Eating there

Among the most popular local dishes are oliebollen (oily bread), pom (yam), bami kip (chicken noodles) and pinda soep with tom tom (peanut soup with plantain). The main alcoholic drink is beer (Parbo), which is excellent. The rum is also good but wine is expensive. In the maroon areas, the lodges tend to provide Western food.

Jasmine Good serves reasonable Indian cuisine across from Hotel Torarica. 85B Kleine Dwarsstraat, +597 473 558.

The Sidewalk Cafe 't VAT is opposite the Torarica Hotel and is popular with Dutch tourists. Excellent bar food and beer.

De Waag is a more upmarket establishment on the Waterkant. Nearby, the food stalls along the river wall serve good local dishes, freshly cooked. +597 474 514.

More information

suriname-tourism.net.

Five other things to do

1. Don't miss Paramaribo's Fort Zeelandia, which was begun by the British in the 1650s. For a more recent star fort, visit New Amsterdam in the river mouth.

2. Nearby are the Commewijne plantations. In the 1700s, they were among the most prosperous agricultural lands in the world. Today, only a few of the hundreds of great mansions survive. Despite the ever-present reminders of slavery (only abolished here in 1870), it's a beautiful world of mangrove, forest and lush farmland.

3. Best known for its turtles, Galibi is an Amerindian village at the mouth of the Marowijne river. It's home to 750 Kalinja Amerindians. There's also a beautiful sandy beach and in the laying season (February-August) the sea turtles come here to nest.

4. The Brownsberg nature reserve, 130 kilometres from Paramaribo, can be reached either by tour bus or by plane. At a height of 500 metres, it's a fabulous introduction to the flora and fauna of the Guianas. From the Mazaroni Plateau, there's a remarkable view over a vast area of flooded forest, the Brokopondo Lake.

5. At the west of the country, bordering Guyana, Nieuw Nickerie was developed by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Today it's a Dutch-influenced colonial town, criss-crossed with canals, and the centre of the rice industry. Nearby is Bigi Pan, a nature area.

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