Saint Laurent du Maroni
If you're crossing into French Guiana from the Albina Suriname border, the first town you'll reach is Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni with a "Welcome to France" sign greeting you. This is a colonial city with beautiful French architecture lining the streets. The vibe will seem a little run down, but that adds to the character in my opinion. Start at St Lawrence Church and spend an hour walking the streets photographing the architecture. There's also Parisian style coffee shops, along with Brasserie Le Toucan if you're feeling hungry.
Next to the river ferry terminal, you'll see the iconic prisoner monument "Statue du Bagnard" and you'll also be able to pick up a boat if for a short ride along the Maroni River to observe shipwrecks and everyday life.
The Transportation Camp
Whilst in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni a visit to the Transportation Camp is a "must do". Opened in 1858, the facility was designed to receive convicts from France for forced labour, with many of them shipped onto the Devil's Island Penal Colony. You can do a guided tour, which offers a fascinating, but sombre insight into the past, including visits to the prison cells, medical facility, kitchen, and execution site. It's here that you'll also see Cell 47, which is where the legendary French writer Papillon was held captive. Regardless of your knowledge on the history here, the place gives chilling Auschwitz type vibes.
Typically, a visit to Kourou is only for the Space Centre, but the city itself has a few worthwhile stops. The waterfront area next to Les Roches Resort is a beautiful spot for a late afternoon walk. There's mangroves where you'll see plenty of birds and crabs, then there's the iconic Dreyfus Tower with local fishermen in the background. If you like to relax, Cocoteraie Beach is regarded as the best in the country. In the centre of the city there's some impressive art murals such as the Space Monkey. Be aware thatNotre Dame Church is nothing like its Paris counterpart, despite Google images.
Guiana Space Centre
The absolute highlight of the country is of course, the Guiana Space Centre. There's multiple rocket launches annually of both Ariane and Soyuz, which is the Soviet equivalent. The government offer free tours of the facility, which includes the HQ building, the communications centre, and the rocket launch sites of both Ariane and Soyuz. You're transported from site to site in coaches, with tours offered in both French and English from very knowledgable guides. Even if you don't have a deep interest in space, this was still fascinating. Once the tour is over, there's a gift shop, as well as additional sites within the vicinity that you can reach by car, such as the entrance roundabout, and a former rocket, which is now an art mural.
Note: Every tour varies, depending on areas of the facililty currently being used. There's no tours on launch days, so please plan your trip accordingly.
Royal Island Royal Island is 8 miles off the coast of Kourou and forms part of the Salvation Islands. It's the first you'll visit on any of the mainstream tourist passenger boats and will typically take around 2 hours to explore. The pathways and major sights are marked, so no guide is necessary. You'll see former barracks, a hospital, a lighthouse, the chapel, a sombre children's graveyard, and of course the prison cells. All are remains of what was once the reception area of a penal colony. You'll also see wildlife dotted along the trails, such as brown capuchin monkeys.
Note: If you're doing a multi-island stop, note that this is the only place serving food and drinks.
St Joseph's Island
The second island you'll visit is St Joseph's which is adjacent to Royal Island. You'll get a great view of the infamous Devil's Island from here, as well as a very rugged coastline to trek along. To the north of the island, you'll find St Joseph's Beach, which is a popular lunch spot for day trippers, directly followed by the prisoners cemetery. Just like Royal Island, head inland and you'll see plenty of former inmate cells. My advice is to take the full circle loop around the island until you arrive back at the ferry dock, then head inland to ensure you don't miss anything. From a wildlife perspective, green iguana and aguti roam around freely.
If you're leaving the country by air, then definitely make a stop in Cayenne en route to the airport. The capital is worth allocating a couple of hours to walk round and cover the main sights. Use the monument of Felix Eboue as a central landmark, as majority of sights are within walking distance from here. From an architectural perspective, pass by Cayenne Town Hall and the Alexander Franconia Museum, prior to heading up to Fort Cépérou. On the way back down, pass by the fountain monument of Leopold Heder and the Cayenne Cathedral. Consider having lunch here too, as the options inside Cayenne airport are very limited.
Note: En route to Cayenne from Kourou, you can take a short stop in Macouria.
I found accommodation in French Guiana was not the easiest to book. There's a real lack of options available on the usual booking sites. After various internet searching, we came across a place called Le Gros Bec in Kourou. You can book direct on their website albeit only 30 days in advance of your stay. These are self contained studio apartments in a gated building that offers parking. The rooms are comfortable, have air-conditioning, high-speed WiFi, and cooking facilities. From a location perspective, the Space Centre is within a 10 minute drive, so perfect for a short stay. The owner Muriel is a pleasure to deal with and can be reached directly on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I dined in a handful of different restaurants during my stay in French Guiana, and most were hit and miss to be honest, but Mundo Loco in Kourou stole the show! What a great spot on the waterfront with friendly staff, and a great menu consisting of fresh daily dishes. The ceviche, followed by the risotto and salmon was my choice and can fully vouch for it. Mid-range pricing at around 40 Euro a person for 3-courses (excluding alcohol). Worth noting that there's also good options for vegetarians.
During our stay in French Guiana, we didn't use a specific local guide, as car rental worked out much more convenient based on our itinerary, but here's some useful contacts: -
Penal Colony Islands Tour - We used a local company called Guyane Evasion to arrange the ferry tickets in advance. You can reach them on email@example.com Free Space Centre Tour - This tour must be booked in advance. Based on the "free entry" the tours fill up fast. The website has all the useful info. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org to book your date and time slot.
Sixt Car Rental - By far the best company to use, but worth noting their fleet is much smaller than in other countries, so book in advance. The Sixt rental depot is within walking distance of when you arrive into Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni via boat, and they also allow drop off at Cayenne Airport, which will be your likely end destination.