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Tour of Guyana Reveals Harpy Eagles, Endless Rainforest, and Authentic Indigenous Cultures

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GEORGETOWN, GUYANA – The group had already been huddled 80 feet beneath a Harpy Eagle’s nest for more than an hour when it started to pour down rain. It was well past lunchtime, but when asked if they wanted to leave, the keen birdwatchers responded, “We’re not ready to dip on the Harpy.” ‘To dip’ is birding verbiage used when one misses the chance to see a rare bird. The nest appeared empty, but the more the guide Gary talked about seeing the adult female and juvenile Harpies at the nest two days ago, the more the group wanted to wait.

So everyone stood at the base of the tree for two hours – half of it in pouring rain – staring at an impressive (albeit empty) nest, because the Harpy Eagle is a rare ‘mega-find’ that everyone wanted to see.

For 11 days in March, this group of birdwatching tour operators, journalists, and photographers from North America and the UK poked around Guyana’s rainforests and savannahs in search of birds, mammals, and local culture on a tourism product familiarization (fam) trip organized by the Guyana Sustainable Tourism Initiative (GSTI), a joint project of the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) and the United States Agency for International Development / Guyana Trade and Investment Support (USAID/GTIS) project.

Reflecting on the journey, owner and founder of Nature Travel Specialists, Andrew Haffenden said, “I felt that all the places and guides are making an exceptional and personal effort to preserve and promote Guyana’s nature and people, which forms a very solid base. I’m sure the others [on the fam] agree that few places we visit have the same effect in this way as Guyana, and it’s quite refreshing and encouraging. In turn, it makes others, such as our group, want to assist all they can.”

The fam trips have been a key part of the GSTI strategy to market and promote Guyana on the international stage. There are many beneficial results to providing a first-hand experience of Guyana to tour operators and media, including increased international recognition and a growing number of visitor arrivals. As Mr. Haffenden noted, it also allows local tourism suppliers to receive constructive feedback from experts who sell and promote trips around the world.

The participants on this fam provided many excellent recommendations that will help improve Guyana’s tourism products for additional markets beyond birding, including community-based, general nature, conservation-based, research-based, adventure, and educational tourism. The GSTI will be working with Guyana’s tourism suppliers to increase and improve guide training, product development, transportation logistics, and ecotourism standards.

With no Harpy Eagles in sight on the group’s first attempt, they finally agreed to leave the forest after hearing of a different active nest near Rewa village, another stop on the itinerary that included Georgetown, Iwokrama River Lodge, Atta Rainforest Lodge and Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, Surama Eco-Lodge, Rock View Lodge, Karanambu Ranch, Lethem and Kaieteur Falls.

The birding was fantastic throughout – by the end of the trip the group had identified nearly 360 different species of birds (including the Harpy Eagle near Rewa). General Manager of Andean Birding, Charlie Vogt has birded extensively in South America but still managed to add 65 new species (or ‘lifers’ in birding lingo) to his list – a “significant” achievement. Mr. Vogt said he “was blown away with the vast pristine rainforests [in Guyana],” adding that he “can’t wait to sell this tour and have another chance to return to this magical place.”

Due credit for the magic goes to the appearance of the day-glow orange Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock at Kaieteur Falls and Iwokrama, and the bizarre mooing and Draculalike poses of the Capuchinbird. And magic or not, various Macaws, Toucans, Woodpeckers, and Hawks lit up the group’s ‘bins’ (because ‘binoculars’ is too long) so often the birders began calling them ‘Trash Birds’ (‘TBs’ for short), or locally common birds. It sounds bad, but the birding experts said having Macaws and Toucans as trash birds is a good thing.

Every now and then, the birders even managed to get excited over some non-feathered species like Kinkajou, Red-rumped Agouti, Tyra, Capybara, Giant River Otter, Black Caiman, and Red Howler, Spider, Capuchin, and Squirrel Monkeys. The Jaguar remained elusive but the guides did manage to find very fresh tracks – bins not even necessary. Cultural presentations at Rewa and Surama villages also made a big impact on the group.

When asked to list Guyana’s strengths in tourism, Pelin Karaca of Holbrook Travel said, “Birds, pristine rainforest, and community tourism potential.” About the community-run ecolodges at Rewa, Ms. Karaca said, “Rewa is a gem. This place is a diamond in the rough.”

Dr. Steve Banner, director of Wildlife & Wilderness, was also touched by Guyana. During the trip, Dr. Banner wrote a post on his blog: “There are such good numbers of key indicator species such as Red-throated Caracaras and many Toucans…So will we sell Guyana holidays in the near future? Most definitely yes, but it is a country for the more adventurous and keen naturalists or bird watcher. For the latter, it is terrific.”

For Tim Appleton, the originator and co-founder of British Birdwatching Fair, this trip marked his return to Guyana after being on a GSTI fam trip in 2007. Mr. Appleton said “the trip was an outstanding success and I predict it will result in lots of interest from media and tour companies alike.” As for progress in Guyana’s industry, Mr. Appleton said it has come on in “leaps and bounds” in the areas of guide training, birding knowledge, and some lodge improvements

Multi-faceted Karen Strauss – her titles include journalist, photographer, editor, coordinator of the San Diego Bird Festival, and trip leader for Avian Adventures – listed Guyana’s selling points as, “birds, nature, river travel, pristine rainforest, and interaction with Amerindians and other cultures.” Ms. Strauss is creating a birdwatching trip to Guyana through the San Diego Audubon Society and will be using her photos and videos to promote Guyana.

Freelance travel writer and photographer, Eric Lindberg found Guyana to be a “wild and pristine country where you can experience a landscape mostly untouched by humans. Being relatively undiscovered makes this an attractive place for travelers wanting a unique experience.” Of the stories he plans to write, Mr. Lindberg says “Sustainable tourism is a significant angle in the Guyana  story…this is what will set Guyana apart from other South American countries with rainforests.”

Bill Thompson, III, Editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest (which will feature Guyana in a full-length article in their July/August 2010 issue), enjoyed Guyana’s intact rainforest, the plethora of birds, and endless photo opportunities. As a writer and speaker, Mr. Thompson is good at offering concise counsel, and for Guyana he says, “Keep the rainforest and all that lives in it. Fight against anything that will ruin this special quality of Guyana.”

The GSTI familiarization tours would not be possible if local tourism suppliers were not pledging their full support. For this program, GTA-USAID/GTIS is grateful for the generous contributions from Wilderness Explorers, Cara Lodge, Guyana Pegasus, Surama Eco-Lodge, Iwokrama International Centre, Atta Rainforest Lodge, Rock View Lodge, Karanambu Ranch, Community and Tourism Services (CATS), Rewa village, Savannah Inn, Guyana Feather Friends, and Adventure Rupununi.

Contributing members are responsible for the accuracy of content contributed to the Member News section of AdventureTravelNews.

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