Suriname

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Only four hours from Miami, this little-visited, Dutch-flavored outpost on the northern coast of South America is friendly, clean, safe, exotic, and amazing affordable!

You might think that the Dutch got the short end of the stick when, in 1667, as part of the Peace of Breda, they traded away New Amsterdam (a.k.a. Manhattan) for an expanse of South American rain forest along the Caribbean coast known today as Suriname. If you're a real-estate tycoon or Wall Street whiz, you might be right. But if you prefer palm trees to pavement, parrots to pigeons, and blue skies to skyscrapers, it won't be hard for you to appreciate that the Dutch came away with a steal in Suriname, where great deals still abound, especially for those in search of a first-rate ecotourism experience at bargain-basement rates. Suriname today is a touch of southeast Asia on the northern coast of South America - and that handy description applies not simply to its prices but to a population made up mostly of Indian, Javanese, and Chinese immigrants. In its capital city of Paramaribo, $30 will buy a double room in a clean, comfortable, and centrally located guesthouse. In a residential neighborhood called Blauwgrond, $3 summons a vast Javanese-style feast (beef in coconut milk preceded by appetizers of fishballs, string beans, cabbage, soybeans, and spinach) served daily to all comers by families on the front patios of their homes.

Truly, this is one of the cheapest places on earth. And you can get here via an easy four-hour flight from Miami, from $570 round-trip. With the help of fares like this, Suriname's major attractions - pristine rain forests inhabited by spider monkeys, neon-vivid butterflies, and 680 species of birds - have at last begun to attract legions of cost-conscious Americans, who can make two-day visits into the bush for a total of only $125, including a park ranger and a cook who prepares three squares a day. Bottom line: a superb adventure-travel bargain amid a Dutch-flavored, English-speaking culture and a safe, friendly atmosphere. And you can drink the water!

Parbo perambulations

Before you make tracks for the rain forest or the coast, plan on at least three full days in Paramaribo (a.k.a. "Parbo," population: 250,000) to take in the sights, reconfirm departing flights, and eat at as many restaurants as humanly possible. It's a charming city with the look of a friendly small town and plenty of picturesque wooden Dutch colonial architecture and historic sites. At the central market along the Suriname River, Maroon women whose forefathers were runaway slaves carefully stack ripe tomatoes and oranges into small pyramid-shape displays; garbed in colorful West African-print sarongs, they chatter softly to each other in Sranantongo, the one language that every Surinamer speaks. Out on the bank, Javanese and Creole fishermen toss fish from their boats up to vendors who turn around and slap the fish down in crates lined with shaved ice.

All side trips (day and overnight alike) originate from Parbo, making it the ideal staging ground for excursions to the rest of the country. Shorter day trips from town might include visits to Brownsberg Nature Park; Jodensavanna, an area where Portuguese Jews established plantations 350 years ago; and Commewijne, a quiet neighborhood of abandoned rural estates. Once you've settled into Suriname's slow, tropical groove and picked up a few phrases in Sranantongo, you'll be ready for extended jaunts to Raleighvallen/Voltzberg in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, recently named a UNESCO Nature World Heritage Site, and Galibi Nature Reserve.

For touring, Parbo is small enough that you'll be able to walk almost anywhere without trouble. On the other hand, hitching a ride is pretty cheap, too: cabs $2 to $3 anywhere in town and buses a flat 10: per ride. Main sites include Fort Zeelandia, a ten-minute walk downstream from downtown, whose museum is well worth the $1.50 admission. The star-shaped stone fort was built in the mid-1600s to guard the entrance to the Suriname River, and also served as a prison.

The central market (Mon. to Sat., 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.) is located on Waterkant under what appears to be an enormous airplane hangar. Anything and everything that ever flew, grew, swam, slithered, or walked on four feet is available on the first floor, from freshwater crabs to bananas (19: a bunch) to plantain chips (77: for a big bag) to Javanese sweets called gulong gulong - a bright red cornstarch paste wrapped around a syrupy coconut filling (6: for a cigar-size helping). Any of the cambios across the street are a good place to change dollars for guilders; these exchange bureaus are safe, legal, and offer roughly the same rate as a bank with a lot less paperwork (pegged to the dollar, local currency recently fluctuated between Sf 2,600 and Sf 2,800 to US$1).

For non-edible purchases, Readytex at Maagdenstraat 44 is your one-stop curio shop. I recently brought home a dozen attractively handcrafted, hardwood kitchen spoons (58: each) and couldn't resist the stuffed, shellacked, and mounted piranha for $7.50. (I'm embarrassed to say I bought four of 'em.) For the slightly more sophisticated shopper, there's an art gallery on the second floor featuring the work of local artists, with canvases and carvings fetching anywhere from thirty to several hundred dollars.

Surinamese snoozes

At Paramaribo's quality hotels, complete with fitness rooms and swimming pools, double rooms can be had for $70 a night. And at smaller establishments and guesthouses, this prime exemplar of a "cheapest place on earth" will lodge you for even less than half that reasonable sum.

Lisa's Guest House (Burenstraat 6, tel. 476-927*) is one of the most popular places to stay here with the folks who invariably track down the best deals in any town: Peace Corps volunteers. Centrally located, it has 13 tidy rooms (seven of which are equipped with air-conditioners) at $20 per double. You'll find an oscillating fan in the other six rooms, and those will only set you back $16 per double. All of them share clean toilets, showers, the house phone, and a common room with big-screen TV and cable.

Another cheapie right downtown is called Albergo Alberga (Lim-A-Po Straat 13, tel. 474-286). This bright, airy guesthouse has six non-A/C rooms without phones on the third floor of a white clapboard house in the heart of the historic district. The doubles run $20 a night, the rest are singles renting for $15 each. Running the length of the building is a covered front balcony that overlooks one of the most charming streets in the city. All rooms share immaculate toilets and showers as well as a common room with a cable TV, and all are outfitted with sturdy fans.

Guesthouse Sabana (Kleine Waterstraat 7, tel. 424-158), on the north side of town, is under new management (usually a good sign) and charges $37 for A/C-equipped doubles with private baths; its ten rooms lack phones but are quite comfortable. Right next door at the Combi Inn guesthouse (tel. 426-001, fax 426-005, combi-inn@paramaribo.net), the nine rooms are clean and include bathroom, fridge, TV, and phone. Manager Arnold Fredrik says he likes to haggle over prices; I got him down to $42 for a double without too much difficulty. Both the Sabana and Combi Inns are on the second floor and have open front balconies overlooking the street and Suriname River beyond.

Further north but still within easy walking distance to the center of town is the Hotel ABC (Mahonielaan 55, tel. 422-950, fax /477-588), which rightly bills itself as "a small hotel with first-class rooms and top-of-the-line features." ABC has ten air-conditioned doubles for $40, each with private bath, TV, fridge, and telephone.

The best upscale bargain is the Eco Resort Inn (Cornelis Jongbawstraat 16, tel. 425-522, fax 425-510, info@ecores.com). While it seems a bit pricey ($75 double, $65 single, including service, tax, and a bountiful breakfast buffet), consider that in addition to 74 air-conditioned rooms with phone, fridge, cable TV, private balcony, and private bathroom with a generously hot shower, it also offers airport transfers (a taxi runs $25 each way for the hour-long journey), use of the pool and all other facilities at the luxury Hotel Torarica just down the street. My own room was so spotless, I'm convinced I was the first person to have stayed in it.

Parbo provisions

There are cheap eats aplenty around town, but the usual South American rice and beans - no way, Jose. Instead, expect Asian-style delights from the other side of the world: satay, fried rice, chow mein, and roti at prices that will astound you. This country's profusion of Indian, Javanese, and Chinese immigrants lends Surinamese cuisine a rich Asian flair, at prices on a par with Asian "cheapest places on earth" such as Indonesia and Thailand.

In the neighborhood of Blauwgrond - about a five-minute cab ride north of town-scores of Javanese families have turned their homes into restaurants, and low overhead means lower prices; you'll sit on their front patios while being served from the family kitchen. Pawiro's at Samson Greenstraat 114 has a great menu (although there are blocks and blocks of other similar homes from which to choose). Its nasi rames is the equivalent of a Javanese pupu platter and includes, among other things, a tasty deep-fried fish ball; sambel, shredded fried sweetened potatoes; goedanang, a zesty mixture of string beans, cabbage, soybeans, and spinach; and a choice of entree. I went with the spicy beef in coconut milk-a rich, sweet, slightly salty delicacy. The whole kit and caboodle: $3. An appetizer of bakabana (28[cents]) - fried plantain with hot peanut sauce-made the meal a cholesterol A-bomb, but to make up for it, I ate veggies (easy to do in Suriname) for the next two days.

The best Chinese food in town can be had at Chi Min on Cornelis Jongbawstraat 83 (tel. 412-155), where a heaping plate of noodles or fried rice topped with savory slices of chicken or beef runs just a buck and a half. If your room has a fridge, go ahead and get one order per person; you can keep the leftovers for the next day's lunch. Otherwise, one order for two hearty eaters is plenty. The wonton soup (67:) is as good as I've had anywhere in Asia. Restaurant Dumpling #1 on Nassylaan #12 (tel. 477-904) boasts similar lightweight prices and oversized portions.

For a filling snack, hit one of the numerous roti shops in town. Roti is a tortilla-sized Indian pancake wrapped around a combination of curried mashed potatoes, lentils, and often chicken or lamb. It's meant to be eaten without utensils, but be warned: The meat is still on the bone! Roopram's (Zwartenhovenbrugstraat 23 and Grote Hofstraat 4) and Joosje (Zwartenhovenbrugstraat 9) both offer versions with chicken for $1.15; word on the street is that Joosje uses less salt.

Venturing into the bush

The conservation foundation STINASU (Cornelis Jongbawstraat 14, tel. 427-102, 427-103, fax 421-850, fnps@sr.net, www.stinasu.sr) is an excellent traveler's resource, running inexpensive and exciting tours to the three main ecotourist destinations: Galibi Nature Reserve, Brownsberg Nature Park, and Raleighvallen/Voltzberg Nature Reserve. The bulk of STINASU's profits is funneled back into local conservation projects. Other reputable tour operators include METS (tel. 477-088, fax 422-332, www.metsre sorts.com) and Suriname Safari Tours (tel. 424-025, fax 455-768, eerstelingsst@yahoo.com).

Bear in mind that one of the keys to cheap travel in Suriname is a degree of flexibility and a willingness to share rides (especially in dugout canoes and chartered planes). While all of the tour operators listed in this article will do their best to consolidate trips, a good person to contact before leaving the U.S. is Sirano Zalman, founder of Access Suriname Travel (tel./fax 424-522, access-travel@cq-link.sr, www.surinametravel.com). A kind of clearinghouse for tours, his office is plastered with various travel agencies' schedules and is testimony to the fact that this guy's up on who's going where and when in this neck of the woods.

Rain forest rambles: Brownsberg and Raleighvallen National Parks

More than three-quarters of Suriname is rain forest, and until recently, almost all of the interior had been beyond the reach of the budget-conscious traveler pressed for time. More and more tour companies are building lodges and airstrips in the jungle, however, and there are some very reasonably priced, all-inclusive, $90-a-day packages into the heart of the 13-year-old Central Nature Reserve. Thus, expect to pay in the vicinity of $360 per person for a memorable four-day all-inclusive trip (like a safari) to Raleighvallen, a remote site deep in the interior.

Cheaper and much more accessible is STINASU's compound at Brownsberg-only two hours from the capital. It's a collection of six main lodges, an office with radio communication to Paramaribo, and a generator shed (the juice runs from sundown to sunup). Each lodge commands a stunning view of Lake Brokopondo Stuwmeer (a.k.a. Van Blommestein Meer) - created by damming the Suriname River. The accommodations consist of three or four bedrooms, a toilet and showers (cold water only), a common room, and a kitchen with sink, propane stove, and fridge. All-inclusive trips to Brownsberg are available starting at only $125 per person for two days, for which you'll be picked up at your hotel, driven to the park in an air-conditioned 4x4, and put up in one of the lodges. What's more, you'll be accompanied by a cook who'll prepare three tasty meals. A knowledgeable guide - usually a park ranger - is also included in the price, and he'll gladly lead you to any of several waterfalls within easy walking distance.

Determined to spend less? Much, much less? Essentially, the same Brownsberg experience can be had for far fewer guilders by simply catching the express bus from Parbo to the village of Brownsberg ($2.30). Arrange to have the folks from STINASU meet you in a Jeep, and for $3.85 round-trip, they'll haul you and your gear up the muddy, twisting jungle track to their compound. You can sling the sturdy hammock that they provide with sheets, a pillow, and a cocoon-like mosquito net for a scant $6. The hammock hut is a thatched-roof, open-air, traditional Amerindian dwelling, but given the higher altitude and the cool breezes off the lake, you're in for a comfortable night's rest.

You'll be on your own for meals, so a cooler (available for $13.50 at Fernandes on Klipstenenstraat in Parbo) is a must; blocks of ice are widely available for about a buck. Cooking facilities at the STINASU Brownsberg compound are simple but adequate. Like the bungalows, you can count on running cold water, a fridge, and a gas stove. After a day or two exploring Brownsberg, pay a visit to Tonka Island - a 90-acre hilltop-turned-island created by the rise of the Lake Brokopondo Stuwmeer. Run by Fritz van Troon in conjunction with the Amazon Conservation Team, the lush facility is covered in cashew, tamarind, palm, and Tonka trees (from which it derives its name) and offers guests traditional Amerindian lodgings in an utterly secluded setting. The lodges cost $60 a night but sleep up to 24 people. Ask beforehand about sharing expenses with other guests, and chances are you'll end up paying a mere fraction of the $60 fee. Hammocks, bedding, mosquito nets, fishing gear, and cooking facilities are all provided free of charge.

You'll want to pack in some of your own food, but don't bother bringing a main course for dinner; we recently hauled succulent, pie-plate-sized piranha out of the lake as if they were fish from a barrel; toekoenarie, a kind of bass, are harder to catch but have a far sweeter meat than piranha (which, interestingly enough, taste a lot like swordfish). Our guide cleaned our catch in return for one of our cold beers.

Ogling sea turtles: Galibi Nature Reserve

Suriname has some of the best beaches in the world - for sea turtles, that is. Human bathers might not find the deserted coast with its murky water all that inviting because of the tremendous amount of silt flushed into the sea by the massive Corantijn, Coppename, and Marowijne Rivers. The turtles, on the other hand-leatherbacks, ridleys, and greens alike - hit the beaches by the thousands from February to August to lay their eggs. STINASU runs all-inclusive, two-day turtle-watching packages to its lodge at the Galibi Nature Reserve. The $150 price tag includes transportation from Parbo by bus and motorized dugout canoe, comfortable accommodations, all meals, and a guide.

Knowing and Going

Suriname Airways (800/327-6864), and Air ALM (800/327-7230) have twice-weekly departures to Paramaribo from Miami via Curacao, with fares recently quoted at $570 plus $68 tax.

American Airlines (800/433-7300) also flies the Miami-Curacao leg, but its total fare can be as much as $225 higher.

U.S. citizens must obtain a visa to visit Suriname ($45 fee). Contact either its embassy (4301 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, tel. 202/244-7590, fax 202/244-5878, embsur@erols.com) or its consulate in Miami (7235 NW 19th St., Suite A, Miami, FL 33126, tel. 305/593-2163, fax 305/599-1034, surcgmia@bellsouth.net).

For a complete list of hotels, tour agencies in Paramaribo, and heaps of other useful information, check out the Suriname Tourism Foundation's Web site at www.parbo.com/tourism/info3.htm or the Suriname Information Desk at www.surinfo.org, where you can even print out a visa application. Reading list: Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice by Mark J. Plotkin and The Guide to Suriname by Roy Tjin and Els Schellekens (available in Paramaribo at Vaco on Domineestraat 26 or through sranansani@aol.com).

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