One thing to know about this little-known South American country: It is utterly lacking in Kool-Aid irony.
Ask random people here what "drinking the Kool-Aid" means, and they mostly just shrug. Cult leader Jim Jones, who in 1978 incited 900-plus followers to commit suicide by drinking the cyanide-laced beverage, may be the sole reference point many Americans have to this country. But that dark legacy — and the catchphrase it generated — barely resonates here.
"I'd never heard of the guy until a year ago," says Vito Edwards, 18, who is standing in the open-air dining area of his family's Rock View Lodge.
No doubt, tourism officials can't wait for more Americans to share Vito's oblivion.
Though tourism is relatively new to Guyana, it is gaining momentum, particularly in the Rupununi region in the south. Here, a network of small-scale, low-impact eco-lodges, like Rock View, are gradually revamping the nation's image from that of crazy-cult haven to that of unspoiled destination.
How undiscovered is this place?
•Guyana's only north-south road, is mostly unpaved. The 320-mile bus ride from Georgetown, the capital, to the Brazilian border takes about 14 hours.
•More than 80% of Guyana is virgin rainforest. Viewed from the air, the land looks like an unending field of broccoli, broken only by occasional raw, red mining scars where gold and diamonds are being scratched from the earth.
•Its forests and rivers are teeming with wildlife, including species that are extinct or threatened elsewhere.
•It attracts a an estimated 2,500 purely leisure visitors annually. That's about the number that descend on Peru's Machu Picchu in a single day.
Wildlife provides the entertainment
The Rupununi landscape, which ranges from lush rainforest to sprawling savannah, is peppered with far-flung Amerindian villages. The terrain might not look all that different today than it did when Sir Walter Raleigh passed through in search of the mythical City of Gold in the 1580s.
This spring, Swiss travelers Susanna Dellai and Claudine Werndli were lured here by their own dreams of discovery. Sitting in the Round House, a spacious pavilion at Iwokrama International Centre, they are lingering over a dinner of grilled fish pulled this morning from the Essequibo River. The Iwokrama complex is at the heart of a million-acre research project aimed at conserving and managing this densely forested region.
"I looked at a map and thought, 'What can we do that no one else has done?' " Dellai says. "So far, it's just been us two in the forest with a guide and no crowds."
Today's wildlife sightings include otters, toucans, a caiman, several species of monkeys and a snake. After dark, they venture out on the river. Gliding through water the color of milky coffee, the guide steers the boat toward the shore and focuses a high-beam light into a treetop. There, a pink-lipped porcupine nibbles on leaves, unperturbed by the intrusion.
In the morning, the friends are back out before dawn, eyes trained for tropical birds such as blue-and-yellow macaws. The croak of tree frogs, buzz of cicadas and drone of distant howler monkeys provide a rhythmic back beat to the soprano trills of assorted birds.
In terms of Caribbean tourism development, "Belize is 20 years behind Costa Rica, and Guyana is 30 years behind Belize," says Daniel LaPierre, Iwokrama's tourism manager.