It's dusk and LaPierre is behind the Round House bar pouring rum and Coke for the few guests. (Hold the ice; it's a scarce commodity in the jungle.) Bats are performing aerial acrobatics under the broad, thatched roof. Call it the pre-dinner show, Rupunini-style.
The region's lodges differ in focus and flavor, but travelers seeking deluxe digs and choreographed entertainment should look elsewhere. Iwokrama, for example, is foremost a research facility, but its eight guest cabins have comfortable beds and spacious porches in a remarkable setting. As in the other lodges, the food is basic, but delicious, partly because it's so fresh.
About three hours away (depending on road conditions) in the Rupununi savannah is Surama, an Amerindian village of 300. The community was the first of its kind to welcome tourists in the 1990s. (It now has four benabs, simple thatched huts that sleep up to four.) Guests are encouraged to visit the village, its primary school, and to interact with local artisans.
Farther south, Karanambu Ranch is the domain of 80-year-old Diane McTurk, aka The Otter Lady. To date, the Guyanese native has returned 52 orphaned giant river otters to the wild. ("I don't say rehabbed," she stresses.) The ranch accommodates 12 guests, many of whom are hoping to join in the otter rescue.
"Unfortunately, we've been so successful with the otter project we have no otters (in residence) now," she says. Regardless, the nearby river is ideal for spotting the creatures.
Extraordinary can be ordinary
Rock View Lodge is as centrally located as it gets in the Rupununi — it abuts a commercial airstrip near the village of Annai. Proprietor Colin Edwards is a long-time British transplant who helped build the first road here in the early 1990s. With its palm-lined driveway, manicured grounds and swimming pool, the lodge leads the way in creature comforts. Fresh produce comes from its gardens, and he's adding a stocked pond so guests can fish for their dinner.
"If you're worried about biodiversity, the rainforest, global warming, this is far more relevant than skiing in the Alps or lying on a beach," Edwards says. "(Vacationers) have gotten fed up with sun and sea. Agri-tourism is the future."
Guyana's fledgling tourism industry has created jobs for indigenous people. But it also has changed the way some view their world.
"We were training guides who didn't understand why people got so excited about seeing a jaguar," recalls Tony Thorne, founder of Guyana-based Wilderness Explorers. "One asked, 'Are our jaguars different from the ones in New York?' The ordinary is extraordinary for someone not from here."
Still, Thorne adds, not every community needs an eco-tourism lodge and those that do have them intend to keep their visitor operations small. "They don't want tourism to run their lives," he says of most Amerindians in these parts.
Gary Sway, 29, can relate to that. The Macushi tribe member notes that 600 visitors came to Surama last year, up from 40 when the operation began nearly two decades ago. The income has brought benefits — like a new primary school.
But sometimes, he says, "I worry because it's going so fast. In the beginning, we had nothing. Now we have cars. We own trucks. We have the Internet. Soon, there'll be cellphones. People are getting more money and they're buying more stuff. We want to keep our customs but sometimes to get something, you have to give something up."