French Guiana has a long and rich history that is a reflection of the many immigrant populations that have moved through and settled over the last 500 years. As a French department, the population enjoys a relatively high quality of living, particularly compared to neighbouring islands. One of the most striking contrasts in Guiana is the presence of primitive tribes in the deep tropical jungles compared to the high technology European Space Center near the coast.


Guiana was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1498 during his third trip to the New World, but the land he sighted was not named or settled for 100 years. The native people were the Arawak Indians, who were displaced by the Carbs who came out of the Amazon to populate the Caribbean islands. These two tribes were the native people in Guiana when Christopher Columbus arrived. The first French settlers began arriving in the 1600s and named the territory Guiana, a French form of an American Indian word that means “land of waters. The first settlers were looking for the famed hidden gold and new opportunities but found hostile natives and tropical diseases. It was some years before the French returned.

A rocket in the Museum of Space in Kourou

A rocket in the Museum of Space in Kourou. One of the most interesting places in French Guiana. Photo: Anton Ivanov

French Guiana is also known for the famous penal colony, Devil’s Island, that housed over 17,000 prisoners between 1852 and 1939. These inmates were notorious hardened criminals and exiles from Europe.

Today one of the notable limitations in Guiana is the lack of transportation. Guiana has only one main road that connects the main cities. With over 200 rivers, travel in the interior can be difficult. It is common to see local people with boats ferrying people across these rivers. This is how these local people make their living. Because of transportation difficulties and the huge area of uninhabited land, adventuresome tourists visiting French Guiana work with independent agencies and tour guides who organize trips to the heart of this wilderness setting. Also, the country is very close to the equator with averages of 80ºF temperatures year round, making it important that tourists be prepared for the heat.

The “country” is actually not a country, but a department of France and the people enjoy a good quality of life with 80% literacy because of this unique relationship. The French influence is evident throughout the populated areas.

The People

The population of French Guiana is only 200,000, with most of the population living in 4 major cities. By contrast the Oyampi and Palik tribes live deep in the interior and continue a traditional pre-Columbian way of life. There are also a few tribes descended from African slaves that escaped the plantations and live a lifestyle similar to their native central Africa. Over 98% of the land is uninhabited with vast amounts of tropical wilderness. By contrast, the European Space Launching Center is in Kourou near the capital and has brought that small area into the 21st century.
Almost 40% of the people live in the capital city, Cayenne, and reflect the diverse history of immigration and settlement. The Creole population comprises over 66% of the population and is the major ethnic group influencing the Guianese culture. Europeans make up another 18% and the remainder are East Asians, Chinese, Amerindian and Brazilian. A blend of European influence is evident in the clothes which are modified for the tropical weather. In the cities there are other traces of the

French lifestyle.

French is the official language. Through the years the French spoken in Guiana has accommodated the local dialect and is now called French Creole or Patois. In early French history Patois meant rough language spoken by the peasants. The native tribes speak their own language and the African tribes speak a form of pidgin English known as Taki-Taki.

The Food

Many cultural influences are seen in Guianese food; European, African, Indian, and Amerindian traditions, with a very strong French influence. Guiana used to grow nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and chili peppers; these are still basic ingredients in the foods. Their waters are teeming with a variety of fish and shrimp that are commonly prepared in many different dishes such as marinated fritters, kebabs, fricassees and seafood stew. Shrimp is available in all sizes from small sea-bobs to giant shrimp.

Chapel on Ile Royale, French Guiana Devil islands

Chapel on Ile Royale, French Guiana Devil islands. This wooden church vas built by the prisoners. Traces of paintings made by Francis Lagrange are still visible on the walls. Lagrange was incarcerated here.

These dishes are usually accompanied by generous portions of rice, red beans and couac, a starch similar to semolina. Beef is used for special occasions and often prepared as a stew. The fresh food markets have a varied abundance of produce and is an ideal location to see everyday life in Guiana.

Festival and Holidays

The country boasts the longest Carnival in the Caribbean, starting in early January and continuing through to mid-February. One unusual tradition happens every Saturday night during the Carnival. Women of the Island dress up as “toulous” who are mysterious dancers that disguise themselves by covering from head to foot. These women enjoy the fact that people do not know who they are; they lead the parades and dancing until the early hours of the morning. At dawn the party-goers enjoy a traditional stew with shrimp and fish stew and with a brief rest the festival starts again.
Guiana also celebrates French holidays, the most important being Bastille Day. The vast majority of the population is Roman Catholic and celebrates the traditional Catholic holidays. Other minority religions are also represented such as indigenous Amerindians shamanistic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and African-based religions.

The music and dance reflect this melange of ethnic groups. Those living in the interior have a strong drum influence and woodwind instruments are common, influenced by early American Indians. In the major cities people also listen to French ballads as well as pop and rock music.