Woke up at oh-dark-thirty, aka 5:15 after not getting to bed the night before until after 11 thanks to the very long trip in the share taxi from Suriname. Considered going back to sleep since I knew my chances of making this trip work were small, but decided I only had part of a day here so was going to try and make the most of it…even if I didn’t manage to make it to the Space Centre. Was out the door by 5:45, and on my way to the shared taxi rank…which I only had a vague idea of its location.
I wandered around, and the local produce market was setting up for business, and after asking a few vendors still had absolutely no idea where the taxi rank was…so I just kept wandering. After about ten minutes I saw lots of minivans pulling in, people getting on, and heading off, so I asked some people and it appeared I’d accidentally found it. On the way, while waiting, there was an amazing sunrise:
The goal was to head to the European Space Centre aka the Centre Spatiale Guyanais where I’d arranged a free tour that started at 8:00am. It’s near the town of Kourou, about 5km outside of town. However, the shared taxis from Cayenne only go to Kourou, and not to the Space Centre. A taxi to Kourou pulled up finally, but it was only me and one other passenger. This was looking like a repeat of the previous day where I might wait hours to fill up. Not good since the tour started in 90 minutes and it was a 55km drive just to Kourou. I chatted with the driver, and he said it was 10 euros a person to Kourou. I asked him, for 20 euros will you leave now with just the two of us, and drop me directly at the Centre? He sized up the other passenger, she offered him 15 euro to leave now, and he decided 35 euro was good enough for a trip and we were off. SCORE! I’d made it work!
Got there in about 45 minutes, and I had plenty of time before the tour started, so I wandered around outside the reception area and took a few shots.
By the time the tour folks came out to do introductions, there were a good 100 or so people waiting for the tour. I would never have expected it in somewhere so remote! It was clear that they weren’t kidding on the website when they said this was a 100% french experience – the tour was in French, the staff seemed to only speak French, and all the tourists seemed to be French. Just one thing to be aware of if you don’t speak French, since you’ll likely miss out on some of the experience. One other thing to be aware of is that you need a passport or identity card to visit, and they’ll hold onto it while you tour. We had to fill out registration cards, have our reservations ‘checked’ against their list, and they we were loaded after a quick metal detector scan into two giant tour buses and we were off.
First stop was the newish Soyuz Launch Facility. Also known as the ELS (l’Ensemble de Lancement Soyuz). The first launch had taken place just nine months prior to our visit, and the second a couple months later. The third was scheduled to happen a couple weeks after our visit. Not clear why they waited nearly nine months in between. After a quick talk in the bus about the facility, we stopped for a few photos, but were not allowed off the bus at this stop.
After that, we drove another ten minutes or so to the “main” attraction – ELA-3 or l’Ensemble de Lancement Ariane 3. This is where the latest generation Ariane 5 rockets are launched from. It’s been operating since 1996, and 53 launches have been carried out to date. At this stop, we were allowed to get out for ten minutes, stretch, and take all the pictures we wanted.
Note the cars parked below. The perspective in the pic isn’t great, but this is a pretty steep incline down…looked 20-30 degrees minimum. That must be a fun drive! After our stop, piled back into the vans where they made sure to carefully count all of us and check our badges. One thing to note, each time we entered a launch area, a security guard came on the bus, and made sure that everyone on the bus was wearing a security badge that we got at the reception. I wouldn’t call it overly tight security, but definitely an appropriate level.
Next stop was the launch control centre, where the countdowns happen. We visited two control centres, and I honestly don’t remember the difference between the two. I believe this one was the monitoring facility for the Vega launches primarily, but was called the “Centre de Lancement 3″
The tour was around two hours in total, and was definitely fascinating to see. Definitely glad I made the effort. But, here’s where it got interesting. Since I’d convinced a share taxi to go off its route to get me here…I had no way back. So, I made a point of going into the gift shop to look around, where I asked the cashier (a bit loudly, I’ll admit) if there was any way to get a taxi back to Kourou so I could find the share taxis back to Cayenne. My plan worked like a charm, and a French guy and his teen daughter came up to me, and said “hey we’re going to Kourou, would you like a ride?” Awesome! I do believe this counts as my first time quasi-hitchhiking.
So, into a car with a complete stranger I go. …and when I say car, I mean barely! It was an old beat-up Peugeot with no air conditioning, no radio, no electric anything, and fully diesel. It was absolutely classic…and perfect! On the way, I got his story. The girl’s mother had left him three years prior, so he did what any self-respecting french guy would do – ran off to the furthest reaches of France to work and make more money…and as he put it “enjoy the local women.” It was a hoot, and I half felt sorry for his daughter who’d clearly been shipped off to him on her summer vacation, but not too sorry because she kept laughing at his stories like they were hysterical. I’d never been super thankful before this trip for all those years of high school French, but the ability to not only save money by hitching but to get these awesome experiences made it so worth it! We stopped to get him gas (a whole five euro worth) which I took as a sign to offer him some gas money. Wrong move – that was offencive. Of course not, he was just doing a favour to a visitor to his country. Yay France!
Back to the hotel, and I was starving! It was approaching 1pm now, and I hadn’t eaten anything all day. Remember, I hardly ate anything the day before either thanks to the marathon trek from Suriname. So, I was starved. I confess, I said screw local, I want a place I can get a good, big, and amazing filling meal. I admit it, when I’d seen it on the drive in the night before, I knew where I’d end up: l’Hippopotamus! Mmmmm! I ordered the set menu which included a half bottle of wine, and I was in Heaven!
I’ll spare the details, and just tease with pictures of French food deliciousness! Chevre with beef carpaccio, steak tartare, and a flourless chocolate bombe. YUM!
Stuffed and happy I went next door to the post office to mail the post cards I’d written during lunch, and did a bit of wandering through the town on the way back to the hotel to check out. First stop was the Place des Palmistes, which is the square the restaurant was located on.
Next stop, the Town Hall, or Hôtel de Ville:
Finally, last stop by my hotel which I’d wandered through earlier, was the local market which was just wrapping up:
Back to the hotel, showered, checked out, and took a 15-20 minute taxi to the airport. Check-in was super quick and efficient, despite the fact there were also three flights to Paris leaving at the same time! I was off to Haiti in a few weeks, and was a bit nervous when I saw this warning sign:
Warning! Don’t get Cholera in Haiti!
Had to go through immigration here, despite the fact we were going from once French Department to another – not sure the history behind this, but I guess it makes some sense. Waited a bit, and soon it was time to fly.
Cayenne, French Guiana (CAY) to Fort-de-France, Martinique (FDF)
Air Caraïbes Flight 208
Departure 17:30, Arrival 18:40, Flight Time 2:10
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration F-OSUD, Manufactured 2007
Seat 2B, Economy
Flight was quite uneventful. Decent meal for such a short flight in economy, and that’s about all I can say. Every seat was taken, but it was still quite a pleasant flight. Quick snap of the economy snack/meal:
Baggage reclaim was relatively quick, and taxi was easy if not a bit expensive. Since it was a weekend after sundown taxi fares were like doubled, so it wasn’t a cheap ride at all. But nonetheless, it was easy enough, and soon enough I was checking in and off to dinner! More on that in the next post!