What to know before you take the bus to Lethem

 

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When you’re planning a trip into the interior of Guyana, the number one question is often: bus or plane? Money plays a big part – but there’s the whole ‘experience’ factor to think about too. And time.

In a bid to show off the jewels of Guyana’s interior to my visiting sister, I took her last week to Lethem and Iwokrama – by bus.

Telling people of our plans, a few asked: what’s the bus journey actually like? So I thought I’d share my experiences and tips. Because, as I found out during the trip: if you don’t ask, no one is going to tell you.

Think about what season you’re going in

When I went to Lethem in March for the Rupununi Rodeo, the journey was long and bumpy but not unbearably so. Travelling last week, in early August, the road was a nightmare – covered in potholes, ditches of water and muddy red clay. The drivers had to skilfully weave their way around these obstacles, so we were swerving and bumping the entire journey (well, from the second we came off the smooth asphalt road in Linden). At one point the driver actually got out and waded through a puddle to see if it was passable.

So, if you have a choice about when to visit the interior, think about whether you want to go in wet or dry season. And not just in terms of the bus journey. For example, during the dry season the waterfalls of Lethem (Moca Moca etc) may well be dried out. While during the wet season many animals and birds may prefer sheltering from the rain than parading round for you to admire and photograph them.

The Easter-time rodeo is definitely worth a visit – either the main Rupununi Rodeo or the lesser-known one in Sand Creek, which apparently is smaller but a bit wilder. September is also a good month to venture into the interior as it’s Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana, so there should be lots of activities going on and more opportunities to visit Amerindian villages. September is also fruiting month (or something like that) according to one of the staff at Iwokrama, so a popular time for hardcore birders to visit.

Don’t expect to stick to your schedule

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When I went into the interior in March, we left Georgetown around 6.30pm and were in Lethem by about 8am – if memory serves correctly. A journey of about 13.5 hours – including a bit of waiting time at Kurupukari (the pontoon river crossing by Iwokrama River Lodge). But when we went to Lethem last week, it took 18 hours to get to Lethem – this time with two hours before the Kurupukari crossing. This was mostly due to the state of the roads (see video above), made almost impassable by rain, buses, logging lorries and poor maintenance.

There are various other factors that can affect your journey time too: when you leave Georgetown (there might be traffic, late passengers, lots of bags to pack onto the bus); how fast the driver goes (one girl on the bus was complaining about a slow driver who she now avoids going with); how long you stay at the rest stops; and if anything happens to the bus (on the way back we had a puncture and another stop when a tree branch got caught under the bus).

The Kurupukari crossing is also a bit of a scheduling roadblock. Because it doesn’t open till 6am, you have to wait on the other side of the river until the pontoon is in action. The crossing also caught us out on the way back from Lethem. My plan was to leave Lethem on Wednesday late afternoon and arrive at Iwokrama by nightfall. I told this plan to the booking agent at Iwokrama. I repeated it to the bus agents. No one mentioned anything was wrong with it.

Then on the night before we were due to leave, we invited our GT-Lethem bus driver for a drink and he happened to mention that our plan wasn’t going to work. Huh? Turns out, because the bus leaves at 5pm it doesn’t make it to the Kurupukari crossing before the 6pm closure. So everyone has to spend the night at a roadside bus stopping near to Surama, where you can hire a hammock for Gy$500 and hang it up next to some heavily snoring men for a few hours of restless sleep (I think rooms are available too, but we were trying to be cheap).

I don’t know if other bus companies leave before 5pm (we went with P&A on Church Street), but it could be worth checking if you’re planning on going from Lethem to Iwokrama by bus.

Check the cost of travel carefully

A flight from Ogle to Lethem is Gy$25,000 (one way). Going by bus is generally $10,000 – more than half the cost, making it the cheapest option. Although do factor in the cost of all those snack stops, hammock rentals… it can add up. Though not quite to the Gy$15,000 difference between plane and bus, obviously.

I thought P&A’s Gy$10,000 one-way fare was standard, but en route I saw two other companies advertising cheaper return fares. There was Carly’s Bus Service, whose poster boasted ‘Lethem to G/Town cost low as $18,000 return. And BD Express (apologies for the poor photo), which topped that: offering return trips for Gy$17,000 – including ‘free refreshment at Kurupukari’. Lovely.

Another thing to mention here is the cost of going the shorter distance from Lethem to Iwokrama. We were given a bus ticket ‘from Lethem to Georgetown’ and assumed we could jump off the bus at Iwokrama, then resume the journey on another bus a few days later. Not so. This is where the: ‘if you don’t ask, we’re not going to tell you’ bit comes in. So apparently because we didn’t ask, we had to pay Gy$10,000 to go from Lethem to Iwokrama and then the same again to go from Iwokrama to GT. The bus service rep was unapologetic on the phone: the money we’d paid had gone to the first driver, now we had to pay the second driver. And what could we do? We were stuck in the middle of the rainforest. We had no choice but to pay.

Talking to some other drivers on the way back, I figured out that we could have bargained a lower price. One suggested Gy$7,000 from Lethem to Iwokrama – which might have been an overestimate estimate, but was still considerably cheaper. From Iwokrama to Georgetown, you could again try to negotiate a price in advance – or just turn up at the Iwokrama police checkpoint at 6am when the buses arrive, ready to cross on the pontoon, and see if any of the buses have a spare seat.

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Pack wisely

I don’t know if there’s an added cost for extra baggage on the bus, but some people travel with a lot. I saw suitcases, a bicycle, trays of chirping chicks, cardboard boxes… Most belongings can be stored behind the last row of seats at the back of the bus, with the bulkier items going on top of the bus, with the spare gas and tyres. A tarpaulin is put over everything in case it should rain.

In terms of your carry-on bag, you just need the basics:

  1. Passport/ID card: You’ll need it handy for the police checks en route.
  2. Water + snacks: There are stop-offs on the way, but it’s cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly to bring your own re-useable bottle and pre-made/bought food. It’s also quite nice to bring something like sweets or biscuits to share with your fellow passengers. I’ve found Brazilian travellers in particular like to hand round whatever they have, so you might want to bring something to offer in return.
  3. Sweater/cardigan: The minibuses to Lethem rely on open windows for fresh-air and coolness – though there was a promise of AC on my bus to Lethem in March (in the end it didn’t really work). I found myself feeling a little chilly at one point, so it might be worth keeping a warmer layer handy.
  4. Neck support: On the journey to Lethem, my sister later told me she was in hysterics watching my head jerk and flop around as I attempted to sleep through the minibus road aerobics. Waking up at one point with a start, I thought I’d given myself whiplash for a second. I’ve never actually tried an airplane-style neck support but Ir reckon it’s worth a try. If you try to lean your head on the side of the bus you’ll probably get concussion. And accidentally resting your head on your neighbours shoulder may not always get the polite shove I got from my new Brazilian friend in March.

Choose a good seat

In preparation for this blog, which I started thinking about doing en route, I tried to make a theatre-seating-style assessment of the best seats in the house. I didn’t try all seats so this is a bit unscientific, but just my preference of where to settle your behind for the long ride ahead:

First prize goes to… the front seat. There are lots of reasons why it’s good to ride shotgun. You’re next to the driver, so have plenty of time to gaff – as well as the potential of being able to influence his music choice (I say ‘his’ as I didn’t see one female GT-Lethem driver, but could be wrong…). You’re also in prime position to see the forest as you ride through, and are likely to spot birds, the odd agouti, maybe even an ant-eater or (if you’re really lucky) a jaguar. You’re not squashed by anyone next to you (unless it’s a three-seat row) and have relatively good leg room.

Second prize goes to… The far-left seat, two rows back from the front. Why? Three reasons: You’re not in the middle seat; you have a bit of extra leg room because of the way the floor drops by the door; and you can control how open the window is (unlike with the ‘conductor’ seat in front)

Third prize goes to… The far-right seat, two rows back from the front. For the same reasons above – apart from the extra leg room bit.

In my opinion the middle seat doesn’t give you enough support and leaves you open to the risk of sleeping on your neighbour’s shoulder. Front front-row seats have that weird high and low flooring, which kind of gives you different options to put your feet but can be a bit annoying. I didn’t try the back seats but they look cramped and claustrophobic.

The worst seat in the house goes to… the middle seat in the front row. As well as being a middle seat, there’s a bit annoying lump on the floor, which means you have very little leg room.

So all in all, taking the bus from Georgetown into the interior is something of an endurance feat, and definitely worth doing – if only for the stories. If you can afford to, you might want to take the bus in and fly back, in case you’re too traumatised on the way down. But really, it’s not that bad. And as they say about life, it’s all about the journey – not the destination.

Do you have any tips from your GT-Lethem journey? Or know of any other companies running this bus route? Feel free to add your comments in the box below.

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10 comments

  1. Eva

    I di it in August 2013. As an european woman together with a friend. I remember this travel always, when i am on a point of my life telling me “how am i supposed to go through??” -then i remember : i made it by Mini Bus to Iwokrama and back- what silly question!!!!
    For me it was really crazy going through the night and being controlled by some guys in Small wooden houses while looking into prisoners eyes – so seen in Linden. After that last stop in a Kind of Town with asphalt roads I thought “okay. We gonna get through somehow. ”
    If you are sensible to the always bumping, shaking around- Do not forget to carry something for throwing up !!!! 😉
    That happened to my friend. I had to assist and i just Found a bag right in time.
    This was my hardest road to travel ever- but totally worth it.
    Best Journey of my life to Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname.
    Keeping it in my heart like a hidden treasure.

    Best wishes, Eva

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  2. Pingback: Five ways to do Iwokrama on a (kind of) budget | humming of the bird

  3. Edward

    Which is the best and most reliable service

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    • carinyasharples

      I’ve only ever been with P&A (and Intraserve when they existed), which seem reliable – but you just need to pay attention to the charges with them. When I went from Lethem to Iwokrama, they charged me the full $10,000. Just ask as many questions as you can before booking/paying.

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  4. Nomad

    Ah the trail! What memories. I’d say some of my best stories have been born of those journeys. Also some of my most mindful moments in terms of creativity and thinking time. I’ve seen all sorts of wildlife, met amazing people and seen beautiful things. There is nothing like entering the savannah after hours of the green wall, and seeing the ever changing light, Pakaraima foothills and big skies.

    Definitely some challenging conditions as well though. If you like comfort, the bus is not for you. But good tips from the post above.

    My thoughts on where to sit: in terms of physics the middle of the front row in the back is the safest place if the bus rolls. Not unheard of. But otherwise that row is pretty comfy anyway if you like to raise your feet up. Avoid the middle in the very front! You will be sitting over the engine (hot) and can get in the way of the gear stick. And avoid the very back as you are behind the wheels so more bouncy back there, and pretty claustrophobic. My favourite spot was always window seat in the front trio. You don’t have to get in and out for others, you can see out, have a window and can put your feet up or lean if need to.

    Totally agree – walk with loads of snacks and water. Also a good supply of entertainment/music/book. Be prepared to break down: I’d say over one third of my journeys in the interior over 3 years living there (whether by boat, tractor, minibus, truck…) involved some form of break down. All part of the fun. Especially if it is rainy season, very easy to get stuck. Would advise flying when it’s really wet. Walk with bug spray and or long sleeves. If you do break down and it’s dusk or down it can get pretty bitey out there.
    If you don’t like faha, soca or Caribbean R&B I recommend ear plugs or your own music. It is popular to play music straight from your device out there so sometimes you can have the bus stereo, plus be sandwiched between two people playing loud music in competition.

    Check the driver hasn’t been obviously drinking and don’t be afraid to say something. A friend of mine had to demand he drive the rest of the trail once when the driver was in a bad way.

    Finally – definitely go to the interior! The Rupununi for starters in one of the best places in the world. End of story! Good luck and safe travels.

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    • carinyasharples

      Great comment! Thanks for the additional tips – especially on seating/safety. Out of curiosity, faha?! Is that Brazilian forro or a new type of music I’ve not encountered yet?

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  5. Garfield Boston

    I travel to Lethem last Saturday 6 August, 2016 we left Georgetown 4.00 am and arrive in Lethem at 6.00 pm
    we made several stops including 1 hour at Annai, Iworkarama half hour, the road was a little bumpy but we had a safe journey, if i have to go to Lethem again i would take another road trip. I travel back to Georgetown by air. The driver did not blaze the trail, he drove for me any my team to have a wonderful view of Guyana.

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    • carinyasharples

      Glad you had a good experience. And yes, I think going down by bus and back up by air is a good choice. Depending on your route.

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  6. dionne.fries@gmail.com

    The cheek of the birds and animals to be sheltering from the rain!

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