The Georgetown-Lethem bus was something we had been anticipating with anxiety since we first arrived in Guyana. Having been at each other’s political throats for centuries, Venezuela and Guyana don’t have a border crossing; the only way, then, to get from one country to the other is via Brazil. This means, unfortunately for overland travellers, getting the Georgetown-Lethem bus all the way to Guyana’s southern border with Brazil (or vice versa to Georgetown).
There are other ways, of course. If you have a car or motorbike then good for you! Maybe, like a couple of travellers we knew of, you’ll cycle and camp all the way. But if, like us, you do not possess bikes or cars or private jets, you will ultimately have to brave this the most sleepless journey we have yet experienced in South America.
We arrived at our departure point for 18:00 (the alleged departure time) and settled down with a takeaway box of noodly things for about 45 minutes. At which point we realised that the savvy Guyanese had already reserved their seats. So, with no small amount of grumbling, we squeezed in between over-sized women and offensively-smelling men and settled down as our tin can on wheels shot off through Georgetown’s dirty streets…
Pro-tip #1: get there an hour early and reserve the best seats you can find (the front is usually best). There is a buffet-style eatery at Paul’s, so grab some food and sit stoically in your reserved seats until the bus goes.
…to the first of what would be five police checkpoints. When the policeman had finally satisfied himself that we were, in fact, British, everyone shuffled grumpily back on the bus and settled down to their first two hours of semi-consciousness.
After a couple of hours on a surprisingly nice road, we arrived at Linden, a dirty end-of-the-road town, that sits on the face of Guyana like an ugly spot waiting to be popped. We were pleasantly greeted by snarling dogs and semi-automatics, but, one intimidating passport-check, leg-stretch and cheese sandwich later,we were soon back on the open road.
After fifteen minutes of smooth sailing, and at almost exactly the same time that I began to drift off to sleep, the road ceased being a road. Smooth concrete gave way to packed, potholed earth, and so littered with craters was the road that rarely a second went by without a swerve or a bump. Three seconds was bliss. A shift also seemed to have occurred in the psychological make-up of our driver: he feverishly strove to steer his way around every single pothole – a feat patently impossible – lurching and rattling from one side of the road to the next like a child avoids stepping on pavement cracks. As though intended to sooth the twists and turns of our driver’s private game of dodge-the-pothole, the sound-system, with its endless supply of bad Reggaeton, was also turned on.
And so the night continued, like a sadistically-conceived torture for our posteriors and ears, until we reached the third police checkpoint. Bleary-eyed and not in the best of moods, we dutifully waited our turn, periodically being blinded when the policemen decided we needed another inspection under flashlight. But yet again we slipped through the seine nets of immigration control and thirty minutes later saw us once again on our torture-mobile, rocking and lurching off into the midnight dark.
The night blurred past like a bad dream about headlights and dirt roads until the novel ambience of silence and stillness roused us. Our driver had evidently gained a high score in Dodge-The-Potholes, because 05:00 saw us, smelly, sleepy and disgruntled, at the Kurupukari river crossing a full hour before it opened.
Pro-tip #2: don’t sweat if your bus leaves late – you’ll be stuck at the Kurupukari until the first ferry leaves at 06:00 anyway.
We relished this opportunity to stretch our legs, and walked on down to the ferry. By the time our bus had boarded, a creamy sun was just peeking over the trees, illuminating a glistening rocky river flanked on both sides by nothing but an endless expanse of trees. A rowing boat sidled up alongside the ferry and local women began peddling their roti, curry and coffee. Breakfast was served.
Back on land we drove for about a minute until, once again, we were forced to queue for the privilege of having our passports uselessly peered at by armed police. This time, though, the queue was augmented by the contents of every other Georgetown-Lethem bus from the ferry. Much pushing and shoving commenced until, soon enough, the people at the front comprised solely of those who didn’t give a rat’s arse about anyone but themselves, and those at the back were so thoroughly miserably about the general state of affairs that they no longer cared about anything.
Nevertheless, crossing the Kurupukari heralded the fast-approaching end to our emotionally- and physically-numbing journey, so the final checkpoint and our last rumbling, skidding hour through the jungle simply flew by. We got off at the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, walked to the lodge and nursed our souls and buttocks back to reasonable health with a free breakfast of tea, jam and bread.*
I feel I should add here that, though I complain about every little detail of our journey, I do not in the least regret it. At the end of the day the journey is half of the adventure and what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. So, without further cliches, let’s get on with the practically useful information.
*if you go all the way to Lethem, you should have at least a further five hours to go after the Kurupukari, but they tend to be less treacherous and more reliable than the first ten hours.
It’s no small price for a sleepless night. 12,000GYD per person is the standard price. If you only wish to go halfway from G-Town and, say, get off at the Canopy Walkway, you will have to pay the full price. I know. If, however, you flag down a bus halfway through its journey, your powers of negotiation will come in handy. From Rock View Lodge, on the edge of the Rupununi and a good two thirds into the journey, we got a bus to Lethem for 6,000GYD each.
The time you will be told is 14 hours. The route is only about 550km, so it should be doable in far less time, but it will be many years yet before such lofty heights of road maintenance have been obtained in Guyana. In reality, it’s normally fourteen-plus – a friend of ours broke down in the jungle and took 16 hours just to reach Rock View.
There are several bus companies to choose from but, to the best of my knowledge, they are all equally expensive, uncomfortable and slow. We’re talking standard 15-seater, minivan. Although a company called Intraserve used to travel the route with a coach, that no longer exists, so you won’t find no 180 degree reclining seats here. We chose our company under the recommendation of a friendly pilot. All their details are on the photo below, but here it is in writing, too, just in case:
Company name: Paolo & Adelé
Address: 75 Church Street
Office telephone: 255-5058
Paul’s mobile: 628-6001
Adelé’s mobile: 688-4938
Guesthouse telephone (same place the bus leaves from): 226-6449
I doubt you will find much improvement on Paul’s service, but there are other companies. Ask where you’re staying. Another long-standing company you can try is Guybraz Tours (225-6375 or 619-1685).
As for the return journey from Lethem-Georgetown, I’m afraid I have no first-hand experience. If anyone reading this does, do comment!
For those still intending on braving the overland journey between Georgetown and Lethem, I offer you good luck and one final piece of advice: take sleeping tablets.