Today we entered a new country, the fourth of the trip so far, and we spent the whole day visiting French Guiana’s Îles du Salut. The small archipelago of three islands is better known as Devil’s Island and is infamous as the site of the former brutal French penal colony that operated there for one hundred and one years during the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. France used to send political prisoners and assorted other criminals to French Guiana, even after the end of their convictions. The extreme hot and humid weather, forced labor, and tropical diseases took a very high toll on the inmates, and many died there. The story of the penal colony was vividly described by a former inmate who became the first to escape after several years. When Henri Charriere published his bestseller Papillon, the world was horrified by the narrative, and a couple of movies were made based on it. Today we had the opportunity to visit the same buildings and walk the same paths where so many unfortunate souls spent their sentences. The remains of the penal colony are still standing, and the islands attract a number of people from Cayenne and other places because of their great beauty. The islands are covered with coconut palm trees and other luxuriant vegetation. These islands are the archetypical tropical paradise. We went ashore on the larger of the three islands, Ile Royale, and had a great time learning about the island’s history and watching birds. We observed red-rumped agoutis, green sea turtles, and numerous capuchin monkeys. Considered by many to be the most intelligent of the New World primates, brown capuchins are capable of using tools. We watched several individuals as they peeled back the fibrous outer layer of a coconut with their teeth to expose the hard-shelled core before smashing it against large tree branches to crack it. Their antics delighted everyone and greatly entertained us.

One of the day’s highlights was the performance by French Guianan artist Chris Combette during lunch; he and his band, including his daughter, played and sang several of the songs that made him extremely well known throughout the region. The music created a great ambiance at the restaurant while we enjoyed a delicious buffet of fish, fried rice, salads, beef, and ceviche, among many other dishes. After lunch, we explored the site and eventually transferred to nearby Ile St. Joseph to do some more exploration, rounding out a great day in French Guiana.

Photo caption: Brown capuchin monkey at Ile Royale in French Guiana. Photo by Carlos Navarro