With a snicker-snack of the knife, the fisherman descaled the “snook” (sea bass) until his hands shimmered like a mermaid. I could relate to the wide-eyed rows of snapper and baby shark laid out on his stall, for I too was a fish out of water here.

Delven Adams, a self-taught chef, was at my elbow, sourcing ingredients from Georgetown’s morning market for the lunch he’d later prepare in his Backyard Cafe — and he’d plunged me into a Willy Wonka world of edibles. “Let me see what ya got dere,” he called to the vendors in Creole, pointing out callaloo (spinach), bora (long beans), mammee apple (the love child of a mango and apple), and bags of “married man pork” (dried basil). We munched and wandered, juice dribbling from our chins and fingers. “A sapodilla,” he said, cleaving apart a large brown nut and offering me the soft innards; the pulp tasted like a spoonful of brown sugar.

I’d assumed the former British Guiana, South America’s third-smallest state, would feel vaguely familiar, but on KE Adventure’s new Discovering the Hidden Guianas tour, I would learn that Guyana — as well as neighbouring Suriname and French Guiana — bucks expectations at every turn.

Essequibo River is the longest river in Guyana
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Clustered between Brazil and Venezuela, they make a natural trio thanks to their shared history (see below) and diverse diaspora that Surinamese poet Robin Raveles described as: “wan bon, someni wiwiri” (“One tree, so many leaves”).

All of them are underpinned by the Guiana Shield, a tectonic bedrock that gave rise to the Angel and Kaieteur Falls and one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Here, trees outnumber people a thousand to one. And within those forests thrives an ark of Jungle Book characters. From deer-eating anacondas, jaguars and giant otters, to savannahs roamed by knuckle-walking anteaters and rivers home to the knife fish, which can unleash 860 volts, and the 10ft-long arapaima, said to be the soul of a cursed warrior, with scales hard enough to be used as nail files.

And when you’re living cheek by jowl with claws and creepy-crawlies, those expanses of unaltered nature, which have never known mankind, hold magic. In traditional villages posted along its myriad waterways, I was to learn of kanaimas, trees that walk and other plant alchemy. But first I had to get there.

The Kaieteur Falls
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At Atjoni, in Suriname, the road ran out. We bundled into a wooden canoe alongside watermelons, gas canisters, babies and bananas, and motored away from the riverbank. For two and half hours, we followed the Suriname river, navigating her frothy rapids and passing villages where schoolkids sat outside singing and women washed their laundry in the muddy waters, until we reached Danpaati River Lodge. The entrance was fringed with trailing maripa-palm leaves “to keep out evil spirits,” explained the lodge manager, Noach. Our fellow island guests were golden-handed tamarin, squirrel monkeys and, in the distance, a bird whose echoing “plop” of a call sounded like a coin being dropped into water.

On the opposite bank was Dan, a village of 400 Maroon people — the descendants of African slaves who learned the ways of the forest from Amerindians generations ago. Heinrich Harrer — of Seven Years in Tibet fame — travelled to Suriname in the Sixties and published a series of photographs featuring the Maroon people.

Danpaati River Lodge has close links with the community — it was set up by a Dutchman and Dan resident — and some nights a few of the women paddle across to perform traditional dances for guests. “In the past, at the end of a good sugar sale or season, the plantation owners would throw a party and the girls would dance to distract them so others could escape,” explained lodge worker Afino, sassily.

“I weki no! [Morning!],” said my guide, Gabriel. “Let’s go for a walk.”

A local nudged his canoe through a small hole in the riverbank foliage, dropped us on the squelchy bank, and left.

Shanklands Rainforest Resort on the Essequibo River promotes and preserves the local tribal culture
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Away from the river breeze, the humidity intensified until it felt like the forest was breathing me in and out. And then it started to tickle me. The wing of a marvel butterfly fluttered past my ear and a baby caterpillar inched down my arm. Everywhere, leaves had been turned into origami by ants, and we stepped over buttress roots splayed as wide as elephant feet.

Gabriel started to unlock the forest, pointing to the kupawa tree whose “bark cures diarrhoea”, the mace-like fruit of the astrocaryum palm that “tastes like coconut if you throw it in the fire to burn off the spikes” and the ENT-like “walking palm” that supposedly steps towards the sunlight by putting down roots and allowing those in the shade to rot away.

We arrived at the back of Dan village. Akoafesi, a young local, came to meet us. He’d been searching for one of the elders who guarded the ceremonial knife used for kamba (scarification). “I’ve been wanting to get it done for ages,” he grinned, lifting the sleeve of his T-shirt to show me the design of dashes he’d inked on with a biro.

Children raced between the plank-board homes, while Gabriel pointed out the older houses that still bore traditional Maroon paangawosu (symbol-engraved facades) and, in the centre of the village, the faakapau, the place of the ancestors, marked out with colourful sarongs and urns filled with offerings.

The 12-seater plane landed on a thin runway waxed from an unending swathe of forest. A battered car waited nearby.

The Suriname river
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“You’re leaving paved roads behind,” smiled my new guide, John, as we jolted along red dirt towards Iwokrama, a million acres of protected jungle in central Guyana.

The car stopped. “Follow me,” instructed John, dipping through a tiny break in the trees. After a short hike, we paced behind some hulking boulders and John held up his hand, signalling to stop. “There, look!” And in the lek was an orange-as-marmalade Guianan cock-of-the-rock. A golden-eyed female was perched on an upper branch; her head cocked to the side, inspecting his display. Suddenly, a hawk swooped into scene and everyone scattered.

We drove on towards community-owned Atta Lodge. Atta means “hammock” in the local Macushi language, but guests have eight rooms (with beds) to choose from. The grass around the property had been mown and was patrolled by a trio of prehistoric-looking black curassows. At dinner, I noticed John kept a nervous watch on the tree line.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Kanaima,” he muttered. “It’s an evil spirit — or ‘jombie’ — that possesses people and turns them into bats or other animals to enter buildings and exact revenge.” I laughed nervously. He didn’t.

“I had a really bad fever when I was younger, but when my parents took me to the doctor they couldn’t find any sign of malaria. The Pi Man (shaman) told me I had touched an item infected with bina (magical charm plants) that was probably meant for my grandmother. He told me to bathe in lemon grass and the fever disappeared — so I believe.” In the purple hours before dawn, a roar of howler monkeys wrapped around the hut like a cruel wind and, in that moment, I believed in kanaima too.

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But change is in the air in this rather magical part of the world. In 2015, ExxonMobil announced the discovery of a massive oilfield 200km off the coast of Guyana. Containing an estimated 1.4 billion barrels, valued at $200 billion (Dh734.5), by 2025 it’s poised to become the next biggest producer of oil in the western hemisphere.

The amount is staggering for a nation of fewer than 800,000 people and a GDP of $6 billion. Infrastructure is needed, but rumours of unfair deals abound and concerns about how the country will adapt without falling prey to corruption are widespread. Fast as a piston, change is coming to this once-forgotten corner of South America. Visit now while the magic thrives and before it, too, becomes a fish out of water.

A short history of the Guianas

Peopled by the Arawak and Carib Indians until Christopher Columbus put it on the map for Europeans in 1498, the name "Guiana" once described land stretching from the Orinoco all the way to the Amazon.

However, nearly a century would elapse before Sir Walter Raleigh ignited exploration of the area in 1594 when he came to search for El Dorado – the fabled city of gold – that he thought was located on the legendary Lake Parime in Guyana.

European powers rushed in and established colonies that settled into five initial territories: French Guiana, Dutch Guiana (Suriname), British Guiana (Guyana), as well as Spanish Guiana (half of modern-day Venezuela) and Portuguese Guiana, which is now the Amapa state of northern Brazil.

A stamp depicting the Kaieteur Falls
Shutterstock

Sugar plantations stretched the length of the coast during the 17th and 18th centuries, with constant warring between the French, Dutch and British until peace was agreed in 1814 at the Convention of London.

Final borders were fixed in 1841 when German-born explorer Robert Hermann Schomburgk set the Schomburgk Line, the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela. He purportedly also solved the border debate with Brazil by sharing two bottles of riesling wine with the commanding officer and convincing him to pull back to the Pirara river.

Guyana was granted independence in 1966, Suriname followed nearly a decade later, in 1975, but to this day French Guiana is still owned by France as an overseas department.

5 things you didn't know about the Guianas

1. In 1999, the remains of a giant sloth, or megatherium, were found along Oko Creek on the Cuyuni river in Guyana. Fossils indicate that the creature measured up to 20ft in length.

2. Suriname was given to the Dutch by Britain in 1667 in exchange for New Amsterdam (modern-day New York City) during the signing of the Treaty of Breda.

3. Since 1968, French Guiana has been home to a European spaceport. The Guiana Space Centre is the largest employer in the country and once a month it usually schedules a rocket launch that visitors can watch.

4. The cell where prisoner Henri Charriere – better known as Papillon – scratched his name into the floor can be seen at the Transportation Camp in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, French Guiana.

5. Guyana’s Kaieteur, the world’s largest single-drop waterfall, is named after Chief Kai, a chieftain of the Patamona tribe who, legend has it, paddled his canoe over the edge to appease Makonaima (the Great Spirit) and save his people being wiped out by raiding Caribs.

The Daily Telegraph