What do you think of when someone mentions Guyana?
'Cricket,' said Rob, a sports-mad workmate. 'Water,' said Ben, a friend and one of the few people I knew who'd been there. 'Green,' said a travel professional, hinting at a certain monotony, and suggesting I might tire of verdure rather quickly.
But, as I soon found out, greenness in Guyana is a beguiling thing. Travelling with a tiny escorted tour group, my first stop after crossing the border from Brazil was Atta Rainforest Lodge, a jungle retreat in the immense Iwokrama wilderness reserve. Around the brick chalet that was to be my bed for the night were lanky yellow-beaked black currasows – an exotic-looking bird to me, but seemingly as common as farm hens in deepest Guyana. Blue morpho butterflies fluttered around the site, and I spied a red-rumped agouti (a slightly cuter giant rat) as I set out to explore the forest. These were the flashes of colour trying to get themselves noticed in the dense jungle; otherwise, as I found out in the undergrowth and again from a platform high up in the canopy, everything was bottle, emerald, lime, racing, jade or some other shade of green.
Just south of Atta, I saw the country's most startling, and most emblematic, hue – the bright orange of the Guianan cock-of-the-rock, endemic to here and a tiny number of other countries in Latin America. He was easy to spot, thanks to his colour and the fact that he was hopping from branch to branch in what we were told was typical mate-attracting behaviour.
Our stay in the Iwokrama rainforest was uneventful but noisy. All night there was the rustle and hustle of movement until, with dawn, all the screaming pee-has, squawking parrots, cooing pigeons and howler monkeys woke up to cut off our snores. The rivers running past the lodge were filled with large piranha, electric eels and anacondas. Jaguars are still fairly common in the deep forest.
At our next outpost, Rock View Lodge, I went for a walk down the airstrip to see the horizon. I could hear chattering parrots behind me and cattle mooing somewhere ahead. There was dense jungle on the slopes and lush grasses on the plains, which were dotted with homesteads and small farms. It was infinitely more appealing than pure jungle. In the 1990s, while living in Buenos Aires, I'd fallen for the rhythms and expanses of the pampas, and the imprint of man upon nature. Here, on the Rupununi plains, was something very similar, and all the more magical because it was as if the jungle was rearing up behind me.
Climbing up into the hills the next day I could see more of the plains and, blue in the distance, the uncharted Kanuku mountains. Expert guide Leon, who dressed like a hip hop fan but knew more about ornithology than any corduroy-suited Brit, showed me where to look into the jungle to see red-headed woodpeckers, yellow-beaked flycatchers and several blue birds, including one called, jazzily, the 'blue darkness'. Cutting through the savannah was Guyana's one main north-south transport artery, a deep red winding strip of laterite – and, sorry Colin, the bumpiest road I have ever had the misfortune to be bussed along – that would take me to Georgetown the following day.
I expected all the lush, untainted greenness to come to an end in Guyana's capital. Guidebooks remind you that it was once nicknamed the 'Garden City' but now has more rubbish, concrete and crime than flowers and plants. However, this wasn't quite true – or wasn't what I felt, which is perhaps as important.
Georgetown has more wooden houses than just about any city I've visited and has a dishevelled but somehow romantic air that reminded me of the Havana of 20 years ago. In the artificial lakes of the city's main park there were manatees and a caiman. I could feel the heat and humidity rising in waves from the moist lawns. Georgetown is a plantation town built on floodplains – seven metres below sea level in some areas – and feels temporary, vulnerable, wet.
I'm not a great one for sporting pilgrimages, but I paid my respects at the now rarely used Bourda Cricket Club ground, the only test ground in South America. I then went to the Starbroek market (the name hinting at the shifting colonial tenancies in these parts) to buy a cold beer and some hot chutney. Through the rickety wooden floorboards I could see the chocolate-coloured Demerara flowing beneath me. The nearby local museum was one of those brilliant, chaotic places where the governor's old limo stands beside a cabinet containing stuffed fish and crumbling maquettes of long-gone mansions. I took a lunch break at a lovely little canteen, sitting down on the outside balcony-cum-terrace to eat goat curry and down a cold one.
I finished my self-guided tour with a visit to the Castellani House art gallery. Cyril Kanhai's 1967 oil, 'Green Land of Guyana', told a story: here was the verdure rendered as solid blocks and spheroids, abstract and aggressively artistic. Several other paintings explored the imagination's struggle with the relentless green blur of the jungle. When I left the gallery a long-threatening storm had arrived and Georgetown looked like a study in tropical gothic. I beat a path through the ramshackle suburbs, dodging the open sewers, for my hotel.