St Laurent du Maroni
St Laurent is an intriguing place with some of the country's finest colonial architecture and, even 60 years after the penitentiary's closure, it's dominated by penal buildings and the ghosts of its prisoners. Along the banks of the Fleuve Maroni (Marowijne River), bordering Suriname, St Laurent is also a place to take a river trip to Maroon and Amerindian settlements.
On a small peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Kourou River, this small city of modern apartment blocks once existed solely to serve the mainland and offshore penal colonies. Now it seems to exist solely to serve the Centre Spatial Guyanais (Guyanese Space Center), a satellite construction facility and launch pad that employs thousands of people.
Mana & Awala-Yalimopo
About 50km northeast of St Laurent lies the rustic village of Mana (population 600), which boasts a particularly scenic waterfront on the Mana River, considered one of the loveliest and least spoiled rivers in northern South America. There's an ATM at the post office in Mana, and the last gas station heading east is at the roundabout at the Mana entrance.
Îles du Salut
Known in English as the Salvation Islands, these were anything but that for prisoners sent here from the French mainland by Emperor Napoleon III and subsequent French governments. The three tiny islands, 15km north of Kourou over choppy, shark-infested waters, were considered escape-proof and particularly appropriate for political prisoners, including Alfred Dreyfus.
A tidy slice of Laos in the hills of Guiana, Cacao, about 75km southwest of Cayenne, is a village of clear rivers, vegetable plantations and wooden houses on stilts. The Hmong refugees who left Laos in the 1970s keep their town a safe, peaceful haven, and it's now a favorite weekend day trip among locals from Cayenne.
St Georges de l'Oyapock
St Georges serves as a departure point for visits to Amerindian villages and the ruins of Silver Mountain Penal Colony on the Oyapock River, but not much else. Accessing the villages requires permission from local authorities and an experienced guide, so it's best to contact a Cayenne-based tour company.
The defunct gold-mining village of Saül – the geographic center of French Guiana – is an untamed paradise explored mostly by professional biologists. The Big Tree path – with the largest tree ever recorded in French Guiana – is just one of hundreds of kilometers of trails built by French and American research institutes in the area.
Trésor & Kaw Nature Reserves
The Trésor Nature Reserve is one of French Guiana's most accessible primary rainforests, and the bordering swamps of the Kaw Nature Reserve are excellent for observing caimans (best at night) and spectacular waterfowl like the scarlet ibis. Getting to Trésor is easy enough if you have a car: drive 17km from Roura on the D6 to Trésor's 1.