ST. JOSEPH ISLAND, French Guiana — Thick tropical vines wrap around rusty jail bars, and trees grow inside cells in the 19th-century prison on this far-flung island off South America — a relic of French Guiana’s dark past as a penal colony where thousands of prisoners died of disease.
The prison, and many like it on the mainland in French Guiana, closed more than 50 years ago. Their history haunts the French Guianese, who are eager for the world to discover their vast rain forests and eclectic culture of European lifestyles fused with the many traditions brought by Caribbean, Asian and South American immigrants.
“This country has an image of prison and death,” says Serge Colin, 74, a retired French navy captain who moved to St. Joseph and gives tours of the jail. “Even today, parents in France tell their young children, ‘If you don’t behave, I’ll send you to French Guiana.’ ”
The French government spends $2.2 million a year to shed that image, producing brochures and buying television commercials that show off jungles filled with jaguars and monkeys, beaches where huge tortoises waddle out of the surf, and fishermen whisking piranhas out of rivers.
The campaign — dubbed “Personne ne vous croira” (“No one will believe you”) — seems to be working. Between 60,000 and 75,000 people a year have visited the French department of 200,0000 residents since 2001 — a surge from the 1990s, when so few tourists came that officials stopped keeping track, says Karl Joseph, a spokesman for the Tourism Committee of French Guiana.
Travel booklets are devoted to debunking myths such as stories about rampant malaria and poisonous snakes. “Sanitary risks? Be assured that I came back in good health,” says French Red Cross President Marc Gentilini in one book.
“When we said we were going to French Guiana, people said we were crazy,” says Marc Ungerer, 27, an electrician from Strasbourg, France, on vacation with his girlfriend. “They talked about the mosquitoes, sharks and piranhas.”
“We came here for the adventure, and we’ve loved it,” he says, sitting on a catamaran on the way to St. Joseph Island. “We wanted to see the forest [and] have a different kind of vacation than sit on a beach.”
The French first settled this small strip of land between Suriname and Brazil in the early 17th century. Two hundred years later, Emperor Napoleon III desperately needed to build new prisons for a burgeoning inmate population in France and its colonies. He also needed a new source of forced labor after France abolished slavery in 1848. The two needs converged in French Guiana.
Between 1852 and 1946, France sent 70,000 prisoners to its remote possession in South America, forcing them to mine for gold and cut wood in the forests.
Though estimates vary widely, historians estimate between 25 percent and 50 percent of inmates died of diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, hunger or prison violence, says Serge Mam Lam Fouck, professor at the Antilles University in French Guiana.
The horrors were dramatized in former prisoner Henri Charriere’s memoirs, “Papillon,” which recounted conditions and his repeated escape attempts from a prison on Devil’s Island — visible from St. Joseph Island but closed to the public. The book was made into the 1973 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.
France started closing the prisons in the 1930s as the world started taking notice of the atrocities. The last of the prisons closed in the early 1950s.
The former penal colony has flourished into a haven for immigrants fleeing poverty, repressive regimes and violence.
Chatter in more than a dozen languages fills the streets in the capital of Cayenne. Next to French boutiques, Chinese immigrants hawk electronics, and Brazilians and Amerindians sell fresh fruit and fish in open-air markets. Haitians and Vietnamese run small grocery stores and thrift shops selling hammocks and mosquito nets.
The French department is wealthier than its South American neighbors; the European Space Center satellite launch pad is the main employer.
A decidedly French flavor infuses life. Residents spend euros, carry European Union passports and congregate around central plazas. The roads have French rotundas instead of stoplights.
The French Guianese favor long conversations over lunches of pepper steak (steak-au-poivre) and top cabernet wines. Businesses close and streets empty for most of the afternoon as people escape the oppressive heat and humidity by staying indoors.
A hit reality TV show in France has brought new attention to French Guiana. Introduced in February, “1ere Compagnie” (First Company) is filmed on a fake military base about 50 miles northwest of Cayenne. Contestants face challenge courses that take them into rain forests where they inevitably run into wild animals such as crocodiles.
The show has been wildly successful in France, but the French Guianese are less enthusiastic, quickly pointing out that filming takes place just blocks from large hotels and ordinary tourists are unlikely to come across such dangers.
“It’s just a game,” scoffs hotel owner Madeleine Calcagni.
Air France provides most service from Europe and the Caribbean. Smaller airlines such as Surinam Airways serve other destinations in South America.
Lodging options across the French department range from guesthouses to full-service luxury hotels. Reservations recommended if trip coincides with a major conference or a launch at the European Space Center.
January to June is the rainy season, while July to December has less precipitation. Because French Guiana has an equatorial climate, temperatures range from 79 degrees to 91 degrees all year.
Take guided tours of rain forests, fish in Amazonian rivers, visit the European Space Center, camp on the Salvation Islands (Ils du Salut) off the northern coast, visit jails that made up part of the former penal colony.
Vaccination against yellow fever is mandatory. If traveling along rivers or in forests, anti-malarial treatment is recommended.
For more information, visit www.tourisme-guyane.com or www.cnes-csg.fr.