Once one of the most infamous prisons, the Salvation Islands are nowadays a small nature paradise. Many tourists explore every year while learning more about the history of French Guiana. If you are willing to spend a day or two enjoying pristine nature and beaches, this may be the perfect escape for you.
The history of the Salvation Islands
Soon after they were discovered these three islands were named Devil’s Islands, due to the strong sea currents that made their access very difficult. Between 1763 and 1764, an expedition of French settlers ended with the death of the majority of these people. A few of them were able to survive by refuging in the archipelago. Since then, the trio changed its name to Salvation Islands.
A hundred years forward, in 1854 the French Government created prison camps throughout all of French Guiana including the Salvation Islands. Although, the conditions in the island’s prisons were less difficult than those situated on the mainland, like the Annamites or Saint Laurent, life was still very difficult, and many prisoners died there.
They have put Hell in ParadiseAlbert Londres, French journalist and writer, about the Salvation Islands.
It was during this period that some “illustrious” prisoners stayed at the prison camp. Like Albert Dreyfus, a political prisoner who was isolated on the smaller island for 1517 days. Or also Henri Charrière, the author of the best-selling novel Papillon, butterfly in French.
Since the construction of the Guiana Space Center (that I highly recommend you visit!), the Salvation Islands have become property of CNES (the Centre National d’Etudes Spatials, France’s national space agency), because of their strategic position on the rocket’s trajectory.
How to get to the Salvation Islands
Today, like always, there is only one way to go to the Salvation Islands, by sea. Catamaran companies operate the maritime route every day. Let’s see the options you have:
- Tropic Alizés is a 28 spots catamaran you can rent also for large groups. Departures for day trips are at 7.30 AM and the meeting for the return is at 3.30 PM. The crossing lasts about 1 hour. The price of the ticket is 53€.
- La Hulotte is a 28 spots catamaran as well. The price for one adult is 54€.
- Pro Maritime has the largest catamaran with 100 spots. The price of the ticket is 47€.
All the catamarans leave Kourou around 8 AM and come back between 3.30 and 4 PM. The catamarans dock on the largest island, Ile Royale. If you want to explore Saint Joseph, the second largest island, you can book the ticket for 10€ at the Pro Maritime ticket office. While on Tropic Alizés and La Hulotte, depending on the formula you choose that will be already included in your ticket price.
If you suffer from seasickness, you should take a medicament with you. The waves get higher once you are out from Kourou’s canal and you may be sick in the last 20 minutes before arriving to the Royal Island.
Where to sleep and eat
The CNES which owns the islands has built a hotel, l’Auberge des Iles where you can spend the night. The prices for the rooms are:
|1 kid under 12 years old
In addition to these more “traditional” accommodations, you can also spend the night in one of the ancient guardian’s houses. Those small houses include beds and can welcome up to 3 persons, there is a double bed and a single bed. The prices are the following:
You can also bring your hammock if you prefer and hang them in the guardian’s houses or in one of the structures that the hotel rent for this use, ask for more information when booking your stay if you are interested.
Where can you eat?
You can eat at the hotel’s restaurant or bring a picnic from Kourou. With this in mind, I highly recommend to bring your water, the cost of water from the restaurant is 4€ for 1,5 liters.
Important things to know before going
You cannot camp on the islands.
If you are willing to spend a night or more on the islands, you will have to book one of the accommodations I have mentioned above.
The Salvation Islands are closed during rocket launches.
I have wondered many times how beautiful it must be to watch a rocket launch from there. Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible. But don’t worry there are still so many ways you can enjoy a rocket launch.
It’s forbidden to fly a drone.
I know that’s not cool. But just like Kourou the whole area is military due to the Guiana Space Center, that’s why you simply cannot fly your drone there. And the police controls very strictly.
The water streams are very strong and dangerous.
Remember you are in the Atlantic Ocean. The water streams are very strong and dangerous. They could throw you against the cliffs or transport you far away. In the same fashion, you can’t swim from one island to another, I know that may be tempting, they are all very close, but simply it’s forbidden and dangerous.
Be careful with coconut falls.
I don’t mean to scare you but be careful if you hear a sudden noise coming from over your head. Coconut falls do not kill 150 people every year, that’s simply a legend. Although, I can promise you will still prefer to avoid this. If you hear a noise just look up.
Mind the capuchin monkeys.
They are cute from afar, but they will not hesitate to steal food or random objects that may interest them. In the latest years, the population has been growing without control. Because of that food scarcity changed their attitude and they have become more aggressive.
What to do on the Salvation Islands
There are many things you can do on the main island, Ile Royale. But you can also spend 2 hours touring Saint Joseph Island. Did you know that Saint Joseph has one of the most beautiful beaches in French Guiana? Check it out here! As for the Devil’s Island, once Albert Dreyfus’s prison, is not allowed to the public.
What to do on the Salvation Islands? Let’s see:
Explore the ancient cells
Cells are everywhere on the three islands. Ile Royale hosted the majority of the prisoners that had the freedom to wander on the island due to the difficulty of escape. It was commonly said that sharks and the ocean were the guardians of the prisoners. Even so, on the Royal Island, you can visit a few of the solitary cells.
The cells for solitary confinement were on Saint Joseph. The prisoners were detained in cells that were no larger than a few meters, in the dark for months. Often following offenses or escape attempts.
Political prisoners stayed on Devil’s Island. From 1895 to 1899 Alfred Dreyfus stayed on the island for almost 4 years, isolated and even chained inside his cell.
Note: the following activities are all on the Royal Island.
Wander among the old buildings
Administration buildings, houses, farms, the hospital, and the church. The Salvation Islands were like a small city. Of course, food and provisions came also from the mainland, but the islands were well organized to provide for their own needs, on Royal Island there was even a piggery and a henhouse.
The most interesting buildings are on the top of the island, including the hospital and the church. Although, you can find the remains of smaller buildings all over the island.
Visit the baby’s cemetery
The only tombs you will see on the Salvation Islands are those belonging to the babies who were born on the island. They were the sons and daughters of the guardians who lived there.
Even though the general conditions were better than on the mainland, it was still very hard to survive, especially for babies and kids. Visiting the small tombs reminds us of the frailty of life during those times in such hostile conditions that are present in the tropical ecosystem.
Bathe in the idyllic Prisoner’s Pool
This basin was created by the prisoners to escape their daily sufferings at least with their minds and enjoy the fresh ocean waters in complete safety. The picture is very beautiful, and you have a perfect view of l’ile du Diable (Devil’s Island).
Be careful with the rocks when entering the waters, they are very slippery!
A few meters from the Prisoner’s Pool, there is also a bay where you can safely bathe protected from the ocean’s streams, it’s Anse Legoff. You can easily recognize it, there is a stair entering the waters.
Spend the night in one of the guardians’ houses
For one weekend, try living like the ancient guardians and sleep in one of their houses. The guardian’s small villas are on the top of the Royal Island, and they are very close to the few cells.
When you reserve your night stay, you will be instructed to recover the key at the hotel. The guardian’s houses are comfortable but very rustic. Besides the beds, you will need to bring with you everything you may need. They also have a small area where you can light a bonfire and grill your meat or vegetables. We also grilled some marshmallows, the American style.
Unspoiled nature and historical discoveries
Undoubtedly the Salvation Islands are one of the best places to visit when coming to French Guiana. Do not hesitate to include them in your itinerary! If you are looking for more reasons to visit French Guiana, I have 5 more!
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