March 8th, Belem departure to Cayenne, French Guiana
Why French Guiana? Well, it has a lot to do with how we have adapted our itinerary to the evolution of the pandemic. As you know, our plan had initially been to spend about 1 month in Brazil and really get to know the country, but with the arrival of the new Covid-19 variant and the tension on the health system there, our friends from Brasilia, Margie and Gerard, advised against it. So instead of 1 month we spent 4 days there. While we were planning our speed visit to Brazil, we spoke to our friend and instructor Ricky Montesano who has lots of experience ferrying Cirrus airplanes from Knoxville where some are built, to Argentina. He reminded us that if we got infected in Brazil, it would take a few days before we actually had symptoms so we needed to think about where it would be OK to be sick. That is where the French Départements d’Outre Mer came into the picture and since I had always wanted to visit Martinique, I contacted an aeroclub there to see what the situation was like on the ground. We were lucky: the President of the first club I found on the internet, Jerome Brochard of EasyFly Martinique, was full of advice and tips. He recommended French Guiana instead of Georgetown which we were initially contemplating and gave us the name of his counterpart in Cayenne. After contacting him too, it appeared that it was very feasible to land in Cayenne and be admitted into the country. All we needed was a negative Covid test and a special authorization from the Préfecture which we secured online in just a few hours (in French of course). Borders appear to be quite open for crew members, so we had two advantages going for us: speaking French and being pilots, phew!
We did a Covid test in a pharmacy right before our departure and off we were! Or so we thought…because in keeping with our experience so far, there were a few hiccups before we were finally airborne. First the Belem control could not find our Flight Plan although it had been filed the night before. This meant waiting for about 30 minutes in the cockpit in the sun… fortunately I had a black umbrella in my backpack and immediately deployed it outside the door! Once they found our flight plan, we could start the engine and start taxiing towards the runway but 3 minutes (and a few hundred meters) later, ground control asked us to stop and an air marshal came towards us. Apparently, they had forgotten to charge us for some airport fee in Foz do Iguaçu and the marshal needed our phone number. The same phone number that was on approximately 25 documents which we had filled out in numerous copies since we were in Brazil! Alex was really mad because clearly those people didn’t know how hard it is to start a Cirrus engine when it is already warm. He had to try about 4 times before it finally started purring again and on top of that we were losing precious morning time. Indeed, the best hours to fly in Brazil and the Amazon are between 9 am and 2 pm because before 9am there is fog and after 2 pm there are too many thunderstorms -materialized by huge towering cumulus’s- due to the humidity rising from the warm earth, so we really wanted to land early. But when Alex finally could restart the engine we already knew that was not going to happen since we left about 2 hours later than planned ☹
The result is that there were many clouds on the way, so we didn’t really get a good look at the brown water of the Amazonas river and the vegetation beneath us while we flew over the jungle for about 4 hours from Belem via Macapá and the Brazil-French Guiana border to Cayenne. The Gopro attached to the tail of the airplane did manage to take a few good shots which you can watch in our video section. Inside the airplane we did not see as much but did take a good look at the border on the avionics screen because Margie had shared a fun fact with us: the longest border France has with another country is the Brazilian one!
The immensity of the Amazon surroundings also dawned on us when we checked how far the "nearest airports" were - a normal thing to do along the way in case of emergency- and saw that there was nothing within less than 100 nautical miles (= 180 km).
After flying over lots and lots of green trees below, we were transferred to Cayenne control and started hearing communications in French and Brazilian city names with a French accent (“Oiapok” instead of Oyapoqué)! That was an emotional moment for me because I have been wanting to see Nina, Sophie, my parents and family for over a year and suddenly Europe felt so close. Especially since in the mean time, in Macapá (still Brazil, Amazon delta) we had passed from the Southern hemisphere into the Northern one.
Less than an hour later we landed at Felix Eboué airport (aka SOCA), next to a large Air France Airbus – we were definitely in France.
We were immediately greeted by an agent of the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie who ushered us through immigration and towards the exit in less than 5 minutes (!). And there we were, standing on the sidewalk in front of the airport, in France, next to Mr. Felix Eboué.
It all went so fast that we were not sure what to do next so we started by connecting to the airport internet to find a place to stay. It was a little difficult to judge the Airbnb offer by the pictures so we took a taxi to the city center (the airport is in an area called Matoury about 30 minutes away) to check some places out. The locations of the first two apartments were not very inspiring so when we saw water in the distance through the car window we asked the taxi driver if there were any hotels on the waterfront and ended up in Hotel des Amandiers. The President of the Cayenne aeroclub had been right when he said that there was no need to book in advance these days and that we could even have a room each 😊
The Hotel des Amandiers had a nice terrace bar on the edge of a waterfront park and also an electric kettle in the room (the first since we had left). The kettle is not a minor feature when you plan to get up very early -before breakfast is being served- to go to the airport and need to fill a thermos for coffee on board. Indeed, we were going to leave for Martinique the next morning and had been advised by our new friend Jerome to arrive before 2pm because of weather and immigration formalities.
View from our room
We had just enough time in Cayenne to go for a stroll by daylight. We were starting to get used to the prompt sunset around 6 pm close to the Equator. Next to the park, the feeling of France hit again when we saw a group of men playing pétanque and it struck again when we went to buy our lunch for the next flight: there were mostly French products and brands in the supermarket, all priced in euros.
Je pointe ou je tire ?
The city center of Cayenne is quite old and shabby but there is a certain uniformity in its architecture, lots of wooden houses that look like this:
Back at les Amandiers we ordered pizza on the terrace (restaurant was closed due to Covid) and started preparing everything -including a checklist for what to put in our survival bags- for our 5.30 departure from the city for our first flight over lots of water to Fort de France in Martinique (TFFF).