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Horses from the Wichabai Ranch graze during an excursion into the low-lying hills of the grasslands.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Tourists rarely think about Guyana. When we told people we were headed there on vacation, most thought we were going to Ghana, or maybe Gambia. “I’ve never been to Africa,” they’d say. “I’d love to go one day!”

But this is Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, nestled on the north coast of the continent between Venezuela and the equally unheralded Surinam. The only reason my wife and I visited was because we have good friends who were posted there for their jobs, and we could stay at their home in the capital and enjoy some equatorial heat in February. By then, the rains should be over, our friends told us, optimistically.

In Georgetown, the country’s capital, there are few resources for tourists – no bookstores offered maps of the country, and when I visited the Ministry of Tourism to ask for one, I was met with a shrug. Yet Guyana is the fastest-growing economy in the world, spurred by massive discoveries of offshore oil and gas. The GDP grew more than 60 per cent last year. We knew the huge investments would change the country quickly, and we wanted to experience it before that happened.

The changes were evident on the drive from the airport into the city. The two-lane road is decrepit and overused, but it’s being improved, and a new multilane highway is under construction. At one point, our cab driver asked us to wind up the windows to keep all the stirred-up cement dust outside.

Our friends recommended a visit to the Wichabai Ranch, 500 kilometres away in the south of the country. It’s not easy to reach by car – 90 per cent of Guyana is jungle or rainforest, and the main dirt road, which also leads through to Brazil, was still a muddy, daylong challenge. We opted to fly over it all and landed at the airport in Lethem.

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The headquarters of the South Rupununi Conservation Society are at the Wichabai Ranch, and include a couple of basic bedrooms on the ground floor.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The ranch owner, Justin Defreitas, drove us to Wichabai, taking it slowly on the dusty road. For three hours, he told us fascinating stories of the Rupununi region and the indigenous Wapishana and Makushi people with whom he grew up, of the forests and rivers and low hills and the strange animals that live here.

Defreitas was born in Canada, in Port Perry, Ont., though you’d never guess it. His Portuguese-Guyanese parents moved to Canada for a few years in the 1970s, but then returned to Guyana for his father, Duane, to manage a vast cattle ranch in the Rupununi: the Dadanawa Ranch, which once measured more than 2,000 square miles. It’s now mostly governed by the indigenous villages within its land. When he retired, Duane bought the lease for the 50 acres of Wichabai Ranch, which sits on the other side of the Rupununi River.

“I bought it for living in, and for my kids,” says Duane, who now lives back in Toronto with his wife, Sandy, where health care is better. “I wish I was there now! But Justin’s taking good care of it.”

Justin has some help from his wife, Erin Earl, who came from Northern Ireland in 2006 after finishing high school, to teach for a year at the local school. She met Justin and when she returned to university in the U.K., he followed her “to remind me he existed,” she says. She admits she fell hard for both him and the country. When they married in 2016, they built a house together on the Wichabai estate, to run it as a working cattle ranch.

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Justin Defreitas and Erin Earl, with ranch staff and their children, smile for the camera at the Wichabai Ranch’s communal dining table.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

But cattle are not the only animals at Wichabai. In the trees fly the rare red siskins and sharp-tailed ibis. In the river swim the elusive but captivating river otters. And in the woods and on the savannah roam the giant anteaters. Bird-watchers and naturists wanted to visit, and the South Rupununi Conservation Society was formed by Duane in 2002, with more than 100 rangers from 15 indigenous communities to monitor the local environment; its headquarters are in a building at Wichabai, where Erin is the treasurer. There are rooms for society visitors, and now there are more comfortable cabins for curious tourists like myself.

The lodging is basic, though the all-inclusive meals are exceptional and locally sourced. (I went on an afternoon mission with Justin to collect a slaughtered pig from a nearby farmer, which doubled as a mission to deliver a ranch hand’s family back to their home and resupply the beer stocks.) “We blend Amerindian, Afro- and Indo-Guyanese cuisine with Irish and British influences to create our own style of cooking,” declares the ranch’s website.

There are now four cabins and plans to build a fifth that is wheelchair-accessible. “Our dining table seats 12 people, so that’s our capacity,” says Justin. “We like it that way.”

There is no air conditioning because the cabins are raised on stilts to take advantage of the breeze. Water for the ensuite bathrooms is warm but heated only by the sun on the tank. Bugs can be an issue in the wet months of May to September, and the beds are protected by mosquito nets. Harmless bats rest in the eaves and eat the bugs. There’s no malaria in the region, but if you spend too much time in a hammock on the porch without bug spray, you’re likely to be bitten by the tiny kaboura flies that come out at night at any time of year – they don’t carry disease but leave itchy bumps on the skin.

Even so, we slept well, with no phone or TV or even WiFi to distract us from the peace of the region. And in the morning, we went looking for anteaters.

There are at least 60 giant anteaters that live in and around the ranch, most of them named and recognized in photographs but none of them tagged. “We send our vaqueros out on horseback or on motorbikes to look for tracks in the grass,” says Earl, “but to be honest, what we’re really looking for is a big black rock that’s moving in the long grass or through the swamp. That’s really the key to spotting one.”

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Erin Earl downloads a camera trap video in a bush island, and is delighted to see a jaguar stroll past the lens from the night before.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

We went on a hike to check the ranch’s camera traps in areas of local forest, called “bush islands.” These are the low clumps of woody, broad-leaved trees that seem to mushroom out of the savannah’s grasslands, often beside streams or pools, which provide shade and shelter for wildlife. The camera trap video clips showed huge, hairy anteaters scratching against the trees we were leaning against. More clips showed other animals strolling past: jaguars, agoutis, ocelots and margays among them.

It was not until the last morning, however, after two days of hiking, canoeing, horseback riding and afternoon naps, that there was a confirmed sighting of an anteater. A ranch hand spotted it sleeping beneath a sandpaper tree. Earl drove us to the spot.

We saw the grass stir and a large dark shape – a moving rock – lumbered away. I raised my camera and snapped some out-of-focus photos, but it didn’t matter. We’d seen, in the wild, what most people see only in photographs. I’ve been on African safaris and seen their majestic lions and water buffalo and elephants, but there was something special about the peculiar anteater, with its long nose and hairy forearms, just taking a gentle snooze out of the sun.

We returned to our lunch and the anteater surely found a termite mound, all of us satisfied with our day.

If you go

The cost: US$195 per person each night to stay at the Wichabai Ranch, an all-inclusive rate including meals, horse riding on the ranch and in the grasslands, swimming in the ranch’s lake (though you may share the water with wary caymans), and canoeing on the Rupununi River. For an extra cost, guided tours and hikes are available such as a visit to a nearby Indigenous village.

Getting there: We flew to Georgetown, Guyana, from Toronto on Caribbean Airlines. There’s an airstrip at Wichabai and five-seater flights can be chartered direct from the airport. Most people fly Trans Guyana Airways for about $400 per person return to the town of Lethem, close to the Brazilian border, and then drive three hours on poorly signed dirt roads. We arranged for the ranch to collect and return us to Lethem for US$500, four of us sharing space in a new Mitsubishi pickup. Some visitors travel from the city of Boa Vista in Brazil, which is an hour from Lethem and smoothly paved to the border.

Safety: The Government of Canada recommends “a high degree of caution” when visiting Guyana because of high crime rates, but we didn’t flash money around and had no issues. I rented a vehicle and travelled most of the highway along the coast and experienced no problems.

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