01/14/2013 08:12 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

Well-Preserved Beauty Along South America's Caribbean Coast (PHOTOS)

We hired a tour guide to takes on a guided drive through Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital, during our seven hour layover. The city was in the midst of holiday celebrations and there were passed out celebrants lying in the streets. Whatever the most recent party had been, it had surely been extravagant.

We drove through the mountain ranges to Maracas Beach, perhaps the most popular spot for water fun for both locals and tourists. We stopped at a coffee and cocoa plantation and learned how those beans are grown. The views were as impressive as the efficient process.

Time to get back to the airport and continue our journey to Suriname. The lounge at Port of Spain Airport is small, but nice -- not unlike the country where it sits.

After a long delay, we were on our Caribbean Airlines flight to Paramaribo. To enter Suriname, citizens of the US and the EU only need to purchase a $25 Tourist Card which is good for 90 days and 1 entry into the country. Visas are no longer needed for many countries.

The airport is a good 45 minutes from the city. The road is good and lighted. Suriname is 95 percent jungle and only 500,000 people live in this incredible nation. There are no sandy beaches, just a muddy coastline that is made up of Amazon residue deposited by the rivers.

We trekked to the interior and took a 4WD bus to the top of a mountain, where we explored the Brownsberg Nature Preserve. The road uphill is treacherous and scary. Do not drive it alone! Go only with an experienced guide or driver.

At the preserve, we hiked through thick jungle and saw gorgeous butterflies, howler monkeys and reptiles. There are also poisonous snakes, wild cats and orange crabs that live in the streams. Be careful not to step on an ant colony. They bite, as one of our group found out!
After a day of rest, we were off to Albina, a border city between Suriname and French Guiana. We crossed the border river on a small korjaal boat. The Maroni River is really a rapids. We were constantly splashed by the rough waters and were happy to get to the coast of French Guiana, where we had a local lunch and used the outhouses in the village.

French Guiana is part of the EU and is the location of a launch site of the European Space Agency as well as the famous prison from the movie, "Papillon."

We returned to Paramaribo and explored that city. The oldest synagogue in the Western world is located here, right next to a Mosque. Suriname is a multiracial country where everyone gets along and there is very little prejudice or racism. Suriname could be a model of how people should treat one another.

We left on New Year's Eve and hopped over to Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba. The airport on Bonaire is called Flamingo Airport, but we saw zero flamingoes.

Aruba is a paradise. They have amazing restaurants, great beaches and a friendly population. The west side of the island is where the action is. On the east side, there is only volcanic rock and wild surf. Dangerous for swimmers. Great for photographers.

The lounge at Aruba Airport was closed, even though there were so many people boarding flights. Would have been nice to wait there. Interestingly, American immigration and customs is stationed at Aruba Airport so that all flights back to the US are like domestic flights. When we landed in Miami, we just walked out like we came from within the US.

Very convenient.

Along South America's Caribbean Coast