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Tropical Prison Ground; Îles du Salut, French Guiana

Which would you chose: brutal prison ground or tropical island paradise?

From 1852, the Iles du Salut (Salvation Islands) were a penal settlement for French prisoners.

Today, the three islands are an ideal tropical island getaway with the eerie remains of prison buildings and a cemetery. 

Location

The Iles du Salut, also known as the Salvation Islands, were chosen as the perfect prison grounds due to there strategic location 10 miles (15km) off the coast of mainland French Guiana.  The harsh and shark infested Atlantic waters made it nearly impossible for anyone to escape (…more on that in a minute).

Credit: Arria Belli
Credit: Arria Belli

History

From 1852 to 1946, the Salvation Islands were known to French prisoners as the place for no return.  There are three islands

  1. Île du Diable (Devil’s Islands)
  2. Île Royale (Royal Island) was once the administrative headquarter and where the director resided.
  3. Île Saint-Joseph (Saint-Joseph Island) was once the area for prison blocks and solitary confinement.  It is also where the guards cemetery is located.

The prisoners were classified into categories:

  • Habitual criminals who could work on the island.
  • Political prisoners who were granted a few liberties.
  • Felons who has no liberties and sentenced to hard labor.

The inhumane conditions, disease, and the chopping block tragically lead 80,000 prisoners deaths.

In 1938, the French Salvation Army began improvements on the facilities.  However, only one year later in 1939 it was shut down.

The islands were abandoned and nearly forgotten until 1965 when the French agreed to building the Guyanais Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana just 10 miles (15km) away from the islands.

Credit:

Alfred Dreyfus (“The Papillon”)

In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus (nicknamed “The Papillon” for a butterfly tattoo on his chest) was convicted on charges of treason in France which became one of the most dramatic events in French and European history. Today it’s known as “the Dreyfus affair”.  Dreyfus claimed his innocence, but was sentenced to the Devil’s Island.

During his time there, he was the only hard-time prisoner who managed to escape nine times. Yes, nine times.

In 1899, Dreyfus was pardoned by the French president and released from prison.

Credit: The Library of Congress
Credit: The Library of Congress

Restoration

With the development of the Guyanais Space Center, the Salvation Islands were excavated from overgrown vegetation and deterioration and were preserved as a heritage site.

In the 1980s a hotel, electricity, and water were developed on the island in hopes of promoting tourism

Today, the Salvation Islands are the most visited tourist destination in French Guiana with over 5,000 visitors arriving annually.

Credit:

When To Go

The best time to visit Iles du Salut is from June to September when the weather is ideal.

Climate

The following temperatures are taken from Kourou.

From June to September, the average high temperatures range from 87 to 90°F (31 to 32°C), low temperatures range from 71 to 74°F (22 to 23°C), and precipitations ranges from 13.7 to 1.6 inches (349 to 40mm) each month.

Getting There & Around

Îles du Salut is located 10 miles (16km) off the mainland of French Guiana.

The best way to get to Îles du Salut is to fly into Cayenne International Airport and take a bus 39 miles (63km) north to Kourou.  From Kourou, you can take a water taxi to the islands.

Average Costs

  • Mid-range accommodations: $75-125
  • Meals: $15-20
  • Bottle of beer: $3

Do’s

  • Visit the old director’s house for an interesting history display.
  • Bring a swimsuit to cool off at the white sand beach on
  • St Joseph Island.
  • Consider taking a sailboat tour of the islands and surround waters.

Don’ts

  • Swim in the waters without checking on hazards.  There are some pretty strong currents in the area.
  • Forget sunscreen and comfortable shoes.

Fun Facts

  • The Iles du Salut where once known as Triangle Islands.
  • From 1852 to 1946 the islands were used as a penal colony.
  • The Salvation Islands are currently located in the launch trajectory of the Guyanais Space Center.

Feature Image Credit: Aah-Yeah

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