In the early morning we dropped anchor off the Iles du Salut archipelago of French Guiana, home of the infamous Devil’s Island Prison. Our Zodiacs landed first at Ile Royale, the largest island and home to the majority of the prisoners, as well as the prison hospital, church, and administrative buildings. On our arrival, we were greeted by a squirrel monkey sprawled nonchalantly on his back high in a coconut palm. We soon spotted more squirrel monkeys, as well as capuchins. The monkeys are not hunted or disturbed on the Iles du Salut, and are very tame, delighting everyone. We explored the prison complex on our own before being joined by two excellent French guides who put the history of the prison system in context - and in the process debunked many tales of Papillon.
We then transferred to the smaller Ile St. Joseph, where more dangerous and/or mentally disturbed inmates were kept. Here, the ruins seem to grow organically out of the lush, unchecked vegetation at the top of the island, the battered stucco walls painted in startling shades of orange and blue by mold and mildew. The entrance to one cell was nearly blocked by the enormous trunk of a tree, whose roots wound down the narrow corridor like a heavy serpent. It was sobering to imagine the hardships suffered by these men locked in their tiny cells, as the guards walked back and forth on the bars above them, their only roof.