Les Îles Du Salut – Following In The Footsteps Of Papillon



It’s amazing how time can really transform a place. Take, for example, les Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands), which is a chain of islands about 10 kilometers north off the mainland of French Guiana. 

Once home to an infamous penal colony, these days, this tropical archipelago is mostly well-known for welcoming cruise ships that have made it a part of their tour, as opposed to ramshackle boats containing hardened criminals, as it did around the turn of the century. 

islands of salvation ruins

If you have seen the movie Papillon, then you’re already familiar with  Îles du Salut AKA The Islands of Salvation.  

This movie chronicles the imprisonment, and eventual escape of Frenchman Henri Charrière, who was sent to Devil’s Island in 1931, after he was wrongly convicted of murdering a pimp.

The fate of Henri Charrière was to play out his days on Devil’s Island, which boasts shark-filled waters surrounding a rather unsettling-looking small green island.

Henri lasted for 12 years on Devil’s Island, at which point he managed to escape and flee to nearby Venezuela. 

If you like movies, Papillon is well worth seeing.  And, if you’re going to check out these islands, you may as well get prepped for it by re-watching this classic, because you will be be strongly reminded of this film once you set foot on the island.

Have a look at this visitor’s video, and it should give you an idea of some of the surroundings here…

The Devil’s Island is but one of three small islands in this region of French Guiana, the other two being the Royale Island and St. Joseph Island. 

The Devil’s Island is still off-limits, and it is claimed to be used for some mysterious purpose these days, although to look at it, you may never know it. 

Back in the time of Papillon, Devil’s Island was used to house political prisoners.  It is closed off to the public still.  Also, St. Joseph island was where solitary confinement was located, and also where the guards were buried in their own cemetery.  

It is also off limits, although there are plenty of photos floating around the internet showing pictures taken on this island.


If you visit the Salvation Islands today, which are located about 11 kilometers from Kourou, you may well end up at Île Royale first. 

Also known as the Royal Island, this is the biggest of the three islands. This was where most of the common criminals lived.  

You can reach it by cruise ship, of course, but you can also take a boat there using a company like Tropic Alizes, that will take you from Kourou to the Royal Island in about an hour and a half on a beautiful catamaran. 

tropic alizes iles du salut

Today, these very same buildings that were once used to incarcerate criminals, are used as intriguing tourist destinations, surrounded by scenery that features a wide variety of wildlife. 


Some of this wildlife includes monkeys, agouti, and macaws, who may visit you while you’re having a bite to eat at the restaurant which is there.

While you’re there, you can visit prison buildings which are treated like museums, not to mention you pick yourself up a “Devil’s Island” postcard and, honestly, you probably will want one.

prison hospital

Perhaps surprisingly, your tour guide on the Royal Island will be none other than.. yourself! 

Yes, you are permitted to roam the prison ruins all by your lonesome, as well as take in other landmarks of interest, as well as see the lush scenery and the wild animals.  We’re talking monkeys, who will either be interested in you, or ignore you at their discretion. 

A self-guided tour of the island will take you approximately 3 hours, and you should watch your step, as the terrain isn’t always even, and the walking trails aren’t necessarily well worn.  

This place makes a great day trip destination, but we can’t guarantee you would want to stay overnight.

islands of salvation ruins

The heat in this locale can be very intense, so you don’t want to be wearing too much.  Amenities on the Royale Island include a restaurant, café, and rest rooms, but the main attraction is, of course, the history behind the place.  

This may not be somewhere you’d want to go every single year, but it could be somewhere you’d enjoy taking in one time.

If you go on an excursion such as this, you can truly follow in the footsteps of Papillon.


About the author: Patrick has the record of travelling the most out of everyone, visiting over 30 countries around the world in 15 years, and sleeping in the most tents with the least amount of blankets and cushions.  He can literally sleep anywhere! A few countries Patrick has lived in include India, Mexico, Tanzania, and Morocco, and currently he lives in Peru.