Port of Spain, Trinidad is one of the economic hubs of the Caribbean, full of vibrant culture. Yet, the nature of Trinidad is such that less than an hour outside the city you'll find wild countryside and abundant wildlife, world-class beaches, and one of the more unusual tourist attractions anywhere—a giant lake of liquid asphalt.
Get away from the bustle of Port of Spain with a day trip to this 1,500-acre nature preserve, located in Trinidad's Arima and Aripo Valleys in the Northern Range mountains, about 45 minutes east of the capital.
Visits begin in an estate house on a former cocoa, coffee, and citrus plantation that is rapidly being reclaimed by the surrounding rainforest. Birds can be viewed right from the verandah, and one and a half hour, naturalist-guided hikes depart at 10:30 a.m, and 1:30 p.m. to get a closer look at the 97 mammals, 400 birds, 55 reptiles, 25 amphibians, 617 butterflies, and more than 2,200 species of flowering plants found in the reserve.
You can cool off with a dip in the pool, get lunch in the great house dining room or formal tea on the verandah, and even book an overnight stay in the on-site lodge, which includes a variety of educational programs for guests.
At first, visiting "the world's largest natural deposit of asphalt" doesn't sound too thrilling—more like a field trip to a parking lot. But the natural history of this petrochemical wonder (first documented by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595) is fascinating. It is believed to be the result of an underground deposit of oil being forced up between two tectonic plates and is crawling with microbial life that exists in the most extreme conditions.
Pitch Lake is located near the village of La Brea in southwestern Trinidad, about 55 miles from Port of Spain. The Arawak tribe believed La Brea to have been damned by the gods (two different legends state that the lake swallowed entire towns in the distant past).
Visitors can walk on the surface of the lake, check out the asphalt extraction process, and even take a dip in the lake to test out its supposed healing powers. Seek out an official guide for the best tour. The cost should be 30 TT per person (between US$4.50 and US$5), so don't pay more.
A variety of tours are available to explore this 5,600-acre preserve, a mix of mangrove forest and marshland that are home to an abundance of wildlife. This includes tree boas, anteaters, caimans, herons, egrets, and the Scarlet Ibis, one of Trinidad's national birds. The Scarlet Ibis flies between the island and the Venezuelan coast every day.
Reservations are required for the birdwatching, photography, family picnic, fishing, and educational tours. The 4 p.m. sunset boat tour is popular and a bargain for about US$10. The sanctuary is located on the west coast of Trinidad, about a half-hour south of Port of Spain.
Port of Spain
The Trinidad capital since 1757, Port of Spain, was founded (not surprisingly) by Spanish settlers and conquered by the British in 1797. The Queen's Park Savannah is a 296-acre green expanse in the heart of the city that dates back nearly this far. Today, it is used as parkland as well as a major focal point of the island's annual Carnival celebrations. Fort George, a stunning city overlook, was built in 1804. It's free to visit and includes the remains of fortifications, banks of cannons, and a 19th-century signal station.
Adjacent to the Savannah are historic sites like the Queens Royal College and the Royal Botanic Gardens, a 61-acre park established in 1818 (one of the oldest in the world) and open daily from sunrise to sunset. Admission is free, and visitors can enjoy the shade of more than 700 varieties of trees as well as flowering plants and landscaped grounds. The compact Emperor Valley Zoo is next door; it's worth the $10TT admission (about $1.50) to walk around the grounds and see the local birds and animals.
Port of Spain nightlife includes cricket and concerts at the Queen's Park Oval. It also includes drinking and dining your way down Ariapita Avenue and the streets of the St. James district.
Maracas Bay Beach
A picturesque, hour-long drive from the capital up and over the mountains of Trinidad is rewarded with a stay at this popular north-shore beach. This is where city residents flock on weekends, after Carnival, or pretty much whenever a good 'lime' is in order. The palm-shaded beach is pleasant, if sometimes crowded, the bay is lined with rolling headlands, and the surf is perfect for families.
The uniquely Trini "bake and shark" shacks across the street from the beach sell delicious breaded steak sandwiches topped by assorted condiments and washed down with cold Carib or Stag beer. Which shack is best is a matter of considerable debate, although Richard's seems to be the local favorite.
Sri Dattatreya Temple and Yoga Centre
Multicultural Trinidad's East Asian heritage shines at the Dattatreya Temple and Yoga Centre, famous for having the tallest Hanuman Murti statue in the world outside of India. The 85-foot-tall statue represents the Hindu deity of wisdom, righteousness, and strength.
Celebrations of Divali (a.k.a. Diwali), the annual Hindu celebration of lights, takes place over five days in October and November in nearby Chaguanas.
This remote north coast village is where the Grande Riviere River meets the sea and is known by tourists primarily as one of the world's most important nesting ground for rare leatherback sea turtles.
Up to 5,000 turtles nest on the mile-long beach between March and July, typically attracting three times that number of eco-tourists. The Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guides Association conducts tours. There are several small hotels nearby, including the Acajou, Mount Plaisir, and Le Grande Almandier.
The Gasparee Caves are one of Trinidad's natural wonders, a series of limestone show caves on Gasparee Island off the Chaguaramas peninsula, about 20 minutes outside Port of Spain.
The cave features impressive stalactites, stalagmites, a population of bats, and a deep underground pond fed by seawater. The caves are near Point Balene, site of a former whaling station, and World War II-era gun emplacement. Tours are run by the Chaguaramas Development Authority.