Trinidad is known to wildlife experts and enthusiasts for the sheer mind-boggling number of animal species and habitats crowded together on one small island just 50 miles long by 37 miles wide. Having once been part of South America, Trinidad has evolved both continental and island life forms: 108 native mammals (57 of which are bats), 460 birds, 55 reptiles, 25 amphibians, and 620 butterflies, as well as over 2,500 species of flowering plants (700 of which are orchids), 370 species of tree and 300 types of ferns. Nowhere else in the West Indies can match this level of diversity – and few areas of comparable size anywhere in the tropical Americas.
Heaven for bird watchers
Trinidad and Tobago are on most birders’ bucket list. From the air the islands are just huge nesting sites. The sheer volume of birds makes the air traffic almost as intense as on the ground. The average tally for birders is usually 150 unique birds, topping most other destinations in the region by 30 easily. You can view the complete checklist of the 474 species observed by the Trinidad and Tobago Rare Bird Committee (TTRBC) by visiting www.rbc.ttfnc.org/trinilist.pdf.
Asa Wright Nature Centre
Forty species before breakfast. And that’s just from the veranda. The early birder can catch sight of dozens of the 166 species spotted at this vast nature reserve. At dawn they come in the hundreds – hummingbirds, bananaquits and tanagers – all within touching distance!
You can also see a Crested Oropendola colony near the main house, and Ornate Hawk-eagles and Channel-billed Toucans often perch near the veranda.
You can take guided tours of the rainforest and explore nature trails where the White-bearded Manakin and Golden-headed Manakin can be spotted and the bell-like ‘bong’ of the Bearded Bellbird is heard continuously.
Take a dip in a plunge pool, sample local cuisine at the restaurant, or pick up a souvenir of Trinidad’s natural history in the gift shop. The veranda offers fantastic views down the Arima Valley.
A breeding colony of the nocturnal oilbird or guacharo in Dunston Cave is perhaps the most easily accessible colony of these rare only nocturnal, fruit-eating birds to be found anywhere. The oilbird is found only in the northern region of South America and Trinidad. It roosts or nests in caves during the day, and at night forages in the forest.
Asa Wright Nature Centre is Trinidad’s foremost conservation area, spanning 1,500 acres in the Arima and Aripo Valleys of the Northern Range. Its eco-lodge, restaurant and reception are located on a former cocoa-coffee-citrus plantation, which has been partly reclaimed by secondary forest.
One of the most accessible forest tours is at the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project in St Ann’s. You can trek up hills, explore the forest, take a dip in a river, and learn about this model eco-project and the many gifts that Mother Nature has bestowed on Trinidad. Founder Akilah Jaramogi, a descendant of the Merikins (runaway slaves who fought for Britain and were given lands in the deep south of the island), makes dramatic jewellery from seeds, beads and other forest materials. www.facebook.com/facrp
Pax Guest House
Just minutes away from the University of the West Indies in St Augustine, Pax Guest House sits perched 800 feet above sea level at the Mount St Benedict monastery. About 600 acres of forest can be explored via trails. The guesthouse is an easily accessible place to spot many species of birds. www.paxguesthouse.com
This is a chance to sit and have tea surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds. The Fergusons allow visitors to take tours of their garden, where 13 species of hummingbirds have been photographed, along with dozens of other birds. Images of the birds adorn their living room, taken by Theo. You can choose from three ‘tours’ – one at 8am, the second at 11am, and the last at 3pm. Local cuisine is served and all juices and meals made from local ingredients so visitors can sample sorrel or guava juice with their provisions and stewed chicken. Tel. 373-1379
Nestled in the foothills of the Northern Range, just 20 minutes from the Eastern Main Road in Arouca, is the historic and serene village of Lopinot. The lush surrounding hillsides are home to hundreds of birds and wildlife. A river runs parallel to the road leading to the village, with dozens of picturesque spots for a dip, a lime, some romance or yoga. A natural swimming pool forms just below the museum, a popular spot for children to splash in the cool water and observe the millions of baby tadpoles on the water’s edge.
There’s also the added thrill of the place possibly being haunted by the 19th century French cocoa planter after whom the village is named. After a visit in 2011, Ghost Hunters International and SYFY Channel in the US reported that they had found more evidence of paranormal activity there than anywhere else in the world.
The village is also well-known for its pastelles and parang. The residents are an intriguing mix of Amerindian, Spanish, French, African and East Indian heritage, and tend to be farmers. People also speak Spanish and French patois here.
For further thrills, explore the caves 2km north-east of Lopinot.
Walk through the grounds and admire the trees towering overhead. This is a snapshot of life as it was 200 years ago in Trinidad. At the small museum you will find tools and utensils from the 19th century. A clay oven and a cocoa house remain, legacies of the era when cocoa was king in the island.
The Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary
A few miles southeast of Port of Spain, is famous for the flocks of brilliant scarlet ibis that return at dusk. Once on the water, you feel as if you’ve entered another world. Afternoon boat tours (from 4pm) take you deep into the eerie quiet of the swamp, gliding through a vast, towering cathedral of mangrove roots. The sight of hundreds of scarlet ibis flying overhead and landing in the branches of trees is one you will never forget. If you want to take in the swamp at your own pace, you can hire a kayak. It’s not advisable to bring children under age three, since two hours in a boat may be too much for a toddler to handle. You can buy tickets there, or call one of the operators to pick you up. It’s cheaper to buy it at the site but you will need a car to get there, since it’s off the highway. You can hire a driver to take you there. Ask the hotel front desk if they know anyone.
The Pointe-á-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust
Their focus is endangered wetland birds – breeding and returning them to their natural habitat. Located on the sprawling estate of the Petrotrin oil refinery, near San Fernando, it covers 72 hectares of land and includes two lakes and trails, which offer great bird-watching opportunities. A small museum hosts Amerindian artefacts. www.papwildfowltrust.org
At the summit of Mt Tamana, the Central Range’s highest point, you have some of the best views in Trinidad, with forest stretching as far as the eye can see. Every evening, around sunset, up to a million bats fly out of the cave – a heart-stopping but exciting sight.
The Nariva Swamp & Bush Bush Wildlife Sanctuary
An amazing experience for the entire family. Boys, especially, will love kayaking through the waters of the swamp. As you glide along, you will see and hear different kinds of monkeys, including red howler and white-fronted capuchin monkeys. This is also home to several endangered species of birds and mammals, including red-bellied macaws, owls and manatees. You may spot agoutis, tegus, Cascadura (armoured catfish) and caimans (small crocodiles).
At the Bush Bush Wildlife Sanctuary you will find channel-billed toucans and tree-climbing porcupine. In the evening, the island’s beloved scarlet ibis returns to its roost in the trees among the mangroves. You will need a tour guide and permit to explore the swamp. You can arrange a tour by kayak, boat or (in the dry months) on foot. www.caribbeandiscoverytours.com
The Aripo Savannas Scientific Reserve is home to thousands of protected species of plant and animal life which can only be found in Trinidad. It is the island’s last relatively untouched savanna ecosystem – a unique expanse of tranquil, open space fringed by moriche palms and marsh forest. Located in east-central Trinidad, the reserve ecosystem is unique due to the array of habitats (not seen elsewhere in the country) and the high density of rare, threatened and endemic species. It is one of the most intensively studied areas in the tropics. You will need a permit to enter the reserve, which can be obtained from the National Parks Section of the Forestry Division. Open Monday to Friday, except public holidays, 7am to 4pm. Tel. 645-1203.
Chaguaramas National Park
You could easily spend weeks exploring this end of the island, the departure point for ‘down de islands’. The national park is constantly adding new attractions, the latest being a series of ziplines set high in the trees above Macqueripe Bay. Scream your way down the seven exhilarating lines and rope bridges in 45 minutes of heart-stopping fun. Open six days a week (Tuesday to Sunday) 10am-4pm on week days and 10am- 4:30pm on weekends and public holidays. No bookings required. Tel. 381-8543. www.facebook.com/Trinidadzipitt
You can also kayak in Williams Bay, star-gaze, hike to a waterfall, explore trails, hash, hang out on the boardwalk, swim in Macqueripe Bay, jump off the rocks there, fish, go mountain biking, horseback riding, rappel down a cliff or play a game of golf. The Chaguaramas Military and Aerospace Museum is the largest museum of its kind in the Caribbean. Children will really love this because they can interact with the artefacts and pieces around the museum (while supervised of course). And that’s just on the mainland.
You can take a powered boat to Gasparee Island from Island Home Owners marina. This is actually a coral reef pushed up out of the sea. Over the millennia water has eroded the limestone and several cave systems have formed deep within the island. The largest is known as Gasparee Cave, which has dramatic cave formations of stalactites, stalagmites, earth pillars and a massive blue-green pool in the middle of the cave, lit by sunlight from a hole above.
Chaguaramas is a hiker’s paradise. It’s an ideal place to get acquainted with the terrain and wildlife of Trinidad. You can take it easy and stroll through the Bamboo Cathedral, then up to the old US tracking station. With waterfalls and so much forest cover, the truly intrepid can get their groove on too. The best time to hike is in the dry season – January to June. Be careful in the rainy season (July to December), even if you go with a guide, as rivers can quickly become swollen and dangerous.
Other hiking adventures
There’s great scope for hiking in both islands, especially in the Northern Range, and several groups do regular trips, including guided weekend hikes to caves and waterfalls. Popular hikes include the Maracas Waterfall in St Joseph (easy), Paria Bay on the north coast with its nearby waterfall, the Rio Seco waterfall near Salybia, and Trinidad’s second highest mountain, El Tucuche.
Camping is allowed at Madamas Bay, also on the north coast, which is only accessible by boat or on foot (about five hours from Blanchisseuse). Other popular areas: Brasso Seco, Tacarib, the Heights of Guanapo and the Guanapo Gorge, La Laja and Sombasson waterfalls, Aripo Caves.
But always go with a guide or a hiking organisation. Do not take risks, and do not guess the route.
Caution when hiking
Always carry water, food and first aid supplies, and some dry clothes, in a waterproof bag. Black clothing is the hottest, and attracts mosquitoes. Take a guide who is registered with the Incoming Tour Operators Association, or someone with thorough local knowledge of the route. Wear long trousers for bush treks, and comfortable, waterproof shoes with good grip – no open-toed sandals. Stay on the track (especially during hunting season). Check the weather forecast before setting out – flash flooding can happen during the rainy season, and tree falls and landslides quickly change a familiar landscape. And please, don’t leave any litter behind.