Mountains covered with tropical rain forest; mangrove swamps and savannahs; rivers, waterfalls and jungle-green seashores — these are just part of our unique Caribbean/South American legacy. We may be separated by just a few miles of sea, but not long ago — a few seconds of geological time — we were part of the mainland.
Trinidad’s Northern Range is the easternmost extension of a spur of the Andes system. The coasts are washed, seasonally, by the outflow from the giant Venezuelan river, the Orinoco. On an island 50 by 60 miles, it’s possible to venture into a variety of eco-systems in close proximity.
The legacy is apparent all around, from the lush offshoot of the great Andes chain which we call the Northern Range to the vast biodiversity crammed into our 1,700 square miles. Trinidad’s ecological world is rich and rewarding. Experienced eco tour operators or guides will enhance your eco adventures, though some excursions can be made on your own.
Trinidad has three elevated regions: the Southern Range from Galeota to Moruga, the Central Range running north-east to south-west, and the imposing mountains of the Northern Range. This last range is Trinidad’s highest, rising to over 3,000 feet at El Cerro del Aripo and El Tucuche.
These three ranges are enclosed by a varied coastline and separated by plains, valleys and basins. The result is a full range of ecosystems and distinct features including caves, gorges, mangrove swamps, rivers, lagoons and waterfalls.
Biologically diverse woodlands are found at all elevations from the commonplace littoral woodland behind beaches to the impressive montane forests and elfin woodlands found at high elevations. Some protected areas of forest are sanctuaries. These include Blanchisseuse, Valencia, Guayaguyare.
Hikes and forest walks in the Northern Range run the gamut from leisurely to strenuous: Santa Cruz to Maracas Bay on old donkey trails, Las Cuevas Rincon Valley, Blanchisseuse forest through Brasso Seco to Paria. Visit waterfalls and rivers running off the watershed: Maracas St. Joseph; Aripo; Valencia; North Oropouche; and Edith Falls in Chaguaramas.
Beaches, rocky headlands, mangrove swamps and river mouths punctuate Trinidad’s shores. Islands off the north-west peninsula have windy island habitats, with secluded coves and beaches. Turtles nest on some beaches on the north-east coast and east coast, including Blanchisseuse, Matelot, Grande Rivière, Matura and Manzanilla. Coral reefs can be found at Toco in the north-east, Scotland Bay in the north-west, and around the offshore islands.
The distinctive jungle-green colour of Trinidad’s coastal waters is a result of seasonal discharge from South American rivers, specifically the Orinoco and to a lesser extent the Amazon, as well as many smaller ones, into the sea south of Trinidad. There are two main swamps, the Caroni and Nariva. The former is essentially brackish and covered in mangrove. The latter is more of a freshwater swamp with mangrove along its outer edges, close to the sea. Both are home to adaptive plants, many different insects and fish.
In the Caroni swamp on the west coast you can see the scarlet ibis at sunset and travel by boat along intricate waterways through islands of mangrove. This is the most extensive wetland habitat, fed by rivers off the Northern Range. There is a visitor centre and daily boat tours. Nariva on the east coast is an internationally recognised and protected wetland that is the habitat of manatees, howler monkeys and blue and gold macaws. Tour operators with special licenses kayak into the Bush Bush Sanctuary.
The natural vegetation of Trinidad is remarkable for its diversity: 2,300 flowering plants, including 700 orchids; native and exotic species; 300 species of ferns and their allies; 370 species of trees, including the native purpleheart, mora and crappo.
Savannahs, frequently flooded in the rainy season and parched in the dry season, produce remarkable islands of vegetation with adaptable endemic forms.
Evergreen seasonal forests, common in such areas as Matura and the Central Range and characterised by high rainfall, give rise to trees such as blackheart, guatacare and bois mulatre, trees whose failure to shed leaves seasonally gives shade to rare exotic plants.
Trinidad has almost 400 bird species (more than any other Caribbean island), including purple honeycreepers, tufted coquettes and blue-and-yellow macaws.
There are 620 butterfly species, 108 recorded mammal species (57 of them bats), 70 different reptiles (including mapipire, iguanas and skinks), and 30 amphibian species including the endemic golden tree frog.
Insect groups, including beetles, grasshoppers and caterpillars, are too numerous for accurate records, and it is safe to say that all insect orders are represented, including some undocumented species.
A few animal species have been introduced by humans, like the mongoose and much of our livestock.
Mammals include agouti, anteater, armadillo, capuchin monkey, deer, howler monkey, tree porcupine, manatee, manicou (opossum), ocelot, quenk (peccary or wild pig), squirrel. Reptillian life includes anaconda, caiman, iguana, leatherback turtles.
A good guide should be able to identify many of the plants and animals you spot on your eco adventure, but a reliable handbook can help make any trip more instructive. The definitive field guide for birdwatchers is A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, by Richard ffrench (2nd edition, Cornell University Press).
Amateur botanists should look out for Native Trees of Trinidad and Tobago, by Victor C. Quesnel and T. Francis Farrell (Trinidad & Tobago Field Naturalists Club).
And, though it’s not strictly speaking field guides, Julian Kenny’s Views from the Ridge, Orchids of Trinidad & Tobago, and Flowers of Trinidad & Tobago (Prospect Press, Trinidad & Tobago) each are illustrated by over 100 photographs of T&T’s flora and fauna with comprehensive accounts of the islands’ natural history by one of the Caribbean’s best-known zoologists.
Trinidad was part of the South American mainland many times in the past (perhaps as recently as 500AD), and it was the first stop for the Caribbean’s First People as they migrated northwards from South America, bringing with them plants, seeds and animals.
So the island’s natural life is a rich mixture of continental and island forms. This gives Trinidad a special attraction for naturalists. Rainforest, 3,000-foot mountains, plains, swamp, mangrove, contrasting coastlines, and a large range of species are packed into a small area.
Huge turtles nest on the beaches, nocturnal fruit-eating bats colonise the caves, spectacular scarlet ibis roost in the swamp, and around 400 different birds live in Trinidad or stop here on their migrations.
In the forest are ocelots, tayra (wild dogs), red brocket deer, quenk (wild pigs), and silky anteaters. The endangered West Indian manatee survives in the Nariva Swamp. The pawi (piping guan) is an endemic bird that looks a bit like a wild turkey. There are more than 600 different butterflies, a mysterious “luminous lizard”, and a golden tree frog living on mountain peaks.
Many of the most important eco-sites are easily accessible; others need some forward planning because permits are required to enter protected areas.
If you are going hiking in the Northern Range, though, you should always go with an experienced guide. Falling trees, landslides, a forest fire or a bit of rainfall can change a trail dramatically: just because you hiked to Matelot in one day last year doesn’t mean you can do the same thing this year on the same trail. Don’t go exploring on your own.
Even if you are going out for one day, take a little knapsack with a change of clothes, socks and something to eat, stored in a waterproof bag. There are lots of freshwater streams you can drink from along most Northern Range trails, or you can take your own supply. Comfortable shoes and insect repellent are essential. The Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club Field Guide is an essential companion. It covers 52 trails, with maps, and information about local conditions and the difficulty and time required for each trail.
Hiring a Trinidad & Tobago Incoming Tour Operators’ Association (TTITOA) registered guide is recommended. They are professionally trained and have public liability insurance.