Trinidad’s Rich & Diverse Natural History
A few of thousand years ago, Trinidad (and Tobago) was joined to the South American mainland. Today, we’re separated by a sea channel. But this natural history has bequeathed our small island of approximately 1,850 square miles the legacy of an awesome biodiversity, and the resulting blend of island and continental ecology gives Trinidad a wide range of ecosystems (mountain, forest, swamp, rivers, plains, coasts) to explore.
With hundreds of bird and butterfly species, countless hiking and biking paths up mountain trails leading to caves and secluded waterfalls with cooling plunge pools, Trinidad is an eco-lover’s paradise. The island offers natural wonders to explore and experience that are unparalleled anywhere else in the Caribbean.
There are three mountain ranges in Trinidad: the Northern, Central and Southern Ranges. The Northern Range is the highest, with El Cerro del Aripo and El Tucuche reaching more than 900m (3,000ft). Cloaked in tropical rainforest, they watch over the island’s varied landscape of coastline, caves, gorges, mangrove swamp, rivers, lagoons and waterfalls.
Trinidad’s waters are fed year-round by the Orinoco and other South American rivers. Its two main inland bodies of water are the Caroni and Nariva Swamps, both Ramsar Sites (protected wetlands of international importance). Caroni is particularly known for its roosting scarlet ibis, while Nariva is the home of the elusive West Indian manatee. There are coral reefs off Chaguaramas and Toco.
Flora & Fauna
There are over 470 different bird species in Trinidad and Tobago, 620 species of butterfly, 2,300 different flowering shrubs and plants (700 of them orchids), 108 different mammals, including 57 bats and 70 different reptiles: these figures should give you some idea of the country’s staggering ecological diversity.
And you don’t have to travel far to see them, either. Forest-covered mountains, mangrove swamps, seashores, rivers and tropical savannah all lie within easy reach of the main towns.
Vegetation ranges from littoral woodland behind the beaches to montane rainforest and elfin woodland high in the mountains. Within these habitats are:
- 2,500 flowering shrubs, including 700 orchids
- 370 species of trees
- 300 species of ferns
- 620 butterfly species
- 470 bird species
- 108 recorded mammal species (57 of them bats)
- 70 species of reptile (some, like leatherback turtles, are protected)
- 30 amphibian species
- countless insect species
To ensure you get the most out of your experience, make sure to go with an experienced eco-tour operator or guide.
Easy Eco & Outdoor Adventures
Here are some of our favourites among Trinidad’s countless eco adventure opportunities.
One of the most popular water sports in Trinidad. Kayaks can be rented locally from the Kayak Centre in Williams Bay, Chaguaramas, and the Salybia Water Sports and Recreation Centre offers guided kayaking tours up the Salybia River and hikes to the Matura waterfall. Other popular kayaking spots are the Nariva Swamp in the south and Blanchicheusse in the North coast. Reputable tour guides also organise kayaking expeditions anywhere in the country
Trinidad’s small but growing surfer population spend weekends in the northeastern coastal village of San Souci. Surfing is also good at Balandra, Toco and Salybia in the northeast and Maracas and Blanchisseuse in the north. Kite-surfing is also becoming increasingly popular on the south coast beaches of Mayaro, Moruga and Los Iros.
Chaguaramas: Hiking, Biking, Birding, Ziplining & Watersports
It’s also the gateway to several offshore islands. Two highlights are the 76m (250ft) Edith Falls, and Morne Catherine, the highest peak in the area.
Offshore, the 30m (90ft) deep limestone Gasparee Caves are breathtakingly beautiful. If you don’t want anything too strenuous, try a picnic in Tucker Valley’s Samaan Park.
Here is more on some more Chaguaramas highlights:
- Chacachacare: in 1877 the British established a leprosarium on this island. The shells of what once used to be a hospital, nunnery, doctor’s residence and chapel still stand. The site itself, however, has long been deserted. If you’re fit enough you can walk to the functioning lighthouse at the end of the only road
- Edith Falls: a three-fingered waterfall, most striking during the wet season when rainfall is heavy. The trail to the 250-foot falls is a 30–40 minute walk
- Gasparee Caves: approximately 90 feet deep, this underground limestone system on the nearby island of Gaspar Grande (Gasparee) comprises three main areas: The Entrance, The Twilight, and the Dark Zone. In each, fascinating geological formations are enhanced by natural light reflections. The Twilight Zone also has a saline pool, three feet deep at its shallowest
- Institute of Marine Affairs: a library and information centre conducting research on the marine environment. Regular marine life exhibits can be seen, by request
- Morne Catherine: the highest peak in the Chaguaramas area. A winding seven-mile road leads to the summit, with trails you may want to explore for wildlife sightings. The climb to Morne Catherine is a must if only for the captivating Tucker Valley and sea views.
- Ziplining: Seven lines (the highest at 100ft) and five canopy walks/net bridges offer breathtaking views of Macqueripe. Courses take between 45 minutes and one hour to complete.
For more: the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA): 634-4227, www.chagdev.com
Northern Range: Hiking & Birding
Trinidad’s lush Northern Range is a continuation of one branch of the great South American cordilleras, rising to over 3,000 feet into elfin woodland at El Tucuche and Cerro del Aripo. There are several adventures to be had here, most requiring a good guide. In the Heights of Guanapo, the Guanapo Gorge, and La Laja and Sombasson waterfalls are the main attraction. Large colonies of bats and oilbirds inhabit the Aripo Caves. The climb to El Tucuche provides a challenge even to seasoned hikers. Nearby, the Maracas Waterfall is a popular excursion.
- Aripo Caves: large colonies of oilbirds and bats can be spotted here. Guided tours are necessary
- Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge: nestled in the hills above Arima at the head of the Arima valley, this 193-acre eco centre and former estate house is now a world-renowned lodge where visitors can experience an amazing variety of bird life, including Squirrel Cuckoos, Toucans, and Tufted Coquettes. Day-visitors and long-stay guests can view the Northern Range’s diverse avifauna from the well-appointed veranda, or explore the different birding and butterfly trails. The Centre’s rainforest is also home to a breeding oilbird colony. Originally a cocoa and coffee plantation, it was bought by the English Dr. Newcome Wright and his Icelandic wife Asa in 1947. Two years later, the New York Zoological Society established a research station to investigate its tremendous biodiversity. After Newcome’s death, Mrs. Wright sold the land on condition that it remained a conservation area; a non-profit trust was set up in 1967. There are guided tours, nature trails, bird watching, a plunge pool, restaurant, gift shop and more onsite. The verandah has fantastic views and is a great place for bird photography. Guides offer informative forest tours. There’s also a swimming hole. The lodge incorporates a restaurant serving good local cuisine. Reservations recommended: 667-4655, www.asawright.org
- Caura Valley: a popular spot for river limes and hiking.
- El Tucuche & El Cerro Del Aripo: at 3,075 feet Trinidad’s second highest peak and a favourite with hardcore hikers. Beginning in the town of Maracas, St. Joseph, hikers encounter a variety of ecosystems and their inhabitants, including the indigenous golden tree frog. The summits offer views of the North Coast, Central Plains and Southern Range. From there, hikers can continue hiking to Maracas Bay or return to Maracas, St. Joseph. A challenging hike, so find an experienced guide before attempting it. Experienced hikers may enjoy trekking to El Cerro del Aripo, and the chance to come face to face with an ocelot (wild cat)
- Heights of Guanapo: this area’s main attractions are the Guanapo Gorge, and La Laja and Sombasson waterfalls. Hiking in this area must be done in the company of a guide.
- Maracas Waterfall: best seen in the rainy season, these falls, north of St Joseph, are approximately 300 feet high (91m). They are Trinidad’s second highest falls
- Mount St. Benedict Church and Monastery: an excellent bird watching site 800 feet above sea level. Nectar-feeders like honeycreepers and hummingbirds are regular visitors, attracted by the area’s many flowering plants. The verandah of the guest house offers great views of the valley and the Caroni plain
- Three Pools: three large freshwater bathing pools and a natural water slide, an easy 30-minute hike up the Marianne River from the village of Blanchisseuse
- Mt. Tamana & the Tamana Caves: on the eastern edge of the Central Range and offering some of the best views of the Central Plains, Mt. Tamana’s caves are home to over a million bats, which pour out each evening in a spectacular display. The hike to the caves is short but steep, and muddy in the rainy season. From the caves, you can hike up to the top of Mt. Tamana, only about 300m, but with vistas of the Northern and Central Ranges
- Paria Waterfall: accessed either from Blanchicheusse or Brasso Seco, with deep plunge pool for bathing
- Cumaca cave: on the southeastern end of the Nothern Range, has a large oilbird colony. The hike takes about two hours and the river running through the cave makes it slippery. It’s also dark, and hikers should walk with flashlights
- Arena forest: gentle gradients are ideal for novices, also good for birdwatching.
North-East: Beaches & Turtles
The rugged north-eastern coast is one of the loveliest and most unspoilt stretches in all of Trinidad, and a prime location for turtle-watching. Trinidad’s Grande Rivière, on the north coast, is the second largest leatherback turtle nesting ground in the world. During nesting months (March–August), huge endangered leatherback turtles (among other turtle speceis) return to the beaches on which they were born to lay their eggs, which hatch two months later. During peak season, hundreds of turtles come ashore here and at northeastern beaches like Matura. It is an astounding and humbling experience, but do take care not to disturb the turtles when nesting.
- Grande Rivière: a small, friendly fishing village, whose main beach is a primary nesting location for leatherback turtles. Great for bird watching; home to species such as the endangered Blue-throated Piping-Guan (Pawi), Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and Swallow-tailed Kite. Though one of the more remote areas on the island, there are a number of hotels, guest houses and cottages for rent. Local tour guides are available for rain forest hikes
- Matelot Village: Matelot Waterfall is a half-day hike from the village centre (ask in the village for directions), or can be reached by boat from where the road ends to the pristine beach at Paria Bay. Great for bird watching. The Paria Waterfall is a shorter, half-mile hike into the forest
- Matura: another important spot for leatherback turtle nesting. The award-winning local conservation group, Nature Seekers Inc., is responsible for protecting the area and turtle-watching tours.
Permit/guide required. Contact: Nature Seekers (Matura): 668-7337, www.natureseekers.org • Grande Rivière Tourism Development Organisation: 469-1288
Trinidad’s central plain is the island’s sugar belt, but also home to one of its richest ecosystems. Inland from Trinidad’s windswept Atlantic coast lies a extensive wetland rich in unusual wildlife species.
- Caroni Bird Sanctuary: an afternoon boat tour among its muscular mangroves brings you close the scarlet ibis, the national bird, which descend upon the wetland at dusk like splashes of red paint across the evening sky, and roost in the branches of the swamp’s diverse fauna. Boat tours should be booked in advance for tours through this extensive area of protected swamp and marshland, home to many species of flora and fauna. Informative boat tours last a couple of hours from late afternoon to dusk (thought T&T Sightseeing Tours operates tours all day). Don’t forget your insect repellent!
- Nariva Swamp and Bush-Bush Wildlife Sanctuary: a recognised Wetland of International Importance. In the dry season, it is possible to walk across much of the swamp land, but in the wet season, the swamp’s 200 bird species can be viewed from kayaks and fishing boats. You’ll need a guide and/or permit to tour the swamp (the largest in Trinidad) by kayak for a glimpse of manatees in their natural habitat, and — if you’re lucky — anacondas, caimans, and Blue-and-yellow Macaws.
A bird sanctuary in the middle of an oil refinery? Mud volcanoes? These are some of the natural attractions of Trinidad’s southern region.
- Devil’s Woodyard: east of Princes Town near Indian Walk, these small mud volcanoes are good viewing. These 1–2m volcanos, cousins of the sulphur spring, abound in south Trinidad. Devil’s Woodyard is the most accessible, while those at Piparo are the most active. Check out the large and impressive pineapple estates on the drive from Princes Town. Though less accessible, the mud volcanos at Piparo are the most active
- Oropouche Lagoon: wetland area, home to a profusion of wildlife, including butterflies. The Shores of Peace cremation site is also situated here. It’s best to visit with a tour guide
- Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust: a must-see. Housed on oil refinery lands, this non-profit Trust covers 25 hectares and is a sanctuary for endangered birds (including the scarlet ibis). The Trust protects endangered birds and waterfowl, and breeds other birds for return to the wild. So you can view free-roaming wildlife and enclosed animals. There are also two lakes, trails, a learning centre with natural history displays and a small Amerindian museum, and accommodation on site. Reservations required: 628-4145, www.triniwetlands.org
- The Pitch Lake at La Brea: covering about half a square kilometre and producing some of the world’s finest asphalt (mined and exported since 1859), this is one of only three such lakes in the world. Guided tours are available, and there’s a museum onsite. La Brea Pitch Lake Tour Guides Association: 651-1232.
Featured Eco-Tour Operators
Caribbean Discovery Tours
Stephen Broadbridge, owner of CDT, has been in the business for over a decade. CDT offers custom-designed nature and cultural itineraries offering expert guiding though forested mountains, rivers, waterfalls, secluded beaches, vast exotic wetlands and diverse cultures of villages and communities. Their clientele includes eco-adventure and family vacationers, bird-watchers, scientists, university faculties, and film and television crews. Package itineraries (inclusive of local transportation and accommodation) are also available. Contact: (868) 624-7281/620-1989 • www.caribbeandiscoverytours.com.
Trinidad & Tobago Sightseeing Tours
Charles Carvalho’s TTST has been in business since 1984, and offers easy sightseeing tours, city tours, Tobago day tours, historical tours, golf trips, nature tours (including mild to strenuous hikes, boat tours, diving trips, and turtle-watching and birding tours), and can arrange hotel reservations, car rentals, aircraft charter, conferencing, and cultural itineraries. Contact: (868) 628-1051 • www.trintours.com
Tips & Tricks
- Permits are needed for some locations and activities (like camping and turtle-watching) but any reputable guide or tour operator will arrange these
- Guides: hire Trinidad & Tobago Incoming Tour Operators’ Association (TTITOA) registered guides. They are professionally trained and have public liability insurance
- Turtle watching: when turtle watching, do not use flash photography, touch or otherwise disturb nesting turtles, as this can cause them severe distress
- Hiking tips: wear long trousers for lengthy bush treks, and never wear open-toed sandals. Comfortable shoes with good grip are recommended. Take a little knapsack with a change of clothes, socks and something to eat, stored in a waterproof bag. If your carry a camera that’s not waterproof, you’ll want to keep it here too. Avoid wearing black: it attracts mosquitoes, and if you’re in the open, soaks up the heat
- Natural hazards: snake bites and scorpion stings are rare; the biggest natural danger is the Portuguese Man-o’-War which infests coastal waters (vinegar is good if you get stung), and the sap and fruit of the manchineel tree (most common on beaches). Seek local advice on whether these are present
- Keep Trinidad clean: don’t discard your rubbish in waterways and in the outdoors. This can cause flooding and environmental pollution.