Many worlds in one: a Caribbean island like no other
Trinidad is a boon for naturalists and nature lovers
Mountains. Beaches. Waterfalls. Historical sites. Rivers. This is an island with range. To say that nowhere else in the Caribbean is like Trinidad is not hyperbole — the island’s unique environment combines a South American continental legacy with Caribbean island features. (Click here for an in depth look at Trinidad’s natural history.) Tropical rainforest cloaks the north, central, and southern mountain ranges, from which waterfalls and rivers cascade. There are brackish mangrove swamps; sprawling savannahs; and coasts that meet four distinct bodies of water. Coral reefs are found off the northwest and northeast coasts, and have produced the arid islands off Chaguaramas. With a dizzying degree of biodiversity per square mile, thousands of species call these habitats home. With a dizzying degree of biodiversity per square mile, thousands of species call these habitats home.
- Amphibians: 30+ species
- Birds: 400+ species (more than any other Caribbean island)
- Butterflies: 600+ species
- Fish: 400+ marine species and 40+ freshwater species
- Flowers: 2,100+ flowering plant species (almost 200 orchids)
- Mammals: 100+ recorded species (over 60 of them bats)
- Reptiles: 90+ species (including 40+ species of snake and 5 marine turtle species, among them the endangered giant leatherback)
- Trees: 370 species of trees (including native purpleheart, mora, and crappo).
Here, we’ll tell you how you can discover them. For eco adventures, book a registered tour operator or guide (see gotrinidadandtobago.com and visittobago.gov.tt). For easy day trips and sightseeing — and if you feel confident on the road — you could rent a vehicle, pick up a Discover T&T map, and go exploring on your own!
Hiking, turtles & birds: our top 3 Trinidad eco escapes & adventures
Each year between March and September (sometimes longer), you can see turtles nesting across the region. But Trinidad’s Grande Rivière serves as the second largest turtle nesting site in the world for the ancient and endangered leatherbacks. Green and hawksbill turtles also come up along the north and east coasts; Matura is another critical site. The turtles, their eggs, and their hatchlings are all vulnerable and legally protected.
FROM THE SEA, TO THE SEA
Nesting females return to the shores on which they were born each year, assiduously digging their nests before laying their eggs, camouflaging the area, and returning to the open sea. Six to eight weeks later, the hatchlings emerge and scamper through the sand to the shoreline. Peak season for seeing hatchlings is June–August. The females that survive to maturity will make the long trek back, to begin the cycle anew. Though they come ashore in greatest numbers late at night — and especially during the full moon — they also come ashore in the day. Though they come ashore in greatest numbers late at night — and especially during the full moon — they also come ashore in the day, even at popular beaches. Witnessing these rituals is a profoundly moving experience.
BEACHES OF GLOBAL IMPORTANCE
As the second largest leatherback nesting site in the world, Trinidad receives more than 6,000 leatherback turtles (each up to 2,000lb) annually. The best places to see them are at Matura and Grande Rivière (where you can see up to 50 a night, and even be lucky enough to spot the endangered blue-throated piping-guan or pawi bird).
T&T is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles found globally — the vulnerable leatherback and olive ridley; the endangered green and loggerhead; and the critically endangered hawksbill. The leatherback, hawksbill, and green turtle nest on beaches, while the loggerhead and olive ridley are occasionally sighted at sea. The turtles, their eggs, and their hatchlings are all vulnerable and legally protected.
PLAN YOUR TRIP … AND HELP SAVE THE TURTLES
Conservation efforts in Matura and Grande Rivière require that permits be acquired to visit nesting sites. Turtles face a number of threats — illegal poaching, natural predators, indiscriminate fishing nets, sargassum seaweed, plastics and litter, disorienting artificial light (they follow the light of the moon). For permits and more about conservation efforts, contact the Turtle Village Trust (turtlevillagetrust.org, 638-5953/674-4213), an umbrella body for the islands’ leading turtle conservation groups — Nature Seekers (natureseekers.org, 668-7337); and Grande Rivière Nature Tour Guide Association (670-4257/469-1288); the Matura to Matelot (M2M) Network; the Fishing Pond Turtle Conservation Group; and SOS (Save our Sea Turtles Tobago). You can donate to their efforts, or adopt a turtle. Permits can also be arranged through local accommodation, or directly at Forestry Division offices.
Make sure to:
- keep disturbances to a minimum (including noise and movement) — do not touch nesting turtles or hatchlings
- use only infrared lights, and no flash photography
- refrain from doing any of the following on nesting beaches: setting fires (the heat can destroy nests), littering (plastic can choke and harm both adult and baby turtles), or drive (the weight of the vehicle can crush eggs buried in the sand.
For the birds…Trinidad’s best bird-watching
If you’re a birder — or just truly enjoy the natural world — you’ll enjoy these special places in the mountains and the wetlands. Trinidad is blessed with over 400 recorded bird species — among the top 10 countries in the world for species per square mile, most of which are easily accessible. Sir David Attenborough filmed many bird sequences from his acclaimed documentary The Trials of Life here in Trinidad.
Peak bird-watching season in Trinidad is November–May, though you’ll never be short of sightings. You can see dozens of species in a single outing, all over the island. Some species to look out for: golden-headed manakins, tanagers, blue-headed parrots, channel-billed toucans, trogons, honeycreepers, hummingbirds, hawks, bellbirds, common potoo, herons, ospreys, kingfishers, grey-headed kite, squirrel cuckoo, warblers, and of course the scarlet ibis. For more about birding in the islands, click here.
ASA WRIGHT NATURE CENTRE
You can spot nearly 170 species of birds at the 1,500 acre Centre, perched in the mountains of the Northern Range. This was once a working coffee, cocoa, and citrus plantation that was bought in 1947 by Dr Newcombe Wright and his wife Asa. The New York Zoological Society established a research station here in 1949, and after Newcombe’s death, Asa sold the land on condition that it remain a conservation area. The non-profit trust was set up in 1967, and the Centre named in her memory. Today, the Centre’s veranda, restaurant, and reception are open to day visitors, while guests at the eco lodge enjoy greater access to the estate, including Dunston Cave — perhaps the most easily accessible habitat for a colony of rare oilbirds anywhere in the world. There’s a gift shop, and also a freshwater pool on site. Open 9am–5pm for day visits, with guided walks (1.5hrs) at 10:30am and 1:30pm. There are numerous waterfalls and caves nearby, and an overnight stay gives you the chance to see rare oilbirds. Reservations required (asawright.org, 667-4655). Entrance fee
NARIVA SWAMP & BUSH-BUSH SANCTUARY
Bush Bush is a protected island within Nariva Swamp, the largest freshwater wetland in the Caribbean. The local celebrity at this legally protected wetland — recognised in the 1996 Ramsar Convention as a one of international importance — is undoubtedly the rare endangered manatee (or sea cow), which can grow to 3m/10ft in length and 900kg/1,985lbs! Not to be outdone are the anacondas, anteaters, caimans, capuchin and red howler monkeys, cascadura, macaws, owls, parrots, porcupines, and toucans, among others. Too many of them are vulnerable or endangered. You will need a tour guide and permit to explore the swamp — by kayak or boat (in the wet season), or on foot in the dryer months.
POINTE-À-PIERRE WILD FOWL TRUST
An oasis of ponds surrounded by green forest, set within the sprawling grounds of an oil refinery complex, this magical Trust works to reintroduce endangered wetland birds to their natural habitat. Nearly 90 species have been recorded in this unique eco centre — the only one in the world located within an oil refinery complex — including the scarlet ibis, the rare blue and gold macaw, and five endangered waterfowl species, among many others. Visitors can see these beautiful birds up close in the enclosed breeding areas (thousands of birds have been bred and released back into the wild over the years), or watch free-roaming wildlife as they explore the Trust’s 32 hectares. Wooden walkways take you right around two freshwater lakes. An on-site learning centre houses a small First Peoples museum, and there is a full-service guesthouse. Reservations are required to visit. Advance bookings required: papwildfowltrust.org, 658-4200 x 2512, 612-2463
WINSTON NANAN CARONI SWAMP & BIRD SANCTUARY
A must on every birder’s list. Like Nariva, this 60sq km (23sq miles) is a legally protected Ramsar site. Mangrove channels create a dramatic backdrop for the 100 species of birds — including Trinidad’s stunning national bird, the scarlet ibis — that make their home here alongside snakes (boas) in trees, crabs, snails, and more. These creatures live in the tidal lagoons, marshland, and mangrove forest where the Caroni River, Madame Espagnole River, and Gulf of Paria meet. At dusk, the sky is filled with streaks of red as hundreds of scarlet ibis return to roost in trees on an island in the middle of the swamp. Boat and kayak tours are available, and typically depart about 4pm to witness the return of the ibis. caronibirdsanctuary.com, 755-7826
YERETTE — HOME OF THE HUMMINGBIRD
Here, you’ll spend an intimate couple of hours at the home of Theo and Gloria Ferguson, who welcome bird-lovers into their home three times a day for tea, a tour, and the chance to get close to 15 species of hummingbirds — and many other bird species too! Dozens of hummingbirds flit by, some a few inches away, as they sip from feeders and flowers. Theo is a knowledgeable host, with a slide show about the tiny acrobats, and a beautiful collection of photos for sale. yerettett.com, 663-2623
Hike to the mountains…
These are some of the island’s most popular hikes. Listed alphabetically, we’ve indicated where they are, roughly how long they’ll take, and whether they’re deemed gentle, intermediate, or intense (which should be tackled by advanced hikers only). Go with a reputable guide, and remember that old saying: take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.
- Edith Falls (Chaguaramas): a 30–40 minute hike to a 76m/250ft waterfall. Gentle
- El Tucuche (Northern Range): Trinidad’s second tallest mountain. A gruelling hike to the summit (in fact, there are two peaks!) takes 2–4 hours via Hobal Trace in Maracas Valley. (Very) Intense
- Fondes Amandes (St Ann’s): the Community Reforestation Project provides forest tours that range from quick and gentle to more intermediate
- Guanapo Gorge (Northern Range): roughly 2.5–3 hours of forest, river, and gorge trekking. Intermediate
- Madamas Bay (north coast): it’ll take you roughly 3 hours from Matelot or 5 hours from Blanchisseuse. A beach, river, waterfall, and turtles (in season) await. Intense
- Maracas Falls (Northern Range): 30–45 minute trek; Trinidad’s tallest waterfall (91m/299ft). Gentle
- Mt Tamana Bat Caves (Central Range): a roughly 90-minute hike to the limestone cave systems that massive colonies of bats — thousands from 12 different species — call home. Each evening before dusk, they depart the caverns en masse. Intermediate
- Paria Bay (north coast): it’ll take you roughly 2 hours from Blanchisseuse to Turtle Rock then Cathedral Rock/Paria Arch. A pristine white sand beach, turtles (in season), and nearby waterfall are your reward. Also accessible via Brasso Seco. Intermediate
- Saut d’Eau (north coast): a 3-hour, downhill trek from Paramin brings you to the secluded beachfront. Gather your strength, because the ascent back up will test your mettle! Intense
- Rio Seco Falls (Salybia): part of the Matura National Park, a 45–60 minute hike brings you to the falls, and a natural swimming pool. Gentle
- Turure Water Steps (Cumaca): after about 60 minutes, you’ll be bathing in the pools at these unique natural limestone “steps”. Intermediate
Bonus round: zip-lining
To the sky…
A fairly recent and exhilarating addition to the range of activities at the Chaguaramas National Heritage Park is a series of seven zipline courses over Macqueripe Bay, and five canopy walks/net bridges. They’re open Tuesday–Sunday. Bikes are also available for rental. facebook.com/Trinidadzipitt, 303-7755
Written by Discover Trinidad & Tobago