So much more than sightseeing
Trinidad’s natural history & built heritage
Trinidad owes its phenomenal diversity of flora, fauna and topography to a combination of Caribbean and South American characteristics (the island was originally connected to the mainland). The result is a unique mix of island and continental ecology, a distinctive legacy that is visible all around — mountain ranges (the northern, central and southern) cloaked in tropical rainforest; mangrove swamps; savannahs; waterfalls and rivers; and distinct coastal waters that are sometimes jungle green, aqua blue, and deep, dark blue, washed by the nutrient-rich waters of Venezuela’s Orinoco River. There are coral reefs off the northwest and northeast coasts, with rocky, windy islands off the Chaguaramas peninsula, featuring coves, caves and beaches. Caroni (on the west coast) and Nariva (in the southeast) are the two main swamps.
Biodiversity in a nutshell
Trinidad is said to have some of the greatest biodiversity per square mile in the world. This includes:
- 2,100+ flowering plant species (almost 200 are orchids)
- 370 species of trees (including native purpleheart, mora and crappo)
- 400+ bird species (more than any other Caribbean island)
- 600+ butterfly species
- 400+ marine fish and 40+ freshwater fish
- 100+ recorded mammal species (over 60 of them bats)
- 90+ species of reptiles (including 40+ species of snake)
- 30+ amphibian species.
Preserving our natural & built heritage
T&T has been moving toward preserving both our natural (forests, savannahs, reefs, and wetlands) and built heritage (colonial mansions and estate homes, churches and cathedrals, mosques, mandirs, forts, and museums). Many buildings that have survived are in the process of being protected and preserved by the National Trust as national heritage sites with legal protected status — at press time, there were 29 (indicated by +), with roughly 100 more in process. Some protected sites require permission to access from one of several state authorities, which reputable guides can arrange.
Trinidad’s human and physical landscapes vary vastly from coast to coast. Starting early (and going against or without traffic), you can drive the entire island in a day if you want, using our list of favourite sites below to help pick your stops. From Port of Spain, head east on the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway. From Arima, continue east to Valencia, then either northeast towards dramatic Toco and Grande Rivière, or southeast to Sangre Grande, through the Cocal (coconut forest) of Manzanilla and on to Mayaro. From Mayaro village, you can either retrace your steps or cross the island westwards, through Rio Claro and Princes Town, and explore the southwestern peninsula, following the coast past La Brea and Point Fortin towards Icacos. Cedros and Columbus Bays are magical. On your way back to San Fernando, take note of the Pitch Lake (see below) and the oil-based industry that drives Point Fortin. You can speed back to Port of Spain along the Solomon Hochoy Highway, or take the old route via the Southern Main Road, past Claxton Bay, the sprawling Point Lisas Industrial Estate (the world’s two largest methanol plants are found here), the Waterloo Temple and Hanuman Murti. For shorter drives, head west to Chaguaramas, with its National Heritage Park and marinas of moored yachts from across the globe; or along the North Coast Road to Blanchisseuse.
In & around Port of Spain
The Queen’s Park Savannah
Described as the lungs of the city, the Savannah is a hub of recreational activity. Its vast grounds are popular for sports, kite-flying (especially around Easter), and even photo shoots. Walkers, joggers, dog-walkers, and food/drink vendors (including a series of colourful Carnival stalls in season) dominate its perimeter. Some highlights (+ indicates a National Trust protected site):
- + “Magnificent Seven” (southwestern side): a line of century-old colonial houses in varying degrees of repair and use, reflecting their diverse histories and ownership. From south to north: Queen’s Royal College (boys’ secondary school); Hayes Court (Anglican Bishop’s residence); Mille Fleurs; Roomor (private home); Roman Catholic Archbishop’s House; Whitehall; and Killarney or Stollmeyer’s Castle, beside beautiful Wildflower Park
- Emperor Valley Zoo & Botanical Gardens (northern side): opened in 1952 and recently upgraded, the Zoo’s nearly 3 hectares house hundreds of animals. The nearby Gardens (est. 1820) are a favourite for picnics and walks, and home to one of the oldest collections of exotic plants and trees in the western hemisphere. Next door is the President’s official home, under repair at the time of writing
- The National Academy for the Performing Arts (temporarily closed for repairs) dominates the southern side of the Savannah, next to Memorial Park. At Carnival time, across the road is the entrance to the drag or track, the road to the big stage that masqueraders cross on Carnival Monday and Tuesday; it’s also popular for listening to competing bands at Panorama as they prepare to compete centre-stage
- National Museum & Art Gallery (just off the southern end): housed in the German Renaissance-style architecture of the +Royal Victoria Institute on Frederick Street are new collections, retrospectives, period installations, geological displays, ethnic artefacts, a sports museum, and the works of 19th century artist Jean Michel Cazabon. The Museum has small branches in Fort San Andres (South Quay), and the Museum of the Trinidad & Tobago Police Service (Old Police Headquarters on St Vincent Street), both also in Port of Spain. Admission is free, and guided tours are available. The museums are open Tuesday–Saturday, nmag.gov.tt
Queen’s Park Savannah 101
The Savannah is said to be the world’s largest roundabout (approximately 3.5km and 260 acres) and the Caribbean’s oldest recreation ground. Originally part of the Paradise Estate, a portion of land in the centre remains a burial ground for members of the Peschier family (its previous owners); it was converted into a city park in 1817.
The Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project
In St Ann’s (passing the Queen’s Hall, and after a short drive), the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project provides wonderful forest tours.
Built in 1804, this virgin fort (it never saw military action) offers a magnificent panoramic view (rivalled only by that from Mount St Benedict) of the entire west coast from 335m/1,100ft above Port of Spain. On a clear day, you can see to south Trinidad, and west to Venezuela. Around Christmas time, you might just be lucky enough to see the sun set before closing time. Open 10am–6pm, admission free.
The Angostura Rum & Bitters Museum and Barcant Butterfly Collection
The House of Angostura (est. 1824), east of Port of Spain on the Eastern Main Road, offers tram tours where you can learn about the mysterious making of the world-famous Angostura Bitters and the production of rum (with some product tasting). You can also view the collection of Trinidad’s butterflies, including the beautiful blue emperor. Advance booking required (tel. 623-1841).
Top 5 historical landmarks (downtown Port of Spain)
- +The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Roman Catholic): after several years of restoration work, the Cathedral at press time was due to be re-dedicated in December 2015. Standing on the eastern end of the Brian Lara Promenade, it started off as a wooden building until work on the present structure began in 1816. It features some stunning stained-glass windows depicting Trinidad’s history
- The Holy Rosary Church (Roman Catholic): towards the eastern end of Park Street, it was built (1866) in the Gothic revival style and is currently undergoing major restoration work
- The Old Fire Station & NALIS: off the historic Woodford Square, the original Fire Station was built in 1897, refurbished in 2000, and integrated with the distinctive new National Library & Information Systems (NALIS) headquarters
- The Red House: currently undergoing major repair works, this rebuilt version (the 1844 original was burnt down in 1903 during the Water Riots) used to house the nation’s Parliament, which has since relocated to the International Waterfront Centre. A First Peoples burial ground was recently found at the site, including remains and artefacts (430–1400 AD)
- The Trinity Cathedral (Anglican): on the south side of Woodford Square, it was completed in 1818 in the Gothic revival style.
Boats, parties, hiking, biking, history, restaurants, water-sports, beach-bumming, golfing … or just lazing on the Boardwalk or under magnificent samaan trees. The Chaguaramas National Heritage Park is home to all this. It is managed by the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA, chaguaramas.com), which also provides onshore and offshore tours.
- The “Bamboo Cathedral”: a lush, serene and easy walk under a bamboo canopy — unless you plan to trek uphill to the top of Morne Catherine with its abandoned World War II tracking station
- Military & Aviation Museum: chronicles the military history of the country from 1498 to the present. Admission fee; guided tours available upon request (militarymuseumtt.com)
- Zip-lining: a series of seven zip-lines and rope bridges are set high in the trees above Macqueripe, providing 45 minutes of heart-stopping fun. 381-8543, com/Trinidadzipitt
Going “down de islands” (DDI) is a favourite jaunt for those owning or renting holiday homes, or dropping anchor in one of the coves or bays. There are three sets of islands off the northwest coast, each with distinct features and histories:
- the Five Islands (of which there are actually six); the Diego Islands; and then Gaspar Grande, Monos, Huevos, and Chacachacare
- Nelson Island, one of the Five, was used to quarantine indentured immigrants
- Gaspar Grande has the stunning Gasparee Caves, formed by a coral reef pushed up from the sea. Water has since eroded the limestone, creating dramatic stalactites, stalagmites, earth pillars and a massive blue-green pool, lit by sunlight from a hole above
- Chacachacare has a salt pond, a lighthouse and, most famously, a leprosarium, now defunct. The remains of the chapel and dwellings of the ministering nuns are still there
- Carrera, one of the Diego pair, has been a prison island.
Trinidad’s north & northeast
Galera Point & Keshorn Walcott Toco Lighthouse
There’s a rocky outcrop at Galera Point, just beyond the Keshorn Walcott Toco Lighthouse (1877) at the northeastern tip of the island. Here two great bodies of water meet: the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Caribbean Sea to the west, with a distinct demarcation in colour. It is also here that Amerindians, fleeing the Spanish occupiers after the Arena uprising in 1699, are said to have thrown themselves into the water rather than suffer further oppression. In February, Orisha devotees celebrate the Olukun Festival here. There is a small picnic area.
Mount St Benedict
Perched 245m/800ft above the central plain, off St John’s Road in Tunapuna, Mount St Benedict is the oldest Benedictine monastery in the Caribbean. The 600-acre complex includes a nature park with walkways and trails, perfect for hiking, bird-watching and enjoying the magnificent views. The Pax Guesthouse offers accommodation, a tea-house and terraces for bird-watching.
+Lopinot Historical Complex
Nestled in the Northern Range off the Eastern Main Road near Arouca, Lopinot was originally developed (1806) as a cocoa estate by a French count, Charles Joseph de Lopinot, who had fled to Trinidad in 1791 to escape the Haitian revolution. The former tapia estate house, prison and slave quarters have been turned into a museum. The area is popular for picnics, family days, retreats, sports, bird-watching and hiking (there is a river and also caves nearby). The village residents are a quintessentially Trini mix of First Peoples, Spanish, French, African and East Indian heritage, and remain close to the land. Some still speak Spanish, French and patois. At Christmas time, the area is a hub for parang and pastelles. At any time of year, make sure to take in the delights at Café Mariposa.
Legend has it that on dark, stormy nights the count appears on a black horse dressed in military regalia and gallops across the Lopinot savannah. After a visit in 2011, TV show Ghost Hunters International (SYFY Channel in the US) reported that they had found more evidence of paranormal activity here than anywhere else in the world.
The Asa Wright Nature Centre
Off the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road, this is one of Trinidad’s most outstanding bird-watching and eco-centres; the New York Zoological Society established a research station here in 1949. Originally a coffee, citrus and cocoa plantation (now partially reclaimed by secondary forest), the estate and its carefully preserved great house, Springhill, were bought in 1947 by a retired English solicitor, Dr Newcome Wright, and his Icelandic wife Asa. When Newcome died, Mrs Wright sold the land on condition that it remained a conservation area; a non-profit trust was set up in 1967.
The Centre now spans 1,500 acres in the Arima and Aripo Valleys of the Northern Range. Its eco-lodge, veranda, restaurant and reception are open to day visitors: the admission covers a half-mile guided tour and some access to the grounds (including a fresh-water pool that you can bathe in). Overnight visitors enjoy greater access to the trails and caves, including the rare oilbirds’ habitat at Dunston Cave. This is perhaps the most easily accessible colony of these rare, nocturnal, fruit-eating birds to be found anywhere. Some 166 species of birds have been spotted at the Centre — hummingbirds, bananaquits, honeycreepers, and tanagers are the most common. Books on T&T’s natural environment are on sale at the gift shop. asawright.org
This is a chance to sit and have tea surrounded by hummingbirds. The Fergusons allow visitors to take tours of their garden, where 15 species of hummingbirds have been photographed, along with scores of other birds. There are three tours daily. Meals featuring cuisine made with all-local ingredients and all-natural local juices are also available. yerette.com
UWI Zoology Museum
Located at the Natural Sciences building at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine, this is the largest and most significant collection of zoological specimens in Trinidad & Tobago. Free admission; tours available 8am–4pm, Monday–Friday. sta.uwi.edu/fst/lifesciences/zoology.asp
This sprawling retreat covers ten acres of land in Valencia and is a wonderful family escape in the east. Attractions include a butterfly and bird sanctuary, 95 varieties of trees, a river, a mini-zoo, greenhouses, a tilapia pond, outdoor cooking sheds, plus a basketball court, football field, cricket pitch, and a pool. The resort uses solar water heating, composting and 100% recycling. valenciaecoresort.com
The Winston Nanan Caroni Swamp & Bird Sanctuary
This is one of Trinidad’s most popular eco attractions — home and roosting ground of the stunning scarlet ibis, Trinidad’s national bird, plus 100 other species of birds, anteaters, raccoons, caimans, snakes and opossums. It was recognised in the 1996 Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance, placing a legal obligation on the government to ensure the area is protected and maintained.
The roughly 60sq km sanctuary, just off the Solomon Hochoy Highway in Central Trinidad, comprises tidal lagoons, marshland and mangrove forest bordering the Gulf of Paria, between the mouth of the Caroni and Madame Espagnole rivers. You can buy tickets for boat tours on site (many boat tours depart at 4pm to catch flocks of ibis coming home to roost, though some can be booked all day), or arrange with a reputable tour company. Kayak tours are also available.
The Hanuman Murti & Dattatreya Yoga Centre
Churches, temples, kingdom halls, mandirs, faith centres and mosques stand side by side in the Trinidad landscape. One of the most impressive structures is the 26m/85ft statue of the Hindu god Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god of strength, donated by an Indian swami, and the tallest of its kind outside India. Consecrated in 2003, it towers over the adjoining Dattatreya Yoga Centre mandir and ashram at Orange Field Road.
The Tamana Bat Caves
A series of lengthy limestone cave systems in Mount Tamana (the highest of the Montserrat Hills) is home to huge colonies of bats (12 different species), thousands strong, which leave the caverns en masse to feed before dusk. Some claim there can be over a million. Go with a reputable, experienced guide who can ensure both your safety and minimal impact on the natural environment.
The Nariva Swamp & Bush-Bush Sanctuary
One of Trinidad’s most significant wildlife areas and (like the Caroni Swamp) a Ramsar Site, Nariva is the only place in Trinidad to see the endangered manatee or sea cow, which can grow up to 3m/10ft in length, weighing about 900kg/1,985lbs. There are also resident red howler monkeys, anteaters, porcupines, capuchin monkeys, caiman and birds like the orange-winged parrot, yellow-capped Amazon parrot, savannah hawk, agoutis, tegus, cascadura (armoured catfish), anacondas (the heaviest reptile in the world, and the longest in the Americas, which can grow up to 9m/30ft long), and other endangered species like red-bellied macaws and owls. At the Bush Bush Wildlife Sanctuary you will find channel-billed toucans and tree-climbing porcupine. Scarlet ibis also roost here. You will need a tour guide and permit to explore the swamp, by kayak, boat or (in the dry months) on foot.
The Waterloo Temple in the Sea
Off the Southern Main Road — 150m/500ft out into the Gulf of Paria at the end of a causeway — lies the “floating mandir”. It’s the reconstruction of a Hindu temple built single-handedly over 25 post-war years by Siewdass Sadhu, a sugar labourer (whose statue is in the temple’s parking lot). Forbidden to build a temple on land, he built it in the sea instead, beyond the control of colonial officials and land owners. The effect of sea erosion prevented Sadhu from completing it, but in 1994, the government finished it in time to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first arrival of Indian indentured workers. At low tide, the mudflats around the temple are excellent for bird-watching. The causeway is generally open 6am–6pm: the temple itself is open at the caretaker’s discretion.
La Vega Estate
This 250-acre estate, 15 minutes off the Solomon Hochoy Highway, is a garden centre, plant nursery, and nature park combined. At the garden centre you will find ornamentals, fruit trees, herbs and vegetables, most of which are produced in a greenhouse on the estate. There are also fishing ponds, pedal boats, water slides, a pool, jungle gym, accommodation, and a restaurant (which serves home-made ice-cream made from local fruits and flavours). lavegaestate.com
“The Southland” — south Trinidad
Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust & Oropouche Lagoon
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Wildfowl Trust is a must-see for any nature-lover, or anyone wanting a restorative retreat. Located about 45 minutes south of Port of Spain, on the Petrotrin refinery grounds at Pointe-à-Pierre, this non-profit Trust encompasses 32 hectares and two fresh-water lakes, with free-roaming wildlife and enclosed breeding areas.
It’s the only eco-centre in the world located within an oil refinery complex. Over 86 species have been recorded here. The aviculture programmes breed five endangered waterfowl species (wild ducks) as well as the scarlet ibis (the national bird), and the blue and gold macaw. Visitors can get close to these beautiful birds. Over the years, the Trust has bred and released several thousand birds back into the wild.
Wooden walkways take you right around two lakes, which are full of water lilies and lotus flowers, and there are several natural walks and interpretive trails including Faerie Woods, Forest Walk and Devil’s Ear Trail. The learning centre at the entrance provides a photographic display of the reserve’s plant life, insects, shells, and a small First Peoples Museum. For those wanting to stay overnight, the Trust’s Petrea Place offers lodging and meals.
Over its 50 years, the Trust has been a pioneering force for environmental conservation, education, and sustainable development. It will be celebrating its landmark achievements from November 2015 to November 2016. Reservations are required to visit. 658-4200 x 2512, 612-2463, papwildfowltrust.org
+The San Fernando Hill
Once a sacred First Peoples site known as Naparima, the Hill stands like a monument in the midst of all the industry and construction of south Trinidad, offering fantastic views of the city and both ends of the island. The hill itself was badly gouged by quarrying, but has since been developed into a recreation area. The entry off Royal Road takes you straight up to the summit. Open daily, free of charge, 9am–6pm.
The La Brea Pitch Lake
About 90 minutes from Port of Spain, this extraordinary natural phenomenon may look like an enormous car park after a rain shower, but is in fact the largest of only three natural asphalt lakes in the world (the other two are in Venezuela and Los Angeles).
Ever-replenished by bitumen oozing from a geological fault (a 12x12m/40x40ft hole refills within three days), this 95-acre, 107m/350ft deep “lake” has been mined and its fine asphalt exported since 1859, supplying roads and airport runways around the world. Most of the surface is firm enough to walk on, though some spots are too soft for traffic. Natural springs, reputed to have healing properties, appear at the centre during the rainy season. You will see small bubbling puddles and smell the gases that escape from within.
Legend has it that a tribe of First Peoples was swallowed by the lake as punishment for eating hummingbirds, which hosted the spirits of their ancestors. In fact, this slow-motion “black hole” constantly pulls things into itself, and is said to have “feelers” stretching outward for several miles, veins of pitch extending from the main lake. A small museum houses artefacts recovered from the lake. La Brea Pitch Lake Tour Guides Association: 651-1232
The oldest evidence of human activity on Caribbean soil is in Trinidad: the archaeological site at Banwari Trace has yielded artefacts dating back to 5,000BC, belonging to the Ortoiroid people (named after the Ortoire river). “Banwari Man”, the human skeleton found lying in a crouched burial position by the Trinidad & Tobago Historical Society in 1969, is preserved at UWI. Banwari Trace was included in the 2004 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund. Access requires permission through the National Trust (which a tour guide can arrange).
The Devil’s Woodyard
There’s nothing to be afraid of here, at Trinidad’s most visited and accessible mud volcano. Located about 30 minutes east of San Fernando (there is another active and accessible site in Piparo), these are small volcano-shaped cones of mud and clay, usually less than 1–2m/3–7ft tall. Cousins of the sulphur spring, they are formed by hot water and fine sediment spilling from a vent in the ground like lava. European settlers in Trinidad believed that the sound of the mud bubbling below the surface was the sound of the devil stockpiling wood: hence the name. Some Hindus consider it a sacred spot and worship here. For the most part, local mud volcanoes splutter and bubble harmlessly, or lapse into inactivity, but do erupt occasionally (with varying intensity). There are recreational facilities on site.