Red Howler Monkey. Courtenay Rooks
By Alison Gardner, Travel with a Challenge Editor
Trinidad & Tobago: Not Your Typical Caribbean Islands
With a shoreline just seven miles from Venezuela, the flora and fauna of Trinidad & Tobago (usually shortened to T&T) have more in common with South America from which the islands separated a mere 10,000 years ago. Towering tropical rainforests, mountains and waterfalls, wetlands teaming with wildlife, and remote beaches where leatherback turtles create their own seasonal traffic jam are all on the menu of visitor experiences. Over 460 resident and migrant bird species have already made T&T one of the premier birding destinations in the world (see separate birding article).
Trinidad & Tobago’s diverse ethnic population of 1.1 million Trinbagonians is often characterized as a Rainbow Culture. East Indians and Blacks each represent 40%, while 18% are an ethnic mix from Europe, China and the Middle East. This island republic boasts a 99 percent literacy rate, among the highest in the world.
Unlike most Caribbean island nations hostage to tourism revenue, T&T’s economy is more healthily diversified with substantial exports of fruit, vegetables, sugar cane, natural gas and oil. Such economic diversity is allowing tourism to develop somewhat slowly, and hopefully in a more sustainable, grassroots manner than would otherwise be encouraged. Rest and relaxation mainstream tourists may choose to go elsewhere, but alternative travelers really have something to get their teeth into with these islands.
Bamboo forest. www.NaTour.us
I did not travel to Trinidad for its world-class bird watching, though I expected to spot a few feathered friends along the way, nor for its beaches, though I expected to stroll barefoot on some strips of creamy Caribbean sand during my visit. I had heard that this most southerly island in the Caribbean Sea was developing its remote area tourism, training local people to serve as guides and hosts for small-scale accommodation, and opening up access to some of the lesser-known parks and reserves for visitors with an exploratory streak. That was why I came to Trinidad.
Striking out from Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain in the northwest, we soon entered spectacular mountain terrain where the North Range literally drops to the Caribbean Sea. It is a region of tall, ancient rainforests and numerous waterfalls and rivers — in full spate or slow and meandering — that suggest spontaneous dips on a hot day or magical kayaking explorations. Near Avocat, we plunged into the forest in search of birds, insects and butterflies, emerging at a deep river pond carved out by a 70-foot waterfall tumbling over a cliff.
The mouth of the Marianne River is accessible for magical kayak exploration into wildlife-rich bamboo forests. www.NaTour.us
Paria Springs director and nature guide, Courtenay Rooks, cooled off as we passed a waterfall. www.NaTour.us
This was our introduction to the Marianne River which we encountered again later in the day as it meanders into the sea on an exquisite, virtually uninhabited beach at Blanchisseuse. Here we climbed into kayaks, rented from the coffee shop owner there, and spent a couple of hours navigating the quiet waters and searching the canopy for wildlife.
Next day we visited the raised island-like Bush Bush area of the internationally-recognized Nariva Swamp wetland which occupies six square miles of the central east coast. It is Trinidad’s largest freshwater swamp. Though our guides cautioned us that it might take a few hours to locate a cluster of its highest-profile inhabitant, the Red Howler monkey, a multitude of basso profundo calls reverberated through the canopy even as we entered the dense rainforest.
During several hours of carefully picking our way along narrow, swampy forest trails, trying to strike a balance between looking up and looking where our feet should be going, we were rewarded by the remarkable sight of a Strangler Fig tree, with its almost-playful root system snaking over the forest floor.
Just a short distance on, there was an enormously tall fig tree, the only one of its kind on the island, recently “discovered” and measured for height. In an earlier time, this tropical giant would no doubt have been felled for its small fortune in timber, but today its place is assured until Nature decides its fate.
Trinidad shaman and nature guide, Cristo Adonis, demonstrates how to climb a forest vine in gumboots! Alison Gardner
Two adults are dwarfed by the root of a Strangler Fig tree in Nariva Swamp. Courtenay Rooks
Except during the peak turtle-breeding season, Grande Riviere, population 350, is a laid-back town of narrow hilly streets where, until recently, the primary economic drivers have been fishing and agriculture. This was especially true of the cocoa growing industry, stretching back more than 100 years. Local people courteously acknowledge visitors but still generally ignore their presence unless business needs to be done. (See Trinidad Accommodations Grande Riviere.)
Nick, my Grande Riviere guide, demonstrated how the protective roof of this 100-year-old cocoa bean drying shed still slides easily back and forth on rails to let the sun shine on the beans or protect the beans against rain. Alison Gardner
Because the community’s mile-long fine sand beach attracts a mind-boggling 200 to 400 leatherback turtles a night during the peak egg-laying season (May through July), owner-operated hotels and camping sites have sprung up to serve nature-loving visitors. At certain times, Grande Riviere is a traffic jam for both turtles and humans, with only the humans being subject to careful regulation by conscientious, well-trained local guides who take small groups along the shore at night to observe the egg-laying activity without disturbing the turtles. During the day, of course, people use the beach without restriction because turtles usually come ashore only at night.
Resembling an armor-plated tank, a lone leatherback turtle shares the Grande Riviere beach with a local stroller during a rare daylight sighting. www.NaTour.us
Cycle path on Trinidad’s northeast shore. Courtenay Rooks
The Grande Riviere Nature Guide Association and the Tourism Development Organization have built an impressive information center on the beachfront where visitors may come for advice, sign up for daily guide services for the region (I do not recommend self-guided expeditions into the hills and rainforests), and book a turtle beach tour for the evening. You may watch educational videos about the wildlife of the area, browse in the gift shop, and enjoy fresh baked snacks and drinks on the veranda. This is a comendable community-driven initiative that demonstrates serious tourism intentions.
Eleven bat species inhabit Trinidad’s Tamana Caves. Courtenay Rooks
The climax of my Trinidad backcountry exploration started with an afternoon hike to a network of stunning bat caves near the top of Mount Tamana. It forms part of Trinidad’s Central Range with this peak rising to 940 feet, geologically different from the rest of the country’s mountains. It is an uplifted coral reef, which explains the erosion of the mountain’s calcium carbonate interior into a still-forming cave system, perfect habitat for bats and other critters.
More than a million bats an evening exit from this cave chimney to feed, returning at dawn to sleep away the day. www.NaTour.us
I have no doubt that the dense forest trail liberally laced with roots, vines and stinging nettle bushes would be reasonably user-friendly in the Dry Season for fit people of any age as long as the guide’s pace was appropriate and a helping hand was there to climb over the occasional fallen log. However, with a persistent rain leaking through the canopy, my own Rainy Season navigation uphill on a barely identifiable path brought to mind just how treacherous it was going to be coming DOWN in the dark after the bats had flown, with only a modest flashlight beam to show the way. In fact, I seriously regretted not having a headlamp, which some in my party did have, so that I could keep both hands free for balance and grabbing anything but the stinging nettles.
For this afternoon adventure all such thoughts were put aside as, with equal measures of excitement and apprehension, we prepared to learn about the cave system and meet its inhabitants. The main cave entrance is at about the 750-foot elevation, and a generous 30 feet wide at the mouth. Entrances get smaller … A LOT SMALLER … as additional caves in the chain are explored. Beyond the main cave, such interesting residents as millions of cockroaches (feeding on you know what), and occasional encounters with whip scorpions, geckos, six species of frogs and several species of snake, both deadly and benign, would certainly keep me home, and probably even Indiana Jones home too on one of his sensible days.
Navigating a steep, root-cluttered slope down to the floor of the largest cave required both agility and a strong stomach. Most of the slope consisted of a melange of slick clay mud and a generous layer of fresh bat guano. Some in our group squeezed through increasingly tight holes and around black water pools with who-knows-what in them, between four connecting caves to yell at us surface dwellers up the exit chimney that would later be alive with bats. Then they retraced their steps to the main cave entrance with predictably lurid stories to tell. The only casualties seemed to be unsalvageable clothes and shoes which would have revolted any airport security guard who examined them, had any of us been bold enough (or foolish enough) to pack them in our luggage!
A fairly steep rainforest hike leads to the Tamana Caves at a 750-foot elevation. www.NaTour.us
Other, more cowardly souls like me (some would say, more prudent souls trying to minimally disturb the natural community), took “been there” photographs in the main cave where thousands of bats squeaked, flapped, and swung from the roof of the cathedral ceiling, before we scrambled to the surface to await the dusk exodus of 11 bat species. That may not sound very impressive, but when you multiply the figure into an estimated one to 1.5 million bats out of a single mountainside chimney every night, it was a spectacular phenomenon to witness, up close and all around your head. Our guide cautioned us that as long as we didn’t move fast, the incredibly sophisticated bat radar would keep them from directly connecting with us. No one got whacked by a disoriented bat.
One old bat (author) encounters another in full flight. www.NaTour.us
It took well over an hour for the sight, sound and smell of millions of bats to pass into a lifelong memory. Darkness had clearly fallen in our rainforest by the time this unique experience was finished and we all descended with great care to our vehicle. I shall be forever grateful for the gallant concern and quick reflexes of a couple of male members in the group who on several occasions prevented me from joining the fallen myself. Bat-spotting on Mount Tamana is definitely a Dry Season adventure!
Trinidad & Tobago’s official tourism website: https://visittrinidad.tt. T&T’s Dry Season runs from January to May, and Wet Season from June to December. My recommended time to visit is the Dry Season. Birding is a year round activity, but local experts concede that November through April is best for spotting the greatest variety.
Learn about Trinidad’s small-scale accommodations with a difference and the fabulous birds of Trinidad and Tobago in other feature articles in this destination collection.
Paria Springs Eco-Community Ltd., www.pariasprings.com, specializes in guided exploration of challenging areas of T&T and in searching out small-scale, owner-operated accommodations. Managing Director, Courtenay Rooks, has a lifelong passion for his country’s natural treasures, and a dedicated focus on training local guides and patronizing grassroots hospitality to build both skills and pride in tourism delivery.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine.