Crime and personal safety
Despite the dire (and massively overblown) warnings on government travel advisories, most visits to Trinidad and Tobago are trouble-free – crime is far more of an issue for those living here than it is for tourists. There is the odd incident involving visitors in Tobago, but as long as you choose secure accommodation and use your common sense – not walking alone on deserted beaches or exploring downtown areas by night – there’s no reason to feel intimidated.
In Port of Spain, Independence Square and the area east of Charlotte Street around the market are the most raucous parts of downtown, while there is more crime – much of it violent – further east in the hillside suburb of Laventille and nearby Morvant and Beetham than in any other part of the country. These are not places for the casual visitor and should usually be avoided. In Tobago, there have been robberies over the years, some of them violent, at villas and guesthouses – especially in Buccoo, but also Mount Irvine and Charlotteville; wherever you stay, make sure you lock up properly at night and don’t sit on open verandas well into the wee hours.
If you use your common sense, and take the same precautions you would in any strange environment, you should find that the prospect of trouble is minimal wherever you are in T&T. Avoid walking alone or in small groups late at night or on deserted beaches and forest trails, keep flashy jewellery to a minimum (especially during Carnival), think twice before accepting lifts from strangers and don’t go telling everyone where you’re staying – or letting new acquaintances into your hotel room. Carry only as much cash as you need, get small notes when changing money so that you don’t have to pull out wads of hundreds, and never leave belongings unattended on a beach or in a car. Have your valuables locked in the safes that many hotels have in their guest rooms.
In rural areas, you have little to fear – doors are still sometimes left unlocked in the countryside – but as a foreigner you may be a target. If you’re unlucky enough to be the victim of theft or other offences, report the incident immediately, as you’ll need a police report to make any insurance claim. Local officers are generally happy to help, though things will take longer than you’re used to. To call the police in an emergency, dial t 999; for fire t 990, and ambulance t 811.
Proud to hail from a Caribbean nation that doesn’t depend on holidaymakers for the bulk of its revenue, Trinidadians are far more likely to avoid tourists than hassle them; even in more touristy Tobago, harassment hasn’t reached the proportions you encounter in more established Caribbean destinations. Many Tobagonians nonetheless make their living from foreign visitors; you’ll be approached on the beach by vendors selling crafts or boat trips, but most are polite and rarely pushy if you’re not interested.
Like other Caribbean countries, T&T has a predominantly macho culture. Trinbagonian women usually go out in groups or with their partners, so be prepared to meet surprised reactions if you’re a woman travelling on your own. As independent travellers are still a novelty in the country, visiting solo will lead to a greater degree of attention than in Europe, the US or Australia – usually verbal comments or innuendo and rarely threatening: it’s customary in T&T to be friendly to strangers, acknowledge people passing in the street and even make small talk. As a woman you’ll be expected to be flattered by this “sweet talk”, and comments are often humorous – though also very direct and perhaps somewhat lewd. Foreign women, of all ethnicities, usually get more of this attention.
The ritual of women visiting the Caribbean to find romance (or, more prosaically, “hot tropical sex”) is so entrenched that solo female travellers may well be approached by men with this in mind – unsurprisingly, given many foreigners fly in (particularly to Tobago) with just this in mind. If sex is not on your agenda, simply say no and mean it.
Visitors to the Caribbean often assume that all West Indians move around in a permanent haze of marijuana smoke. Though many islanders do of course indulge, this stereotype is hardly the reality. Cannabis (weed, herb, ganja) is illegal to grow or possess in Trinidad and Tobago, and penalties are severe. Tourists caught in possession are likely to be deported without a moment’s notice, and jail sentences and fines are frequently imposed; the excuse that “it’s OK at home to carry a little marijuana for personal use” is not acceptable. Local people who smoke do so with caution, shutting windows and doors and lighting incense. You probably will be offered weed (sometimes ready-rolled), particularly in Tobago. If you don’t want it, refuse politely and firmly.
Many visitors do choose to indulge, of course, and if you do, bear in mind that in Tobago particularly, you will need to be extremely discreet. Don’t light up in the street, or in nightclubs and popular beaches, and never leave paraphernalia lying around your hotel room.
Marijuana is not the only illegal drug with a following; powder and, particularly, crack cocaine are common in T&T. Geographically well placed as a trans-shipment point from South America, both Trinidad and Tobago have been badly affected; narcotics police patrol stretches of coastline, and there are “crack blocks” in every large town. You are more likely to be offered the drug in Tobago, where some visitors’ taste for cocaine has provided a lucrative market.
Finally, do not consider smuggling drugs in or out of the country under any circumstances; customs officers have seen all the methods of concealment before and the chances are that you will be caught and imprisoned.
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