La Brea’s Pitch Lake was formed some five to six million years ago, when asphaltic oil flowed into a huge mud volcano here and slowly developed into pitch. Some 180 tonnes are now extracted each day, to be refined into asphalt and used to pave roads the world over. The depth of the lake is estimated at 75m and the level of pitch rises naturally after each excavation – calculations suggest that there’s enough to last four or five centuries, but nonetheless the surface is several metres lower than it was when excavation began in 1867.
Amerindians believed that the lake was created to punish a Carib tribe that killed and ate the sacred hummingbird, and were swallowed up in its depths. Sir Walter Raleigh was the first European “discoverer”, happening upon the lake in 1595, and using the pitch to caulk his ships, while colonial governor Sir Ralph Woodford used it to pave over the capital’s dirt roads in 1815, making Port of Spain the first city in the world with asphalt streets. Control of pitch excavation remained in British hands until 1978, when it was taken over by the T&T government.
The pitch lake is not the only place hereabouts that asphalt swells from the earth: local roads are often excruciatingly bumpy thanks to upward pressure from the underground volcanic eruptions that replenish the lake, while many a front garden or driveway hereabouts is paved with lumpy local pitch.