Central Trinidad encompasses a fantastic variety of landscapes. Alongside the brash commercial centre of Chaguanas, the gritty, industrialized west coast holds unexpected natural oases such as the Caroni Swamp, home of the scarlet ibis, while the peaceful pools of Point-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust to the south boast an unlikely location within a huge oil refinery. In the centre of the island, the flatlands of the Caroni Plains are dotted with the somnolent villages that characterize Trinidad’s centre, an overwhelmingly rural area where many still make their living from the land. The plains rise gently to the wooded Central Range and Montserrat Hills to the south, and are bordered to the east by the remarkable Aripo Savannahs, a beautiful protected area and prime birdwatching spot. There’s more excellent birdwatching along the banks of the Caroni Arena reservoir and the Navet Dam, while the Tamana caves make for an awesome spectacle at dusk, when millions of bats fly out to feed.
To the northeast of the region, the chaotic market centre of Sangre Grande is the gateway to the east coast, where the road runs parallel to the sea for some 46km and offers a spectacular drive past the stunning Manzanilla Beach, where the Cocal avenue of palms forms a coastal barrier that protects the starkly beautiful Nariva Swamp, and on to drowsy Mayaro, a popular local getaway with another spectacular undeveloped beach. Central Trinidad’s population is mostly descended from the Indian indentured labourers who arrived in Trinidad during the 1840s following the abolition of slavery, and today this heritage is very much in evidence. Hindu shrines and prayer flags adorn front gardens, and ornate temples are ten-a-penny, but the Waterloo Temple, sitting on the brown waters of the Gulf of Paria south of Chaguanas, is particularly stunning, as is the towering Hanuman Murti statue nearby. Both are given some context by the nearby Indian Caribbean Museum at Carapaichima, which provides a fascinating insight into Indo-Trinidadian history and culture.
Accommodation in untouristy “Central” is minimal; there are a few options on the west coast geared towards business travellers, but this isn’t a particularly enticing place to stay, and it’s far better to base yourself in Port of Spain or San Fernando and see the area on day-trips. The only exception is Mayaro on the east coast, where a string of beach houses and hotels offer the opportunity of some Trini-style beach time. As for eating, there are innumerable hole-in-the wall places selling delicious roti and Creole food, while doubles and other Indian snacks are also easy to find, as are fast-food joints, Chinese takeaways and, of course, rum shops.
Top image © Jiri Hrebicek/Shutterstock
Grown on estates throughout eastern Trinidad and the southwest peninsula, coconuts are in constant demand on account of their sheer versatility. Depending on when they are harvested, they can be a source of drink, food, oil, soap or animal feed, while their fibrous husk makes an alternative to peat for potting plants. Green nuts are full of sweet water, a popular drink sold fresh from the fruit from many an old Bedford van around the country. As the nut matures, much of the liquid is replaced by an equally delicious edible white jelly. A few weeks later, the jelly solidifies into firm white flesh, which can be grated, dried and roasted in cooking. Later still, a bread-like substance grows in the centre of the fruit; if caught at the right time, it makes a tasty snack. Soon afterwards it develops into a sprout, from which a new tree will grow. Depending on the type, a tree will take five to ten years to mature and live for many years after that, producing nuts all year round.
South of Sangre Grande, the largest town on this side of the island and a transportation hub of considerable commercial vigour, Trinidad’s east coast is dominated by the Cocal, 24km of unbroken sand lined by swaying coconut palms, that begins at Manzanilla and stretches south to Point Radix. Beyond here the beach continues at Mayaro, long a popular holiday resort with Trinidadians but almost entirely undiscovered by foreign visitors. The Manzanilla–Mayaro Road runs the length of the east coast down to Galeota Point and Guayaguayare, fringed inland by the pristine rainforest and mangrove-smothered wetlands of Nariva Swamp, a primary breeding ground and habitat for all manner of rare animals and birds, including manatees and monkeys.
Source of most of the coconuts sold in Trinidad, the waving groves of coconut palms that line the Manzanilla–Mayaro Road, known collectively as the Cocal, make for an awe-inspiring drive: 24km of graceful, leaning coconut trees dancing in the wind, with unspoilt, wave-pounded beach to one side and the wetlands of Nariva Swamp to the other. There are no hotels or restaurants anywhere along the road (the only buildings are private holidays homes), but roadside stalls sell the shellfish known as chip-chip, freshly caught crabs, black conch, fish and, in season, watermelon. Note, however, that the Manzanilla–Mayaro Road through the Cocal was impassable at the time of writing due to severe flooding of Nariva Swamp.
Three-quarters of the way along, the road crosses the Nariva River, worth a stop for a lovely view of the mangroves along the banks; the waters are a popular swimming spot come the weekends, when cars line the roadside and chutney music blares out over the smooth sands. Nearing Mayaro, the road runs past a coconut processing plant, surrounded by huge mounds of discarded husks. Between 5.30 and 6pm every night the air around here is raucous with the calls of the red-chested macaws that come to roost in the trees (binocular-toting birdwatchers often mark the spot), while the surrounding swampland is a good place to see southern lapwings and the rare red-breasted tanager. The ponds in this area are full of cascadura, a small brown fresh-water fish, properly known as an armoured catfish, with a tough skeletal covering. It’s said that if you eat their chewy brown meat (invariably served curried), you’ll return to end your days in Trinidad, but picking and sucking the flesh from beneath the armour is a messy business.
South of Sangre Grande, the Eastern Main Road cuts a picturesque and winding 8km route towards the Atlantic coast; underground waterflows regularly cause subsidence, so if you’re driving, take things slowly. A quiet and attractive village of gingerbread houses, MANZANILLA village straggles along roadside and down to the sea from the T-junction at the end of the Eastern Main Road (turn left at the end of the EMR at the signpost for “Manzanilla Beach”). Windswept and exposed, the wide expanse of fine, brownish sand is usually deserted during the week but becomes a popular swimming spot at the weekends (though the murky water isn’t particularly enticing), when locals descend with car boots full of food and drink. Take care while swimming, as the undercurrents can be dangerous; look out also for the jellyfish-like Portuguese man-of-war occasionally found in the waters here.
Some 24km south of Manzanilla, the coast road heads inland at Point Radix, crossing over the Ortoire River and passing the local market, where stalls sell fresh fish, lobsters and strings of wriggling crabs. MAYARO itself has grown out of two old French villages, Pierreville and Plaisance, and is still marked as such on some maps. Pierreville, on the Mayaro–Guayaguayare Road, is the business end of town, a neat nexus of fast-food outlets, shops and small businesses. A side road cuts east to the village’s seaside quarter, Plaisance, a lovely place with a thoroughly relaxing atmosphere whose greatest attraction is its beach, a gentle, coconut-tree-lined curve of clean, soft brown sand that’s one of the most popular bathing spots on Mayaro Bay, along with Queen’s Beach a couple of kilometres further south (signboards for the oceanside hotels here mark the turn-off from the Mayaro–Guayaguayare Road); both spots only see crowds at the weekends, however. Lifeguards keep a watch on bathers, but there are no public changing rooms, toilets or other facilities on this or any other part of the bay. The Queen’s Beach resorts all have restaurants and non-guests can usually use the swimming pool at the Radix Beach Resort for a small charge. Note that the sea in this area has strong currents, so exercise caution.
Past Queen’s Beach, the road swings past pasturelands and, with increasing frequency, luxurious houses built by the oil companies for their managers and workers; BP even have an entire compound, a fenced-off affair reminiscent of a 1950s holiday camp.
One of Trinidad’s most significant wildlife areas, the Nariva Swamp covers fifteen square kilometres behind the coconut estates along the coast south of Manzanilla. The area is made up of agricultural land (rice and watermelons are the main crops), as well as reed-fringed marshes and, between the Mayaro–Manzanilla Road and the swamp itself, mangrove thickets. Deep in the southwestern corner lies the 16 square kilometres of Bush Bush Wildlife Sanctuary (often referred to as an island but actually a peninsula standing around 3m higher than the surrounding land), bordered by palmiste and moriche palms and covered in hardwood forest and silk cotton trees, and designated a protected sanctuary in 1968. A unique freshwater ecosystem, Nariva harbours large concentrations of rare wildlife, with some 58 species of mammals (including the impossibly endearing manatee, or sea-cow), 37 species of reptiles and 171 species of birds (including the yellow-capped Amazon parrots, and blue-gold and red-bellied macaws). It’s also home to 92 species of mosquito, so remember to bring your insect repellent.
Nariva is hard to explore in any real depth independently, but if you’re just passing by, it’s worth taking a stroll along the signposted Kernaham Trace, which swings in from the Manzanilla–Mayaro Road to Kernaham Village, a widely dispersed collection of picturesque board houses, mostly on stilts, that are home to a friendly, overwhelmingly Indian community of farmers and fishermen. It’s a beautiful scene, with the flatlands opening up huge expanses of open sky. Kernaham has a bar which occasionally serves food, as well as a building for worship that accommodates the community’s Hindus, Muslims and Christians; it’s marked with a moon and stars design on the outside, and a peek through the wall reveals icons (in picture form) of all three religions, illustrating Trinidad’s strong tradition of cultural and religious acceptance.
A thriving little market town slung along the Eastern Main Road, SANGRE GRANDE (“big blood”, after a long-forgotten battle between Amerindians and the incoming Spanish) – pronounced “sandy grandy” but usually just called “grandy” – is a bustling transportation hub for the whole east coast from Toco to Mayaro, and the only place in the region with a bank or ATM. Residents of surrounding villages crowd the pavements every Friday to deposit wage cheques, shop at the market stalls, take a fast-food fix and drink the night away at the many rum shops. Most visitors pass through en route to somewhere else, or stop off to change taxis and maxis, but it’s well worth diverting just south of town to check out the excellent Velaja cocoa estate.
This ten-acre working estate Velaja Estate offers a fantastic insight into traditional cacao production. Trinidad Select Hybrid cocoa is grown and processed on site using age-old methods, and the estate has been opened up to visitors by way of a couple of excellent tours. The “Love of Cocoa” trip takes you through the shady cocoa groves, with guides explaining how the trees are maintained and the cocoa pods harvested, and into the processing house, where the raw beans are fermented, “danced” to remove the sweet outer pulp, and then dried ready to be ground into cocoa powder; the tour also includes tasting of raw beans, cocoa nibs and a cup of hot chocolate tea. There’s also a “Secrets of the Forest” tour, a moderately challenging hike up into the high reaches of the estate to learn about the trees which make up the woodlands here, and how they’ve been used in traditional agriculture and husbandry. Workshops on organic and hydroponic gardening are also regularly staged, as are special activities for kids; and custom-designed tours are available: call ahead to find out what’s on.
Despite the beauty of its rolling countryside, the interior holds few specific draws for visitors; in fact, perhaps the best way to get a feel for the area is simply to get happily lost in its maze of rural roads, stopping off for a drink or an Indian snack at one of the innumerable small bars and food stalls in the villages. As maxis and taxis take long, circular routes to the villages, this is a difficult area to explore without your own vehicle, though the absence of road signs can be frustrating; asking for directions is usually your best bet for finding the right road.
Northeast of the Caroni Plains and right at the end of the Churchill Roosevelt Highway, stone pillars at the edge of the tarmac mark the entrance to the former American airbase at Waller Field. The hangars, barrack blocks and control rooms are long gone, though the old runway is used for regular drag racing meets. The main draw in the area, however, are the 18 square kilometres of the Aripo Savannah Scientific Reserve, Trinidad’s last remaining portion of savannah land, which was given protected status in 1934. In 1871, author Charles Kingsley wrote that the area “filled me with more admiration than anything I have seen in the island”, and it’s still a startlingly beautiful place, vast, eerie and empty despite its proximity to the Northern Range and the clamour of the East–West Corridor. The emptiness is deceiving, however; the area’s sensitive ecosystem provides a home to 260 species of birds and 243 documented species of flora, many of which are rarely (if ever) seen elsewhere on the island. Among the plants are parasitic vines, wild calabash, ground orchids and the endemic carnivorous sundew plant, while savannah hawks, red-bellied macaws and fork-tailed palm swifts (among innumerable others) are more easily spotted here than elsewhere on Trinidad. Each savannah is divided by impressive galba-palm forests and palm marshes including abundant moriche palm trees, while the disused bunkers and wells are a legacy of World War II, when the Americans leased 1600 acres here to use for training exercises.
The signposted entrance to the Aripo Savannah Scientific Reserve is at Cumuto, about 5km south of Waller Field. The best time to visit is at dawn, when you will be rewarded with a spectacular aspect of the palms glowing in the light, along with the birds’ enchanting early morning chorus.
Reaching 40.85m at its highest elevation, the Caroni Arena Dam is Trinidad and Tobago’s largest, while the Reservoir covers 6.8 square kilometres. Caroni is a haven for birds and animals. Parrots, hawks and white egrets are frequent visitors to the area while blue emperor butterflies flutter among the reeds by the water’s edge, caimans lurk in the swamps bordering the reservoir and red howler and capuchin monkeys, toucans and tree porcupines inhabit the surrounding forest. There’s no public transport to the dam, though Paria Springs offer a marvellous birding tour here, and will be able to arrange the necessary permits for entering the area.
Running roughly parallel to the Uriah Butler Highway, the old Southern Main Road south from Curepe on the Churchill Roosevelt Highway is little more than a parochial thoroughfare these days as it potters through one small community after another surrounded on all sides by the Caroni Plains, Trinidad’s original sugar heartland and a region dominated by the East Indian community, whose ancestors settled here as indentured workers. The complete restructuring of the sugar industry during the 1990s and the eventual closure of the state-owned Caroni Sugar Company in 2004 has forced farmers to diversify, however, planting rice, pigeon peas and cassava in the former canefields. Some 5km south of Curepe, Caroni village was founded around the old Caroni Sugar Factory, though this and the rum distillery closed in 2003; you can still sample local rum in any number of rum shops along the road, however. Set in a former train station, the Railway Bar is especially distinctive.
South of Caroni, the SMR becomes increasingly urban as you pass through Warrenville, home of a particularly attractive mosque, which merges imperceptibly into Conupia, itself morphing into a suburb of Chaguanas. The route displays a fascinating combination of old and new Trinidad, with mandirs and mosques interspersed with evangelical churches, while extravagant signboards shout out the wares of the small shops and mom-and-pop restaurants that line the road, many of the latter selling excellent Indian fast food.
East of the Solomon Hochoy Highway, the Montserrat Hills are the most picturesque part of the Central Range, a rolling landscape which shelters huge cocoa estates and the Navet Dam and Reservoir, as well as some of Trinidad’s sleepiest villages, accessed via winding roads with rickety wooden bridges. The nineteenth-century English novelist Charles Kingsley, who visited in 1870, described the panorama from the top of Montserrat as “the most vast and most lovely which I have ever seen”. Most of the villages have little specific to recommend them apart from the odd picturesque colonial house and a great deal of rural charm, though there are a few gentle attractions on which to hinge a visit.
The distinctive, flat-topped Mount Tamana is the highest in the Central Range at 308m, and its porous limestone core holds a series of lengthy cave systems which provide the perfect home for huge colonies of bats. The gentle thirty-minute walk up Tamana’s slopes is pleasant enough, threading through shady groves of lichen-covered cocoa trees and under giant silk cotton trees, with the occasional eye-popping view over the Caroni Plains. However, the real draw here are the bats, which make a spectacular exit en masse at dusk to feed. It’s best to arrive around 3pm, in order to have enough time to walk up to the top of the hill and admire the spectacular views over the forested slopes of the Central Range, and descend to the caves before the sun goes down. It’s easy to go inside the first of the caves to peek at the ceiling – almost every inch is covered with roosting bats (though be warned that the bat droppings are copious). As dusk approaches, the first stragglers make their way out, and as the darkness thickens, the trickle becomes a stream as about a million and a half bats shoot past like furry, flapping balls, their sonars clicking away as they avoid flying into you.
With only the minuscule hamlet of Brasso Venado nearby, the towering Navet Dam is an isolated place, excellent for quiet picnics and birdwatching, with plenty of waterfowl scooting around on the reservoir’s intricate network of inlets and coves. As with visits to Caroni Arena, you need a permit to enter the area, best arranged via a company such as Caribbean Discovery Tours or Paria Springs.
Set in beautiful low-lying hills south of Montserrat, about 10km from both Tortuga and Tabaquite, PIPARO has the dubious distinction of having suffered one of the Trinidad’s largest mud volcano eruptions in 1997, which saw mud spewed 60m into the air, covering 2.5 square kilometres and displacing 31 families. Half of the village cemetery remains buried under the (now solidified) mud “lake”, which has two small oozing mounds at its centre that occasionally spatter out small eruptions of mud. Piparo is also infamous as the former home of notorious drug lord, Dole Chadee, whose 1994 arrest drew attention both to the significance of cocaine as part of the island’s economy, and to the extent of his Piparo estate, close to the volcano site, where an extensive mansion and Hindu temple behind 4.5m razor-wired walls attest to the extravagance of the cocaine don’s lifestyle. The rest of his land, just north of the village, was seized by the government and now houses a rehabilitation centre for drug users and the homeless.
Widely claimed to have been Trinidad’s most influential and successful drug lord, Dole Chadee’s story reads something like an illicit Colombian rags-to-riches tale. Born Nankissoon Boodram to a poor Indo-Trinidadian family in Curepe, Chadee went from mason to cocaine empire-builder, and was a charitable community godfather who skillfully avoided arrest until his eventual downfall, which was shrouded in unanswered questions and political intrigue.
At the peak of his reign, Chadee owned a large estate guarded by gun-wielding henchmen at the village of Piparo; he had his own ornate no-expense-spared Hindu temple, owned racehorses, a fleet of flashy cars (despite not having a driving licence), as well as shopping centres and petrol stations as far afield as Princes Town and San Fernando. Chadee employed a large contingent of the Piparo community and was intent on looking after the village’s welfare, offering money for food and electricity at difficult times, as well as funds for sporting events and other community activities. His group remained seemingly untouchable (he’s even said to have bought a car from former prime minister, Patrick Manning), despite showing a ruthless side which saw witnesses to alleged crimes poisoned, killed or their jaws shot off, and families intimidated or murdered.
Chadee was never tried as a narco-trafficker, however. Despite US authorities’ suspicions that he, along with partner “Shortman” Beharry, were heading the eastern Caribbean’s leading cocaine cartel, in league with Cali of Colombia, it was for a dual murder charge that he and eight accomplices were eventually arrested in 1994.
Signposted from the Churchill Roosevelt Highway, Talparo Road runs south through serene rainforest where you’ll rarely meet another car. As you pass the tiny settlements of Brazil and Talparo, the foothills of the Central Range appear, cloaked in luxuriant vegetation: thickets of bamboo jostle with papaya, mango, banana, cashew and breadfruit trees. The blooms of the golden poui dominate in April, while from December to March magnificent immortelle trees blaze a fiery red.
Set among the canefields of south-central Trinidad, in the fantastically named community of Hard Bargain, the remarkably large Triveni Mandir owes its existence to the vision and devotion of local furniture-seller-cum-Hindu teacher Shri Ramoonsingh, who spent his entire life savings on the temple’s construction. It’s wonderfully detailed, with huge elephant sculptures outside and solid marble figurines of Shiva, Ganesh and Laksmi set in recesses in the walls both inside and out, while stained-glass windows and ornate paintings on the inside walls add to the atmosphere. Shri Ramoonsingh died before the temple was completed, but a small plaque at the front of the building dedicates the mandir to him.
A joyous celebration of the new year and the arrival of spring, the Hindu Holi festival – known in the Caribbean as Phagwah (pronounced “pag-wah”) – is held around the first full moon in March to mark the end of the Hindu calendar’s twelfth month (Phagun). Upbeat and lighthearted – to the horror of more traditional Hindus, who consider this attitude adharamic (anti-religious) – Phagwah celebrations are massive outdoor parties that represent a symbolic triumph of light over darkness and happiness over suffering. In Indian religious mythology, the festival commemorates the death of Holika, the sister of evil king Hiranyakashyapu, who repeatedly tried to murder his son Prahalad because of the latter’s insistence on worshipping Vishnu as the only God. Immune to flames, Holika carried Prahalad into a fire, but the gods ensured that she burned to death; her brother was later slain by Vishnu. Holika’s conflagration is re-enacted the night before the main festivities, when sins amassed in the previous year are ceremonially consumed by the flames of large bonfires.
The main festivities revolve around traditions such as the singing of devotional folk songs called chowtals, sung in a mix of English and Hindi and composed specifically for Phagwah to tell the story of the festival, normally accompanied by goatskin dholak drums and brass cymbals called ghanj. Local businesses sponsor chowtal competitions in the weeks preceding Phagwah, and the winners perform on the day itself. The principal focus of the festival, though, are intense dyes of various colours including the fuchsia-pink abir, which is strewn about as powder or mixed with water and squirted from a plastic bottle renamed a pichakaaree; participants wear white to make the most of the ensuing glorious mess. As the festivities wear on, classical Indian dancers display their movements and chutney soca fuels the more risqué dancing. Games add to the fun; adults participate in makhan chor, where teams form a human pyramid in order to grab a suspended flag; and children compete in roti-eating contests in which skins are strung through the middle and tied in a line to be eaten with no hands allowed.
Trinidad’s west coast is as far as many visitors venture into the centre of the island, heading down to the Caroni Swamp for a boat tour in search of scarlet ibis, and perhaps stopping off for a look at the remarkable Waterloo Temple in the Sea and Hanuman Murti statue at Carapichaima. But there are some interesting lesser-known attractions, from the family-run Chaguanas potteries at Chase Village, which produce industrial quantities of the deya lights used in Diwali festivities, to the busy and vibrant Chaguanas market, perhaps the most visitor-friendly place on the island to check out all matter of tropical fruit and veg. The area is also pretty easy-access in terms of transport, with turn-offs from the Uriah Butler and Solomon Hochoy highways to all of the small villages and settlements, and plenty of maxis from Port of Spain to Chaguanas, from where route taxis depart for all points in the area. The precursor to the highway, and a slower if more interesting route, the Southern Main Road (SMR) runs parallel to (but quite a way east of) the Uriah Butler Highway from Curepe, but crosses over onto the western side of the highway at Chaguanas and continues south through Couva and Point-a-Pierre.
The collective name for the cluster of villages on and around the SMR south of Edinburgh, CARAPICHAIMA, like its neighbours, is home to a predominantly Indian population, whose forefathers settled here to work on the vast sugar estates that once covered the area. For the moment, at least, this is still prime sugar territory: fields of cane undulate in the wind and graceful royal palms tower over the road as they have done since the early plantation days, when the land was owned by the Tate and Lyle sugar producers. Present-day Carapichaima is wholeheartedly Trinidadian, however: along the central Waterloo Main Road, the Church of Zion and Presbyterian school sit side by side with a healthy quota of rum shops, while Hindu prayer flags flutter next to trees strung with blue plastic bottles that traditionally ward off maljo, or bad luck. Nowhere else is the creative potential of Trinidad’s cosmopolitan cultural mix more clearly visible than at Carapichaima’s Carnival celebrations, where the length of the main road is lit up with lanterns each night, and a masquerade of traditional carnival characters such as robbers, jab jabs and jamettes, combined with Indian drumming and costume, draws hundreds of visitors – this and other aspects of Indian culture are covered at the also excellent Indian Caribbean Museum.
As well as the museum, Carapichaima is home to two of Trinidad’s most spectacular Hindu sites, the towering Hanuman statue and the unique Temple in the Sea, while the coastline here offers excellent birdwatching, with both Waterloo and nearby Brick Field good places to see skimmers, wattled jacanas, long-winged harriers, ospreys, neotropic cormorants, plovers, ruddy turnstones and the striking red-breasted blackbird. Courtenay Rooks of Paria Springs organizes regular birding tours in the area.
Surrounded by a cluster of neat 1920s bungalows built for sugar estate managers, the majestic Hanuman Murti is the largest representation of the Hindu monkey god outside of India, its 26 metres towering over the attached temple. Consecrated in June 2003, the statue was a gift from Ganapati Sachchidananda, a Swami (spiritual teacher) from Mysore in southern India. Its workmanship rivals anything to be found in Asia, with beautifully detailed and colourful relief work courtesy of twenty expert craftsmen sent over from India by the Swami.
In Hindu teaching, Hanuman is an immortal guru who observes your actions and offers protection from wrongdoing; interestingly, literature available at the temple informs that Hanuman came to the rescue against kidnappings in ancient India, a reference to the recent spate of abductions of prominent East Indian business people here in Trinidad. The complex’s bright pink temple is both the largest in Trinidad and the only one in the ornate and long, single-storey South Indian style, its entrance flanked by two elegant concrete elephants and its interior awash with superb and brightly coloured bas-reliefs of Hindu deities. The temple is home to the Sri Dattatreya Yoga Centre, a very active yoga and meditation centre.
Waterloo village is home to the Maha Sabha Indian Caribbean Museum, the only permanent exhibition of its kind in the region. Put together with extensive research from both local and expatriate sources, it’s a thoughtful and absorbing collection that documents the Indian experience in Trinidad across Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions, something that often gets overlooked in a society whose culture can be dominated by the calypso, soca and steel pan of the Afro-Trinidadian population. Exhibits include letters and photographs of early Indian arrivals on the island and models of the ships that brought the first immigrants, while sugar is a running theme throughout, with agricultural tools and photos documenting rural life and indentureship, and information on the phasing out of sugar cane attesting to the psychological importance of the crop to Indo-Trinidadians. Traditional clothing, paintings and musical instruments are all well represented, as are marijuana pipes – cannabis was originally brought to the Caribbean by Indians, and according to many Hindus it was only outlawed when rum factories were built, so as to promote consumption of the new drug of choice.
Religious festivals and icons form a sizeable part of the collection, from displays on Diwali and Phagwah to tassa drums and photos of early Tadjas from the Muslim Hosay commemoration, as well as a translation of the Bible into Hindi by nineteenth-century Presbyterian missionaries. The construction of Hindu schools from the 1950s holds particular significance, as this is seen as the point at which Hindus began to be accepted into Trinidadian society. The museum’s knowledgeable curator is on hand to answer any questions about the exhibits or wider issues.
Waterloo Main Road meanders towards the sea, with some pretty wooden buildings intermingled with the concrete; on the right-hand side, look out for the former train station, once a stop on the Port of Spain–San Fernando line. Just before you meet the sea, the old Anglican cemetery on the right includes a plot reserved for Muslim burials, and just beyond this, a car park and information board (and, through a hedge, traditional Hindu cremation pyres at the water’s edge) mark the site of the unfailingly impressive Waterloo Temple. A gleaming white onion-shaped dome, it sits at the end of a concrete causeway surrounded by the Gulf of Paria at high tide, and at low tide by extensive mud flats. It’s a stunning setting, inordinately peaceful and spiritual, with the shore littered with broken coconut shells and fruits left by Hindus during puja ceremonies, and legions of flags (jhande) – representing prayers and offerings – flapping in the breeze.
The octagonal temple – used by the local Hindu community for weddings and puja ceremonies – covers an area of over 100 square metres, with coloured-glass windows that enable you to see the brightly painted stone and marble gods inside. Anyone can enter the temple, provided they remove their shoes first. The causeway, meanwhile, is a good vantage point from which to view the birds, including terns, gulls, whimbrels and skimmers, which feed in the mud flats throughout the year.
Back at the car park, there’s also a life-size statue of Sewdass Sadhu, an Indian labourer whose zeal and persistence enabled the temple to be built. Sadhu constructed a temple on the shore here in 1947, on land owned by the state sugar monopoly Caroni, but the government bulldozed the structure five years later, and sent him to jail for fourteen days. He then decided to rebuild his temple in the sea, where no permission was required, and struggled single-handedly for the next 25 years, using a bicycle to carry the foundation rocks out into the water and placing barrels full of concrete on the sea floor at low tide. Help finally came in 1995, when the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in Trinidad inspired the government to declare the temple an Unemployment Relief Project. With labourers paid by the state to rebuild the structure, the causeway was added and the temple swiftly completed.
T&T’s largest religious denomination after Catholicism, Hinduism was brought to Trinidad in the nineteenth century by indentured Indian workers, whose wide-ranging geographical and social origins reflected the huge differences in religious practice and status in India. As they settled into their new life in the Caribbean, Indo-Trinidadians created a hybrid Hinduism that’s unique to the island. One of the main differences to India is the lack of a caste system in T&T. The strong friendships forged during the passage over – which gave rise to the term jihaji bhai (“ship brother”) – transcended differences in social status, and many new-found friends chose to settle together and work the same plantations. Slowly, the caste system was eroded; only the priestly Brahmin caste, whose pundits officiate at religious rites, has survived in Trinidad.
Rituals have also been modified. Prayers for blessing – pujas – are lengthy processes in India, each with a specific meaning and directed towards a particular deity, but in Trinidad, several pujas are often combined, with multiple deities involved. At sacred places such as Waterloo, you’ll often see the scattered remains of articles required for pujas – incense, flowers, pictures (murtis) of the deity to be honoured, while the smell of the oils, herbs, spices and ghee offered to the gods hang heavy in the air; bamboo poles topped with a jhandi (prayer flag) in the colours of the relevant deity are also essential to pujas, and you’ll see clusters of them at puja sites island-wide as well as fluttering in the gardens of Hindu households.
Though you’d hardly believe it judging by the proliferation of grandiose mosques, Islam actually has a much smaller worship base, with just six percent of the population practising Muslims. For the most part, Islamic religious practice has changed little since arriving in T&T, save for the festival of Hosay, which has grown from a rather sombre ceremony to a Carnival-esque affair, much to the distress of the devout.
Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary is one of Trinidad’s most popular attractions, situated a few kilometres south of the East–West Corridor, and accessed via the Uriah Butler Highway. As well as serving as a roosting spot for flocks of elegant and spectacularly red scarlet ibis, T&T’s national bird, these forty square kilometres of tidal lagoons, marshland and mangrove forest bordering the Gulf of Paria between the mouths of the Caroni and Madame Espagnole rivers are home to 157 species of birds, while caimans, snakes, opossums, racoons and silky anteaters live in the water and mangrove canopy. Rich in fish and oysters, the swamp is also a spawning ground for massive tarpon and groupers (the largest caught here weighed 250lb). It was designated a protected wildlife area in 1953, but poaching still occurs, and industrial waste pollution remains a problem. Nonetheless, it’s a beguiling and beautiful place, and is well worth a visit.
Most people visit Caroni for a boat tour of the swamp; two companies offer trips aboard open pirogues that chug slowly through a maze of channels into the mangroves, which themselves have an otherworldly appearance: some have twisted aerial roots growing downwards into the water, while others have roots that grow upwards, emerging from the murky depths like stalagmites. Guides point out birds, plants and animals of interest – you’ll usually see snakes and common wetland birds such as egrets and blue herons – but the main attraction are the scarlet ibis, which roost on mangrove islands in the middle of open lagoons far into the swamp. Once the boat engines shudder to a halt, a spectacular scene unfolds as thousands of birds flock in, gradually turning their preferred clump of trees a vibrant red. This intense plumage owes its pigment to carotene, derived from the bird’s main prey – shrimp, worms and fiddler and tree-climbing crabs. In April and May, breeding pairs construct flat, open nests in the mangroves; once laid, their eggs incubate for just under a month before all-black hatchlings emerge – it takes up to three years for their diet to replace the dark feathers with a brilliant crimson.
Caroni boat tours leave daily at 4pm from the assembly point in the car park and last two and half hours; advance booking advisable (though not essential), and you should get there by 3.40pm. Of the two operators, Nanan’s (t 645 1305 or t 861 8274, w nananecotours.com; tour TT$60, with taxi to and from Port of Spain TT$400) is the larger, a professional outfit whose numerous boats often carry up to thirty people; Madoo’s tours (t 663 0458 or t 737 2069; TT$90) are more personalized, with smaller groups, and better for serious birders. Whichever operator you choose, try to sit at the front of the boat to avoid engine noise and fumes, and always douse yourself in plenty of repellent as mosquitoes here are rapacious. It’s also a good idea to bring binoculars or a powerful zoom lens, as it’s not possible to get close to the roosting spots without disturbing the ibis.
An excellent alternative to standard boat trips are the kayak tours offered by Paria Springs (t 620 8240, w pariasprings.com), which start from the southern side of the swamp and paddle through a narrow channel to the roosting site; the lack of engines allows for much better wildlife viewing.
The sprawling settlement of CHAGUANAS is one of the island’s oldest and largest towns. Ranged around the junction of Chaguanas Main Road and the old Southern Main Road (which runs parallel to the highway), central Chaguanas is a busy amalgam of shops and streetside stalls ranged around three large malls: Mid Centre, the slightly dilapidated Centre Pointe and Centre City. All are great places to find bargains in shoes and clothes, including imports direct from India.
Taking its name from its original inhabitants (the Chaguanes Amerindian tribe), Chaguanas was pretty much a one-horse town until Indian indentured labourers came in the 1840s to work on nearby sugar and cocoa estates. By the 1880s Chaguanas had become the most important market town in central Trinidad, connected to Port of Spain by rail lines and steamer ships. As the sugar industry declined in the early twentieth century, many Indians moved into professions such as journalism and law, creating the middle-class intelligentsia from which V.S. Naipaul emerged and which served as the milieu for some of his early novels. Though the trains and steamer are long gone, the construction of the Uriah Butler and Solomon Hochoy highways has ensured that the town remains well connected to the rest of the island, while the 1970s oil boom gave Chaguanas a new lease of life; conveniently located near the oil-rich south, it developed into a shopping centre for those who prefer not to travel all the way into Port of Spain. The swanky Lange Park suburb, alongside out-of-town shopping mall Price Plaza, attests to the area’s continuing prosperity.
Perhaps the most unlikely bird sanctuary in Trinidad, the remarkable Point-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust is a series of greenery-swathed pools right in the midst of the huge Petrotrin Oil Refinery at Point-a-Pierre, just north of San Fernando. The reserve came into being in 1966, when a hunter who worked at the refinery realized that wildfowl stocks were diminishing, and set aside an area within the complex to breed the birds. In time it became an established reserve, supported financially by the Canadian and British governments as well as by Shell – though barely at all by Petrotrin itself. Today, the reserve’s attractively landscaped grounds surround two lakes filled with lotus and water lilies and bordered by wooden walkways. Many rare bird species can be seen here, including the wild Muscovy duck, the red-billed whistling duck, the white-cheeked pintail and red-capped cardinal. Notwithstanding the fact that some of the rarer birds, including scarlet ibis, are caged within an aviary to allow breeding programmes to continue, the reserve doesn’t feel at all like a zoo. Indeed, the ibis breeding programme has been something of a landmark project, particularly as some of the released birds have chosen to stay on the site, allowing you the only chance you’ll get in Trinidad to see wild scarlet ibis up close; at Caroni Swamp, home of the scarlet ibis, you’re usually some distance from the ibis roosting trees.
The learning centre at the entrance has good photographic displays of the reserve’s flora and fauna, plus a small collection of shells and insect specimens alongside Amerindian artefacts, with a very informative account of the culture and belief systems of Trinidad’s original inhabitants. The trust’s guides are vastly knowledgeable not only about the birdlife, but also the medicinal qualities of Trinidad’s indigenous plants, and though you can explore the reserve independently, you’ll get a lot more from your visit if you arrange for a tour. The best time to visit is before 11am or after 3pm, as many birds hide in the shade during the hottest part of the day; spend the midday hours enjoying lunch on the veranda of the Petrea Place restaurant.
South of Carapichaima, the SMR enters Trinidad’s industrial heartland, with the west coast lined by a series of smoggy towns interspersed with oil refineries and petrochemical plants. The liveliest settlement in the area is Couva, with a few lovely gingerbread houses surviving among the concrete, and several places to eat and drink lined up along the road. Just south of Couva, a roundabout marks the turn-off to the massive Point Lisas Industrial Complex, whose belching chimneys are visible from miles around. The complex was built during the oil boom years of the 1970s to produce liquefied natural gas, steel and fertilizers (it has the unfortunate distinction of being the largest exporter of fertilizer in the world), but, industrial as it is, Point Lisas still has its wildlife. Every year between December and June, thousands of blue crabs make the hazardous journey across the main road from the swampland beside the complex to lay eggs in the sea; given the road traffic here, many don’t make it, leaving a crunchy trail of broken shells on the tarmac. Just by the turn-off for Point Lisas, Atlantic Plaza offers air-conditioned respite from the heat in the form of a Rituals coffee shop and food court.