The north of Trinidad is dominated by the rainforested mountains of the Northern Range, which form a rugged spine, rising up dramatically from the coastline to over 900m at the peaks of El Cerro del Aripo and El Tucuche. The region is also lined with Trinidad’s most stunning beaches, of which Maracas Bay and Las Cuevas are the most popular. Beyond is the glorious, laidback seashore of Blanchisseuse, where the road dissolves into undeveloped coastline. A narrow pass winds through the mountains south of the village, providing an opportunity to see some of the island’s prolific birdlife at Asa Wright Nature Centre and the idyllic village of Brasso Seco.
Occupying the stretch of land south of the jungle-smothered mountains is one of Trinidad’s most densely populated areas, a string of traffic-choked urban communities known collectively as the East–West Corridor, spreading back from each side of the Eastern Main Road and bordered to the south by the Churchill Roosevelt Highway. Though you’ll see plenty of temples, mosques and Hindu prayer flags around Tunapuna, Indian culture is far less visible here than in the south: Creole cooking reigns supreme and the soundtrack that blares from shops, bars and maxis is soca and Jamaican dancehall rather than chutney. Of the individual communities, St Joseph is the most absorbing, named by the Spanish as the island’s first capital, with a historic church and barracks. Slightly further east, St Augustine is dominated from the hills above by the stunning Mount St Benedict Monastery, home to a lovely guesthouse that’s one of the most attractive of the low-key and little-used accommodation options across the region. The East–West Corridor also offers access to a host of interior mountain attractions: numerous spectacular waterfalls and opportunities for river swimming are to be found at Maracas Valley, Caura,Lopinot and, especially, from the Heights of Guanapo Road, the starting point of several fantastic Northern Range hikes.
From Arima – home to Trinidad’s only Amerindian parade – shops and houses are replaced by the winding minor roads that span the weather-beaten northeastern tip. A wild and rugged peninsula, this Toco coast juts some 20km into the Atlantic Ocean, and is one of Trinidad’s best-kept secrets. Between March and August leatherback turtles clamber up onto wave-battered sandy beaches like Maturaand Grande Riviere to lay their eggs, backed by spectacular scenery.
Many of the places along the East–West Corridor, as well as Maracas and Las Cuevas beaches, are best seen by way of day-trips from Port of Spain; however, Blanchisseuse has a smattering of accommodation options, and if you plan on making the long drive up to Grande Riviere, you’ll almost certainly want to stay a night or two before heading back.
The Arima–Blanchisseuse Road cuts through the middle of the steamy Northern Range forest, climbing high into misty, breeze-cooled peaks, between which Brasso Seco village is an excellent starting point for exploring the waterfalls that course through the mountains. A little closer to civilization you descend to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, one of the Caribbean’s finest birdwatching sites. The sharply winding, potholed and generally ill-kept road is not for the faint of heart (especially as parts of it had been rendered surfaceless by ongoing drainage work at the time of writing), but the payoff is tremendous. Light filtering through the overhanging canopies of mahogany, teak, poui, cedar and immortelle colours the tunnel-like road green, and every available surface is smothered in plant life: mosses, ferns and lichens cover rocks and tree trunks already laden with massive wild pine bromeliads, and vines and monkey’s ladder lianas trail down to the tarmac.
Closer to Arima, the road dips downhill, rounding spectacular corners and passing hillsides cleared for christophene cultivation supported on rough trellises (the fruits, which resemble avocado pears, are commonly used in Chinese cooking), and former cocoa estates left to grow wild. As the jungle thins out and a few sporadic buildings appear, look out for the numerous Hindu prayer flags fluttering in the breeze and tiny do-it-yourself temples on the eastern side of the road.
Internationally famous for its birdwatching, the 1500-acre Asa Wright Nature Centre was originally a coffee, citrus and cocoa plantation. In 1947 it was bought by Dr Newcome Wright and his Icelandic wife, Asa. Both were keen naturalists and birdwatchers, and when the New York Zoological Society set up the Simla Tropical Research Station on neighbouring land, the couple began to accommodate visiting researchers. After her husband died, Mrs Wright sold the land on the condition it remained a conservation area. A non-profit-making trust was set up in 1967, which established a nature centre for naturalists and birdwatchers, a first in the Caribbean. Simla donated its land and research station to the centre in 1970, and though tropical research is still undertaken here, Asa Wright is mainly visited these days as one of the most popular birdwatching retreats in the Caribbean. Resident guests tend to be middle-aged to retired North American or British bird fanatics, enthusiastically compiling checklists of the day’s sightings over sunset rum punches, single malts and reminiscences of the good old days. You can also visit as a half-day trip, watching birds from the veranda, taking a tour of the grounds and having lunch or afternoon tea. Between January and April (Mon–Fri), tours from docked cruise ships often crowd the centre from mid-morning to mid-afternoon; if you’re not staying here but still wish to do some birdwatching during these times, arrive before 10am to avoid the rush.
Tucked away at the end of a well-signposted turn-off from the Arima–Blanchisseuse Road, a good up-and-down 7km from Morne La Croix or Asa Wright, BRASSO SECO is a naturalists’ dream. Translating as “dry branch” in reference to an arm of the Paria River which only ever gets wet in heavy rainy seasons, the village is populated by people of mixed Amerindian, Spanish and African descent (and clearly recognizable as such; some of the elders still speak Spanish); known as “cocoa panyols”, many are descended from people who moved to Trinidad from Venezuela in the nineteenth century to work on the burgeoning cocoa and coffee estates.
Today, the village is probably the best base for hiking in Trinidad, owing to its proximity to both mountains and coastline, at least five waterfalls and numerous river pools, as well as its variety of accommodation options. Though few serious birdwatchers come to the area, the diversity they find here often exceeds that of the island’s well-known birdwatching centres; scientists from a variety of universities have made this their base for studying rarely seen species and leking sites (communal display sites where males show off their prowess to potential mates). Red-legged honeycreepers, bearded bellbirds, tufted coquette hummingbirds, all types of parrot, green and red macaws, the black-faced ant-thrush and the endangered piping guan are all to be found, among innumerable others.
Hunkered under the dramatic 941m peak of El Cerro del Aripo to the south, the community is charming, languorous and picturesque, consisting of converted cocoa sheds and still-occupied tapia houses, alongside a rum shop-cum-parlour, church, school and community centre. Children play cricket in the middle of the road, young men lime outside the rec club and everyone has time to greet each other.
If you’re in Trinidad in mid-October, try to get up to Brasso Seco for their annual village festival, which celebrates local culture, indigenous and otherwise, by way of dancing, parang and plenty of amazing local food and drink, from wine and cocoa to pastelles and smoked meat.
Spreading south from the flanks of the Northern Range, the East–West Corridor is a sprawling conurbation between Trinidad’s east and west coasts, its numerous communities so close together it’s hard to tell where one tails off and another begins. Its whole length is traversed by three separate roads running parallel: the first, the traffic-clogged Eastern Main Road (EMR) is lined with shops, businesses, restaurants and rum bars for almost its entire distance; people partially avoid the rush by taking the second road, the Priority Bus Route – a fast-track thoroughfare for public transport just south of the EMR, built where the now-obsolete train tracks were once in service; the third is the multi-lane Churchill Roosevelt Highway a kilometre or so to the south. The highway has encouraged major development in the form of three large shopping malls, signposted along its route, while it’s also the access point for Piarco International Airport.
Frenetic, hot and dusty as it is, the East–West Corridor does have sights worth seeing. The EMR is the gateway to the old Spanish capital of St Joseph, where elegant colonial edifices sit incongruously with a more recent rash of concrete. The Mount St Benedict Monastery dominates the hillside eastwards, providing panoramic views of the Caroni Plains, superlative birdwatching, and a restful spot for afternoon tea. Heading north into the mountains, a series of access roads to Maracas, Caura, Lopinot and Guanapo all lead to off-the-beaten-path waterfalls, river swimming and hiking. And the grinding pace of traffic along the EMR itself at least allows you to absorb the commercial chaos outside of the capital. The road buzzes with life – shoppers dodging delivery trucks throng the pavements and vendors fill the air with the sweet aroma of street food.
In terms of accommodation, much of the area can be visited on day-trips from the capital, though there is a stand-out guesthouse at Mount St Benedict and a couple of options in Arima that are conveniently close to the airport and other sights such as the Asa Wright Nature Centre and mountain waterfalls.
Named “Naparima” by its original indigenous inhabitants, ARIMA is situated 6.5km from the Lopinot turn-off of the EMR, or about 7km from Piarco airport along the highway. The third largest town in Trinidad, it’s also one of the most confusing places for drivers as the EMR departs from its ruler-straight course and gets swiftly swallowed up in a complicated one-way system through the urban clamour of shops, banks and wandering pedestrians; it’s far easier to soak up the hustle, bustle and blaring soca and reggae on foot if you wish to explore. The attractions of Arima are decidedly limited: the main landmark is the Arima Dial, featuring a four-faced timepiece presented to the townspeople by then-mayor John Francis Wallen in 1898, while on Hollis Avenue the line of local street vendors stops at a small park with a statue of venerated calypsonian Lord Kitchener. There’s an open-air market (liveliest on Sat), while the adjacent Arima Velodrome is the setting for many a wild Carnival fete.
Arima has a far deeper history than its commercial facade would suggest, as it’s home to what’s left of Trinidad’s Amerindian (Carib) community, most of whom live around the crucifix-strewn Calvary Hill, a precipitous thoroughfare that overlooks the town from the north and connects to the Arima–Blanchisseuse Road. Many are distant relatives of the Carinepogoto tribe who once inhabited the Northern Range, and family names such as Boneo, Campo, Calderon, Castillo, Hernandez, Martinez and Peña are common. Though the community has dwindled over the years, there have been efforts of late to preserve Carib traditions and heritage.
The main festival in the local Carib calendar is the Feast of Santa Rosa de Lima, held over the last weekend of August. The oldest continuously celebrated event in Trinidad, having been inaugurated in 1786, it’s also the only one in the island that honours the first canonized Roman Catholic saint of the “New World”. Following a morning of church services, the year’s Carib King and Queen are crowned, and a white-gowned statue of Santa Rosa is paraded through the streets, the procession bedecked with white, yellow, pink and red roses. Rum flows, and traditional Amerindian foods such as pastelles and cassava bread are eaten. The origins of the festival are somewhat murky, but in true fairy-tale style, Carib elders relate that three hunters chanced upon a young girl lying in the woods, and brought her back to Calvary Hill. She disappeared three times, only to be returned to the community. A local priest told the Caribs that this was no normal child but the spirit of Santa Rosa, and that they should make an image of her while she was still with them, for if she vanished again, her physical body would never be seen again. They made the statue, and the girl duly disappeared, leaving only a crown of roses where she had first been discovered. Ever since, Santa Rosa has been the patron saint of Arima’s Carib community.
Lonely fields line the EMR for a couple of kilometres east of Heights of Guanapo Road before it meets the nondescript-looking Aripo Road, which meanders northwards uphill for 14km into the mountains, following a valley cut by the Aripo River. As the road is rough and potholed, you’ll need a car with high clearance. The road’s upper reaches are pretty and pass through some quiet rural communities. If you’re in the mood for a river swim, look out for a metal arch with the inscription “Jai Guru Data”; take the steps down the hill to a deep pool.
Even though they’re weather-beaten and battered, you can still make out the Forestry Division signs along the road which point the way to the Aripo Caves, Trinidad’s largest system of caverns; note that a guide is essential if you plan on exploring them, as they will take care of the permissions required to enter the area, a scientific reserve. After a cocoa grove – which sports fruits that turn purple when ripe rather than the usual orange – there’s a clearing where you can park, and a sign for the trail. The fairly taxing two- to three-hour trek through undisturbed forest, with plenty of hills and gullies to navigate, is best undertaken in the dry season (Jan–March), when the three rivers that cross the path usually slow to a trickle; if it’s been raining, you’ll have to wade them. In the rainy season, you’ll also have to get wet to enter the caves, as a river courses straight into the mouth – the going can be slippery. Nearing the entrance to the caves, you get the occasional view of the Central Plains below, and you’ll start to hear the unearthly rasping shriek of one of the island’s few colonies of oilbirds. The mouth is large and dramatic, with a rather fusty mist rising constantly. Water drips from the limestone roof, and every surface is covered with fruit stones and guano. With a good torch you can navigate the rocks and go fairly deep inside, but the oilbirds’ cries near an ear-splitting pitch; the Amerindians named them “Guacharo”, meaning “the one who wails and mourns”. If you want to go deeper, you’ll need rope, a compass and caving experience.
Towards the eastern end of Tunapuna, itself a bustling conurbation with a lively fruit and veg market, the Caura Royal Road turns north to the Caura Valley – one of the most popular picnic spots on the East–West Corridor. Carved by the serpentine Tacarigua River, the valley was nearly turned into a reservoir in the 1940s: the inhabitants – many mixed Amerindian and Spanish – were relocated to Lopinot and even Brasso Seco, but the proposed dam was thwarted by the sandy soil and never built.
About 6km up the Caura Royal Road from the EMR is a right turn that will take you to a well-used swimming spot. Picnic tables line the bamboo-fringed riverbanks, and at weekends cooking fires smoulder and the shallow water is crowded with families enjoying a dip – though it does often look murky in the dry season.
Past the picnic spots, high walls of bamboo form an intermittent tunnel over the road, opening up to reveal small-scale farms and homes at La Veronica hamlet. As the Caura Royal Road emerges onto the Tacarigua riverbanks, the water deepens and picnicking is more secluded – the road is eventually terminated by a river tributary. The drive back to the EMR affords some spectacular views of the central plains that are easily missed on the way up.
CUREPE is a hub for transport all over the island: route taxis and maxis go from here to Port of Spain, east along the EMR as well as south to San Fernando and into the mountains of the Northern Range – though if you’re heading to Lopinot, you should change at Arouca further east. There’s little to stimulate the imagination in Curepe, save for locally famous doubles vendor Sauce, south of the bus terminus; people drive all the way from Port of Spain just for a Curepe doubles fix.
Curepe merges imperceptibly into St Augustine, a wealthier residential area north of the EMR, while just south the Priority Bus Route mounts a cut-stone flyover under which a road takes you to the University of the West Indies St Augustine Campus. Usually referred to by its acronym, UWI (“yoo-wee”) also has branches in Jamaica and Barbados. The campus was formerly a sugar plantation, and the great house now serves as the principal’s home. The students are a cosmopolitan mix from across the Caribbean, and the campus offers numerous fast-food outlets and the especially comfy Rituals coffee shop.
The Churchill Roosevelt Highway comes to an abrupt end east of Arima, with barely signposted turns north to the EMR, which itself switches abruptly from commercial thoroughfare to rural road, dominated by farmland and an impenetrable wall of rainforest pierced by a few country lanes leading to some marvellous natural attractions. Just after the EMR meets a road heading northwards to join the Arima–Blanchisseuse Road, a turn-off marked “WASA Guanapo Waterworks” brings you to the Heights of Guanapo Road, which runs along the Guanapo River for 3km before petering out into a country lane, often churned up by logging vehicles and best accessed by four-wheel-drive. The logging activity in the area is kept pretty low-key and the area remains a peaceful and beautiful hikers’ paradise, for which you’ll need the help of a knowledgeable guide. Though you can drive further uphill for the lovely views at La Laja Heights, it’s a good idea to park in the large clearing below where logging workers have built a hut, and then walk, as the road is heavily potholed. The main attractions of the area are the breathtaking Guanapo Gorge, and the La Laja and Sombasson waterfalls, two of the most impressive on the island. With effort, you can see both the falls and the gorge in a day, but you’ll need to be pretty fit.
Ten kilometres from the EMR, via a winding road lined with lush jungle and Caribbean pines, LOPINOT is a pretty hamlet with a remote feel, clustered around a sports field and the neat flowerbeds of a former cocoa estate that has been transformed into a beautiful recreation spot.
The valley was first settled by one Charles Josef, Compte de Lopinot, a planter who fled Haiti following Toussaint L’Ouverture’s 1791 revolution. He arrived in 1800 with his wife and a hundred slaves, and it’s not difficult to see why he chose to settle in this absurdly abundant alluvial valley surrounded by high, protective mountains. Lopinot’s cocoa thrived, allowing him to build a tapia estate house, a prison and slave quarters and to amass a small fortune before his death in 1819. The Compte is buried alongside his wife by the Arouca River, which runs through the valley, and local legend has it that on stormy full moon nights his ghost rides through the estate on a white horse. A photograph taken in 1981, now on display in the great house, claims to show exactly that.
Today, Lopinot is a great place to picnic or to take a gentle hike into the surrounding forest. The community’s annual Fiesta de Lopinot, a festival of parang, food and drink, takes place in late November, and is well worth checking out, as is the Cocoa Innovations festival, staged at Café Mariposa on the Saturday after Carnival, a fantastic celebration of cooking with cocoa with lots of samples of savoury and sweet delights.
Cutting inland from the EMR at St Joseph, Abercromby Street becomes Maracas Royal Road less than a kilometre from the EMR, crossing the grand First River Bridge and winding north into the lush MARACAS–ST JOSEPH VALLEY. Maracas itself is a tiny place with a post office and the steepled church of St Michael, the houses separated by clumps of fluffy bamboo and neat provision grounds. A few kilometres further on, the Maracas Royal Road ends at Loango Village, at a T-junction with the bumpy tarmac of San Pedro Road. There is easy access to bathing pools along the Maracas River here, the deepest usually filled with swimmers from the village. The riverbed is scattered with sparkling bronze sedimentary rocks, which fed rumours of gold deposits in the early twentieth century.
Set in a private home overlooking the Maracas valley, Yerette is one of the island’s prime visitor attractions, allowing you to get a magical, close-up view of the many hummingbirds found in Trinidad. Some thirteen species are regular visitors, drinking delicately from the hundreds of sugar-water feeders dotted around the terrace and flowered gardens, and making acrobatic dives and swoops through the air as they perform complicated courtship rituals or defend their territory with surprising aggression. Most common are the metallic emerald-and magenta-tailed copper-rumped hummingbirds, but (depending upon the season) you may also see the spectacular flame-tailed ruby-topaz and the equally colourful tufted coquette, the second-smallest bird in the world. Visits are chaperoned by Yerette’s charismatic owner, Theo Ferguson, who provides some background on these fascinating little birds as well as taking you through a slide show that details each of the seventeen hummingbird species found in Trinidad. You’re also able to browse a gallery of exquisitely detailed photographs (all of which are available to buy) as well as hummingbird-themed craft items, and the visit includes a delicious breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea.
Note that all visits must be booked in advance, usually a week ahead at least, as Yerette is very oversubscribed and does not operate regular hours.
It’s well worth heading deep into Maracas–St Joseph Valley to see the Maracas Valley Waterfall, which crashes magnificently down 90m of sheer rock. At the end of Waterfall Road you can park and, if needed, locate a guide at the neighbouring house; the route is simple and easy to follow independently, but guides can impart some interesting background on the trees and flowers en route. After twenty minutes of uphill walking along a wide track lined by groves of tall balata trees, a path strikes off right to three tiers of mini-waterfalls with two swimmable, ice-cold pools. Signs warning “no candles” are puzzling until you near the main falls twenty minutes further; here you’ll see clusters of candles or pools of wax on the rocks, left by followers of the Hindu, Spiritual Baptist and Orisha religions, who regard the waterfall as a sacred place.
The Maracas–St Joseph Valley is the starting point for a couple of adventurous hikes. From the Maracas River bathing pools you can hike over the mountains to Maracas Bay, a stiff three-hour trek along an old fisherman’s trail, or – if you’ve got the stamina – climb the 936m El Tucuche (variously pronounced “tuh-cutchee” or “too-koosh”), Trinidad’s second-highest mountain. It’s an eight-hour round trip, and a section of the trail is bordered by a tree-covered, 300m cliff, but you’ll be rewarded by epiphyte-laden montane as well as high-altitude, mist-drenched elfin forests. If you’re lucky, you’ll see red howler monkeys, though you’re unlikely to catch a glimpse of the golden tree frog, Trinidad’s only endemic animal which lives in the waterlogged leaves of wild pine bromeliads.
A guide is essential for both of these walks – try Paria Springs, Caribbean Discovery Tours or Ieri Nature Tours.
Towering over St Augustine with phenomenal views of the south of Trinidad coast to coast is the Mount St Benedict Monastery. An eye-catching network of white-walled, red-roofed buildings dominating the hillside, the monastery was established in 1912 by Benedictine monks fleeing religious persecution in Brazil. The first of its kind in the Caribbean, the monastery initially consisted of nothing more than a mud-walled, thatch-roofed ajoupa at the peak of Mount Tabor; additional buildings were added over the years, including in 1918 a gorgeous burnt-orange central tapia house, now slowly crumbling. With a boxy steeple tower forming the tallest portion of the complex, at 243m above sea level, the imposing church was consecrated as an abbey in 1947. In keeping with their motto “ora et labora” (prayers and work), the ten (now ageing) resident monks maintain an estate of coffee, cocoa, citrus and planted forest, as well as producing delicious yoghurt for domestic use and commercial sale. Mount St Benedict houses the Caribbean’s main regional training college for priests, the St John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs Seminary, which is also UWI’s theology faculty. Nearby St Bede’s Vocational School is also run by the monks, who teach local youngsters practical skills such as machining, welding, plumbing and carpentry. Though firmly a centre of Catholic study and worship, the site nonetheless remains inclusively Trinidadian, with Spiritual Baptists and Hindus undertaking pilgrimages here at different times of the year.
For a panoramic view of Trinidad that surpasses even the vistas at the monastery, take the Alben Ride trail just before the final monastery buildings and climb the fire tower, built to give warning of blazes in the plantations below.
Old meets new as you follow the EMR east across the bridge into ST JOSEPH, Trinidad’s oldest European town and first official capital. On the right is the elaborate Mohammed Al Jinnah Memorial Mosque, resplendent with a crescent- and star-topped main dome flanked by two minarets (there’s not much to see inside, but drop by the caretaker’s house behind the mosque if you want to take a look). The main streets, however, are on St Joseph Hill just to the north, lined with genteel colonial French and Spanish architecture jostling with newer concrete structures.
In 1592, Lieutenant Domingo de Vera founded a town on the site of an Amerindian settlement. Christening it San José de Oruna, de Vera built a church, a prison-cum-police barracks (the rebuilt remains of which are to be found directly opposite the mosque), a governor’s residence and a cabildo (town hall). In 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh attacked San José, burning down the church and the barracks, though by 1606 both were rebuilt, only to be destroyed by the Dutch in 1637 and ransacked by Caribs in 1640. During the eighteenth century, San José prospered as a plantation town, but in 1766 was hit by a devastating earthquake. It never really recovered, and eighteen years later the last Spanish governor relocated the capital to Port of Spain. The town’s troubles weren’t over yet, however; in 1837, a detachment of the British West Indian Regiment stationed here mutinied. Led by a Yoruba ex-slave known as Daaga, the soldiers were protesting against the apprenticeship system that kept freed Africans in a state of semi-slavery. They set fire to the barracks and fought for several days before being overwhelmed. In the aftermath, forty Africans lay dead, and Daaga and two of his comrades were executed by firing squad.
Weighing up to 700kg and measuring up to a metre across, leatherback turtles have undergone few evolutionary alterations in their 150-million-year history. Named for the soft, leathery texture of their ridged, blue-grey carapace (more like a skin than a shell, which bleeds if cut), leatherbacks spend most of the year in cool temperate waters gorging on jellyfish. During the egg-laying season (March–Aug), females swim thousands of miles, returning to the beach of their birth to lay their own eggs in the sand, a fascinating and moving process that usually takes place under the cover of night.
Leatherbacks can return to the same beach up to ten times per season – a necessary repetition, as only sixty percent of all eggs laid will mature into hatchlings. Many are dug up by dogs or poachers, and only one or two eggs from each clutch will become fully-grown turtles. Hatchlings emerge from the sand about sixty days later and make a moon-guided dash for the sea; if they’re lucky, they’ll escape being eaten by predators.
The best spots for turtle-watching are Grande Riviere and Matura in Trinidad, and Stonehaven and Turtle beaches in Tobago. Turtles also nest on many other beaches in both islands, from Las Cuevas and Paria to Pirate’s Bay, but only the places listed above offer organized trips with trained guides. If you do want to go turtle-watching (or if you happen upon a laying turtle by chance), it’s important to ensure that your presence doesn’t disturb the laying process. Guides use infra-red lights when close to turtles, and it’s best to avoid using torches anywhere on laying beaches; flash photography is a no-no, though bear in mind that in places such as Grande Riviere, many turtles lay in the early morning or even in full sunshine, allowing to photograph the event non-invasively. On laying beaches it’s best to walk close to the shoreline so as to avoid compacting the sand and damaging nests, and of course never discard plastic bags on the beach, as many turtles die after eating them, mistaking them for jellyfish. Though they’re rarely seen these days, souvenirs made from turtle-shells are illegal and are obviously not something you should consider buying.
Marked by two stone pillars put up by American servicemen during construction of the road, the left turn at the Y-junction of Saddle Road takes you onto the North Coast Road. One of the Caribbean’s most spectacular drives, hordes of city-dwellers negotiate its snaking turns at weekends en route to the golden sands of Maracas Bay, with its glittering waters and cliffs smothered with tangled jungle, stopping on the way to buy salt prunes or corn soup and admire the unravelling coastline at the designated “scenic area”.
Past Maracas, the coastline is sprinkled with fine beaches such as Tyrico Bay and shimmering Las Cuevas, a long sandy beach also riddled with underwater caves, but the north coast remains quiet, maintaining equanimity in the face of sporadic new villa developments. The slow-paced village life of Blanchisseuse is great for a couple of days, with a few small-scale guesthouses to stay in and several rugged beaches to explore. After this the coastal road ends, replaced by prime hiking territory along the undeveloped coastline, with perfect coconut-littered beaches and waterfalls such as the one at Paria Bay.
A five-minute drive east of Yarra and the last village before the North Coast Road trails off into the bush, BLANCHISSEUSE (pronounced “blaan-she-shers”), is a popular holiday retreat for Trinidadians. Local folklore suggests the name comes from a white woman – probably a French Creole plantation owner – who was seen washing here in the Marianne River.
With a population of around three thousand and spanning over 3km of road, Blanchisseuse isn’t exactly a hamlet, and its clutch of flashy holiday homes – some garish, some tasteful – are testament to its popularity. Even so it’s still pretty quiet; the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and most visitors are weekend day-trippers from Port of Spain. The few overseas tourists that do visit this Caribbean gem divide their time between the four marvellous sandy beaches, make the hike to gorgeous Paria Bay and Falls, or walk through the rainforest for river swimming at nearby Three Pools, or Avocat Falls on the Arima–Blanchisseuse Road.
Like most on this coastline, the beaches at Blanchisseuse are ruggedly beautiful, though they do have a reputation for treacherous waters, particularly between October and February when breakers crash onto the sand and surfers come into their element; ask local advice before taking the plunge.
After an inland curve that provides impressive views of the jagged double apex of Mount El Tucuche, Trinidad’s second highest mountain, the North Coast Road turns back to the sea at Las Cuevas, the north coast’s longest beach. Named by the Spanish after the caves that riddle both the seabed and the rocks to the west end of the bay, Las Cuevas boasts a wide, clean and unadorned swathe of whitish sand, fringed by coconut palms and invitingly calm emerald waters that provide better swimming than Maracas. It’s also a great place for beachcombing, especially along the seldom-visited western reaches, littered with shells and stones. The beach is surrounded by headlands, which enclose the bay in a tight horseshoe and provide protection from the wind and a relatively gentle surf. During the week it’s often deserted, although the fishing community is still very active, but weekends see the sand dotted with family groups who make a day of it, bringing coolers packed with food and drink and beach umbrellas to provide much-needed shade. Keep in mind, though, that the legendary sandfly population, a particular problem in the late afternoon or after rain, can make for unpleasant sunbathing – take repellent and cover up as the day wears on.
There’s a large (free) car park above the bay, as well as changing rooms, showers, toilets and a first aid room. Lifeguards patrol and put out yellow and red flags to mark safe bathing spots, and it’s not a good idea to swim outside of these areas. The calmest waters are to the eastern side of the bay.
Some 45 minutes’ drive from Port of Spain, the North Coast Road plunges down to MARACAS BAY, a ravishing generous curve of fine, off-white sand bordered by groves of skinny-stemmed palm trees and with a stunning mountainous backdrop. Easily the most popular beach on the island, Maracas is an institution: thousands make the traditional Sunday pilgrimage to show off their newest swimwear, frolic in the water, sunbathe and network. During the week, it’s a much quieter scene, and perhaps all the more enjoyable for it.
A concrete pillar with silver lettering and silver waves stands in the centre of a roundabout, heralding your arrival. Continuing on the main road, you’ll find a huge car park (you’ll get a ticket if you park elsewhere at weekends) and beach facilities such as showers, changing rooms and toilets, plus a flurry of food stalls selling the famed Maracas bake and shark sandwiches. On the other side of the coast road is the wide swathe of beach. Licked into a fury by passing currents and the wind tunnel effect of surrounding headlands, the waves often reach a metre or two high and make for an exhilarating swim, and the water is usually emerald green. Be wary of tides and undercurrents, however, as they’re often dangerously strong; stick to the areas between red and yellow flags where lifeguards stand by, whistling furiously at anyone who goes too far out.
The left-hand turn-off from the North Coast Road at the western end of Maracas Bay leads across a small river and down to Maracas Bay Village, a fishing hamlet whose catch – fresh carite, cavalli and shark – is in demand throughout the north. Here you’ll find a couple of rum bars, a grocery and post office, alongside lots of beached pirogues and drying nets and a very pretty cream-and-blue church next door to the Maracas Bay hotel. The village is also home to a profusion of scavenging dogs and few bathers; most people stick to the main beach to avoid the odd fishy entrail.
A small stretch of apparently ordinary tarmac between La Vache and Maracas Bay has a unique claim to fame. According to local folklore, this is the “magnetic road”, where vehicles roll up an incline in defiance of gravity – and it’s easily experienced. Stop just before the North Coast Road begins its descent to Maracas Bay. As the cliffs to the right recede, revealing the Northern Range, the road ahead appears to have a definite upward incline. On stopping your vehicle, putting the gears in neutral and releasing the handbrake, you’d assume that the car would obey gravity and roll backwards; in fact you move forward in what feels like the “wrong” direction. Although this marvel is nothing more than an optical illusion, more romantic locals insist that it’s the work of God, obeah, or a bizarre magnetic field.
East of Blanchisseuse, the North Coast Road gives way to undeveloped coastline. The next piece of tarmac is some 30km to the east at Matelot; in between, you’ll find some impressive hiking along a beautiful bench trail – the local name for the old donkey tracks cut in the late nineteenth century to transport goods and service the then thriving cocoa estates. Well-trodden, the trail dips and climbs through the remnants of abandoned estates and secondary forest, with the sea swinging spectacularly in and out of view. Despite periodic government proposals to construct a road along this stretch of the coast, the area remains a sanctuary for bird and animal life. Many of the beaches are prime laying spots for the giant leatherback turtle during the March–August season, and the birdwatching is superb; together with fine fishing for pampano, tarpin, jackfish and ancho, the area offers rich pickings for nature lovers.
Though few attempt it, you can hike the bench trail all the way from Blanchisseuse to Matelot, but only the fittest can hope to complete the journey in a day. Most make the trip in two stages, camping on a beach along the way. Though it is easy to follow, it’s not a good idea to walk the trail alone past Paria Bay; there have been reports of drug-smuggler landings at deserted bays. Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays are prime times for local hiking groups to take to the bush. Make sure you start your hike with a full bottle of water, and you can fill up from streams along the way.
The North Coast Road offers one of Trinidad’s most dramatic drives, teetering along 300m-high cliffs and tunnelling past precipices of rainforest with occasional views of faraway peaks. Bois cano trees drop claw-like leaves onto the tarmac and mineral springs pour down into roadside gullies; the water is chilled, delicious and safe to drink. Despite its spiralling course, this is also one of the island’s smoothest roads, built by the US Army in 1944 as a recompense for their use of the Chaguaramas peninsula, which deprived residents of sea bathing at Macqueripe and other bays; it’s still sometimes called the “American Road”. Be warned that at weekends it becomes heavily congested, and is prone to frequent landslides during the rainy season.
The first of many spectacular panoramas stretches over the Maraval valley to the tiny spice and parang centre of Paramin and down into the outskirts of Port of Spain. Cliffs and jungle close in beyond here (with glimpses of Santa Cruz to the right), and a few kilometres further reveals a gorgeous coastal prospect, the ocean far below dotted with rocky islets. The largest of these is Saut D’Eau, a 100,000-square-metre breeding colony for brown pelicans, chestnut-collared swift and the rufous-necked wood rail.
The North Coast Road is punctuated by fruit stalls and refreshment huts with dramatic sea views, the air noticeably cooling as you climb to La Vache Scenic Area, the highest point on the North Coast Road. The coastal views are marvellous from here, and vendors sell souvenirs, cold drinks and East Indian sweets to the weekend hordes on their way to Maracas Beach, while a talented busker improvises calypsos and will expect a few dollars if he makes you laugh.
The wild and rugged coastline of Trinidad’s northeast tip feels more remote than anywhere else in the region; it takes close to four hours to drive from Port of Spain to Matelot, where the paved road ends. Cut off from most of the island by the dense rainforest of the Northern Range, the region seems suspended in a time warp; people and houses are few and far between and an air of hypnotic quiet pervades. The villages strung along the coast are close-knit and spirited communities, making their own entertainment at rum shops, country parties and fishermen’s fetes. Farming and fishing are the mainstays of the economy, with tiny roadside stalls offering fruit and vegetables, plus shark oil, saltfish, honey and sea moss.
The Toco Main Road (also known as Matura or Paria Road) loops northeast from Sangre Grande to Matelot, beyond which untamed bush and unreachable rocky coves entice you to scramble down the cliffs. While a number of fantastic waterfalls lie inland, the region’s coastline is most famous for the leatherback turtles, which lumber up onto the sand here to lay eggs between February and August, their eggs hatching tiny shuffling babies between June and September. Matura and Grande Riviere are the most well-known places for guided night-time turtle-watching. Grande Riviere has the advantage of a good choice of accommodation, though its distance from Port of Spain means some visitors opt for Matura, enabling them to do some turtle-watching and return home the same night. Most people take a few days to visit this region, however, in order to fully appreciate its awe-inspiring coastline of weather-beaten cliffs and golden beaches, with surfers riding the breakers.
With a spectacularly rugged curve of wave-whipped beach, capped by jungle-covered hills to each side and with a wide, clear river offering calm freshwater swimming, GRANDE RIVIERE is a truly beguiling place, far enough from Port of Spain to feel deliciously remote, but with a sprinkling of appealing places to stay and eat and a welcoming community-based approach to visitors, as many of whom are Trinidadians as foreign. Nicknamed “beyond God’s back”, this close-knit village owes much of its popularity with visitors to the leatherback turtles which lay their eggs in the coarse sand here; with some 500 females lumbering up on to the beach each night at the peak of the season, Grande Riviere is one of the most important nesting sites in the world, and certainly the one with the highest density of turtles visiting to lay. After the beautiful Mt Plaisir Estate hotel opened up right on the beach in the 1990s, a host of local residents and international entrepreneurs established other guesthouses and places to eat, but the end-of-the-road location has kept development low-key and the village remains unspoilt and idyllic. Interaction between visitors and local people has little of the money-oriented duplicity of resorts elsewhere, and local people tend to be genuinely welcoming to visitors.
There’s plenty to do in Grande Riviere even if you don’t visit during turtle season. Most people divide their time between the beach and river and the interior, where there are hosts of waterfalls and river walks as well as excellent birdwatching – the rare piping guan or pawi, a kind of wild turkey that has died out in more developed areas, is quite common here.
Named after the wide, fast-flowing river that originates deep in the Northern Range and runs down to the sea at the eastern end of town, Grande Riviere also boasts a superlative beach, a gentle curve of coarse sand with a few unobtrusive buildings. Tall headlands border the sand to the east, where you can take a freshwater bath in the river, while a good kilometre away the western end is sealed by rocky outcrops. Strong waves provide an invigorating swim (and can make swimming inadvisable between Nov and Jan), and give leatherback turtles the extra push they need to haul themselves up the sand at laying time; hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles also nest here. As in Matura, note that the beach is a protected area in the March–August laying season, and you’ll need a permit to enter. During this time, the sand is littered with the shells of empty eggs, some discarded by recent hatchlings, others dug up by turtles themselves as they create their own nests – the high density of turtles that visit Grande Riviere means that it’s almost impossible for the leatherbacks to find a virgin space as the season wears on. If you’re here late in the season, you’ll also be able to see hatchlings emerging from nests and making a break for the sea. Those that emerge during the day are placed in boxes and released en masse around sunset, a beautiful and touching sight. Behind the beach, towards the centre, the GRNTGA have also set up sandboxes into which they transfer eggs from nests made too close to the waterline, (and thus liable to flood) or by less common visitors such as hawksbills.
The liveliest part of the beach centres around the Mt Plaisir and Grande Almandier hotels, where their bars are favourite liming spots and a lovely stall on the beach sells fine calabash art and locally made jewellery.
Some 19km east along the Toco Main Road from Valencia, the elongated town of MATURA consists of a police station, school, health centre, a handful of grocery stores and residential houses slung along a mile of tarmac. Other than stopping for a drink, the only reasons to spend any time in the area are the beach – a windswept, 4km stretch of fine yellow sand strewn with coconut husks and flotsam and jetsam washed up by the fearsome waves – and a wide waterfall and river pool, a good three-hour hike up the Matura River led by guides at Nature Seekers. There are two entrances to the beach, both marked by Forestry Division signs; the first a potholed tarmac and gravel road from the centre of Matura, and the other reached from the far side of town down a dirt track, and signposted Rincon Beach. Though local people often take a dip, it’s not a place for the uninitiated to swim, as the currents are extremely powerful. The beach is a protected area and a permit and guide are required at all times to enter, due to the presence of Matura’s real attraction: the leatherback turtles which haul themselves onto the sand to lay eggs.
With a well-signed headquarters on the main road in the centre of Matura, Nature Seekers (t 668 7337, w natureseekers.org) was established in 1990, and is run by a team of dedicated volunteers who patrol the beach and educate locals and visitors on the importance of conserving this endangered species. Most volunteers come from the local community, whose indiscriminate poaching was once the main cause of concern for turtle numbers here. Now, they earn a living as guides, patrol the beach day and night, and move nests from at-risk areas, which saves hundreds of turtles every year. During the nesting season (March–Aug), Nature Seekers arrange turtle-watching tours (US$20) that allow you to view the amazing laying process and provide the opportunity to get involved in tagging and recording; you can also become a conservation volunteer here for a longer period. The institution also offers accommodation in the village at Suzan’s Guest House (t 398 3038; TT$400), where rooms have a/c and private bathroom; and arranges hiking and river kayaking trips. They also make and sell attractive jewellery, imaginatively fashioned from oddments found on the beach with gold or silver chains.
A few kilometres north of Cumana sits the largest community along this stretch of coast. TOCO is an attractive, quiet fishing village with a distinctly antiquated air. This proud, close-knit community has one of the largest concentrations of Baptists in the Caribbean, which helped inspire one of its sons, the great Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace, to write The Wine of Astonishment, a novel about Baptist persecution under colonial rule (see “Books”). Most of the buildings are dilapidated gingerbreads made of weather-beaten wood. Though most residents make their money from fishing or farming, much family land has been sold off to developers, tempted by high real-estate prices for the proposed (but never delivered) ferry terminal here to serve Tobago, a mere 20km away and easily visible on clear days.
Toco enjoyed a brief spell in the (local) limelight in 2012, when the whopping 84.58m throw by local lad Keshorn Walcott earned him the gold medal for javelin at the London Olympics – the first black male athlete to do so. Just 19 when he competed in London, Walcott was also the youngest ever Olympic javelin champion. A placard on the Toco Main Road, just past the turn-off from the Valencia Road, celebrates his achievement.
Beyond the grand residences of Maraval at the northern fringe of Port of Spain, buildings give way to abundant rainforest and the road climbs through a succession of hairpin bends to where a junction is marked by two 4m-high stone pillars. To the left is the North Coast Road; continuing straight ahead, Saddle Road squeezes through a narrow gorge of solid rock before meandering downhill through pastoral Santa Cruz valley, a very scenic half-hour jaunt past cattle pastures and farmland south towards the urban bedlam of San Juan.
The valley’s neat cocoa groves, flower gardens with orchids, crumbling mud-walled tapia houses and dilapidated gingerbread mansions are punctuated by towering samaan trees and impressive clumps of bamboo, mango, sapodilla and banana, though a thriving nearby quarry has gouged messy yellow scars into the hillsides. Cricket legend Brian Lara spent his childhood in Cantaro Village, about 3km along the road. The place has a friendly, suburban feel, its lively main street lined with roti restaurants and rum bars. At the back of the village is a cricket stadium built in Lara’s honour, with a placard outlining his remarkable world Test records.