Spread over a peninsula extending towards Venezuela from the northern part of the island and dividing the Gulf of Paria and the Caribbean Sea, Trinidad’s northwestern tip comprises the island’s most urbanized area. The country’s capital and its commercial and cultural centre, Port of Spain sits between the foothills of the forested Northern Range mountains and the choppy waters of the gulf. Home to nearly a third of Trinidad’s population, as well as many immigrants from Venezuela and other islands in the region, this is a city that buzzes with metropolitan verve, a thriving place that serves as the hub of the southern Caribbean. Although exciting in any season, with a brilliant nightlife scene, the best time to be here is during the weeks leading up to Carnival, when there are nightly fetes and panyards to take in as well as the biggest Jouvert celebrations in Trinidad and, of course, the kaleidoscope of the Parade of the Bands.
Beyond the city’s western suburbs, the landscape becomes increasingly less developed as the coastal road heads toward Chaguaramas, the playground of the capital. Protected as part of the Chaguaramas National Park, Tucker Valley is crisscrossed by a network of forest trails, and the sheltered cove of Macqueripe offers excellent swimming. The southern Chaguaramas coast is all business, however, its marinas and commercial boatyards interspersed with some appealing waterside bars and restaurants. The further west you go, the more wild and undeveloped the terrain becomes. Beyond Chaguaramas, the western tip crumbles into a series of rocky islands separated by rough, swirling channels known as the Bocas del Dragon – the Dragon’s Mouth. Though the islands – the most accessible and developed of which is Gaspar Grande, the most isolated and atmospheric being Chacachacare – lie just a short distance offshore, they are completely free of motorised traffic. In the eighteenth century, they were a refuge for whalers, smugglers and pirates; today, they’re the preserve of yachting enthusiasts, fishermen and anyone in search of tranquillity.
Port of Spain and its suburbs have a wide range of accommodation to suit all budgets. Whether you’re visiting the city for Carnival or plan to explore other parts of Trinidad, you will almost certainly end up staying here at some point. Indeed, it’s entirely feasible to base yourself in Port of Spain and visit the rest of Trinidad on day-trips, either by renting a car or using the public transport network that radiates out from the City Gate bus and maxi terminus.
Top image: King's Wharf in Port of Spain © lidian Neeleman
When Trinidadians refer to The Bocas, they talk of “down the islands” in tones of wistful longing. These rocky islets are separated from the mainland, and from one another, by the Bocas del Dragon (Dragon’s Mouth), a series of channels connecting the Gulf of Paria with the Caribbean. The name is appropriate, for the coastlines here are jagged and rocky, and the sea hides treacherous currents and undertows that can make even the short journey to the nearest island, Gaspar Grande, a rough ride. Dolphins frequent the waters here, so keep your eyes peeled; if you’re lucky, you may see a leatherback turtle or a pilot whale.
The islands had a thriving whaling industry in the eighteenth century, with whaling stations on Gaspar Grande, Monos and Chacachacare. Today the Bocas are sparsely inhabited, lacking any roads and with dense forest covering the interiors and holiday homes, accessible only by boat, scattered along the coasts. For Trinis the islands have always been a popular weekend getaway from the mainland, when yachts drop anchor in the bays for an afternoon of eating, drinking and swimming, and there are several operators offering boat trips to the islands as well as to the Gasparee Caves at Gaspar Grande. Apart from one intermittently functioning resort on Gaspar Grande, there are no hotels, guesthouses, restaurants or bars, and away from popular mooring points such as Scotland Bay (actually on the mainland), the atmosphere is so still that it can verge on the uncanny – especially on deserted Chacachacare, with its abandoned leper colony and accompanying ghostly legends.
The first island you pass when heading down the Bocas chain from Chaguaramas marinas is the small and rocky Carrera, Trinidad’s equivalent of Alcatraz. Its only buildings form the prison complex, established in 1876, where convicts still do hard labour. It’s said that seven individuals have braved the strong currents and shark-infested waters to swim to the mainland, but only three made it, and were all recaptured within a couple of weeks.
Utterly peaceful Chacachacare (shak-a-shak-are-eee) is the largest island of the Bocas and, at an hour’s boat ride from the mainland, also the farthest-flung. It has none of the well-to-do holiday homes found on the other islands, and the mountainous interior is covered in dense forest. There is just one useable road, leading from the jetty to the lighthouse; the others, which serviced the now-abandoned leper colony, have long been overgrown, and only tracks remain.
Chacachacare’s name may derive from chac-chac, the Amerindian word for cotton, which grows profusely here, or might also have something to do with the chattering of the monkeys once found in droves on the island. According to discovered remains dated from around 100–400 AD, Chacachacare was once inhabited by Amerindians. Under Spanish rule it became a cotton plantation, and subsequently a whaling station was established. It developed into a popular health and holiday resort with Trinis from the mainland until, to their consternation, a leper colony was established in 1887. The Dominican nuns ran the colony like a prison, and conditions provoked strikes among the patients to gain such rights as male–female fraternization. The last thirty patients left in 1984, and all that remains are the decaying wooden houses, the infirmary, the nuns’ quarters and the chapel, all poking through the foliage to the right as you approach the island from the mainland.
Just fifteen minutes by boat from the mainland, GASPAR GRANDE (also known as Gasparee) is the most accessible of the islands. The eerie Gasparee Caves at Point Baleine – “Whale Point”, named after its former role as a whaling station – were once used by pirates to hide their booty; these days, the only thing that glitters are the walls and the huge, green-tinged stalactites and stalagmites. It’s also an excellent place to observe the fruit bats, which inhabit the caves and the many local species of bird, which congregate outside them. If you want to visit, you’ll first need to contact the CDA; turn up unannounced, and you’re likely to find the entrance locked up.
Scotland Bay looks out across the swirling waters of the Boca de Monos to the island of Monos, whose densely wooded interior once supported a large colony of howler monkeys – the island’s name is Spanish for apes – but these are now confined to the mainland. There’s a passable stretch of beach here, reminiscent of Macqueripe; follow the path from the main marina. Beyond the sheer western ramparts of Monos and another fierce boca lies the privately owned and seldom-visited island of Huevos.
Though actually part of the mainland, Scotland Bay is always considered as being “down the islands”, since it can only be reached by boat. Right at the end of the peninsula, it’s an idyllic small cove blessed with soft sand and calm waters that offer opportunities for snorkelling. Spreading back from the shore is some gorgeous primary rainforest that provides a habitat for howler monkeys and a rich array of birds and plants.
Occupying the rolling hills above Port of Spain’s Maraval district and spreading back towards the north coast, the charming hillside community of Paramin seems a million miles from the hustle of the city streets laid out below. The area is known as the “herb basket of Trinidad” thanks to its many farmers, who have carved terraced plots into the precipitous peaks to grow the French and Spanish thyme, mint, celery and spring onions (here known as chives), used to make up the tied bundles sold in shops and markets throughout T&T, and blended into bottles of the green seasoning which flavours Trinbago cooking. The local population are descended from French Creoles who came to Trinidad in the colonial era, as well as Venezuelans who arrived in the nineteenth century to plant cocoa, and the close-knit but friendly community maintains many of its traditions, most famously in its parang bands, who travel from house to house during the Christmas season, singing nativity songs in a mix of French and Spanish. The Monday before Christmas, Paramin hosts a parang festival at the soccer field at the lower end of town, while on the afternoon of Carnival Monday, the town is overtaken by troupes of blue devils: traditional Carnival characters impersonating imps from hell, who dance through the streets demanding money from onlookers and daubing them with a little of their trademark blue – it’s the most anarchic display of Blue Devil mas you’ll see anywhere in the country.
Paramin has few specific sights, but the neatly tended hillsides of seasoning plants and the green-swathed mountains are superbly scenic and often swathed in mist; on clear days, there are many lovely views down to the sea, while the clear, clean air is fragrant and noticeably cooler than down on the flats. For the best of the views, head up to the mobile phone masts on Saut D’Eau Road.
The headquarters of Carnival costume bands, mas camps are scattered throughout Port of Spain, with the majority in Woodbrook. Traditionally, these are the workshops in which Carnival costumes are made, with troops of mas-makers (many unpaid volunteers) labouring away to get the designs finished in time for the big day amid a sea of wire, sequins, feathers and glue-guns. Mas camps have long provided a focus for the Trinidadian arts community, with many a painter, actor, dancer or writer pitching in to make mas, but these days, with many costumes produced in the Far East and shipped over to be assembled here, fewer and fewer of the camps are places where costumes are actually made. Instead, they serve as a showroom for the designs, where potential masqueraders can get a close-up view of the various sections that make up a band; they’re also the place where revellers register to play mas and, often, collect their costumes (though the larger bands often distribute at bigger venues such as the National Stadium or Hilton Trinidad hotel).
From Port of Spain, the Audrey Jeffers Highway heads east along the coast, past the turn-off to the residential suburbs of Diego Martin, Petit Valley and Westmoorings, the latter home to the plush West Mall shopping centre. Just past here, the road narrows and swings through upscale Glencoe, where there’s a mini shopping mall with a supermarket, fast-food outlets and an RBTT bank. Beyond here, things get more ramshackle, with the rum shop and rickety wooden stalls at Carenage selling fruit and vegetables, and some lovely vistas out over the Gulf of Paria to the so-called Five Islands, of which the largest, Nelson, was used as a processing point and quarantine for Indian indentured workers and later as a prison. Past Carenage, the coast road trundles along parallel to the sea, its twists and turns revealing lovely vistas out to the Bocas and back to Port of Spain, before entering Chaguaramas, Port of Spain’s playground, with its waterside restaurants, hiking trails and string of marinas where yachts hole up during the hurricane season or dry-dock to do maintenance work. The area still has a very military flavour, with training camps for the army and coastguard in Chaguaramas town; the final section of the coast road is blocked to civilian traffic and the peninsula is the exclusive preserve of the military, with the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment headquarters at Teteron Bay and the Coast Guard at nearby Staubles Bay.
Spreading inland of the coast, run-down Carenage takes its name from the time when ships were taken here to be careened by Spanish colonists. After the British took the island in 1797, Carenage reverted to a fishing village and sank into a century-and-a-half-long torpor, but its character changed drastically with the arrival of the Americans in 1941, when Chaguaramas was turned into a US military base and all the western tip’s residents were forcibly relocated to this spot. The village soon acquired a seedy reputation as a place where American soldiers went to have fun and find local women, and there are still a couple of flophouses around advertising rooms for rent by the hour. Today, it retains a somewhat salty air and a dodgy reputation.
A few hundred metres west from Carenage, past the large white bauxite loading plant that juts into the sea, the Western Main Road enters CHAGUARAMAS (pronounced “sha-ger-rah-mus”). Home to red howler and capuchin monkeys, armadillos, ocelots and anteaters, much of this land here has remained virtually untouched, with shallow beaches around the coast and miles of virgin rainforest in its mountainous interior, much of which is now a protected national park. Along the coast, however, the hulking hangars left by the Americans aren’t particularly pretty, and the string of marinas obscures most of the southern waterline. The area’s administrators, the Chaguaramas Development Company (CDA), have made efforts in recent years to beautify the coast, lining Williams Bay with a lovely boardwalk and, at the time of writing, constructing an adjacent leisure development slated to include a children’s playground and climbing walls. More ambitious plans yet to come to fruition include an upgrade of the golf course at Chagville Beach and construction of a new resort hotel.
The open stretches of coast that remain are popular spots for locals to swim or go fishing; come to Chaguaramas on a weekend and you’ll see people liming on the beaches, paddling Williams Bay in kayaks or splashing in the shallows and, in Tucker Valley, cycling and jogging along the quiet roads and hiking in the forests. Many also make a beeline for Macqueripe Beach, a delightful north coast cove at the far end of the valley and the best beach in the Port of Spain environs, with cool green waters and some handsome landscaping. Chaguaramas is also well worth a visit at night, when a glamorous crowd comes in from the capital to frequent the restaurants or attend one of the regular parties staged in the area’s open-air venues.