Geographically, Trinidad’s south presents a mirror image of the north: a long littoral extending beyond the main body of the island, with the low ridge of the forested Southern Range as its spine. In the Gulf of Paria, where the southwest peninsula crooks a finger towards Venezuela, Trinidad’s second city, precipitous San Fernando, sits at the base of its oddly shaped landmark hill, while to the south, the vast reserves of asphalt at the Pitch Lake represents the only organized attraction in these parts.

That’s as far as the comparison goes, however. San Fernando is a booming business town, but beyond its city limits lies Trinidad’s most sparsely populated region. Although many southerners still earn a living from agriculture and fishing, the economy here is hinged around oil, pumped both from offshore rigs and the 1600-odd pumping jacks scattered all over the countryside, many in large expanses of forest which, aside from the pumps, remain largely undeveloped. The coast, meanwhile, is similarly untouched, with picturesque Cedros and Icacos, and the remote fishing village of Moruga, seeing few visitors, despite offering gorgeous scenery and lovely yellow-sand beaches, best visited during the dry season (December to May) when the sea and sand are clear; during the rainy months, rivers wash mud and a fair bit of rubbish into the sea.

Though the south isn’t traditional tourist territory, you’ll find that hospitality is second to none here, with locals keen to show visitors what Trini life is like away from the capital. The lack of tourism is a mixed blessing, though: there are no crowds but also few facilities for visitors. Outside of San Fernando, accommodation is practically nonexistent, but given the somnolent nature of the south, and its relatively compact area, you’re best off staying in San Fernando anyway, exploring by way of day-trips and returning in the evenings to take advantage of the city’s bars and restaurants. Given that Port of Spain is only an hour’s drive from San Fernando, it’s also more than possible to see the south from there.

Top image: Cliffs of Columbus Bay © Kevin Huggins/Shutterstock

Columbus in Trinidad

Christopher Columbus had nearly run out of drinking water when, on July 31, 1498, he sighted the three peaks of the Trinity Hills, which are said to have inspired him to name the island Trinidad. He landed near present-day Moruga, where he gathered fresh water from the river. His crew reported seeing fishing implements that had clearly been abandoned in haste, and realized that they had arrived in a region that was already well populated. In fact, there were some 35,000 Amerindians (from the Arawak, Shebaio, Nepoio, Carinepagoto and Yao peoples) then living on the island that they called “Ieri”, the land of the hummingbird.

Columbus sailed west and encountered the island’s residents the next day while anchored off Icacos Point. Twenty-four Amerindians armed with bows and arrows set off in a large canoe to investigate the foreign ship; upon sighting them, Columbus ordered a drum to be played and the sailors to dance, believing the indigenous population would be entertained by this spectacle. However, the Amerindians mistook it for a war dance and rained arrows on the Spaniards; as the latter returned fire, the Amerindians fled. That night, Columbus had little sleep as strong currents here tossed the ship, rocking it so violently that the anchor broke. Bewildered and fearful, Columbus swiftly sailed on, though not before bestowing the name “Serpent’s Mouth” for the treacherous waters between Trinidad and Venezuela.

San Fernando

Nestled against the base of its eponymous flat-top hill, SAN FERNANDO boasts a striking setting, and despite its status as T&T’s industrial capital, the city has a surprisingly old-fashioned and laidback charm. With sloping streets that are reminiscent of a miniature, low-key San Francisco, its warren of steep, winding lanes offer pretty sea views, while many weather-beaten gingerbread buildings have survived the rapid industrial development of recent years.

San Fernando – known as just “Sando” to locals – has always maintained an independent spirit. An oil city first and foremost, it sees many business visitors but few sightseers, and tourists are basically left to figure it out independently – though the friendly and hospitable residents make it a pleasurable place to get a flavour of Trini life. And in recent years, the burgeoning wealth from the natural gas and oil industries have helped to push up demand for quality entertainment, from the annual Jazz Festival on San Fernando Hill to a slew of high-class bars, restaurants and clubs alongside the many more grass-roots options for dining, drinking and partying.

Bordered by the Gulf of Paria on one side and the rocky, wooded outcrop of San Fernando Hill on the other, the city’s compact centre is easily negotiated on foot, with most of the historical sights, shops and transport stands located on and around Harris Promenade, a broad, elegant boulevard running west from the main junction and focal point, Library Corner.

Brief history

Having served as a sacred spot for Amerindian tribes, San Fernando’s first European arrival was Sir Walter Raleigh, who put to shore here during a voyage in 1595 – he was unimpressed and sailed on. Capuchin priests established a mission in 1687, but the settlement only began to flourish after 1784, when French plantation owners attracted by the cedula were allocated land here and established the first estates; in the same year, Spanish governor José Maria Chacon named the settlement San Fernando de Naparima in honour of King Carlos III’s new son. By 1797, when the British captured the island, San Fernando had more than a thousand inhabitants, twenty sugar mills and eight rum distilleries. Surrounded by fertile agricultural land, the town continued to grow, and by 1811 the population had trebled; by the middle of the century, it was the hub of the entire south, a busy trading centre for the region’s planters, with a regular coastal steamer to Port of Spain – the overland route took three days of rough riding through forests and swamps. The arrival of the railway in 1882 led to another population increase, and by the late 1880s San Fernando had been thoroughly modernized. Suburbs grew as the plantations disappeared – the result of falling sugar prices in the 1920s – and the town was soon dominated by the expanding oil industry. Designated a city in 1988, San Fernando continued to expand through the early 1990s, bringing the northern city limits up to the oil refinery at Point-a-Pierre and increasing its population by around 10,000 (it’s a little over 60,000 today), with many inhabitants moving out to the chocolate-box housing developments on the eastern outskirts of town.

The Brian Lara Stadium saga

Adjacent to the ice-cream colours of the new housing developments east of San Fernando are the floodlights of the controversial Brian Lara Stadium, adjacent to the highway at Tarouba. Supposed to have been completed in 2007 for the Cricket World Cup, the still unfinished complex has become a huge white elephant, shrouded in accusations of corruption that led to an investigation by a Commission of Enquiry into UDeCOTT, the state company responsible for its construction. To date, the project has eaten up more than TT$850 million of public funds, and may need another TT$200 million to complete – though some experts assert that the geological fragility of the site means that it could never support a cricket pitch.

The Coffee

Coffee Street, south of Carib Street, takes its name from the coffee plantations that once thrived here. “The Coffee”, as it’s familiarly known, was the original home of many of the south’s steel bands, including the highly acclaimed Fonclaire, now located on Dottin Street, one block south of Coffee Street. A brightly painted statue of a pan player at the junction of Coffee and Cipero streets celebrates the area’s musical heritage. A little further down Coffee Street opposite the Southern Food Basket supermarket is the panyard of the Skiffle Bunch, a regular participant in the Panorama Finals at Carnival time. Just past the panyard, on the corner of Cipero Street, a statue of a lone pannist attests to the importance of T&T’s national instrument to the area. The Coffee is particularly lively during the run-up to Carnival, when Skiffle Bunch practice sessions ring out into the street.

Harris Promenade

The centre of San Fernando’s civic life and the location of several attractive colonial-era buildings, Harris Promenade stretches from the long 1950s-style facade of San Fernando General Hospital to Library Corner in the east, its shady paved centre dotted with benches and tables, an ornate Victorian bandstand and statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Jamaican black rights activist Marcus Garvey. On the southwestern end, the distinctive yellow-stone building with its curving arched windows is the city’s police station; half of it remains roofless after a fire in 2009. Across the road, the grand Neoclassical City Hall from 1930 dominates the western end of the promenade, though it faces stiff competition from the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help one block to the east, a huge white modern building with a tall clock tower that can be seen from most places in the city.

The promenade’s two roads converge in front of the Carnegie Free Library, an ornate terracotta pile built in 1919 and financed – like many others the world over – by the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Behind it, on the promenade, an old steam locomotive recalls the last run from Port of Spain to San Fernando in 1968. People packed the carriages, hanging out of the windows to be part of this historic occasion, which was subsequently immortalized by the late Lord Kitchener’s famous calypso Last Train to San Fernando. The chaotic junction of seven roads just east of the library is known as Library Corner, with its modern clock tower.

High Street, Happy Corner and King’s Wharf

High Street is San Fernando’s main shopping drag, where street vendors hawk everything from plastic trinkets to leopardskin underwear on the pavement in front of the stores. At its western end, as High Street doglegs into Queen Street, the sea comes into view. This area, ironically known as Happy Corner, is the most run-down in the city, but a few colonial buildings, including Hotel Happy Corner (a flophouse) with its pretty balcony overlooking the junction of Queen and King streets, provide some architectural interest, while the patrons of the local rum shops add a touch of raffish zest. Happy Corner gives onto King’s Wharf, a scruffy tarmac dock fronting a small harbour where fishing boats bob up and down on the swell; the adjacent fish market stands next to the Water Taxi Terminal.

Lady Hales Avenue

Lady Hales Avenues skirts the coast then veers east through the southern part of the city (where it runs parallel with the Rienzi-Kirton Highway), close to San Fernando’s two major shopping malls, the enormous Gulf City and Cross Crossing, with their food courts and scores of International shops, and the Southern Academy for Performing Arts (SAPA), the sister building to the one on the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain, and without its northern counterpart’s infrastructural problems; it’s regularly used for concerts and other events. Just past SAPA, Skinner Park cricket ground serves as a venue for regular concerts and fetes as well as sporting events.

San Fernando Hill

At 200m high, San Fernando Hill overshadows the town centre, and has long been a sacred place for Amerindian tribes from the South American mainland, who made annual pilgrimages to the site from 6500 BC up to the early 1900s. According to legend, the hill is the final resting place of Haburi the Hero and his mother, who were fleeing from the Frog Woman in the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela; on reaching Trinidad, however, they were turned into “Anaparima”, the original Amerindian name for the hill. Half flattened, with steep protruding points, it owes its modern-day profile to years of gravel mining, which lopped off a third of its original height. Protests by locals saw quarrying put to a stop and the hill declared a national park in 1980.

The summit has been landscaped, with shaded picnic tables, a children’s playground, café, public toilets and several lookouts from which to enjoy the views; there’s a telescope mounted on the open balcony of the new visitor centre. The panorama includes the city and the exclusive St Joseph Village suburb, the Gulf of Paria and the flaming chimneys at Point-a-Pierre and Point Lisas, and the ever-growing suburbs and agricultural plains of the interior.

The southern central region

South-central Trinidad is one of the most impenetrable parts of the island. Running from the west to the east coast through rolling plains of sugar cane, and linking the region’s two main towns, Princes Town and Rio Claro, the Manahambre/Naparima–Mayaro Road is the only transport artery. South of the tarmac, wild forest predominates. There are few passable roads, signs are almost nonexistent and trying to follow a map is a lesson in frustration – you’ll need to ask for directions if driving yourself. Moruga Road is the only decent thoroughfare through this wilderness, running down to the isolated fishing village of Moruga.

Moruga

South of Princes Town, the Moruga Road threads through untamed forest for 21km before meeting the sea at MORUGA, a pretty and very remote village that seems to have changed little since it was settled by black American soldiers after the War of 1812. The bright colours of the old board houses have weathered to pastel shades, but colourful fishing boats still lie on the seashore and fishermen while away their spare hours playing cricket or liming outside the shops-cum-bars on the main road. The seafront Catholic church dominates both the physical surroundings and the life of the villagers. This is a place of strong but heterodox beliefs: Morugans may avow allegiance to Catholicism, to the Spiritual Baptist faith or to Rastafari, but many believe in aspects of all (alongside a sprinkling of obeah) and, perhaps thanks to the area’s isolation, a palpably religious, well-nigh superstitious, atmosphere pervades.

Trinity Hills Wildlife Sanctuary

Some 65 square kilometres of evergreen forest running down to the sea east of the Rio Claro–Guayaguayare Road, the Trinity Hills Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses the Trinity Hills and Mount Derrick, the tallest peak in the south at 314m. The hills form a watershed that’s vital to the nation’s water supply, and was declared a protected reserve in 1900. The many rivers, streams and waterfalls are excellent for bathing, while the lush forests of carat, redwood, cooperhoop and bois pois trees shelter animals such as lappe, agouti, quenk, tatoo and red howler monkeys, as well as rarely seen ocelots, capuchin monkeys, buck deer, armadillos and opossums. The wide variety of birdlife includes the mountain quail dove, while deep caves harbour many species of bats. A 45-minute hike from the road is a mud volcano and lake known as Lagoon Bouffe, at 100m wide one of Trinidad’s largest.

If you don’t visit via an organized tour, you could drive or mountain-bike along the Moruga–Guayaguayare Road (also known as Edward Trace), an exceptionally pretty route which loops through thick virgin forest; you’ll rarely see another soul the entire 35km. To avoid any problems at the oilfield gateposts, it’s wise to get a free permit from Petrotrin, who have a number of pipelines running through the reserve.

The southwest peninsula

Often referred to as the “deep south”, Trinidad’s southwest peninsula offers a mix of gritty industrial development around oil towns such as Point Fortin, Siparia and Fyzabad as well as some marvellous drives to sleepy backwaters such as Erin and down through teak plantations to gorgeous beaches like Quinam, where the soft brown sand is backed by red-earth cliffs and lapped by calm seas – an escapist’s fantasy and usually deserted apart from the odd fisherman. Heading along the Southern Main Road down to Trinidad’s extreme southwest tip takes you though seaside Cedros and down through the vast coconut plantations around Columbus Bay to Icacos Point, with its rugged fishing beach and pretty wetlands. The atmosphere in this part of Trinidad is irresistibly low-key – and this tranquillity, along with the scenery, is its main draw.

Despite its proximity to industrial San Fernando, and its threatened status thanks to the construction of the new highway between San Fernando and Point Fortin the mangrove swampland of the Oropuche Lagoon remains a wildlife haven, teeming with tropical birds and seldom visited. The area’s most important tourist site, though, is the unique Pitch Lake at La Brea, an interesting and worthwhile excursion if you are in the area. As to culinary exploration, look no further than the delicious roti shops and street-food stalls of Debe, one of Trinidad’s most wholeheartedly Indian settlements.

Cedros

The catch-all name for the extreme tip of the southwest peninsula, CEDROS was first settled by Spaniards, whose influence lingered longer in this isolated region than in the rest of the island; despite an influx of Indian indentured labourers, Spanish was still widely spoken until the 1880s, almost a century after the British had captured Trinidad. During the nineteenth-century heyday of the sugar estates, Cedros was a bustling place, with twice the population of today and no less than seven rum distilleries. These are long-gone, however, and Cedros village is a fairly sleepy place today, its network of residential streets spreading back from a seafront promenade. In the middle of the bay is a concrete jetty, kept busy by local fishermen and the many Venezuelans who make the nine-mile pirogue journey from the mainland to Trinidad to shop, checking in at the village’s tiny customs post before heading in to San Fernando’s malls.

Debe

On the southern outskirts of San Fernando at La Romaine, a left turn by Paria Suites hotel brings you onto the San Fernando–Siparia–Erin Road (usually shortened to the SS–Erin Road), which threads through the wholeheartedly Indian communities of the island’s oil belt. Note, however, that at the time of writing the junction was being worked on as part of the new highway extension, and the road layout may well change once the highway link road is constructed. Heralded by the riot of clashing shop signs that wouldn’t look out of place in the Delhi of Kolkata, the first town of any size is DEBE, credited for the invention of doubles, Trinidad’s most popular street food. Doubles are sold at the roadside daily from 6am, and as the afternoon cools down, vendors also set up stalls selling a huge variety of fantastic Indian snacks, from pholouri to the less widely available baigani (sliced aubergine in batter), saheena (split-pea and dasheen-leaf fritters) and katchourie, fried fingers of ground channa and spices; sweets include kurma doughballs, milk and ginger barfi, and jalebi, a sticky neon orange curl of fried batter. Debe and its neighbour, PENAL, are both known for their lively Diwali celebrations, when the streets are lit up at nights and Indian dancers and tassa drummers provide the entertainment.

Fun Splash Water Park

The excellent Fun Splash Water Park offers a welcome chance to cool off, with pools (one is for adults only) and eleven water-slides for adults and kids, plus kayaking and pedal boats; there are picnic areas and snack shops on site, plus a sizeable car park, and you can bring your own coolers. Ample parking, too.

Fyzabad

North of Siparia, the Siparia–Fyzabad Road strikes north towards the coast; some 5km along, the rather raggle-taggle FYZABAD was named by Indian indentured workers after the Uttar Pradesh district where most of them hailed from. After oil was discovered here in 1917, the town became the centre of the emergent labour movement, while the original Indo-Trinidadian Presbyterian community were quickly outnumbered by migrants from Grenada and St Vincent who came to work on the oilfields, and whose descendants make up the majority of the town’s population today.

The compact commercial centre clusters around Charlie King Junction, overlooked by the Oil Workers’ Trade Union Hall (OWTU) and a statue of the workers’ leader Uriah Butler in his black suit and bowler hat. Come Labour Day (June 19), the street here is blocked to traffic to make way for a street party with a political undercurrent, with fiery speeches and the inevitable calypso and soca blasting from speakers.

Icacos Point

Southwest of Columbus Bay, the views become ever more spectacular as the road winds through the coconut plantation and along a causeway through some beautiful wetlands, with acres of marsh and limpid pools home to a huge variety of birds – look out for scarlet ibis, which roost here at dusk. Past the wetlands, the road winds down to the sleepy little village of Icacos (“eye-car-cus”), a tiny place that nonetheless has a mosque, church and Hindu temple. Turn right when you arrive at the village and walk for about twenty minutes along a track bordered by coconut trees to reach Icacos Point, Trinidad’s extreme southwest tip. It’s a faraway spot, with the vague outline of the Venezuelan coast 11km away across the Serpent’s Mouth, whose swirling waters don’t deter the drug smugglers who use the area’s beaches to bring in Colombian cocaine via Venezuela, eventually destined for the American mainland. Nine kilometres west out to sea, the craggy silhouette of Soldado Rock marks the division between Venezuelan and Trinidadian territorial waters, and is a major breeding site for frigate birds, grey-breasted martins and brown pelicans, and a nesting site of sooty and noddy terns.

Oropuche Lagoon

Spreading back from the Southern Main Road some 6km south of San Fernando, the little-visited tidal mangrove swamps of the Oropuche Lagoon have been left relatively undisturbed, and are an excellent place to view butterflies as well as birds such as egrets, black-bellied whistling duck, American bittern, ringed kingfish, white-headed marsh tyrant, pygmy kingfisher, spotted toddy flycatcher and a variety of herons. The best way to explore is by kayak: Sham at Eco Sense Nature Tours organizes a superb half-day trip for both novice and advanced kayakers, beginning at 7am at the mouth of the river and returning at lunchtime. Paria Springs also includes the Oropuche Lagoon on its excellent West Coast Wetlands and Icacos birding tours, tending to go to the inland areas of the swamp at dusk.

Pitch Lake

Just south of La Brea, the Pitch Lake is touted by some Trinis as the eighth wonder of the world. It may not look particularly impressive from a distance, bearing a remarkable resemblance to a flooded car park (albeit one ringed with cashew trees and Bird of Paradise flowers), but this 40,000-square-metre site is the largest deposit of pitch in the world, and it’s well worth taking a guided tour of the lake to learn more about its intriguing complexities.

Although there’s nothing stopping you from exploring the lake on your own, it’s pretty much essential to take a guided tour; some parts of the lake are unsafe to walk on, and a guide will provide some illuminating commentary as well as ensuring that you stay safe (and don’t leave with your shoes covered in tar). Official guides (identifiable by their orange T&T-monogrammed shirts) are available via the museum, the complex on your left as you enter the lake. On arrival you’ll probably be approached by unofficial guides, too, who will usually negotiate on tour prices and who are based at the yellow snack shop on the left as you enter the lake; they charge a little less but may not offer as full a tour.

Taking up some 25 percent of the total surface, the gooey, tar-like “mother of the lake” is not firm enough to walk on and virtually impossible to remove if caught on clothing – soft patches are difficult for the uninitiated to recognize, and guides will guide you through safely. They’ll also explain the lake’s history and its various geological features, and use a stick to scoop up some of the soft tar, which feeds the pitch, but is in itself useless for making asphalt. Dotted with reeds and water lilies and frequented by wading birds, the pretty pools around the edges of the lake are popular spots for locals to take an evening dip, as their sulphur-rich waters are said to be good for mosquito bites and skin conditions. Lake tours also include a look around the museum, which covers the lake’s history, from the Amerindian legends to commercial pitch extraction.

Pitch perfect

La Brea’s Pitch Lake was formed some five to six million years ago, when asphaltic oil flowed into a huge mud volcano here and slowly developed into pitch. Some 180 tonnes are now extracted each day, to be refined into asphalt and used to pave roads the world over. The depth of the lake is estimated at 75m and the level of pitch rises naturally after each excavation – calculations suggest that there’s enough to last four or five centuries, but nonetheless the surface is several metres lower than it was when excavation began in 1867.

Amerindians believed that the lake was created to punish a Carib tribe that killed and ate the sacred hummingbird, and were swallowed up in its depths. Sir Walter Raleigh was the first European “discoverer”, happening upon the lake in 1595, and using the pitch to caulk his ships, while colonial governor Sir Ralph Woodford used it to pave over the capital’s dirt roads in 1815, making Port of Spain the first city in the world with asphalt streets. Control of pitch excavation remained in British hands until 1978, when it was taken over by the T&T government.

The pitch lake is not the only place hereabouts that asphalt swells from the earth: local roads are often excruciatingly bumpy thanks to upward pressure from the underground volcanic eruptions that replenish the lake, while many a front garden or driveway hereabouts is paved with lumpy local pitch.

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Andy Turner
10/16/2020
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