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Exploring Trinidad

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Trinidad is arguably the second most famous Carnival in the world after the one in Rio and is an amazing time. But Trinidad has so much more to offer even if you come a different time of year than Carnival. 

When you come by boat you will almost certainly have your boat in Chaguaramas, since for such a large and wonderful island there are surprisingly few places to anchor. Charguaramas is the former site of the largest US Naval Base outside of the US and was active from World War 2 until 1963. Now it houses half a dozen or more boat yards and repair facilities and is a great place to work on your boat.

When you need a break during boat projects you can always walk down the road to the Chaguaramas Military History Museum which opened in 1991. Within this building you will find the passion of Gaylord Kelshall, which was the history of the world as it relates to warfare and Trinidad. It is packed full of some great information and presentations….even if it has become a bit run down after Mr Kelshall’s passing. Outside you will see many pieces of military hardware, but I have always been drawn to the 1980’s airliner for some reason.

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Another thing you can do in between boat projects is some hiking in the hills of the surrounding area. If you hike the Bamboo Cathedral early in the morning you can find howler monkeys and an abandoned US Missile Tracking Station complete with buildings and a large satellite dish.

Caroni Swamp - birds and a rainbow
Caroni Swamp – birds and a rainbow

In Chaguaramas one guy you will want to search out in Power Boat Shipyard is Jesse James. He is the go to guy for all cruiser needs and is also a great tour guide. The tour I recommend the most is his Taste of Trini, because Trinidad has an amazing mixture of Caribbean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and European food and is the most unique food in the entire Caribbean. I can not recommend the Taste of Trini tour enough.

In order to visit the rest of Trinidad you will have to rent a car or hire a tour guide. The best starting point is Port of Spain, where most of the tourist sights are centered around the Queen’s Park Savannah. This includes the zoo, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the Americas, the National Academy for the Performing Arts, the National Museum and Art Gallery, and the Magnificent Seven. This is the name of seven buildings built in the first decade of the 20th century that show of the prosperity of that time. None of them really allow tour inside, but it is fun to walk along the street and see each one.

Cruisers Gather at Dawn: Market Day in Port of Spain, Trinidad

Well above Port of Spain you will find Fort George, which was the main part of a complex of fortifications to protect the city and port. It was begun in 1802 and ceased operation in 1864 without ever seeing combat. The fort is quite small since there are no barracks, but the view is well worth the trip up.

From Port of Spain there are two main highways. One goes east and the other goes south. Going east will take you to a couple places in the Northern Range, which is the mountain range that runs the whole length of the north part of Trinidad. The first two stops are above the town of St Augustine with Maracus Waterfall coming first. This is the most famous of the many waterfalls in the Northern Range and one of the only that will still flow during the dry winter months. It is a relatively easy 30 minute walk to the base of the waterfall.

Fort Gorge - Over Looking Port Of Spain
Fort Gorge – Over Looking Port Of Spain

The next spot is Mount St. Benedict Abbey and is fairly close, but to get there we have to drive back down the mountain to town and then go back up a different road, but I think it is worth it! This monastery was founded in 1912 by monks fleeing persecution in Brazil. After searching they bought this piece of land that sits 4300 feet above the sea. Besides the amazing views make sure you get there early enough to enjoy the popular afternoon tea time served in the guest house on site.

Another wonderful experience in the Northern Range is having lunch at the Asa Wright Nature Center. This research and bird center is nestled deep in the rainforest and is always cool and humid. Asa Wright and her husband bought a coco plantation in the late 40’s and it grew from there. You can visit for the day, which will include lunch, watching the humming birds on the veranda, taking a guided walk into the jungle, and playing in the waterhole looking for tiny frogs, but if you really are looking for something special you will consider spending the night up here in one of their small rooms. Truly romantic.

Leatherback Turtles on the Coast of Trinidad

The final stop on the eastward trek is the Nariva Swamp. Here we met up with Bobby so he could take us down the waterways in a small boat to Bush Bush Island in the middle of the swamp so we could look for red howler monkeys and white-fronted capuchin monkeys. While walking around the island we saw macaws and a few snakes, but did not see any anacondas, which are very tough to spot.  If you go make sure you asked about the tide, because it gets too shallow in the swamp at low tide even for his small boat. Also know that there are watermelon farms around this part of the island, so make sure you stop at one of the many stands!

Maracus Waterfall...and Me
Maracus Waterfall…and Me

If you head south from Port of Spain instead you will come to another swamp called Caroni Swamp. This one is completely different, because you are in bigger boats and do not get out. While you can find many birds, snakes, caimans, etc, the main feature in Caroni Swamp are the flamingos and the scarlet ibis, which is the national bird of Trinidad & Tobago. The best time to visit Caroni Swamp is in the late afternoon when the scarlet ibis return from their daily flight to Venezuela, 11 miles away.

Farther down the west coast you will find Pitch Lake, Which is the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world. It covers 100 acres up to 250 feet deep. Native Amerindian legend says the lake was formed when the people were celebrating a victory over a rival tribe and they got carried away in their celebration. They proceeded to cook and eat the sacred hummingbird which possessed the souls of their ancestors, so their God punished them by opening the earth and conjuring up the pitch lake to swallow the entire village. Geologically speaking, the lake sits on the intersection of two faults, which allows oil from a deep deposit to be forced up. The lighter elements in the oil evaporate under the hot tropical sun, leaving behind the heavier asphalt.

It was so freaky to walk on the Pitch Lake, but it is nothing compared to swimming in a mud volcano, which are part of the same geological activity as the Pitch Lake, but the mud is not hot. It is just forced up from down below. They are half an hour or so further south from Pitch Lake.

Pitch Lake - Playing With Tar.
Pitch Lake – Playing With Tar.

Those are the highlights of a Trinidad by car, and even though there are not many places to go with a boat there are a few cruising destinations worth mentioning. First, just outside Chaguaramas you will find some small islands along with oil rigs and anchored freighters in the Gulf of Paria. One is a prison island, which is part of the Diego Islands. Gaspar Grande Island actually forms the southern border of Chaguaramas bay. You will find a scattering of nice homes along the coast of this small island and a couple bays you can take your boat, but the big draw is the underground lake in the middle of the island. You have to arrange tours with the Chaguaramas Development Authority, but it is so cool to descend down and find a fair size pool of water with sunlight streaming in from the holes in the ceiling. If you do go, take the time to check out the old World War 2 artillery gun emplacements also.

The highlight of any cruising in Trinidad is the island of Chacachacare where a leper colony sat for 70 years until it was finally closed in 1984. It is now a “ghost town” and one of the best buildings to see is also the first you will come upon. The doctor’s house is a two story empty house that is fascinating to check out. Two small coves deeper into the bay is were you will find the settlement the lepers lived in. Most of these buildings are destroyed, but there is a generator shed and chapel still standing.

Tracking Station - Radar Dish
Tracking Station – Radar Dish

Across the bay you will find the best part from the leper colony era. This is the Dominican Sisters of Mercy’s convent and chapel that was built in 1926 to house the nuns that took care of all the leper patients. The site consists of a lower chapel and upper dormitory plus an out building for the kitchen. After the leper colony shut down the Trinidad & Tobago Coast Guard used this building as a barracks……but for only six months since it gained a reputation as being haunted. The soldiers felt as though they were held down in their sleep and being pushed up the stairs by an unseen hand. The ghost is dressed in white with lipstick on and is believed to be the sister who committed suicide and was buried at the nun’s cemetery.

Profile of Peter Peake from Peake Yacht Services on Trinidad

When at Chacachacare make sure to take the time to hike to the top of the island and see the Lighthouse. It was built in 1897 and sits on top of the 774 feet high hill. From the top you get a great view back to Trinidad and the bay down below plus Venezuela is only 5-8 miles away.

Heading the five miles back to Chaguaramas you will find Monos Island, which is another quiet spot to get away from the hustle and bustle of  Trinidad. There are actually two bays on this island but I prefer the southern one called Grand Fond Bay. As you enter you will find a group of second homes and once you are tucked back into the bay it shallows up and is pretty protected.

Nariva Swamp - Boat
Nariva Swamp – Boat

The last cruising spot is Scotland Bay and is actually on the mainland of Trinidad, but around the corner from Chaguaramas. This is a nice protected bay you can enjoy as long as you are ok being with the Venezuelain fishing camps. I took some guests there and we had a blast playing on a rope swing and listen to the howler monkeys in the morning. 

Scotland Bay is off the main entrance of the Dragon’s Mouth, which is the northern channel into the Gulf of Paria. When you sail out of the Dragon’s Mouth you can go straight north 85 miles and get to Grenada or you can turn to starboard and cruise the north coast to get to Tobago, which is 55 miles away. If you go along the northern coast of Trinidad there are four anchorages you can stop at, but only if there is no swell and the wind is south of east. 

After 11 years of running charters in the Virgin Islands & Eastern Caribbean, Captain Shane is setting sail for the Greater Antilles, including Cuba, and Belize. Check out his adventures at svGuidingLight.com.

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Shane McClellan
Shane McClellanhttp://www.svguidinglight.com
Visit www.svGuidingLight.com to read more from Captain Shane about the Bahamas, Caribbean, life aboard, and more.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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