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Trinidad's Back Roads

A Sustainable Ecotourism Destination

Landscape in beautiful Trinidad
Landscape in beautiful Trinidad.

Best known for its colorful West Indian Carnival in February and for its bird diversity, Trinidad & Tobago (commonly shortened to T&T) is raising its profile as a sustainable ecotourism destination. Towering tropical rainforests, mountains and waterfalls, wetlands teaming with wildlife, and remote beaches where leatherback turtles create their own traffic jam are all on the menu. With a shoreline just seven miles from Venezuela, the flora and fauna have much in common with South America—from which the islands separated a mere 10,000 years ago. More than 430 resident and migrant bird species have already made T&T a favored destination for bird enthusiasts.

The diverse ethnic population of 1.1 million “Trinbagonians” is often characterized as rainbow culture. This island republic boasts a 99 percent literacy rate, among the highest in the world. Unlike many of its Caribbean neighbors, T&T is not held hostage to tourism revenue: its economy is supported by substantial exports of fruit, vegetables, sugar cane, natural gas, and oil.

When I chose late October to visit Trinidad, nobody mentioned the rainy season. Short, sharp tropical deluges are no problem when you are strolling a beach in a bathing suit or when you can make a dash for a snack bar or hammock under cover until the rain passes. However, it is something of a challenge when picturesque rainforest trails, miles from the nearest piece of pavement, morph into ankle-deep muddy swamps in a matter of minutes, or when mountainside bat caves, liberally decorated with guano, cockroaches, and saucer-sized toads (not to mention bats by the million and the odd snake), become as slippery and drippy as a stage-set for an Indiana Jones movie.

But I didn’t travel to Trinidad to stroll beaches or to laze on a bar stool while thunderous clouds rolled by. I went to explore Trinidad’s less-visited natural areas of the north and east coasts...rain or shine!

Rainforests, waterfalls, and river kayaking were on the first day’s activity list. After navigating rocky slopes to the base of a 70-foot waterfall in full flow, the exit path became the Marianne River itself. Then and there, boots and wet feet became inseparable companions for the rest of the trip.

Next day we squelched off in search of red howler monkeys in the Bush Bush area of Nariva Swamp, a wide swath of the central east coast and Trinidad’s largest freshwater swamp. Basso profundo howler calls reverberated through the canopy as we entered the deep rainforest. For hours we tromped and sloshed through this immense forest where unique trees and plants are still being discovered.

The climax of my Trinidad backcountry exploration started with an afternoon hike to a network of stunning bat caves near the top of Mount Tamana. The narrow forest trail would be reasonably user-friendly in the dry season for fit people of any age. However, with a persistent rain leaking through the canopy, the carefully-plotted uphill navigation brought to mind just how treacherous it would be coming down in the dark with only a flashlight beam to show the way.

Putting such thoughts aside, we prepared to explore the cave system. Some people squeezed through tight holes between four caves with suitably lurid stories to tell afterward; others, like me, crawled down a steep, rutted slope to the floor of the largest cave, took “been there” photographs, and returned to the surface to await the nightly exodus of 11 bat species. It was a spectacular experience, taking well over an hour for the sight, sound, and smell of millions of bats to pass into memory.

Having been thoroughly saturated with bat guano and red tropical mud, that night’s footwear and pants were subtracted from each person’s luggage before flying home. The sacrifice was small for such a rare experience.

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Choosing Accommodations

There are few vacation accommodations in Trinidad’s northeast quadrant other than Grand Riviere, population 350. Because the community’s mile-long fine-sand beach attracts 200 to 400 leatherback turtles a night during the peak egg-laying season (May through July), accommodations and camping sites have sprung up to serve curious visitors. It is a traffic jam for both turtles and humans. The humans are subject to careful regulation by trained local guides who take small groups along the shore at night.

Grand Riviere’s accommodations range from the luxurious riverfront Acajou Hotel, featuring an eco-conscious design and secluded garden cottages with sundecks, to the mid-price beachfront Le Grande Almandier Inn, and to the budget backstreet McHaven Resort Restaurant & Bar where locals and visitors mingle well into the night.

Recommended guidebook: The Rough Guide to Trinidad and Tobago.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. See her bio for many more articles she has written for Transitions Abroad.

Travel with a Challenge: The Site for Senior Travelers

Related Topics
Senior Travel
Ecotourism and Responsible Travel

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