Trinidad & Tobago Travel Guide
Date Visited: March 2015
Trinidad and Tobago (TT) is a two-island country offering the visitor two completely different destinations in one and, due to the diversity of its fauna, flora and people, one of the more interesting destinations in the Caribbean.
At its closest point Trinidad is located just 11-km off the coast of Venezuela and, as recently as 1,500 years ago, was part of the South American mainland. Because of this the fauna and flora on Trinidad is similar to that of Venezuela and hence unique for a Caribbean island. Here you will find Howler and Capuchin monkeys, ocelots, tree boas and so much more. When it comes to wildlife viewing on a Caribbean island, it doesn’t get any better than Trinidad.
The islands were two separate, independent lands until the British joined them as one administrative region in 1889.
Trinidad was a Spanish colony from the time Christopher Columbus landed in 1498 until a British invasion in 1797. Columbus named the island after he saw what appeared to him as a trinity of hills along the southeastern coast.
The British occupied Trinidad until independence in 1962. During this period slaves were imported from Africa to work on the many plantations. Once slavery ended indentured labourers from India were brought in to replace the freed slaves. Today the largest population group on Trinidad are the Indo-Trinidadians (37%), followed by the Afro-Trinidadians (36%). Making up the rest of the population are descendants of European settlers, Chinese, Arabs and more.
Trinidad is a veritable melting-pot and this is reflected in the rich and varied cuisine and culture. Carnival is the main cultural event – see ‘Carnival‘ below – and from this Calypso music developed. Today Soca music (mix of Calypso, dance / Indian music) is popular and can be heard throughout the English-speaking Caribbean.
Over the centuries Tobago has been occupied by the Dutch, English, Spanish, Swedish and French. The island has changed hands no less than 33 times – more than any other Caribbean island. It was ceded to the British in 1814.
Under British rule the island was run as a plantation, producing sugar, indigo and cotton. Slaves were imported from Africa to work the plantations and today the majority of the population are descendants from those slaves.
Port of Spain
Originally the site of an Amerindian fishing village, the capital of TT – Port of Spain (POS) – was founded by Spanish settlers who established a port here: “Puerto de los Hispanioles”, later renamed to “Puerto de España”. A Spanish garrison first established a presence here in 1560. The British invaded and claimed the country in 1797.
With a population of 600,000 (greater urban area), POS is the 2nd largest city in the English-speaking Caribbean – after Kingston, Jamaica.
POS is an important commercial and financial centre for the Caribbean region and home to its biggest stock exchange. You’ll meet many different Caribbean ex-pats working here. Its airport is an important hub in the Caribbean, its port one of the biggest.
The downtown area is compact and the few sites of interest can be seen on foot in a day. It’s worth starting your day with a walk around Queens Park Savannah. This is the green lung of the city, a huge park lined with historical buildings that are all architecturally different.
On one side of the park you will find the Royal Botanical gardens. These well tended gardens are a good place to see native plants and trees.
Due to the multi-racial population, there are a variety of churches and other places of worship to visit.
Downtown POS has a gritty, rough edge to it. You should exercise caution when walking around. Crime is an issue here. Always take taxis in the evenings.
Each year on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (February) the city celebrates Carnival. It’s the biggest of its kind in the Caribbean and the most significant event on the islands’ cultural and tourism calendar.
Carnival was originally brought to Trinidad by French settlers from Martinique in the 18th century. Originally the celebration was for the ruling class, but it was imitated and adapted by their slaves and, after the abolition of slavery in 1838, the practice became wide-spread.
The main venue is Queens Park Savannah in downtown POS. Carnival was traditionally associated with calypso music (developed in TT); however, recently Soca music (also developed in TT) has replaced calypso as the music of choice.
Bitter(s) in Trinidad
Famous the world over, Angostura bitters is a concentrated bitters, or botanically infused alcoholic mixture, made by the House of Angostura in POS.
The secret recipe was first formulated by a German doctor who was the Surgeon-General in Simon Bolivar’s army in Venezuela. It was first produced in the town of Angostura (Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela). The company later relocated operations to POS.
Visits are possible but must be organised in advance by contacting the House of Angostura. Don’t even try asking them about their secret recipe.
La Brea Pitch Lake
An interesting anomaly on the south coast of Trinidad is La Brea pitch lake. The lake is the largest of just three asphalt lakes in the world.
The lake is what is known as a bitumen seep. It’s the result of a fault in the sandstone bedrock 75-m below, which allows bitumen to seep to the surface. The lake covers about 40 hectares and is 75-m deep.
The surface of the lake looks like a car park and is firm enough that you can walk on it. You should only ever do this with a knowledgeable guide as there are many places where the surface is soft and gooey. If you stray into these areas you risk getting stuck and possibly sinking into the gooey depths. People have died here.
For decades the pitch has been mined and exported for use on roofs and roads.
By car the lake can be reached on a day trip from Port of Spain. The road from POS to San Fernando is a fast dual-lane highway. South of San Fernando the one lane road is slow, windy and busy.
Lake guides can be found at the lake car park.
Caroni Bird Sanctuary
The Caroni Bird sanctuary is located on the west coast of Trinidad, a short drive south of POS. The sanctuary is centred around the Caroni Swamp, which is an estuarine system of mangrove forest and marshes.
The sanctuary is home to the Scarlet Ibis – the national bird of Trinidad. The highlight of a visit is to witness thousands of these birds returning to their roosting site at sunset on one central island.
The mangrove swamps in the sanctuary are a rich source of food for the Scarlet Ibis.
You can visit the sanctuary on a tour from POS or you can drive or take a bus. The entrance to the sanctuary is just off the main highway between POS and San Fernando.
If you travel to the sanctuary independently you can join one of the many boats that depart from the sanctuary entrance at around 3:30pm each afternoon.
North Coast and Northern Range Day Trip
If you have a car, a nice day trip from the capital is a circuitous route from Port of Spain to Maracas Bay on the north coast then onto the beautiful, isolated beach at Blanchisseuse. This is the end of the road along the north coast.
From here you turn south and cross the lush Northern Range, stopping at the Asa Wright nature centre before meeting the main highway at the town of Arima then heading back into Port of Spain.
Total driving time is about 4-hours but with stops along the way it will take you a full day.
The drive from Port of Spain takes you first through the picturesque Maraval valley before eventually bringing you to the north coast. The coast road was built by US troops during WWII and hugs the Northern range high above the sea.
The best panoramic views are from Maracas lookout. On weekends Indian sweet sellers set up food stands here.
The road then descends into Maracas Bay, which is a popular swimming beach. If you want to try Shark and Bake (fried piece of flat-bread – bake – filled with pieces of fried shark) this is the place to do it.
Continuing until you reach the end of the coast road will bring you to the small village of Blanchisseuse. Here you’ll find a nice beach and a couple of waterfalls, which are popular swimming spots for locals on weekends.
There are some beach-side restaurants here offering lunch.
From the coast you now head inland on the narrow, windy, mountainous road over the Northern Range. This is a beautiful drive through lush countryside. The locals advise to take extra caution when driving this road.
Asa Wright Nature Centre
On the other side of the range, as the road descends through the Arima valley, Asa Wright nature centre is a birdwatchers’ paradise. The original estate was purchased by Dr. Newcome Wright and his Icelandic wife Asa in 1947.
The original house has been preserved, and houses a dining hall, guest rooms and an open verandah for observing birds. There is a photo of Prince Charles and Camilla visiting the centre displayed in the hallway.
If you are not a guest you are able to visit the house and use the verandah for observation after paying an admission fee.
Named for the tobacco plant that the Carib Indians used to harvest, Tobago is an autonomous island within the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It is located 32-km northeast of Trinidad, but is a world away from the bustling ‘mainland’.
The island is known for its laid-back tempo, it’s many fine beaches, rain-forest, excellent snorkeling and diving and so is a popular tourist destination. The island relies more on the tourist dollar than Trinidad does.
Tobago has a population of 62,000, its capital and largest city is Scarborough (pop: 25,000).
The island is 40-km long and 10-km wide. There is almost no public transport on the island so you will need a hire car if you wish to explore – see the ‘Getting Around‘ section below for more details.
The roads on the island are asphalt but are narrow, windy and single lane, hugging the coastline most of the time. Driving conditions require that you slow down and take your time. It is a beautiful island with many spectacular views. A complete circuit could be done in one rushed day but two or three is better.
The island is connected to Trinidad by regular fast ferry services and frequent air shuttles – see the ‘Getting There’ section below for more details.
I stayed in the town of Speyside, which is on the quiet, remote north coast. If you wish to snorkel or dive, this is the place to be, but you’ll need your own transport here.
Most tourist infrastructure (hotels, resorts, restaurants, bars etc) is concentrated in the southwest corner of the island around Pigeon Point, Crown Point and Store bay. This area is walking distance from the airport. If you want to be close to sandy beaches, nightlife etc – this is the place to be.
There are a range of accommodation options on Trinidad and Tobago. High season prices apply from January to May.
Unlike other Caribbean destinations, hotels in POS rely less on tourists and more on the business traveler. Accommodation is usually more reasonably priced, with bigger chain hotels offering bargains during the weekends. I stayed on the cheap at the Hilton.
Accommodation on Tobago caters for all budgets and is geared to the holiday maker. I stayed in an apartment in Speyside and self-catered. Be prepared for ‘sticker-shock’ when looking at resort / hotel prices.
Best to book in advance using an online agent such as booking.com
Like other Anglo-Caribbean countries, the cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago has been influenced by its diverse multicultural, multiracial population. It is a unique blend of African, Indian, Chinese, European and Latin American influences. Curry and roti can be found everywhere as can Chinese.
The fishing industry is key on Tobago so you will find lots of fresh seafood on the menu there.
Some nationalities require visas for Trinidad & Tobago – check your visa requirements prior to arrival.
For some nationalities (e.g. Australians), you can purchase your visa upon arrival.
Flights into Trinidad arrive at Piarco International Airport. The airport is located in the town of Piarco, 30-km east POS.
The airport is the main hub for the national carrier, Caribbean Airlines.
The following airlines provide international connections to / from:
- American Airlines – Miami
- British Airways – London (Gatwick)
- Caribbean Airlines – Antigua, Barbados, Caracas, Fort Lauderdale, Georgetown, Grenada, Kingston, Miami, Nassau, New York (JFK), Orlando, Paramaribo, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Tobago, Toronto
- Copa Airlines – Panama City
- Insel Air – Curaçao
- JetBlue Airways – Fort Lauderdale, New York (JFK)
- LIAT – Antigua, Barbados, Georgetown (Ogle), Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent
- Surinam Airways – Curaçao, Paramaribo
- United Airlines – Houston (Intercontinental), Newark
- WestJet – Toronto
Flights into Tobago arrive at A.N.R. Robinson International Airport.
The following airlines provide international connections to/ from:
- British Airways – London (via Antigua)
- Virgin Atlantic – London (via St. Lucia)
- Condor – Frankfurt
- Gol – São Paulo
- American Airlines and Caribbean Airlines – New York (JFK)
Trinidad ⬅️➡️ Tobago
Caribbean Airlines operates an air bridge between Trinidad and Tobago. There are about 20 daily flights, with the first leaving Trinidad at 6am.
Trinidad ⬅️➡️ Venezuela
Scheduled ferry services between Trinidad (POS) and Venezuela (Guiria) are currently suspended.
For those independent adventurers, there are other options if you are determined to make the short crossing. One detailed account is outlined here.
Trinidad ⬅️➡️ Tobago
The Trinidad & Tobago Inter-Island Ferry Service operates two fast ferries, which complete the 32km crossing from POS to Scarborough in 2 and a half hours. There are multiple sailings 7-days a week. All details are available on their website.
Public transport on Trinidad is better than Tobago due to its larger population.
You have a choice of buses, maxi taxis (shared mini buses), taxis or ferries (e.g. POS – San Fernando).
Hiring a taxi in POS will cost you around USD$15 flat fare anywhere downtown.
The best option for exploring the island is to hire a car. You should book in advance as demand often outstrips supply. The island can be covered in 4-5 days.
Public transport on Tobago is very limited – you will see most locals trying to hitch rides.
The best option for exploring the island is to hire a car. You should book in advance to avoid disappointment. The island can be covered in a day if you rushed around but at a more leisurely pace would require a few days.
Author: Darren McLean
Author of taste2travel.com and an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer, diver and adventurer.