I wake up before dawn and walk out on the beach. The leather back turtles are already gone for the season, but there are still eggshells all over the beach. There’s a man to my right holding a birdcage with a small songbird inside. The sun begins to rise. Why did he bring the bird to the beach. It was odd I thought to myself. Later I learned that he would be bird racing later that morning, a southern Caribbean sport that matches songbirds in sing offs with other songbirds at a meeting point in a nearby village.
I’m at Mt. Plasir Estate Hotel in Grande Riviere, a remote fishing village and former cocoa plantation on Trinidad’s rainforest clad northeast corner. At breakfast I’m served Saltfish Buljol, a typical way to start the day here, alongside a cup of Triniatario Cocoa Tea, using the cacao foraged from the old plantation trees that surround the property. Before I leave the Italian owner offers me to taste the cheeses he has just made. One is a provolone, one is aged. There’s a soft one spiced with nutmeg that I can still taste. When I pull out of the hotel I drive on the right side of the road and nearly crash into oncoming traffic. I forget they drive on the left here.
The next stop is the Toco lighthouse, a lookout at Galeria Point over the rocky coastline, where the turquoise Caribbean waters meet the azure blues of the Atlantic. Cutting back inland towards the interior, the terrain first smoothes out, passing tiny towns with streetside roti stalls. Signs for Angostura Rum line the highway (bitters are secondary here), as the Angostura distillery is found along this route (Tours are on Tuesdays and Thursdays), though much closer to Port of Spain. When turning back north towards the coast, the land becomes wild and mountainous. There are anacondas here, and other birds and wildlife, which have traveled from the closer than you realize South American coast and made a home here. Passing through the northern range, on the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road that descends through the Arima valley, you come to the Asa Wright Nature Center and Lodge, one of the preeminent birdwatching spots in the Caribbean. You can stay in the original estate that dates to the late 1940’s, though I stopped by just for the day, spotting hummingbirds and a crested oropendola, but not having enough time to hike to the leks of the White-bearded Manakin and Golden-headed Manakin.
It’s Sunday, so when I reach Maracas Bay, the nearest beach from Port of Spain, the beach is quite crowded. A twenty something boy chases a girl on the beach and grabs her and her top falls off right in front of me. Some are kicking soccer balls back and forth. The most action is across the street though, where the shark and bake stands are, such as Mona’s or Richard’s. The oddly named sandwich is one of Trinidad’s most iconic recipes consists of seasoned and deep fried blacktip shark steaks (tilapia and catfish can be substituted too) that are stuffed in a “bake”, a sort of roti using kneaded flour that is fried into a sort of johnnycake. The concoction speaks to the island’s multi-cultural Indian/Spanish/English/African heritage: India for the bread, the Caribbean for the fish, and England for the deep-frying. The sandwich gets slathered with everything from Chadon Beni Chutney and cucumber slice to tamarind, Shadow Bennie, or Trinidadian pepper sauces. I grab an iced cold Carib beer to go with it. The sound of steel pan drums waft through the air. Trinidad is far from the paradisaical Caribbean I have come to expect. There are no all inclusive resorts or cruise ship passengers wandering aimlessly looking for jewelery shops. It’s rough around the ages and downright dangerous in spots, though that’s part of the charm.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.