Trinidad and Tobago Travel Guide
Perhaps more than any other country in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago is known for its rich multicultural heritage, which manifests itself in nearly everything: the people, the music, the dance and the food. Though comprising one country, these two sister islands are actually quite different. Trinidad is the more dynamic of the two, while Tobago possesses a more laid-back vibe.
A look at the local history explains the multicultural feel that pervades this wonderland. Though initially settled by the Spanish, the islands were later taken over by the English, becoming part of the grand British Empire. But there was always an infusion of new cultures. First, African slaves were imported, bringing with them their musical and religious traditions. Later, when slave owning days came to an end, indentured servants from India were brought over. The result of all this intermixing is the cultural melting pot of Trinidad and Tobago.
Today, the islands are renowned for their great beaches, vibrant culture, pulsing nightlife and natural wonders. In addition to the breath-taking coastline, the islands are home to bird sanctuaries, limestone caves, dramatic waterfalls and incredible coral reefs. The richest manifestation of Trini culture is without a doubt Carnival, a time when song and dance reign for days. Though this may represent the height of the social calendar, a festive mood pervades all year round. After all, this is the home of calypso, which dates back to slavery days and has now spread throughout the world. But the nightlife these days is dominated by the latest craze, the frenetic soca music, which causes Trinis to shake uncontrollably. Dancers, be ready, there's no shortage of booty shaking going on in these parts. The Trini lifestyle is quite leisurely; in fact, the national pastime is "liming," which is local slang for just hanging out.
The cultural diversity is apparent in every mode of life; even the food blends African, Indian and European styles into an exciting spicy cuisine. Trinis come in all shapes and sizes but they all share a common sense of happiness, pride and unmistakable hospitality. For those craving a more slow paced scene, Tobago is the perfect getaway. With more of a Rasta influenced culture, this smaller sister island is world renowned for her beaches and impressive coral reef. Best of all, Trinidad and Tobago is the most affordable destination in the entire Caribbean.
"Tabanka" is Trini slang for a lovesickness felt after an affair is over. After spending time amongst the fun loving, hospitable Trinis on these naturally stunning islands, many visitors find themselves flocking back to "T&T" in an effort to cure their "tabanks." It's easy to understand why…
For two days before Ash Wednesday, Trini culture shines in what is recognized as one of the world's best street parties. Carnival here is a creative burst of music, dance and pure hedonism featuring creative costumes, parades of dancers and plenty of street fun. Tobago also offers its own mini Carnival celebrations as part of Tobago Fest every September.
From scuba to snorkeling to surfing to swimming, these twin islands are truly a beach bonanza. Surfers are drawn to the Trinidad's Northeastern coast, snorkelers and divers will want to check out Tobago's famous Buccoo Reef, while the serene waters of Pigeon Point are ideal for sea swimmers. Besides the natural beauty of these beaches, there is plenty of local culture, Carib beer and fresh seafood to sweeten the deal.
Tobago Heritage Festival
In the last twenty years, this two week festival (mid-July to early August) has grown into Tobago's major cultural attraction. But this fest is not your ordinary fair—it is a cultural extravaganza which offers the best of the island's music, food and culture at a range of venues all over the island. Activities range from crab races, indigenous art displays in small communities and huge concerts under the stars. Highlights include the gala opening, the Ole Time Tobago Wedding and the Salaka Feast.
The Trinis are well-known for their high energy level, especially when the sun goes down. Whether liming after work, listening to live music or heading out to one of the thumping nightclubs, Trinis are never one to desert the party. Music ranges from soca to reggae to calypso to electronic and the action often continues until dawn.
As any Trini will attest, no visit to the islands is complete without some down-home local street food. The multicultural cuisine combines Indian spice with local ingredients. The most popular street side snacks are the doubles (curried chickpeas sandwiched by fried dough) and roti (curried chicken served in Indian style bread). For those craving some authentic island spice, be sure to ask for peppers.
Tobago Forest Reserve
This lush forest is a perfect place to appreciate the rugged natural beauty of Tobago. Founded in 1765, this wooded reserve is the oldest in the Caribbean. The abundance of birds is staggering and the views of the bay are impressive as well.
On the southeastern coast of Trinidad lie these magnificent three-tiered waterfalls. On the hike up, there are plenty of natural pools to cool the body and refresh the soul.
Though the roots of calypso go back hundreds of years, this form of music was especially important amongst the African slaves in the early 19th century. Since then, calypsonians—such as the world-famous Mighty Sparrow—have harnessed this musical style as a vehicle for social commentary and self-expression.
Due to it's abundance of bird species, Trinidad and Tobago have become one of the world's prime bird-watching destinations. With its close proximity to South America, the islands are a popular stopover spot for many migratory birds. Though the scarlet ibis is the national bird, there are some 430 species that call T&T home. The best spots for bird watching are the Asa Wright Nature Centre and the Pointe-a-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust.
Though there is plenty above ground to keep visitors busy, the hundreds of caves in Trinidad and Tobago—with their ancient stalactites and stalagmites—are a surreal environment in which to explore. Some of the best are the limestone caves found beneath the Northern Range of Trinidad, but the caverns the old-time pirates preferred to hide their loot were the Gasparee Caves with their underwater grotto, located off Trinidad's northwest coast.
People and Culture
If there's one thing not lacking on these islands, it's a sense of cultural pride. Trini culture pervades nearly every facet of society, including music, food and language. On "T&T," there is music nearly everywhere. Soca, the latest craze, blasts from buses, nightclubs and street stalls as plenty of locals dance along. Calypso, which has now attained international acclaim, originated here amongst the African slaves; they used the music as a means of communicating when they weren't allowed to speak to one another. Their words reflected their lamentation at having to work so much, but soon the calypsonians started using more politically charged lyrics, all the while hiding behind metaphors and figures of speech so the powers-that-be wouldn't recognize the potency of their message. After a few nights out, even visitors find themselves "breakin' away" to the infectious calypso rhythm. The steel pan was also invented here and though it was first banned by the British and later looked down upon by Trini elites, it now enjoys nationwide popularity.
It's tough to give Trini food justice, but suffice it to say that the infusion of so many cultures has resulted in a very vibrant cuisine. Eating in Trinidad and Tobago is not a matter of simply plopping food on a plate; as any visitor will quickly discover, the Trinis are definitely "foodies" that take their meals seriously. For spice lovers, the Creole cookin' is divine. It doesn't take long to learn the local expression "sweet hand." For those that don't know, the answer awaits in this dynamic destination.
When it comes to sport, there is only one word to remember: "Cricket, glorious cricket!" Actually, that's three words, but this expression reflects the Trini passion for the sport. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the British colonial empire, cricket maintains a devoted following throughout the islands. Youngsters play pick-up games, using anything they can for wickets, bats and balls.
When talking about culture, it would be impossible to overlook the "fete" of the year: Carnival. During this festival, which starts two days before Ash Wednesday, the full extent of Trini culture is on display. Locals wait all year for this moment, when social realities are turned upside down and the whole country comes together to celebrate life. With exquisite costumes, pulsing music, hedonistic fun, captivating dance and of course plenty of food and drink, this party is unparalleled in the Caribbean. Carnival in Trinidad has come a long way, ever since the Spanish held the first Baccanal celebration in 1680. But the party didn't take off until a hundred years later, with the arrival of the French, who brought with them the pre-Lent celebration tradition they described as "farewell to the flesh." Masked balls were in vogue but after slavery was abolished, elites and former slaves took pleasure imitating each other; this form of mimicry, using costumes and such, was and still is an important aspect of Carnival's "anything goes" message. The British tried to tame the celebration, but the locals rioted to protect their Carnival and by the twentieth century, the government was actively promoting the party. With the arrival of soca and "festival music" and the array of deejays and huge sound systems, Carnival has reached an even higher fever pitch in recent years, drawing visitors from the world over for the best street party north of Brazil.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, Trinidad and Tobago were settled by two indigenous tribes: the warlike Caribs and the more peaceful Arawaks. Though the two fought each other for territory, they weren't prepared for a more formidable enemy: the Spanish. Columbus and co. arrived here in 1498, naming the island after the Holy Trinity. A colony was founded in 1532, but unlike other colonial possessions, there was little economic activity taking place, due in large part to the dearth of valuable natural resources (re: gold). In fact, many Spanish colonists passed through Trinidad just to take indigenous slaves to other colonies in South America, where they forced them to work the gold mines and sugar plantations. The settlement was destroyed in 1595 by mighty Sir Walter Raleigh but soon recaptured. The problem the Spanish encountered was populating the island; without promises of untold riches, it was hard for them to convince Spaniards to settle here. When the French Revolution threatened to prohibit slavery on the French West Indies, the slave owners were offered asylum by the Spanish and arrived en masse, with their African slaves in tow. This changed the cultural dynamic on the island and boosted Trinidad's economic output, but didn't prevent the English from taking control in 1797.
Tobago was passed up by Columbus. Though the Spanish "claimed" the island as their own, they made no attempts to colonize it. Tobago was sought after by several European powers—even the Courlanders (Latvians) dabbled in the colonization game. The first settlers though were the Dutch, who established sugar cane plantations here in the 1630s. When the island was later declared a neutral territory by the European powers, pirates saw their window of opportunity and used the island as a base for their skull 'n crossbones raids. The French, with British support, ousted the Dutch in 1781 and imported slaves to boost sugar production. Going for the T&T straight flush, the British soon stepped in and took control of Tobago in 1814. Soon, they had imported over ten thousand African slaves to work the cotton, sugar and indigo plantations. The island's economy was severely slowed when slavery was abolished, and nearly collapsed when the London financial firm in control went bankrupt. Without African slaves to work the plantations, indentured servants were imported from India, which is why Trinidad is still a quarter Hindu. In 1889, the British joined Trinidad and Tobago into a single colony.
With the British in control, the island experienced more hardship. After World War I, there were calls for more local autonomy and the economic hardship of the Depression in the 1930s only raised the stakes. A labor movement was born and the strikes and riots that ensued hinted trouble was on the way. It seemed change was imminent, so the British relented by granting universal suffrage in 1945 and tried to create the West Indies Federation, offering a middle road between colonialism and independence, but the seeds were already cast and the federation collapsed. Trinidad and Tobago was granted independence in 1962. Fourteen years later, the country became a republic, but remained within the British Commonwealth. National politics would be dominated by Eric Williams, who served as Prime Minister from independence until his death in 1981. In addition to his moniker as "Father of the Nation," his PNM party went on to dominate local politics for decades to come. The country has settled into a stable democracy, though racial tensions run high between the blacks and East Indians. This conflict has surfaced in infrequent race riots and political movements, most recently in 1990 when a radical Black Muslim party attempted a coup, holding the Prime Minister and other top officials hostage for six days. In recent years, drug-related arrests have been on the rise, as the islands are a popular stopover in the drug-running trade. The economy was hit hard by the fall of the state sugar company, which left thousands without jobs, but the country's impressive reserves of oil and natural gas have provided a huge spark to the national economy in the last two decades, infusing much-needed foreign capital.
Due to its location, most assume Trinidad and Tobago are pure Caribbean islands. Not quite. Truth is Trinidad was once connected to the South American mainland. Even today, the southwest corner of Trinidad is only seven miles from the mainland, separated by the Gulf of Paria, or Dragon's Mouth. Though right next door, Tobago is actually a part of a sunken mountain chain.
Trinidad is a mountainous island with sparkling beaches. Interestingly, the three mountain ranges that traverse the island were once a part of the Venezuelan coastal cordillera. The largest chain is the Northern Range, which is a series of rugged hills running along the coast. It has two major peaks, including the island's highest, El Cerro del Aripo, 3,084 ft (940 m). The Central Range, some of it merely swamp, tops off at 1,066 ft (325 m) above sea level, while the Southern Range is really just a series of hills under a thousand feet in altitude. Trinidad's longest river, the Ortoire, snakes its way east 31 miles (50km) until splashing into the Atlantic. The soils, sharing much in common with the Venezuela, are quite fertile.
Thirty kilometers to the northeast is the sister island of Tobago, more than ten times smaller than Trinidad. Tobago is dominated by smaller mountains and forests; in fact, over forty percent of the island is still forested. Though the island has volcanic origins, there are no active volcanoes remaining. The island is accompanied by a few small satellite islands, the aptly-named Little Tobago being the largest, but even this hilly, uninhabited island is only 120 hectares in size.
Any visitor will soon discover the wealth of nature activities available on these tropical islands. Since it was part of the South American continent, Trinidad has a much more varied array of flora and fauna than most islands of the West Indies, because with such a small distance between the islands and the mainland, migration is much easier for continent-crossing creatures. One of the major naturalist draws here is the incredible selection of bird species—it is very rare to find such a small island with over four hundred bird species. The scarlet ibis, Trinidad and Tobago's national bird, can be observed en masse at the Caroni Swamp—seeing a flock fly through the air is reminiscent of a red cloud. The most famed birding spot is the Asa Wright Nature Center, which has 270 acres of protected lands with an amazing array of bird species. The island also boasts over a hundred mammals, plenty of reptiles and six hundred species of butterflies. Papa Bois is a folkloric figure that is said to live in the forest and protect the animals. Legend has it he can turn himself into any animal he chooses, but don't disrespect his natural setting, because he has been known to cast spells on evil hunters.
For those who prefer a darker setting, Trinidad's Northern Mountain Range is home to some amazing limestone caves, including Aripo Cave, which shelters the nocturnal oilbirds, which use their echo-honing abilities to maneuver through the caves to find fruit to eat. The Gasparee Caves, once a popular hiding spot for pirate loot, boast a crystal clear pool but alas, all of the riches have been relocated.
For many visitors, the most important natural attraction here is the coastline and Trinidad and Tobago are certainly not lacking in the beautiful beach department. In fact, these islands are ideal for any water related activity. Trinidad has everything from high-powered surfing beaches to tranquil bays perfect for swimming. With its famous Buccoo Reef, Tobago is an ideal spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. Located off the southwestern tip of Tobago, this flourishing reef has hard and soft coral and enormous brain coral as well. Manta rays, barracudas, whale sharks, turtles, sting rays, dolphins and porpoises are common sights. Turtle fans will want to watch the endangered leatherbacks lumber up the beach, waddling up to deposit their eggs into big holes in the sand. With all of these natural wonders on full display, the only point of contention is which island is more beautiful.
Trinidad and Tobago Pictures
Climate and Weather
Tropical fans rejoice! Here on the sister islands, the average daily high temperature averages a balmy 89°F (32°C), while lows usually bottom out at about 72°F (22°C)—yeah, hardly frigid conditions… Though humidity reaches about 85%, refreshing trade winds provide a welcome breeze. The dry season, between January and May, is a sun-lover's dream. The second half of the year is the wet season, though rainfall is not too heavy—81 inches (211cm) annually. Though the rainy season technically lasts between June and December, the three summer months between June and August experience the most rain. With twenty-three rainy days a month, be sure to pack that umbrella. In general, temperatures on Tobago are a few degrees cooler, as the trade winds come in from the northeast. The most extreme weather on Trinidad is the heavy rainfall in the Northern Mountain Range—150 inches, (392 cm) per year—and droughts in the interior during dry season.
Late summer in the Caribbean usually means one thing: hurricane season. Luckily though, these islands are located far enough south that they are outside of the hurricane belt, which is one belt you don't want to have on vacation.
Map and Location
Location: Southernmost islands of the Caribbean, between the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
Geographic coordinates: Trinidad: 10 1/2°N, 61 1/2°; Tobago: 11°N, 60°W
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -4
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