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November/2008 * 11/29/2006
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When I was invited on an eco tourism adventure trip to TT, as the locals call it, I had to get out the map to find it. Only seven miles from Venezuela, this twin island republic in the West Indies was once a part of South America , separated from the continent when the volcanic plates shifted thousands of years ago. Its unique ecological heritage and topographical diversity that ranges from rainforests and waterfalls to mangrove swamps and tropical savannahs is home to more than 430 species of birds, 620 species of butterflies, and 2,300 varieties of flowering shrubs and plants.
Although I was aware that steel pan music originated in Trinidad, I didn’t know that it was inadvertently a product of TT’s major industry, the oil business. Creative percussionists hammered out the ends of discarded oil drums to create the only acoustical musical instrument invented in the 20th century. While its plentiful resources of petroleum, natural gas and asphalt have made TT one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean, this is still a developing nation that only gained its independence from the British in 1962. The country’s wealth has yet to trickle down to the majority of its residents, so eco tourism is not only helping to preserve the land in a literal sense, but is also a boon to the economy by providing revenue and jobs in the tourism sector.
Our two guides for this rainforest hike were both serious environmentalists with two different perspectives, one spiritual and the other scientific. Cristo Atékosang Adonis, an indigenous Amerindian Shaman, collects his medicines from this rainforest, referring to it as his “pharmacy”, while trip leader Andy Whitwell, a.k.a. The Pathmaster (www.thepathmaster.com) , is a scholar, versed in Zoology and Botany, and formerly a member of the U.K.’s Centre for Overseas Pest Research.
Deep in the cool, dark forest on a path that has been walked for centuries, Cristo showed us the wild jasmine that when boiled and fermented makes an excellent remedy for kidney ailments. As we walked, and as Cristo shared his healer’s knowledge with us, he encouraged us to pick up seed pods hidden by the squirrels and redistribute them in locations where they would grow, an example of the “take something, leave something” philosophy that he teaches his young students.
Andy, on the other hand, was concerned at the signs of human intrusion, including dangerous hand-made wooden railings on steep inclines, plastic bags and debris left behind, and a yellow ski rope strung across the pools of the Petite Marianne Waterfall where we stopped for a quick dip. Our hike back up the riverbed was an easy one, and we waved goodbye to our host as we headed east to visit one of the Caribbean’s first nature centers, Asa Wright.
Located at 1,200 feet in the mountains of the Northern Range, the AWNC (www.asawright.org) has been a leader in eco tourism for over 30 years, winning numerous awards including Audubon Magazine’s pick as one of the nine eco-lodges considered to be the “World’s Ultimate Outposts”. It would be easy to spend days exploring the 1,500 acre former coffee and cocoa plantation, as many birders and naturalists do, but we only had time for a quick lunch on the veranda, surrounded by dozens of varieties of hummingbirds feeding within inches of our own perches.
Asa Wright is also known for its breeding colony of the nocturnal oilbirds, located in the Dunston Caves. However, since we were scheduled to hike to the oilbird caves at Aripo the following day, we passed on the Dunston Caves and everyone chose a bike and helmet for what was billed as an “easy” one- hour ride down the mountain. While the terrain itself was not difficult, navigating the left-side drivers who flew around the blind mountain curves proved a little more harrowing. The “honk and hit the gas pedal” style of driving on these twisty mountain roads is by far the greatest biking (and driving) hazard on the island.
Feeling pleasantly tired from our active day, we loaded up the bikes and continued east toward the Atlantic Coast and Matura Beach for what would be one of the most magical evenings of the trip. While there are several beaches on Trinidad where the giant endangered leatherback sea turtles lay their eggs, Matura is protected by a group of concerned citizens called the Nature Seekers. In cooperation with TT’s forestry department, the group offers guided night visits to the beach to witness the centuries-old miracle of birth during the peak laying season from March to August ($10 US per person plus a $5TT forestry fee, email@example.com).
It was a moonless night on the breezy beach, and we waited silently for our guide to locate a nest-in-progress, not permitted any lights because these disorient the huge reptiles who use the sea’s natural light as a directional beacon. When we joined our guide at the first nest, mama turtle was still in the process of laying the clutch. Once she finished, she began making wide sweeps with her flippers to cover the nest with sand, moving in ever larger concentric circles until she was about eight feet from the original site. Satisfied that her eggs were well hidden, she lumbered slowly down the beach to glide back into the sea. All through the evening, the huge sea turtles emerged from the surf like landing craft, completed their biological mission, and returned to the sea to swim hundreds of miles until their internal GPS tells them its time to return to Matura to lay the next clutch.
Another early start the next morning, necessary in this part of the world to beat the midday heat, took the group back up the mountain to Aripo Village to visit the oilbird caves. Although the climb is listed as “moderate”, the vertical ascension makes it a strenuous workout, even for hikers in the best of shape. Author of the monthly adventurer column at SmarterTravel.com, Josh Roberts, said “Going with a guide is essential for safety because the hike is steeply uphill and made difficult by the heat and the overgrown path, but once you reach the top and hear the oilbirds screeching and see their red eyes peering back at you, it’s easy to see why the Amerindians thought they were ‘devil birds’. Although I missed the hike due to some scheduled interviews, there was one upside—the hikers had to discard their clothes and shoes which were covered in “bat guano”.
I rejoined everyone that afternoon for one of my favorite activities, sea kayaking. We put in at the Chaguaramas Kayak Centre on the Gulf of Paria, and crossed William’s Bay to explore the Cuesa River Estuary, only accessible at high tides. After some tight maneuvering under low-hanging branches, we entered the main part of the estuary, flanked by thickets of red, black, and white mangroves. Being from alligator-filled Florida, I was a little freaked out when an eight-foot long cayman appeared directly beside my tiny one-person kayak, but our leader assured us that, unlike alligators, the caymans are non-threatening to mammals. Despite that, we were all relieved when our scaly friend disappeared beneath the surface.
We returned to the Coblentz Inn for a spectacular end-of-the-trip feast at the Inn’s renowned Battimamzelle Restaurant, worth a visit even if you’re staying elsewhere in Port of Spain. We had all been a little apprehensive about this trip in the beginning. We were writers, not hikers, more muses than mountain bikers, and more comfortable with syntax than snorkeling. But in the end, these verdant twin islands seduced and surprised us, inspiring us all to rediscover our inner athlete and to wholeheartedly agree with the TT motto “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints”.
Ecotourism on Trinidad
Ginger Warder is a regular contributor to The Traveler as well as Contributing Travel Editor/Her Sports + Fitness Magazine
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