Northern Trinidad is a fascinating blend of Trinidad's rural life and natural mountain scenery for walkers and birders. It also has beaches for Port of Spain weekenders and peaceful natural beaches in the north east.
The forested hills of the Northern Range stretch across the entire 80km width of the north of Trinidad, from beyond Port of Spain in the west across to the Atlantic in the east. Away from Port of Spain and the towns along the Eastern Main Road, the hills are sparsely populated and natural. There are trekking trails through the forests and good places for birds and other wildlife.
Along this rugged coast the hills meet the sea in a succession of beautiful bays between craggy headlands. There is a choice of pleasant beach hotels and an absence of large scale international tourism. It's a lovely area to explore and spend time in.
Just two roads cross the hills to the north coast: from Port of Spain to Maracas Bay, and from Arima to Blanchisseuse. A narrow coastal road connects the two. The only other part of the north coast reached by road is in the extreme east; to get to it you have to drive across the island to Toco.
The most accessible and popular beaches are at Maracas Bay and nearby Las Cuevas. Being close to Port of Spain they get very busy at weekends. Look for 'Richards Bake and Shark' a favourite food stall at Maracas Bay.
Blanchisseuse and beyond
Further along the coast the beaches are quieter. At the end of the road you reach Blanchisseuse, a fishing village with an assortment of weather-beaten board houses adorned by brightly flowering bougainvillea, set above a succession of pristine, wild sandy beaches. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. There is a church, grocers shop, bar, post office, school and a smattering of simple guest houses used by local holiday makers. Its name dates from French creole times and the laundresses who washed clothes in the village stream.
Beyond Blanchisseuse there is 30km of coast before the next stretch of tarmac in Matelot. In between there are some fabulous wild beaches and magnificent coastal views. The area can only be reached on foot, following trails which dip and climb through lush forests of old coffee, cacao and citrus estates. See 'The North Coast Trek' on p12.
Matelot and Grande Riviere
The northeast tip of Trinidad is one of the island's best kept secrets. It is a region of tiny well-kept rural communities, enticing scenery and quietude. Matelot is a small hamlet typical of the rural communities scattered among the hills of the Northern Range. At Grande Riviere there are two of Trinidad's most characterful hotels and an attractive beach. Leatherback turtles nest here and at several other beaches in this part of the island.
There are good opportunities to explore the Northern Range itself. Small roads to isolated villages wind into the hills amid the forest, passing huge stands of bamboo, dense ferns, heliconias and philodendrons growing beneath trees festooned with bromeliads, orchids and liana vines. Rivers tumble from the peaks to carve deep swimming pools, cascades and waterfalls along the way.
In the plantation era much of this region was given over to cocoa, coffee or citrus, flourishing beneath the shade of tall 'immortelle' trees. A few plantations are still active, including the private Carmel Valley Estate. Many others have reverted to forest. Long forgotten donkey paths, known as 'bench trails' crisscross the former plantation lands, providing excellent hiking routes through an otherwise inaccessible area.
The mountain rains make for lush vegetation that supports a diversity of wildlife including land crabs, fresh water shrimps, agouti, armadillo, red brocket deer, manicou, wild pigs, bats, squirrels and an abundance of colourful hummingbirds, tanagers and honeycreepers, plus the rare Trinidad Piping-guan.
Deep within the Northern Range the villagers of Brasso Seco have grouped together to offer rooms for rent in their own homes. The amenities are humble but proudly kept and you can be sure your welcome will be warm. Its multicultural households include Amerindian, Spanish, British, African and East Indian origins. The two main events in the village's calendar are Christmas and the Harvest Festival in May.
Lying at Trinidad's northwest corner, the peninsula's natural harbour was leased to the US Navy during World War II. Today the area is a yachting haven. Sailing boats moor in the marinas here to avoid the hurricane season in the rest of the Caribbean.
The narrow channel between Trinidad and Venezuela is notoriously rough and is known as Boca del Dragon ('dragon's mouth'). A row of rocky islands span the channel. The well-to-do have homes on the nearest islands and commute to Port of Spain by speed boat. Visitors can take an open boat 'down de islands' to nearby Gaspar Grande island and Gasparee Caves, once used by pirates, where sunlight sparkles on crystals in the rocks, and a deep pool reflects the bright colours and strange shapes of stalagmites and stalactites.