Trinidadians and Tobagonians love to party and take every opportunity to lime (hang out with friends) whenever the whim hits. Official and unofficial celebrations are plentiful, usually with lots of great food and rum and a playlist of soca, calypso and reggae. Like other Caribbean destinations, the pace is slow here. Trinbagonians see rushing and stress as entirely unnecessary, and its far better to go with the flow than bristle with annoyance over a slow-served meal or tardy timekeeping.
Of the country’s 1.3 million inhabitants, some 60,000 live on Tobago. Trinidad has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the Caribbean, a legacy of its checkered colonial history. The majority is of Indian (40.3%) and African (39.5%) descent. The remaining 20% are of mixed ancestry, but there are also notable European, Chinese, Syrian and Lebanese communities, while a few hundred native Caribs live in the Arima area.
Roughly one-third of all islanders are Roman Catholic. Another 25% are Hindu, 11% are Anglican, 13% are other Protestant denominations and 6% are Muslim. With its roots in African faith traditions, the Orisha religion also remains strong in some areas, as does Rastafarianism.
Introduced by the British in the 19th century, cricket isn’t just a sport in Trinidad and Tobago, it’s a cultural obsession. International cricket legend Brian Lara – the ‘Prince of Port of Spain’ – hails from Trinidad and his popularity ranks up there with Jesus. And despite their failing fortunes, the arrival of the West Indies team for a test match still sees everything grinding to a halt as people stick to their TVs to capture the action.
The main venue is the Queen’s Park Oval, home to the Queen’s Park Cricket Club, a few blocks west of the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain. Originally built in 1896, with the northern hills as a spectacular backdrop, it’s the site of both regional and international matches and holds 25,000 spectators who pack out the stands and create a party atmosphere at matches. It also has a small museum dedicated to cricket heritage; call to arrange a visit.
Stop for a moment on the streets of Trinidad and Tobago and listen. You’ll likely hear the fast beat of soca playing on a maxi-taxi radio, or the sound of steel drums drifting out from a panyard. Often festive, sometimes political or melancholy, music digs deep into the emotion of island life.
Although Carnival happens in February, there’s always plenty of great live music happening, especially in the months leading up to Carnival.
A medium for political and social satire, calypso hearkens back to the days when African slaves – unable to talk when working – would sing in patois, sharing gossip and news while mocking their colonial masters. Today, risqué lyrics, pointed social commentary and verbal wordplay are still the order of the day. Mighty Sparrow, long acknowledged the king of calypso, has voiced popular concerns and social consciousness since the 1950s, as did his contemporary, the late, great ‘Grandmaster,’ Lord Kitchener. Another famous calypsonian, David Rudder, helped revive the musical form in the mid-1980s by adding experimental rhythms, unearthing both the cultural importance and flexibility of calypso. Others to look out for include the distinctive voice of Shadow, and the inimitable Calypso Rose, whose recent collaboration LP with Manu Chao has brought worldwide success.
This up-tempo, rhythmic music of Indian Trinis is accompanied by the dholak (Northern Indian folk drum) and the dhantal (a metal rod played with a metal striker). Chutney songs celebrate social situations – everything from women witnessing a birth to men partying at a bar. It’s a fusion of classical Hindu music with more contemporary soca, and can't fail to get you wiggling your hips. Notable stars include Rikki Jai, Drupatee and Ravi B.
T&Ts traditional Christmas soundtrack, parang originated in Venezuela. Lyrics are sung in Spanish (though English predominates in contemporary releases) and accompanied by a four-string guitar called a cuatro alongside violins and percussion. At first heard only in rural areas inhabited by Hispanic Trinis, parang has evolved into a nationwide phenomenon. At Christmas time, parang dominates the radio and groups of parranderos play at bars and clubs throughout the islands.
The energetic offspring of calypso, soca was born in the 1970s, and uses the same basic beat but speeds things up, creating danceable rhythms that perfectly accompany the Carnival season. Though soca is yet to break out internationally in the way of Jamaican dancehall, its biggest stars have collaborated with many international names, from Diplo to Pitbull, and many recent hits bring in elements of reggae and electronic dance music (EDM) beats. Machel Montano is the reigning king of soca; other big names include speedy lyricist Bunji Garlin, Fay-Ann Lyons, Destra and Benjai.
Rhythm and percussion are the beating heart behind Carnival. Traditionally percussionists banged together bamboo cut in various lengths, or simply drummed on whatever they could – the road, sides of buildings, their knees. When African drums were banned during WWII, drummers turned to biscuit tins and then oil drums discarded by US troops, which were shaped and tuned to produce a brand new instrument. Today, steel pans come in a variety of sizes, each producing a unique note. Heard together, they become a cascading waterfall of sound. During Carnival, some bands are transported on flatbed trucks along the parade route. All bands aim to win Panorama, the national competition that runs throughout Carnival season.
Landscape & Wildlife
Formerly part of the South American mainland, Trinidad and Tobago have a rich natural environment that's quite different to the rest of the Caribbean. Lush rainforests harbor a huge variety of plants and animals, as well as spectacular birds, while the coral reefs around Tobago, fed by nutrient-rich currents from the Orinoco River, are some of the Caribbean's best.
Water pollution is a huge environmental concern on Trinidad and Tobago. Agricultural chemicals, industrial waste and raw sewage seep into groundwater and eventually the ocean. Reef damage is due mostly to pollution, as well as overuse.
Quarrying (both legal and illegal) and unsustainable development are rampant in this ecodestination. Deforestation and soil erosion are direct results. Sand erosion is a special concern on the northeast coast of Trinidad, where leatherback turtles lay eggs.
So-called 'wild meat' such as agouti, deer, wild hog, armadillo and iguana is a hugely popular delicacy in Trinidad and Tobago, and the local animal population is also threatened by rampant and unregulated hunting.
The Environmental Management Authority (www.ema.co.tt) is charged with monitoring environmental issues, but as in other developing countries, the pressure of ‘progress’ trumps preservation. Environment Tobago (www.environmenttobago.net) is an informative resource about issues facing Tobago.
Boot-shaped Trinidad was once part of the South American mainland. Over time a channel developed, separating Trinidad from present-day Venezuela. The connection to South America is noticeable in Trinidad’s Northern Range, a continuation of the Andes, and in its abundant oil and gas reserves, concentrated in southwestern Trinidad.
The Northern Range spreads east to west, forming a scenic backdrop to Port of Spain. The rest of the island is given to plains, undulating hills and mangrove swamps. Trinidad’s numerous rivers include the 50km Ortoire River, and the 40km Caroni River dumping into the Caroni Swamp.
Tobago, 19km northeast of Trinidad, has a central mountain range that reaches almost 610m at its highest point. Deep, fertile valleys run from the ridge down toward the coast, which is fringed with bays and beaches.
Because of its proximity to the South American continent, Trinidad and Tobago has the widest variety of plant and animal life in the Caribbean: some 460 species of birds, 600 species of butterfly, 70 kinds of reptiles and 100 types of mammals, including red howler monkeys, anteaters, ocelots, agouti and armadillos.
Plant life is equally diverse, with more than 700 orchid species and 1600 other types of flowering plants. Both islands have luxuriant rainforests, and Trinidad also features elfin forests, savannas and both freshwater and brackish mangrove swamps.
Trinidad and Tobago are excluded from many Caribbean birding books because of the sheer magnitude of additional species here – about 460 in total. Torn from Venezuela, these islands share the diversity of the South American mainland in their swamps, rainforests, ocean islets, lowland forests and savannas, and the birdwatching is some of the best in the Caribbean.
For references, try A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago by Richard Ffrench, which has good descriptions but limited plates; or Field Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago by Martyn Kenefyk, Robin Restall and Floyd Hayesm, which has a few more.
Trinidad and Tobago have a number of lovely accommodations at prime birding sites. These quiet and peaceful retreats connect you with savvy guides, and you can practically birdwatch from your room. Good bets include Pax Guest House and Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad; and Cuffie River Nature Retreat and Adventure Eco-Villas in Tobago.