By Ginger Warder
Trinidad is vigilant about protecting its natural treasures, from the rainforest to the ancient reptiles that nest on Matura Beach.
When I was invited on an eco-tourism adventure trip to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, or 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 and separated from the continent when the volcanic plates shifted thousands of years ago.
Its unique ecological heritage and topographical diversity, which range 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 ecotourism 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.
Hiking the Rainforest
The two caramel-colored dogs dozed under a nearby tree, while the old man with the leathery skin sat in the shade of his covered patio, resting from his labors of the morning.
“I break for some food,” he said, smiling broadly and gesturing to his half-eaten lunch. The government pays him for access to the rainforest trails, which begin and end on his property, and along with his small crop of mangos and a few chickens, he does very well by Trinidadian standards.
Surprisingly, I didn’t see a goat tethered in the yard, as ubiquitous as the dusty dogs in this part of the world.
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, 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.
Sharing Healer’s Knowledge
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.
Saving the Sea Turtles
Later that day, we headed 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 one of the world’s largest nesting colonies and is protected by a group of concerned citizens called the Nature Seekers who have won more than seven ecotourism awards since their inception in 1990.
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.
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, the mama turtle was still in the process of laying the clutch. Our Nature Seeker guide told us that during the process of laying the eggs, the turtles are in a trance-like state, and even the attack of a predator won’t deter them from the task at hand.
Once finished, the huge turtle (they can get up to 800 pounds) 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 Global Positioning System tells them it’s time to return to Matura to lay the next clutch.
During the peak laying season, it’s possible to see as many as 150 of these ancient reptiles repeat this ritual in one evening.
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, this verdant and still untamed island seduced and surprised us, and we all wholeheartedly agreed with the TT motto “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints”.
American Airlines flies direct from Miami to Piarco International Airport in Port of Spain.
For travel information go to VisitTNT.com.