Derrick, our garrulous tour guide, offers a biriba, a prickly looking pod he’s cut open to expose a pale and pulpy fruit, as well as some peer pressure.“What’s the matter?” he asks.“Don’t you want to live forever?”
Trinidad also has a fruit called the Stinking Toe, which makes his question a little more difficult to answer. But Derrick repeats this mantra several times while navigating a path from Port of Spain, the capital city of the Caribbean island duo of Trinidad and Tobago, to the Asa Wright Nature Center, a bird-filled retreat in the country’s northern rain forest.
Derrick is an enthusiastic ambassador for his country who believes its riches ought to be enjoyed daily, should one of those days be our last. He makes a number of generalizations about Trinidadians, many of which seem to hold true during a short stay. Chief among them is the country’s affinity for “liming,” which is essentially hanging out in the company of friends and alcohol.
“Liming is what we do, we love to lime,” he says. “It’s all a celebration. You work to lime. Why would you want to break that? We call that souring the lime.”
We pass a pitch where cricket is being played. “It’s like baseball but longer,” Derrick says.“The winner gets a lot of beer. But the loser gets beer too, so everybody wins.”
This is a culture of celebration. Trinidad and Tobago may in full revelry even outside of Carnival season.
Trinidad is unique in the Caribbean. The country sits near Venezuela and is too far south to be affected much by hurricanes. It also is largely unburdened by the sort of tourist traffic that results in sprawling resorts. Retreats are to be found, but the islands’ essence seems unaffected by tourism, making it a gem for those seeking a genuine Caribbean experience.
The islands also are deceptively large for looking so compact on a map. Splitting a week between the two doesn’t quite do them justice. But Asa Wright is a worthwhile stop. The 1,500-acre forest was once a cocoa and coffee plantation. Today it’s a magnificent birding destination full of hermits, hummingbirds and hawks, best visited with a knowledgeable guide. Should you desire to spot the elusive oilbird, you’ll have to stay overnight.
The Caroni Swamp is another nearby wildlife gem best seen around dusk when the brightly colored scarlet ibises fly to one small island to roost. The swamp tour also offers the opportunity to see sloths, caimans, crabs, fish and snakes. In fact visitors are advised not to fiddle with dangling sticks in case they turn out to be snakes.
All sorts of tour operators work out of Port of Spain, but the Members Only company run by Trinidad native Jesse James (that’s really his name) was top-shelf, with guides both knowledgeable and engaging. (James’ sister, who shuttled us to Caroni, was aghast at the idea of my family eating our last meal on the island at a hotel so she brought homemade saltfish and bake as an alternative.)
For two islands linked by government and guide books, Trinidad and Tobago are quite different. Trinidad is all extroverted energy, a seemingly unending celebration of life and culture. The pace in Tobago — accessible by frequent 25-minute plane rides or a two-plus hour ferry trip — is decidedly more laid back. Trinidad is about going out, Tobago about staying in. Which makes Tobago ideal for a quiet beach rental.