Eastern Shore: Trinidad’s dramatic east coast

Trinidad’s long east coast, stretching from Galera to Galeota, offers miles upon miles of sandy bays, picturesque villages, and vistas of coconut trees. And Helen Shair-Singh discovers you can explore it all in a day — pausing to take in the delights of scenery, conversation, browsing at local markets, and old-fashioned ice-cream

  • Enjoying a breezy day at Manzanilla Bay. Photograph by Aaron Richards
  • The road to Mayaro is lined with twisting coconut trees. Photograph by Helen Shair-Singh
  • Galeota Point, at Trinidad’s south-eastern tip. Photograph by Helen Shair-Singh
  • Produce for sale at the Mayaro market. Photograph by MEP publishers
  • Churning coconut ice-cream the old-fashioned way. Photograph by MEP publishers
  • Enjoying the Balandra River where it empties into the sea. Photograph by MEP publishers
  • Dusk at Point Galera. Photograph by Chris Anderson
  • A fisherman casts his line into the pounding surf at Trinidad’s Point Galera. Photograph by Chris Anderson
  • Trinidad map – east coast

From Point Galera, the furthest tip of north-east Trinidad, to Galeota Point, the last outcrop to the south-east, the island’s east coast stretches for sixty-seven miles, as the seagull flies. The two points are as different as they are far apart — one as rugged and windswept as the other is idyllic and serene — but strangely enough were both given the same name at separate times.

“Galea” was the name originally given to Galeota by Christopher Columbus, according to some accounts. But after the British takeover of Trinidad in 1797, Captain Frederick Mallet of the Royal Engineers changed Punta de Galea to Galeota Point on official charts. Sometime thereafter, “Galera” — another slightly corrupted version of the same word — was then accidently given to the northeastern tip. By who is unknown, but it stuck — and it remains Point Galera to this day.

When I set off on a whimsical exploration of what lies between these two east coast landmarks, I decide to start in the south and work my way north. Galeota is the gateway for a significant portion of Trinidad and Tobago’s offshore natural oil and gas reserves, the country’s socio-economic foundation. There is no public access to the point itself, except by sea — the surrounding land is guarded by the oil company which holds the lease, and vast storage tanks sit not far from the shore. But nearby I pass through Trinidad’s south-easternmost settlement, Guayaguayare. Although still primarily a sleepy fishing village, it has seen the inevitable rise in commercial activity over the years, because of the major role it plays in the petroleum industry.

All sleepiness vanishes when the holidays come around, though. This is a favourite beach destination, for its mostly placid waters and gentle, balmy breezes, and many locals own beachhouses here, especially along Mayaro Bay, the longest beach in Trinidad — eleven miles from south to north, it looks endless. At Easter time in particular, Trinis arrive in their hordes, with families, friends, and copious amounts of food and alcohol. Then Guayaguyare comes alive, with dawn-to-dusk crowds of sea- and sunbathers, football and cricket games, hunting for blue crabs and “chip-chip” (a tiny mollusk delicacy) — plus barbecues, parties, and limes that go on all night. An old-timer, sitting at one of the many rumshops that dot the main road, tells me the bars here open before the shops. After the holidays, the fishermen get their beaches back, to pull up their seines in blissful pre-dawn peace, and the village settles back down to its laid-back routine.

Mayaro — a centuries-old Amerindian word — is named for the now nonexistent maya plant that used to grow here in profusion. It covers both the bay and the several small villages huddled along it, and their hub is the junction of the Naparima-Mayaro-Guayaguayare roads, a beehive of constant activity. The market on the corner sells practically everything: here you can get not only locally grown vegetables and fruit and lots of other tantalising local treats, but also fresh meat, cooking pots, household utensils, flip-flops, and toys. There’s also a supermarket, a pharmacy, and some popular fast food outlets. Jessica Mohammed, a market vendor who has followed in her mother’s footsteps, tells me she’s seen a lot of change in the area in her lifetime. She shows me where a big housing development is under construction, and where a new fire station and library are going up. She’s happy to see her hometown progress, but admits to some wariness about the inevitable changes to the community.

Most visitors focus on Mayaro’s alluring beachscape, but there are some interesting historic sites here as well. Edric Connor Park is named for the pioneering stage and screen actor, who was born in Mayaro but made his career in Britain. (Some trivia for football fans: among numerous other accomplishments, Connor also recorded the first Manchester United Football Club song, “The Manchester United Calypso”.) He and his wife Pearl also set up the Negro Theatre Workshop, one of the UK’s first black theatre groups. Not far away, you can find the home of the late, celebrated disabled artist Edwin Hingwan (albeit in an advanced state of disrepair), and the historic old post office building, once earmarked to become a museum but also now in a dilapidated state.

Driving north, I come to Point Radix, the rocky headland that separates Mayaro from Manzanilla Bay, with its miles and miles of coconut palms twisted by the wind off the sea. The Nariva River empties into the sea here, and the central stretch of beach — the Cocal sand spit — acts as a barrier, impounding the river and creating the Nariva Swamp. Trinidad and Tobago’s largest freshwater wetland, this is home to the endangered West Indian manatee, the blue-and-gold-macaw, and hundreds more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish.

The Nariva Swamp’s thirty-two square miles of freshwater swamp combines four major wetland types: mangrove swamp forest, palm forest, swamp wood, and freshwater marsh. Thanks to this diversity, it’s designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. At its heart is the Bush Bush Wildlife Reserve, a small, sandy, forested island that lies within the swamp. The dense, towering rainforest canopy — including giant silk-cotton trees — blots out the sun, and huge water lilies grace the waterway. It’s a wonder to behold, but you need a permit to visit, and access is by boat only.

Meandering on, I come upon a humble shack at the Manzanilla–Plum Mitan junction, outside of which sits an ancient relic: a hand-turned wooden ice cream pail. I stop and chat with the owner, Albert Phillip, savouring some of his truly delicious homemade coconut ice cream. Phillip has been selling his ice cream for over twenty-five years in this very spot. Although none of his children seems likely to continue the tradition, he hopes that someone somewhere will see fit to carry on his legacy.

To head north from Manzanilla requires a detour inland to Sangre Grande, a lively and bustling market town, with roadside stands selling every edible thing you can possibly imagine. Every other building is either a clothing store or a bar, and there’s nothing here to remind you that the name — Spanish for “big blood” — marks a deadly long-ago massacre.

Here I turn back towards the coast on the Toco Main Road. I drive past peaceful Matura Bay, one of the best places in the world to see magnificent leatherback sea turtles as they come up to the beach to lay their precious eggs. These ancient sea creatures, who date back to the time of the dinosaurs and can be considered living relics themselves, are now in danger of extinction at the hands of their number-one predator: man. Trinidad is one of the most important nesting sites in the world for the gentle giants (leatherbacks can grow to more than six feet in length and weigh up to two thousand pounds). Scientists estimate that approximately twenty per cent of the world’s leatherback population is of Trinidadian ancestry — but only one in a thousand hatchlings survives to return to nest at its ancestral beach.

Past Matura, I come to the small seaside communities of Salybia and Rampanalgas, where gusty breezes and rocky, picturesque coastlines remind me I’m now on the opposite end of the island from low-lying Mayaro. I pass by holiday crowds enjoying the warm sands and cool waters of Balandra Bay. The mouth of the river, where it empties into the bay, makes an idyllic spot for swimming, or just basking half-submerged with a cold drink. The main road also takes me right alongside ruggedly dramatic Guayamara Beach. It’s definitely not for swimming, but a perfect spot to capture some awe-inspiring seascape images.

As we enter Toco, I’m nearing the end of my journey. I’ve now hit the north-easternmost village on the island. Tobago lies just twenty-two miles away, across the waves, making Toco the closest point to the sister island. This is the where the Caribbean Sea collides with the much bigger Atlantic Ocean, making it a very popular spot for surfers. The amazing-trinidad-vacations.com website describes the Toco beachscape perfectly: “It is the domain of hidden coves, diminutive bays, and seldom trod beaches, where every curve in the road is likely to reveal another opportunity for you to capture stunning tropical beach pictures.” My camera agrees.

Striking off towards my final destination, I pass by one of the most popular beaches of them all, at Salybia Bay. With a shady swathe of coral sand, and a fringing reef that provides great waves for surfers and a calmer swimming area close to shore, Salybia is crowded almost every weekend, and an incredibly popular camping site at Easter, when the population swells with thousands of holidaymakers.

Now Point Galera is just ahead: a stunning cliff upon which sits a proud lighthouse, nearly 150 years old and still fulfilling its duty of guiding ships through the perilous waters below. Recently renamed in honour of Olympic gold medalist Keshorn Walcott — a Toco son — the lighthouse faces the full force of the Trade Winds. Below is a bluff known as Fishing Rock, and the sea that surrounds it is a constant swirling turbulence, crested by angry white foam, slamming with all its might into the surrounding rocks, spraying salty mist high into the heavens. It is from these cliffs that Trinidad’s indigenous Carib warriors chose to hurl themselves into the sea, rather than suffer further Spanish oppression after the 1699 Arena Uprising.

The lighthouse was built in 1867, but not opened until 1897, in time for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubliee. It’s a popular hanging-out spot for locals and visitors, and a simple park and picnic area have been laid out around it. Seventy feet high, the lighthouse was originally equipped with a kerosene lamp that shone through a revolving lens. It was remodeled in the 1950s with an electric bulb. That beacon, which blinks six seconds on, six seconds off, is visible through a radius of sixteen nautical miles. Clint Williams, who has been the lighthouse keeper for thirteen years, generously allowed me the rare privilege of climbing the eighty steep metal steps to the top, where I emerged (stomach-clenchingly) high above the crowds. I was allowed to stay only a moment, but it was enough to take in the incredibly beautiful vista that unfolded before me, as if in slow motion.

I forgot to breathe in that moment — in the gathering dusk of an exhausting but exhilarating day. All I could manage was a feeling of intense gratitude.


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