Over the holidays, I went to Guyana in South America. However, after looking at the flights, I realized that the most efficient and cheapest way was to fly through Trinidad.
Since I had never been to Trinidad before, I decided to stay for 24 hours. I flew in via Miami on Christmas Eve and left in the afternoon on Christmas Day. It was an unusual time to be in a country, but I had to make do with the situation.
December 24, 2016: The Caribbean Tourists Don’t See
I arrived at the Miami Airport about 3 hours before my flight, expecting heavy traffic. Indeed it took me over an hour to check in. However, my flight ended up being delayed for 2 hours, so I got to really explore the airport.
Unlike every other Caribbean destination, the Port of Spain flight was not full of beach-going tourists. In fact, I was one of only 3 white people on the flight (it’s a gross generalization to assume that white people are tourists/NGO workers and non-white people are returning locals/visiting family, but in reality it ends up being fairly accurate). After chatting with a few people at the gate while charging my phone, I learned that basically everyone on this flight was headed home to see their families. Family is a key component of Trinidadian culture and Christmas is the most popular time to be with families.
The plane flight itself was uninteresting. What was surprising was the length of the flight- 4 hours. The distance from Miami to Trinidad is equivalent to the distance from Denver to Miami. When we landed, the flight attendant wished us a “wonderful fruitful Christmas”.
The immigration line took over an hour. There, I met yet another lady going back to see her family for Christmas. She was actually of Indian descent and was Hindu. Still, Christmas has been a major holiday for all Trinidadians so she too was going to have a Christmas dinner with her family. Trinidad’s most populous ethnicity is actually East Indians.
I then caught a taxi to town. Beforehand (as always), I asked the price of the taxi. The driver said $35, which was $5 more than the posted sign to my destination. After the other taxi drivers sided with him, I pulled out a map, showed them they were wrong and threatened to leave and bum a ride from someone else, the taxi dispatcher caved and sided with me. My driver stormed off to his car and I followed him.
While I avoided being scammed, I probably lost in the long run because I got the cold shoulder from my driver the whole way into town. I asked him how his day was and he said “shitty, mon”. He turned up his calypso Christmas music: “It’s Christmas time in the Ghetto” to the tune of Silver Bells.
After 10 miles on a divided highway, we eventually reached downtown Port of Spain. There were lots of really nice 10-20 story buildings. He dropped me off at my hostel on the north end of downtown in Victoria Square.
I struggled with the gate, but eventually made it into the janky two-story house where I was to stay the night. There, a heavyset lady wearing nothing but an apron welcomed me. Her Caribbean accent was so strong that it was hard to understand her, but I generally know the hostel welcome script, so I was fine.
At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a Venezuelan man named Ozzy who spoke great English. He translated everything that the lady below said and gave me some pointers on where to eat and walk around. The main bar street, Ariapita Avenue, was only about a 5-10 minute walk, but I was warned to watch out for tweakers in the first few blocks before reaching The Avenue. “Make sure to have a few dollars to give them in case you get held up. They’re mostly drug addicts and don’t want all your money” he reassured me.
Heeding this advice and aware of the fact that Trinidad’s murder rate is almost 7 times that of the US, I headed out without my cell phone and just $20 in cash with all but $3 in a more secure pocket. In retrospect, my precautions were probably unnecessary (spatial awareness and sobriety is the best way to stay safe), but it would really suck to be robbed on the first day of the trip.
On the side of the road was a lady making roti- essentially a burrito with Indian curry. The dough was handmade. I had a choice of fillings: mutton, goat, chicken, liver or chickpeas. I settled on the chicken. It was perhaps the most delicious thing I have ever had.
Further along Ariapita were many bars- reggae (not your parent’s Bob Marley) and Caribbean rap were blasting. I stopped in one for a Carib beer. At the bar I met a couple from San Francisco- the lady was from Trinidad and was back to visit family- and a white English man.
The English man actually moved to Trinidad for work. Trinidad has the highest GDP per capita of any country in Latin America or the Caribbean. Its economy is propelled by oil and manufacturing, so skilled foreign construction workers are needed. This guy said that while the beaches and jungle are very nice in Trinidad, the economy is not based on tourism whatsoever. There are no major beach resorts and everything is geared towards locals. This is a sharp contrast to the Bahamas, where the Atlantis resort alone contributes 11% of the country’s GDP and locals are banned by law from the casino.
On the way back to the hostel around 9, I stopped for doubles- a version of roti. These are basically tacos with Indian curry.
The Venezuelans were all hanging out at the hostel. We watched Harry Potter 7 Part 2 in Spanish, laughed a lot because Ozzy looked like Voldemort, danced to Prince Royce then drank some unlabeled liquor that tasted like aguadiente. I was going to go out with them for a little bit, but due to the combination of wanting to actually see the city in daylight, not totally trusting them, not wanting to risk getting robbed, and accidentally locking myself in my room and struggling for a hour to get free, I went to bed.
December 25, 2016: A Welcome Fruitful Christmas
Christmas morning was, as expected, a very quiet time in Port of Spain. Presumably, everyone was either asleep or hanging out with their families. Therefore, the streets were totally empty, save for a few trash sweepers. I walked from Victoria Square up through the neighborhoods of Woodbrook and St. James.
I passed a mall and then headed up a hill into a residential area. The houses were nice- especially by Caribbean standards. Many had really nice views.
After a long walk up a hill, I reached what my maps said was a pathway to Fort George, but ended up being blocked by a house. Instead, I climbed up to the roof of a house under construction and hung out there. Legs were hurting and I was sweaty, but it was worth it.
I then walked down and was chased by a pack of dogs and got called at a few times (I NEVER respond to street calls- I will only initiate conversations on the street).
Near the bottom of the hill is the Queen’s Park Savannah- a huge open field (like a square mile). The road around it is all one-way, which technically makes it the largest roundabout in the world.
I then walked around downtown Port of Spain. There were lots of very beautiful new buildings. It appeared that there was medical research and product development going on. The only blight was the Red House- the former parliament building, which was in ruins. The promised renovations look years away.
It was now around 11am, so I walked back to the hostel, checked out and continued to walk around with my backpack. I headed over to Independence Square- which is definitely more of a long pedestrian mall than a square.
Finally, I saw some semblance of street life. Reggae music started blasting from everywhere and people were walking around. A lot of people were carrying/rolling giant speakers around.
On Charlotte Street, I saw an outdoor market and mentally prepared myself for the dangers of walking down these streets as a tourist and tightened all the straps on my backpack. The outdoor market ran along the sidewalks with people selling produce and random toys while cars drove through the middle. It was busy but not crowded.
At one point, I was approached by a group of 3 teenagers. They asked if I wanted to take a selfie with them. Confused but alert, I said sure. They then “realized” that none of them had a phone and asked if I would pull mine out. Seeing the obvious trap, I ran away.
It was now almost time to head over to the airport. So I walked over to the water and checked out the shiny Parliament building before catching a cab at the Hyatt. This time the cab was about $15 AND I got a really nice driver who talked all about how great Trinidad.
The airport was nearly empty. The only place open on Christmas Day was the Church’s Chicken. I then went through security and into the empty departures hall to head to Guyana.
While I would not recommend Trinidad as a traditional tourist destination, it is a fine place for a short layover. It is refreshing to know that not every island in the Caribbean is for tourists.