Everything you need to know in this beginner’s guide to backpacking in Trinidad and Tobago.
When Lonely Planet says “No one will hold your hand” in Trinidad and Tobago, you know this Caribbean country is a bit on the unexpected side. But as Christopher Columbus discovered when his fleet landed on these shores over 520 years ago, breaking expectations can be the start of a grand adventure.
Though Trinidad & Tobago has one of the most industrialised economies in the region, it’s physical environments remain under-visited and (in the opinion of anyone who’s been here) under-appreciated.
Things To Know When Backpacking In Trinidad And Tobago
Traveling the islands requires a little extra understanding and attention, but don’t let it scare you away! Here’s everything you need to know about backpacking in Trinidad and Tobago (and here’s why it should be the first Caribbean country you visit):
Language in Trinidad And Tobago
Though the country sits just a few miles off the coast of Venezuela, its official language is English. This version is spoken with one of the easiest-to-understand accents in the Caribbean – or so the natives brag.
And if you ask, they’ll proudly list the many second languages spoken on their cosmopolitan island, so it doesn’t hurt to know a few scraps of Spanish, Hindi or French.
Trinidad and Tobago Tip
Creole = a language spoken by both indigenous peoples and immigrants; Trinidad and Tobago each have distinctive versions of Creole, which originally developed as a combination of the country’s many linguistic influences.
Not to be confused with Carib = a name given to the indigenous peoples of the islands, of which there are multiple ethnic communities.
Staying Healthy While Backpacking In Trinidad And Tobago
In the capital, Port of Spain, chlorine makes the tap water potable; but until your intestines adjust, bottled or filtered drinking water is recommended. Many accommodations stock a water cooler for guests.
Supermarkets in the biggest population centers, like Port of Spain, San Fernando and Scarborough, sell produce that should be safe to eat.
Roadside market stalls tend to be bright and clean, but if you’re worried about stomach bugs, buy fruit and vegetables you can peal or cook first.
The country has a low rate of reported malaria or Zika, but bug spray is still a must. For high-quantity DEET repellent, pre-purchase at least one bottle in your home country. Locals swear by citronella oil, which is widely available, too.
Dial 811 for the islands’ medical response team and ambulance. Visitors may be admitted to one of several public hospitals, but the private St. Claire Medical Centre (Port of Spain) is popular with tourists.
Be aware that any private healthcare center often asks for a deposit or full payment outright, prior to treatment.
Trinidad and Tobago Tip
Keep your eyes open for locally grown specialties that are best cooked or peeled: plantains (tasty plain or fried), sopadillo (for your sweet tooth), eddo and dasheen (hearty root vegetables), and cocoa pods (growing wild in many forest areas).
Local Currency And ATMs
Before you start counting “Trinis” (the national currency), be aware that these islands don’t run on a free-for-all barter system. You should be offered the same price as a native for meals, accommodation and shop items.
While many websites suggest carrying both U.S. dollars and Trinidad & Tobago dollars, the average street food seller or small grocer won’t take anything other than local cash.
Scotia Bank, Royal Bank of Canada and Republic Bank are a few of the most common branch and ATM services around Trinidad and Tobago. Cash machines can be found in the airport, shopping centers and main thoroughfares.
Trinidad and Tobago Tip
It might sound counter-intuitive, but enter the country with a bit of extra hidden cash. Some ATMS don’t accept PIN codes; others only release bills in super small denominations. Some won’t accept American Express cards. Here’s where it’s handy to have a few U.S. dollars.
Food And Accommodation In Trinidad And Tobago
If you avoid international chains when you travel, you’ll quickly embrace Trinidad and Tobago’s mom-and-pop style eateries – many of which seem to serve meals straight out the front door. Think chalkboard menus and plastic furniture.
Meals in a restaurant run from $150 TTD upward, often double or triple the cost of food at some roadside joint.
Want a cheap and overwhelmingly Trinibagoian dinner experience? Eat at a neighborhood night market. The Savannah, Port of Spain’s central park, is the scene of Friday and Saturday inexpensive food stalls, music and social bonding.
Trinidad and Tobago Tip
Carib Brewery, which produces the Stag and Carib beers you can buy everywhere for $10 or $11 TTD, now provides a small refund when you return the bottle. To promote recycling, the company will pay you .30 cents for every empty you bring back to a grocery store or bar.
Good lucking finding a traditional hostel here; instead, enjoy the basic comforts of a small guesthouse. The well-established houses are listed online, but limited to a few key places around the country. Slightly larger but still locally operated hotels (10-20 rooms) in Tobago can be booked via a collective tourism site, or in-person.
Private room guest house prices begin around $200 TTD per night, slightly less for dorms. If you upgrade to a hotel, expect to pay anywhere from $500 TTD for a local place, to $1350 TTD for an international resort.
Trinidad and Tobago Tip: This is one of the few countries where you should consider booking in advance – especially during January and February, when prices increase for the Carnival season.
Transport In Trinidad And Tobago
It seems like almost any vehicle on the road will (for a small fee) take you where you want to go. While tickets can be pre-purchased for the government’s large buses, maxi taxies (small white buses with stripes indicating their route), taxis and private hire cars all carry people from A to B.
Finding a taxi can be hard, as they’re marked with an ‘H’ license plate inside city limits, but unmarked in rural areas. Always clarify your route and rate with the driver before you get in the car, and have cash ready.
Hand gestures indicate where a passenger by the side of the road wants to go; if you stick your thumb out, you’re actually asking to travel a very long distance. Catch a short lift somewhere by sticking your arm out and pointing your forefinger downward.
To get between the two islands, hop a fast ferry for the three-hour journey from Port of Spain, Trinidad to Scarborough, Tobago. Caribbean Airlines runs 12 daily flights from Piarco International to Crown Point Airport.
Trinidad and Tobago Tip
Picture the zooming madness of a Southeast Asian city, swap the scooters for people on foot, and send the police out with lights flashing 24/7 (simply because they never turn them off): this is the scene for anyone brave enough to rent a car.
If you’re still up to the challenge, vehicles can be rented at Piarco and Crown Point Airports – but you must be 25 to drive one here.
Safety In Trinidad And Tobago
This is a tricky one, because the few online resources for Trinidad and Tobago are a disturbing and (according to Trinibagonians) unfair representation of actual tourism. They’ll tell you that high crime rates and graphic stories actually stem from the drug scene and shock-mouth media.
Common sense remains the best way to stay safe: travel with another person when possible, avoid dark and isolated places at night, trust your gut when getting into unofficial taxis.
If you look like a foreigner, most Trinibagoans won’t wait for an invite, but ask if you need help, directions or an afternoon snack. Just look twice when you cross the road, as locals use their arms more often than their blinkers to indicate changes in direction.
While privately licensed vehicles, called “PH”, may stop and offer you a lift, they’ve been tied to tourist theft in the past. Look that H on the license plate to confirm it’s a registered taxi.
When renting a vehicle, don’t leave anything important inside the car unattended, and always park in public view. Auto theft is a huge problem, and many of the islands’ violent crimes begin as break-ins. If you catch someone breaking into your car, it’s better to get away and call the police, rather than face them and risk an attack on your person.
Previous local scams include filching credit card from the cash machine; look for signs of ATM tampering, don’t talk to anyone while you take out cash and cover your hand when entering a pin code.
Lucky for both citizens and visitors, Trinidad and Tobago lies outside the hurricane corridor of the Atlantic. If you’re still concerned, time your visit around the June – November storm season; you’ll get afternoon showers, but no natural disaster.
Top Adventure Activities In Trinidad And Tobago
There are a lot of amazing things to do in Trinidad and Tobago, and many of them are adventurous activities!
While dynamite fishing, poorly managed tourism and agricultural run-off have devastated reef life in other developing countries, Trinidad and Tobago still retains vibrant underwater worlds for snorkelling and diving.
You can master a PADI license or add a few more sites to your dive log off both islands, as operators combine both Trinidad and Tobago spots into their diving itinerary. Off Trinidad, all you really need is an Open Water certification. But because the country’s known as the “Drift Diving Capital of The Caribbean”, it’s worth checking into a Drift Dive license, too.
The sunken MV Maverick ferry makes for a cool dive, with schools of barracuda, rays and sea turtles now it’s only passengers. The Sisters, a world-famous set of seafloor pinnacles off Tobago, is worth ticking off the Bucket List. Kariwak Reef makes a gentle introduction to drift diving, but an even better spot for night dives.
Stand Up Paddleboarding
You have to try the stand up paddleboarding through bioluminescence! Anyone who’s ever watched The Beach will remember those enchanting bioluminescent water scenes; here’s your chance to experience the natural phenomenon on a stand up paddle or kayak.
SUP Tobago runs small group tours through the glowing algae, from Pigeon Point to Bon Accord Lagoon. With a guide ahead and a glow stick in hand, spend two hours out on the water, all gear provided. If you’ve never tried either kayak or SUP before, the folks at Radical Sports Tabago will let you practice for half an hour before the tour starts.
If going alone is more your thing, you can enter Pigeon Point independently: the beach is privately owned and charges a $20 TTD entrance fee before 5:00pm. Radical Sports Tobago does offer individual gear hire – but because they have a relationship with SUP Tobago, you might rub a few locals the wrong way by insisting on a solo mission.
Hailed as one of Trinidad and Tobago’s best local and eco-sustainable tourism ventures, mountain biking has become a new draw for adventure-seekers. Several tour and rental companies provide for trails in Tobago, while Trinidad’s expanding network of routes in the Northern Range will challenge a seasoned cyclist.
Both mid- and advanced-level tracks stretch out from Chaguaramas, near Trinidad’s northwest trip. You can park in the lot of the nearby Chaguaramas Golf Course and start out from there, as trails should be marked with color ribbons.
Be aware that nature’s elements are out to slow your wheels: paths will be muddy (or can disappear) after a rain shower, and jungle growth constantly covers up the man-made trails. But catching a glimpse of a Capuchin Monkey or Emperor Butterfly is worth the effort!
For a guide and gear, connect with Paria Springs Community. Guide Courtenay Rooks is one of the men behind Trinidad’s mountain biking scene, and he leads day rides through the area.
Swimming & Trekking Guanapo Gorge
You’re likely to find more locals than foreigners on your way up to the pools, a set of clear swimming holes formed in the dramatic rock lane of Guanapo Gorge.
Just getting to the trail head requires some work: you’ll have to maxi taxi or bus to the town of Arima, and then find a lift with someone who knows the rugged dirt road up into the Northern Range. Driving your own vehicle is not recommended, because the trail head gets very little traffic and is a vulnerable spot for theft.
If you can reach the trail head, you’ll hike about one hour through rainforest. The trail should intersect with Guanapo River, which you then follow until you find the first swimming spot. Wear water shoes with a good tread, and bring a dry bag – wet rocks, sudden rainfall and down-river debris can make this a very challenging trip.
Because the gorge transforms from a calm river to a rushing flood after a rainfall, several local guides take visitors up the river. Trinibagonian style, this just means you get native commentary and assistance through some of the more difficult passages (no busloads of tourists here). If interested in going with a local, ask your guesthouse for names.