First Impression: Get Me Outta Here!
I’ve never been rattled my first hour in any country as much I was in Trinidad. After the first hour exploring the capital of Port of Spain, I was ready to go home. Screw this place. Luckily, things got a lot better, but my first impression of Trinidad was anything but positive.
I’d landed and checked-in to my hotel before sundown, so I thought I’d squeeze what little daylight was left for a walk downtown. Here’s where I went wrong: Trinidad…I pictured calypso bars, steel drums and photo ops with parrots downtown, right? I mean, what else do these islands offer for tourists on their main drag? Wouldn’t there be an endless supply of daiquiri bars spewing out Jimmy Buffet tunes, maybe a Hard Rock Café and gift shops selling hammocks and straw hats? Well this is exactly where I’d gone wrong. Downtown Port of Spain was nothing like I imagined, or maybe I just took a wrong turn, but it only took minutes exploring the streets of downtown for me to wanna get the hell outta there, and fast!
I used the map the hotel gave me to get downtown, but for some reason, most places were closed and sealed up tight. Metal gates were rolled down over storefronts, I didn’t see any bars or restaurants, and all of the sudden my surroundings looked more like the industrial part of town. I must have taken a wrong turn.
Minutes later I was approached by a guy who didn’t look too friendly–he was either homeless, or on drugs, or both; but he came at me aggressively with a loud and threatening, “HEY!” In those situations, the thing to do is just walk on, and not even look at the person. 99 times out of 100 just ignoring a panhandler or street person works well–but once you stop or even acknowledge them, it gives them an open to bother you. Most problems I’ve had were due to me stopping and conversing with strangers on the street. This may sound cold to the inexperienced traveler, but you learn this quickly; usually it’s the only way to avoid being accosted: stay in your bubble. But it didn’t work this time, and instead angered the man, who started tailing me. At this point, I crossed the street, and he followed, right behind me, now shouting at me. I continued to pay no attention, but now he was yelling threats at me, and calling me a racist. The guy really had me spooked, and looked like the kind of vagrant that would have a razor blade on him. I walked faster, and he picked up his pace too. There wasn’t a soul in sight and I was worried I’d have to fight this guy. Now I was literally jogging, and he was too. What did he want from me?
Finally, and just in time, I ducked into a private function at a restaurant. It was the first open business I’d come upon, and I didn’t care that there was a private party going on. Apparently someone named “Bob” was retiring–I saw the banner and balloons. In a sort of Ferris Bueller moment (remember, at the end of the movie where he is trying to beat his parents to the house by running through his neighbors’ houses?), I ran right in, slipping between guests holding glasses of wine, and made my way to the middle of a group of people eating hors d’oeuvres. Dammit, I was here to celebrate Bob’s retirement! I hung out for a bit until I saw no sign of my crackhead stalker, then carefully exited the party, eyes peeled for my would-be attacker.
I just wanted to get back to my hotel, back to safety–the light was disappearing fast–but there was no sign of any taxis, anywhere! Not a one! I finally decided I’d just walk back–I had no other choice, and hot-footed it back to my hotel as quickly as I could, hoping I wouldn’t run my aggressor or any other unsavory characters on the way back. I still had yet to see any Tiki-Bars or gift shops. What is this place?
In all fairness, I will admit, maybe I did take a wrong turn. Maybe there is indeed a cool and fun area of Port of Spain, and I just missed it. I was naive and didn’t do proper research, so the blame does lie on me, although after the fact, my Googling and talking to Trini experts confirmed that Port of Spain is indeed a dangerous city. I guess it deserves its initials of P.O.S. right? No offense to my Trini readers…I promise I had a great time later, please read on.
Second Day’s a Charm
The next day I actually had a blast! I figured wandering on my own was out the window, so I jumped online and called a car company who’d arrange some tours of the island. There was a lot of awesome stuff to see, and none of it had to do with downtown Port of Spain, so I was into it!
The first stop was Maracas Beach, where I had just a wonderful afternoon. The highlight of the visit was trying Trinidad’s world famous Bake and Shark sandwich. This is seriously my favorite sandwich in the world, ever. Breaded shark meat, a popover-type bread, and all the fixins. Richard’s is the most famous, but there are a handful of stands at Maracas. This is not an exaggeration: I’ve never loved a sandwich as much as the Bake and Shark. I washed it down with a Carib beer…oooh weeee! The sandwich alone made me forgive the horrible experience the day before.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: It’s the toppings that really make the Bake and Shark. Whatever you do, find the mango chutney and add it to your sandwich. Taste explosion! Not every stand features the mango chutney, so do some intel before you order! You will thank me!
It could have been just the perfect weather/tide/swell, etc., but that afternoon at Maracas, the water and waves were absolutely ideal for my favorite sport of boogie boarding. In fact, had we been closer to a Wal-Mart, I’d have had my driver take me to get a board. The waves were absolutely perfect. So good, in fact, that I ended up paying a kid $20 to rent her boogie board. The waves were perfectly sized, perfectly timed, and so easy to catch–I’d never experienced better waves in my life. The sandwich, the waves…I’m glad I didn’t give up on Trinidad!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Bring a boogie board to Maracas!
Naughty by Nature
The next day was filled with all things nature! First, a trip into the hills to explore the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Owned by a non-profit trust, the park is one of the top bird watching spots in the Caribbean; a total of 159 species of birds have been recorded there. The nature center is on 270 acres and includes a main estate house with inn and restaurant serving local dishes.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If time permits, stay a night at the center. It’s main house is something out of an Indiana Jones movie!
I participated in a cool nature walk, and even tried termites. Yup, I ate them…right off the tree!
The Bird is the Word
Before dark, I had time for a little boat trip to explore the mangroves. It was a nice, chill boat cruise, where I saw monkeys in the trees before getting to the best part: I got to watch those giant, bright red flocks of Scarlet Ibis birds come home to their resting place for the night. This flight is apparently right on time every night, where thousands of these bright, fluorescent beauties move from one part of the forest to another. Sounds boring, but seeing it in person was a sight I’ll never forget.
Coming Back for Seconds
I have an overnight layover in Port of Spain quickly approaching. While I won’t head downtown, I will try my best to find another Bake and Shark joint. I won’t have time to get to Maracas by sundown, so I’ll researching my choices in town. Wish me luck!
Trinidad, Take Two!
I enjoyed reading all the comments on Facebook from readers regarding my first trip to Trinidad. Almost all of them were warm–many even apologetic–with friendly Trinis giving me explanations of what might of happened, and lots of invitations to come back, with suggestions on where to go and what to do on my next visit. I was pretty overwhelmed with the amount of love I received from a place I wrote a less-than-stellar review about. And finally, as promised, I returned!
I was scheduling a flight to see my very last country in the Americas: St. Vincent and the Grenadines…and getting there–even from Florida of all places–was no easy task. They’ve since introduced a direct flight from Miami to SVD–that would’ve been perfect for this trip–but this simply wasn’t an option in November of 2018.
How crazy that I would be unable to make it from Orlando, Florida to St. Vincent without an overnight layover! That seemed ridiculous to me: not being able to arrive on a Caribbean island from Florida in the same day? Whatever. I wasn’t going to let that stop me…I had just one country in the Americas left, I had to see St. Vincent at any cost!
My choices were an overnight in either Barbados or Trinidad, and what a great reason to give Port of Spain another chance. I didn’t even need to flip a coin…Trinidad it was!
Friends…How Many of us Have Them?
I was lucky this time–this particular trip came with guides…who happened to also be friends! Nathan and Caroline were old friends from Tucson now living and working in Port of Spain. What were the chances?! They offered to show me around, take me to dinner, and keep me safe. I’m in!
I’d land in Port of Spain at 4PM and have to be back on a plane for St. Vincent the next morning at 5:45AM. I booked the Holiday Inn right next to the airport. I’d have to be smart about my time here: lots to do and I wanted to at least attempt to get a decent’s night sleep to bat.
By 6:15 I was in a car that Caroline called for me (how fancy), heading to the Hilton to meet my hosts for the night. We had a nice snack near the pool and apparently I’m officially a light-weight because I got a little tipsy off my one rum punch. Hey, the fun had began!
After drinks and snacks, Nathan and Caroline drove us to Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant field–that I had seen last time–that, tonight, offered a few vendors selling food. We were in search of the elusive Bake and Shark, which, while usually is only found at Maracas, can sometimes be seen elsewhere. Bad News Bears, as we didn’t see anyone selling my favorite sandwich in the entire world. But the bright side was that I tried a local dish called “doubles,” which was absolutely fantastic! Doubles consist of deliciously spiced fried bread called bara, topped with a spicy chickpea curry and is known as the ultimate Trinidadian street food. It was greasy, spicy, super-messy and delicious. I was sad we struck out on Bake and Shark, but happy to have had a new Trini taste experience. But we wouldn’t give up on the Bake and Shark just yet.
Hang a Left, I Mean RIGHT!!!
What happened next made me chuckle. Remember “the wrong street” I turned down, during my first trip into town on foot? The street that took me into the industrial and desolate bowels of Port of Spain, where I got threatened and chased down my a crackhead, with no one in sight to help? Turned out if I simply would have made a right turn on Ariapita Avenue instead of the left that I took, I actually would’ve run into that string of bars, restaurants and well-lit, friendly hang-out places! That one wrong turn back in 2014 made me dislike Trinidad, an unfair assessment in hindsight. It’s crazy how just one wrong turn can change the vibe of an entire trip.
But yeah, here we were, in the thick of the nighttime party that was Ariapita Avenue. We had a few restaurants to choose from, but sadly, no Bake and Shark here either. We’d settle for gyros at Yousef’s, and like the doubles, they too were awesome. The three of us sat on the street corner and enjoyed our dinners, with no menacing hobos bothering us this time. The quesadilla and rum punch at the Hilton, doubles at the park…and now a giant gyro. I was stuffed!
It was getting late–at least for an old guy like me with an early flight the next morning–but we had one more stop. It was the beginning of the big Hindu holiday, Divali, and this was quite a big deal in Trinidad. We drove to a parking lot to watch the pre-Divali fireworks show, and it was impressive. I grew up on Disneyland fireworks, so it’s not easy to impress me, but the Trinis definitely gave Disney some competition.
The ride back to the hotel took forever, because just like Disneyland, everyone leaves at the same time, immediately after the fireworks. Super gridlock! But that was fine; I had great company the whole way back. Special thanks to Nathan and Caroline for taking time off to show me what a fun night in Port of Spain feels like. It was worth the wait!
I was glad I gave Port of Spain another chance. I reckon I’ll come again, too. I need some Bake and Shark in my life and I also want to see Tobago. And eat a pie. And maybe another gyro,
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