Don Pedro de la Moneda probably wouldn’t recognise it. And it isn’t really what I was anticipating. A Caribbean city that bears the moniker Port of Spain conjures a certain romantic image in the mind of the unprepared traveller: Hispanic churches, low-slung stucco houses, dusty plazas – the sort of place de la Moneda called home when, as governor, he made Port of Spain the capital of colonial Trinidad in 1757.
Instead, as I stand at the waterfront where galleons once docked after the long voyage from Europe, I’m transfixed by the towers of the International Finance Center – twin banking colossi of impressive height. Behind, a crane pecks at another construction site. A people carrier, windows shaded, stops at the Hyatt Regency. Four men, suited, get out. None of them is Barack Obama – but the idea is not as crazy as it sounds. The US President was at the hotel in April, for the Summit of the Americas. In November, the Queen will follow, opening the Commonwealth Heads of Government powwow.
Trinidad is ambitious. Dreams of a future as a financial beast are rife. New buildings are going up, funded by an economy awash with oil and gas money. The names on the map – Carapichaima, Point Fortin, Chatham North, Manzanilla – talk of mixed Amerindian, French, British and Spanish influences, a soupy past befitting an island that straddles the crossroads between the Caribbean and South America (a mere seven miles separate it from Venezuela). But much of Port of Spain bellows ‘21st century’.
In a sense, this seems at odds with the received Western view of laid-back Caribbean life. But Port of Spain – a conurbation 15 miles across – is still a defiantly Caribbean city.
So much is obvious when the West Indies cricket team is playing at the Queen’s Park Oval, the largest Test arena in the region. Things step up another gear for Carnival, the annual pre-Lent rainbow of costume and calypso, easily a match for its famous siblings in Rio and New Orleans. And there is always noise and excitement in the many restaurants on Ariapita Avenue.
Not that Trinidad is all urban hustle. Far from it. This is an island of 1,800 square miles, much of it mountainous, forested and marshy, that lends itself to eco adventure – anything from trekking to birdwatching. In the east, the vast Nariva Swamp is home to 200 types of bird, while its waters shelter the endangered West Indian manatee. In the treetops, red howler and capuchin monkeys call.
The Central Range – one of two major mountain clusters – does its bit, hosting a daily dusk showpiece as one million bats emerge from the Tamana Cave. But the scene-stealer is the Northern Range, a shoulder of rock that spans the upper stretches of the island. Here, bird-loving tourists can indulge their fancy at the Asa Wright Nature Centre (159 varieties, including hummingbirds, hawks and toucans) – although, for a true taste of untouched Trinidad, you need to hike. The territory between the coastal outpost of Blanchisseuse and the inland village of Brasso Seco is pristine rainforest (ideally seen with a guide). The reward at the end of the path is Matelot Beach, where, between March and June, you can watch leatherback turtles lay their eggs in the sand.
The north coast is rich in such beauty spots. Maracas Beach – reached via a winding one-hour drive from Port of Spain – is a real favourite. On a blazing Sunday, I queue with the locals at one of the Shark N Bake huts, waiting to try this regional speciality – flaky (yes) shark meat packed into doughy fried bread – as the sun hammers down.
Eventually, I escape the heat, scuttling into the mountains and hiding at the Mount St Benedict monastery, where the Pax Guest House serves afternoon tea at 800ft. The view, inevitably, is spectacular. I spend ten minutes gazing west, trying to make out Venezuela, but the continent next door is lost in the haze. No matter. The scenery at my feet is ready compensation. As with its economy, Trinidad can do fine by itself.