Bake & Shark, Leatherbacks, and Backpacks: Adventures in Trinidad & Tobago

We love Wisconsin, and we love winter, but – truth be told – somewhere around February we get a little (how should we say this?) restless. By February, winter has gone on maybe two weeks too long. We’ve put on long-underwear a few too many times, and slogged through slushy black snowdrifts a little too often. Taking a break from winter in February makes things go a lot better for us. Janice often goes to Florida, Steve mostly takes long Southern bouldering tours, and last year Brad went to Puerto Rico. None of us were this lucky, this year. So we decided to live vicariously through our friend Shannon Walton, who went to Trinidad and Tobago. We’re still green about it, but reading this helps, a bit. Enjoy…

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I first met Courtenay Rooks while climbing up ice covered, freezing cold waterfalls in Quebec. While sitting on granite rocks in a shaded gorge wearing soaking wetsuits on a chilly October day, he told me that he takes folks on similar adventures as part of his eco-adventure tours in Trinidad and Tobago, where it’s – of course – tropically warm. Over the next few days climbing via ferattas and flying on enormous zip lines, Courtenay continued to tell me about his special “Trini” places and the kids camps he puts on to show them the amazing island on which they live and to foster their love for nature.  He also spoke of his personal mission to foster more environmental awareness through his TV show Earth Alert. Courtenay’s passion for his island-life filled my imagination and I immediately began planning a trip to the Caribbean unlike any I had ever experienced.

Imagining being in the Caribbean sun climbing up waterfalls in slot canyons amidst the richness of the rainforest kept me inspired as Courtenay and I built our friendship.  Over the course of a year or two as we emailed, Facebooked, and IM’d about our lives, we naturally touched on the challenges that we each faced.  I needed a knee replacement and was becoming increasingly depressed as I lost my ability to climb, ski, hike, bike, and Courtenay was facing new challenges in the midst of the economic downturn.

The Tourism Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago (TDC) is very excited about his ideas about ecotourism and has been supporting the ventures of hotels and outfitters to expand beyond business-based tourism and bird watching.  However, post-2008 when the economy took a nosedive and the focus went back to tourism basics, Courtenay needed a boost. Repeatedly, he extended the invite to me and our mutual friend Paula to come see his Trinidad and Tobago. Courtenay’s Trini includes the busiest and best single-track mountain biking trails in the entire Caribbean. He built these trails with fellow mountain bikers, as well as the 20 mile hike to Paria Springs on the north coast roadless area, along with a climbing area he is establishing in Chaguaramas. Of course, there are also those waterfalls.

So we decided: Yes, we would come. How could we say no?  I had my knee replacement, completed physio and was cleared to adventure.  Paula and I were ready for some tropical fun. However, in light of the present situation, we decided to make it one better and invite another girlfriend who is a journalist and photographer.  Why not tell as many people as we could about the gems to be found in a Caribbean locale that is not on the list of usual travel destinations?

Courtenay approached the TDC. If he was bringing some press to Trinidad, maybe they could help fund the trip?  They thought the idea was good enough and they found another female journalist to join us – we were off on a women’s adventure trip in Trinidad.

Three of us arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad early in the day February 18 – the first day of the Pan Panorama.  It is the steel drum orchestra competition. Until then, my experience of steel drums was one or two people playing the greatest island hits.  The Panorama is huge.  One steel pan orchestra can have as many as 100 members.  The stadium where the competition is held was sold out but the Savannah, the main park in Port of Spain, was set up festival-like so those of us who like to wander, eat street food and check out the sights could see the orchestras as they practiced before rolling their pan stands into the stadium area.  We sampled local favorites like bake and shark and corn soup.  Later we packed up for the adventures ahead. Organizing mountain bikes, backpacksclimbing equipment, tents, surfboards, snorkeling equipment, we looked like our own traveling gear store.

The last of us arrived rather late that evening and we all piled into Courtenay’s truck to head up to Grande Riviere. This north coast spot is a favorite destination for Trinidadians and tourists alike.  Not only is this beach the best place to find leather back turtles nesting from March-August, but it is also the kick-off spot for a three day backpacking trip to Madamas and Paria Beach along the coast.  Arriving quite late due to the twisty narrow road and a stop to check out a baby boa constrictor crossing, we were quite happy to discover extraordinarily comfortable beds and spacious digs right on the beach at the Le Grande Almandier (The Big Almond).

We woke the next morning to a fabulous breakfast including coconut bread and hit the trail for some rainforest mountain biking and a swim in a sweet waterfall. The trail we attempted to bike is maintained by local guides supported by Courtenay and his friends – a tribe of serious bikers who don’t balk at the slippery roots, fallen bamboo, and deep thick mud that made the ride into what we immediately dubbed “Jungle Biking”.  It had recently rained and Courtenay assured us that while it was a challenging trail in dry conditions, what we experienced was truly difficult.

I thankfully had an Adventure Medical Kit with me, although the only time I used it that day was to repair my saddle.  However, if it were not for that waterfall, we would have attended to a few cuts, scrapes, and bug bites with the contents, no problem.  As a “retired” river and ski guide, I’m pretty savvy about putting together a first aid kit, but the Adventure Medical Kits are fantastic. The Women’s Outdoor Edition covers all immediate first aid needs – like gloves, Moleskin, bandages, Benzoin, antibiotic ointment, diarrhea and allergy meds, tweezers, and so forth.  Moreover, it contains some goods that I can usually find after some panicked scrounging between my pack, pockets, purse and car – like lip balm, ibuprofen, and tampons – conveniently all in one place.

That night the worst rainstorm in living memory struck Trinidad and our 3-day backpack trip was no longer.  We hatched a new plan – we’d hop a plane to Tobago (round trip tickets between the two islands are $50.00) where the weather was not so severe.  In the airport, we had a serendipitous run in with the TDC. The Minister of Tourism was holding a press conference in regards to Carnival – by far the biggest attraction and most celebrated time of the year.  Not only did showing up with four adventurous women, half of whom are journalists, bode well for Courtenay and his agenda of building more eco-adventure tourism, but it also worked out well for us as the Minister invited us back next year for Carnival!

Tobago turned out to be an excellent idea.  As the trip to Tobago was a bit last-minute, Courtenay was calling in favors and ringing up old friends all over the more rural and peaceful island to accommodate all of our Tobago desires. We rented a car, found an exceptional 3-bedroom condo on Grafton Beach that is part of the Sea Horse properties and had two blissful days of relaxing, bodysurfing, swimming and catching up.  We also went snorkeling and diving at the world famous Buccoo Reef with Peanuts and Elvis of Undersea Tobago.  After a hike and swim in another lovely waterfall in Highlands, we drove to the far end of the Island to Blue Waters – a delightful property frequented by serious birders and a fantastic place for relaxing, snorkeling and diving.  We stayed up as late as we could soaking in the goodness of the place at the end of the dock and wished we could stay forever.

The next morning we took an early flight back to Trinidad and were thrust back into civilization from the moment we arrived at the airport. We worked our way through the traffic of Port of Spain, stopping only for roti, to get to Chaguaramas for that fabled river hike with the slot canyon and waterfall we could slide down on our butts.  At the trailhead, we met with a dozen other hikers who had signed up for the adventure.  This gang of Trini folk and tourists reminded each of us just how lucky we were to be experiencing the wonders of the rainforest.  The look of joy and discovery on the faces of our companions that day as we shimmied up slot canyons, climbed a rope up a short but steep waterfall section, found nutmeg still encased in mace, and found our footing on slippery rocks will stay with me for a long time. Joining us was Sheldon, one of Courtney’s guides, and his presence throughout the day was extremely comforting as I dawdled in the rear of the group looking at plants that looked as familiar as they did foreign.

That evening we were dropped off at a sweet boutique hotel, L’Orchidee, where we had a chance to regroup, take hot showers and prepare for our last few days in Trinidad.  As we unpacked and pulled out clean dry clothes we discovered one of the truisms about adventuring in the rainforest – your stuff doesn’t stay dry.  In fact, our clothes were beginning to smell somewhat moldy.  The very kind women working the front desk broke all the rules and let us do some laundry – 4 loads at that!  Not only was it a luxury, but as we all brought some great new gear, it was a relief to clean it and save it all from a far-too-early demise.

My waterproof/breathable shell smelled like it was affected by the damp, but a quick wash and it was as good as new and still worked perfectly. I was so happy to have what is supposed to be an Alpine Shell in the tropics to not only keep me dry in the rain storms, but also was a great layer when the temps dropped or if I was cold from too much waterfall swimming.

Packed-up and ready for another adventure and moving to a new hotel later that day, we were pleased to see a sunny morning.  The week had not been a Caribbean dream weather-wise and with another full day ahead of us, we all longed for the sun.  With L’Orchidee’s substantial breakfast spread fueling our excitement, we headed back out to Chaguaramas to meet Chris Kelshall, a local climber and cocoa farmer, and do some climbing.  We hiked along the coastline on a road built by Allied Forces during WWII while Courtenay and Chris told us a bit about the military history of Trinidad. In the Gulf of Paria during WWII, the flyboys would practice bombing runs by targeting whales.

We stopped at a cave and I pulled out my Petzl Zipka headlamp to have a look inside.  The Zipka is so small and yet so powerful I have it with me all the time.  After a short crawl through some massive stalactites and stalagmites, we arrived at a special place where the stalactites ring with beautiful tones when ‘played’ like a drum set.

Just around the corner from this cave, we found the place where Courtenay wanted us to climb, even though not much farther away there are bigger, better limestone cliffs.  The point of coming to this spot was not evident until much later, but Courtenay wanted us to see the place in its completely undeveloped state – to show us how hard it is to develop and maintain sites and trails in a tropical environment.

To our dismay and delight, the site was also a vulture nesting area.  There were both hatched and un-hatched eggs and a pair of vultures keeping watch.  We did enjoy the sticky rock, and I love any chance I get to use my Petzl Luna Harness – it is so comfortable and fits so well that I never think twice about it. The Luna is so versatile, I use it for ice and rock and appreciate the fit and love the safety features.

We had big conversations about the perils and pleasures of guiding and teaching climbing, and discussed how one day vultures may be thought of the same way whales are thought of today – a rare and beautiful thing that future generations may have wished we cared more about protecting.  While it is clear that there is some good climbing in Trinidad, the local climbing scene is small. There is a dedicated group of people that would probably grow quite quickly if gear were more easily available.  Chris was an excellent addition to our day, as his enthusiasm for the sport is infectious; anyone who meets him would want to spend a day climbing with him and his love for Trinidad strong.  We spoke of environmental education – getting the kids out to help with trash pick-up, trail building, etc. Maybe it could be a field trip for his kids and their schools.  Maybe it is really a much bigger conversation for Trinidad.

After the heavy conversation, we finally headed to the single-track, also in the Chaguaramas area, and had an absolute blast riding the trails that Courtenay had built.  The sweeping, rolling trails wound their way through riverbeds, bamboo forests and fields and after only an hour’s ride, we were saddened to leave them but quite happy to head to the beach for a sunset Carib to toast a successful day of activity and also reflect on some heavy conversation about conservation, education and eco-adventure.

That night we stayed at Cascadia Hotel, a businessman’s hotel, a classification that cracked up four women from North America who travel for business regularly.  We didn’t get much of a chance to truly check it out, but it was clearly once a really nice place that was due for a remodel when the economy crashed and didn’t get one.  The hotel features a big dining and entertainment area, a pool and a water slide.  Many giggles were had while picturing businessmen sliding down the waterpark slide, briefcases held high. The best part of this hotel is the security.  At night, there is an employee with a clipboard double-checking that you are staying at the hotel and won’t let anyone without a reservation through the door.

What we did get was a quick shower, then off to a well-deserved and fabulous dinner at Angelo’s, and then off to a pre-carnival fete called Karma Sutra at the Country Club.  As we would leave Trinidad before Carnival was in full swing, Courtenay was kind enough to arrange invites for us to a private fete. Though we had only been in Trinidad a very short time, we saw some familiar faces including one of our companions from our river hike in Chaguaramas. Even with a few familiars to welcome us, we were clearly out of place in our outdoorsy dresses and casual hairstyles and complete lack of knowledge of the local dance: winin’.  A trip to the ladies’ room led to a fortuitous meeting with some local gals who showed us how to wine in a fun and suggestive way, and we in turn showed them how we dance, shoulders and all. We all laughed and laughed.

These women, like everyone we met in Trinidad and Tobago were so friendly and open.  An independent nation since 1962, the population is quite diverse with a strong mix of Amerindian, Indian, African, British, French, and other influences. The mix creates a people that reflect natural and cultural history equally.  We felt very welcomed everywhere we went, starting with Courtenay’s family inviting us for Sunday brunch and with his children calling each of us Auntie.

Our trip ended all too quickly.  Next time: Carnival, leather back turtles, a visit to a permaculture cocoa plantation (Chris Kelshall’s business), climbing limestone cliffs, surfing in Tobago, birding, and maybe some other adventures. There is still so very much to do and see.

While the weather dampened our original plans, our mission to discover the adventures of Trinidad and Tobago was a success.  I look forward to seeing Courtenay’s  ecotourism business grow and already we’ve seen some great results beyond more locals and tourists alike signing up for hikes and bike rides.  Personally, I would love to see more North Americans getting to Trinidad and Tobago and experiencing such eco-adventures as there is nothing like climbing up waterfalls in the tropics or zipping through a bamboo forest on smooth single track.

Nevertheless, the coolest thing to come out of this trip so far for me personally is the news that Courtenay and Chris took our conversations the day we climbed in the vulture’s nest seriously. They are already organizing a trail and route clean up with the local climbing community and have put together a kid’s camp for bouldering and area clean up.  Talk about fostering a love for nature and eco-adventure. This guy is doing it, and I am very grateful I got to see it and to be a part of it.


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Shannon Walton lives in Crested Butte, CO with her husband, Todd and two dogs, Eli and Olive. In the summer, Shannon does what some deem impossible and maintains a rich garden at 9,000 feet. She loves to ski, hike, climb,ride her bike and explore rivers. Shannon works for Schoeller Textil and Schoeller Technologies as the PR and Marketing Manager for North America and while not currently serving any one particular organization, she is involved in the outdoor and ski industries and the adventure travel industry both professionally and personally.

One response to “Bake & Shark, Leatherbacks, and Backpacks: Adventures in Trinidad & Tobago

  1. Hi – great article! I wonder if Shannon would be kind enough to drop me a line and link me up with Chris. I’ve lived in T&T for a number of years and haven’t yet come across any local climbers, and I’d love to get back into the sport here.

    Many thanks,

    Brett