Let me start by saying that I know it is a bit crazy to drive 90 minutes south of Trinidad’s capital city of Port of Spain (and that is without traffic) just to see some asphalt. But it is totally worth it, in my opinion! Pitch Lake is the country’s most unusual site and that is what makes it worth a visit.
What is Pitch Lake?
It is one of the largest naturally occurring deposits of asphalt in the world. There are only four others (one in Venezuela and three in the USA). It is supposedly 100 acres in size and 250 feet deep. The so-called explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, stumbled across the lake in 1595 when his ships were in need of repairs during his ludicrous search for El Dorado. The Indigenous peoples living in the region at the time showed him how pitch could be used as caulking for his ships. Ever since then, Pitch Lake was mined and even today, it is a major supplier of asphalt to the world.
How To get to Pitch Lake?
The last time I visited Pitch Lake, we drove there in a car rental using Google GPS. It probably did not give us the most direct way to get there but it certainly was an interesting drive once we got off the highway. Quiet roads, pretty countryside, small towns and villages – it was a different side to Trinidad than the hustle and bustle of Port of Spain.
What to Expect when arriving at Pitch Lake?
When you arrive, you will be accosted by unofficial guides. Just ignore them and pull into the official parking lot that is behind gates, NOT the lot adjacent to the gates. The fake guides will try to be “helpful” but do not park anywhere but the official lot. Once inside the gates, you will be scam-free. Give the security guard your name and license plate number – they will ensure your car stays safe during your visit. If you’re still thinking to use an unofficial guide, I suggest you check out reviews on Trip Advisor – pretty much everyone says they were terribly ripped off using one!
Do you have to take a tour at Pitch Lake?
No, but it is highly recommended you do. Without the tour guide, all you’ll really see is what looks like a giant parking lot. The official tour guides wear shirts that declare them as such. The number of people in a tour group depends on who shows up that day. I have done this tour twice and both times it was less than five of us.
The tour guides are extremely knowledgeable about the site itself as well as about the local flora and fauna (i.e. cashew trees, various flowers, birds). And if you’re lucky to get a guide like ours, he/she would have grown up in the area and could tell you how the lake has impacted the village surrounding it. The guide will take you out onto the lake and you can walk on the firm pitch. Well, if you’re there later in the morning or afternoon, it will be spongey in spots as the hot sun warms up the pitch. You may even see small pools of water after a rainfall – the pools can be various colours, depending on the mineral content (i.e. green for copper and red for iron). At the very least, put your hand in a pool – if it feels soapy, that is the sulphur! The waters are supposed to be healing and some say they are the “fountains of life”. Finally, if you’re extra lucky, you may see fire. Seriously. Pitch Lake releases methane gas all the time and sometimes, it spontaneously catches fire! But you’re more likely to only see bubbles in the pools of water and those are from the escaping methane.
What else is there to do at Pitch Lake?
There is a small museum. I’ve not seen it yet as both times I’ve gone, it was closed. But definitely ask your tour guide – you may be luckier than I’ve been! The lake is like a living thing – it constantly pushes up stuff from its depths. People have found all sorts of things such as daily life items of the Indigenous peoples who used to live in the area as well as the remains of prehistoric animals like giant sloth. There has apparently even been a mastodon’s tooth that was found!