The Overrated Carnival Craze In Trinidad

I arrived in Trinidad with high expectations. It was my first visit to the Caribbean island nation — really a twin island nation, but I wasn’t visiting the Tobago part — and I was there for Carnival. Having read online that Carnival in Trinidad was very exciting, I rearranged my Guyana and Suriname trip so that I visited Trinidad during Carnival and in between my stays in the two South American/Caribbean countries. I was expecting something better than Carnival in Rio — an experience that made for a great workation but let me down a bit, or at least the formal festivities in Brazil did. 

What I got at the Trinidad version of Carnival was a pleasant little island stay mixed with a lot of noise and paint. Considering that I had already been to Carnival in Rio (better than Trinidad) and in Encarnacion, Paraguay (much better), I wasn’t terribly impressed. But that’s okay because now I can present you some barely clad, or rather paint clad, people for your viewing pleasure…

Getting to know Trinidad

Before checking out more revelers, let’s learn a little about Trinidad. As alluded to, the country is called Trinidad and Tobago, and I only visited Trinidad, the larger of the two sister islands. Trinidad’s capital is Port of Spain. With a name like that, I expected to be arriving in a Spanish speaking place. Instead I found almost everything was in English. That’s because Trinidad, a once Spanish colony, changed hands between several European colonizers until the British ultimately took control of both Trinidad and Tobago and unified the two islands. The country has been independent since 1962.

Colonial architecture upcoming…??

Unlike Guyana and Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago is actually in The Caribbean Sea. But it is also super close to the Venezuelan mainland (where I recently visited my friend Nicolas), even more so than the DUTCH “A” island of Aruba at its closest point. In one area Trinidad lies just 7 miles away from Venezuela. Unsurprisingly, Trinidad currently hosts more than 200,000 Venezuelan refugees.

Like Guyana and Suriname, there is an interesting ethnic mix in Trinidad. People of Indian descent are the leading ethnic group.They largely arrived after slavery was abolished in the 1800s. At that time there was a labor shortage, and the British brought in a lot of indentured servants from India to work on the plantations. Nowadays, people of African descent and “mixed” individuals make up the second and third largest ethnic groups in Trinidad.

Looks like Guyana?

Here is a fact that might surprise you… Trinidad has the third highest GDP per capita in the Americas behind the U.S. and Canada. That isn’t because Trinidad still has indentured servant-operated plantations. Rather, it’s largely due to the country’s sizable oil and gas reserves. 

But what Trinidad is most known for is Carnival. Well, there is also a prominent Diwali celebration (a Hindu, Sikh and Jain festival of lights) in Trinidad, but that takes place at a different time of year and I wasn’t there for it.

Come during Carnival, pay $60/night for a couch

Accommodation in Trinidad during Carnival gets booked months in advance. If you book at the last minute, you are looking at paying 4 to 5 times the normal price of a hotel room. A room at the Marriott, for instance, was going for $600 a night. Even though the Marriott is my favorite hotel chain, I wasn’t going to pay that price. So I opted for an Airbnb, something I don’t do very often anymore. And I didn’t even book an entire home. I just booked a single room within a house.

My Airbnb host was an Indian guy by the name Hamid. When I arrived Hamid wasn’t home. Instead it was his mother, a very nice Indian lady named Sherry, who greeted met. Sherry bakes and sells roti, a special kind of bread that is used to wrap curry stew and is very popular in Trinidad. Understandably due to the demographics, there is a lot of Indian influence in Trinidadian culture and cuisine.

The surprise wasn’t that I met Hamid’s mother instead of Hamid. It was that Sherry informed that other guests arrived before me, and she gave my room to them. Sherry told me I could sleep in the living room. I actually didn’t end up on the couch. Sherry placed a mattress on the living room floor.

My “bed” was located next to a very large LED TV screen. Sherry likes to watch TV at night. I told her if she was going to put me on a mattress next to the television, she could not watch TV while I was there. So she just watched TV while I was away. 

Despite the surprise, the Airbnb turned out fine, and Sherry was very hospitable. After I napped, she made me roti wraps for lunch and then drove me around town for a half hour, showing me her recommended restaurants. The homestay was centrally located between the party and dining areas of Port of Spain and about a 30 minute walk from downtown. 

I didn’t do a whole lot more on my first day in Trinidad. In the evening I went out with a Jamaican guy who was also in town for Carnival. He showed me bars, and then I returned to the Airbnb and called it a night.

The Trinidadian towing mafia

The following day was my day to see Trinidad. It was the Sunday right before J’ouvert, Trinidad’s early Monday morning start to Carnival. Before getting caught up in Carnival festivities, I wanted to see Trinidad’s renown Maracas Beach. I booked a tour that would take me through Port of Spain and to the beach for some fun in the sun, or so I thought. 

I was joined on the tour by an old American lady and our guide, who was of Chinese origin. We headed to the north side of town to see Port of Spain’s foremost sights. 

Though not that central, Port of Spain basically has a Central Park. It’s a big open space in the city called Queen’s Park Savannah. The locals just refer to it is as the Savannah. 

The Central Park of Port of Spain

There is a one-way ring road that surrounds the Savannah. The locals say this road holds the record for being the world’s largest roundabout with a 3.7 km circumference. Apparently, there is some sort of rivalry between Port of Spain and a city in Malaysia over who has a bigger roundabout. The one in Port of Spain seems to be bigger, though there are also questions over whether something so large can actually be considered a roundabout.

Nonetheless, this is a scenic area of Port of Spain. On a road alongside the Savannah there are seven houses — more like mansions — that are the Magnificent Seven Houses. These mansions are built in an array of styles, some colonial, blended with Caribbean architecture. The seven houses are the architectural gems of Trinidad. 

Here are a couple of them:

Queen’s Royal College (shot from car)

Queen’s Royal College is probably the most famous of the seven “houses.” It’s Trinidad and Tobago’s leading secondary school. The building itself is German Renaissance architecture.

Stollmeyer’s Castle

Stollmeyer’s Castle was the first mansion constructed in the neighborhood. It was built in Scottish Baronian style and is said to be modeled after a wing of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, which is one of the residences of the British Royal family.

Time to look at trees?

Nearby and just north of the Savannah lie the Royal Botanic Gardens, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. We arrived at the gardens, our last stop before heading out of town, and our guide parked his car on a side road or sidewalk. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but the park administration said it was fine to park there. We entered the park for a very brief visit — only about 10 minutest — to see some trees. I took a photo of a squirrel:

Hey little squirrel 😊

Upon returning to the car, we found it on the back of a tow truck. Our guide bolted. He took off running behind the tow truck, joining a couple of lovers who went to the botanic gardens to take wedding photos, only to find their car being towed away as well. Our guide was running side by side the bride and groom. The sight would have been hilarious had it not meant that a) I was going to miss out again on the main sight of a tour due to a massive parking fail — a la the Road to Hana on Maui in Hawaii and b) Who tows the car of a couple taking wedding photos?? 

I guess the answer to the question is the Trinidad towing mafia. Our guide managed to stop the truck and argue with the driver, but to no avail. Our guide had to phone a friend, who picked us up and drove us to the tow yard and a police station. Eventually, we got the car back, but only after our guide paid the mafia a whopping $500 fee. 

And in the meanwhile, I managed to set off the car’s alarm at the police station. We had just gotten the car back, but our guide had yet to return from inside the station. I was already inside the car, and somehow I set off the alarm. It kept sounding and sounding, and I couldn’t get it to shut off. Eventually it did, though.

Remarkably, our guide took the whole ordeal in stride. He wasn’t nearly as angry as the bride and groom who also had their car snatched by the Trinidad towing mafia. 

The world’s safest beach

Maracas Beach

Back on the road, we headed out of the city and to Maracas Bay, home to Trinidad’s popular Maracas Beach. The bay and the beach are located on the north coast of the island. There is a mountain range that lies between the north coast and Port of Spain. We drove through some valleys that cut between the mountains.

Trinidadian fast food

Maracas Beach is known for sharks, but not in the sense of sharks eating people. Rather it is the other way around. There is a local specialty called bake and shark. The bake is fried bread. The shark is… well… shark meat. It’s basically a shark sandwich, and it is a staple of Trinidadian cuisine, or at least Trinidadian fast food. You can find bake and shark stands all over the place, but particularly at Maracas Beach.

I joked that the popularity of shark meat there makes Maracas Beach the safest beach in the world. Actually, the Trinidadians are now concerned about running out of sharks in their waters, so they are switching over to using other large fish like kingfish or mahi-mahi for their local delicacy.

Unfortunately not for me

Since I’m allergic to seafood, I didn’t contribute to the depopulation of any fish in Trinidadian waters. I opted for the vegetarian version of bake and shark, which is bake and cheese. 

The safest place to swim in the world 😉

Besides our little meal, we went for a hike that presented us some nice views of the bay and the beach. Lush hills full of greenery and flowers surround the bay, making for a very scenic location. It got a bit stormy while we were up there, but that just added another dimension to the scenery. 

Maracas Bay + surrounding beauty

While up in the hills, we stopped at a roadside sweets stand where I got some tasty candied pineapples.

Yummy 😊

Also, there was a guy outside selling alcohol without a license. His product was actually something like a snow cone. He was selling ice, which he would mix with liquids. The liquids of course contained alcohol, and this guy was promising he could provide any alcohol we wanted. That wasn’t exactly the case. I requested a mojito, and he couldn’t make one. Instead I got a Pina colada. It was basically rum mixed with ice cubes, but it tasted good.

Alcoholic ice

After retuning to my homestay, nothing too eventful happened for the rest of the day. Most of the restaurants in Port of Spain were reserved or fully booked because of Carnival. It was time to get to bed because I would be up before the crack of dawn whether I wanted to or not.

Colors galore before the break of dawn

After dawn too…

J’ouvert is French for “break of day.” In practical terms, at least in Trinidad, it means the start of Carnival. 

You can’t miss J’ouvert. I was sleeping when, at about 3 am, the noise woke me up. Everyone was out in the streets wearing not much more than white t-shirts. I got up and went outside in a shirt, bathing suit and flip flops. 

Free paint job

J’ouvert is all about getting colorful. Paints, oils, powders and even dust are flying in all directions and splattering on everyone and everything. Basically, everyone is throwing colors at each other. I didn’t participate too much, but my white-t became a colorful t-shirt. See:

Colorful Christoph

The bands go marching

The main act of Carnival Day 1 spanned 3-8 am. It didn’t just consist of people chucking paint and dirt at each other. There’s a bit more organization than that. 

J’ouvert truck

Carnival in Trinidad largely consists of parades of “bands.” Bands are groups of people dressed in uniform, tailor-made costumes who march through the streets, typically behind or alongside trucks that are blasting music. The bands participate in various competitions, including limbo and stick-fighting, and of course consume large amounts of alcohol. 

Parading

There were lots of different parades around Trinidad that eventually united into one huge parade. I stood on sidewalks and walked around, checking out various bands and trucks. I did a little partying, too, and took a bunch of photos. 

More parading

After a full morning of parade watching, drinking and getting splattered with paint, I chowed down some gyros and slept until the early evening.

Winged naked woman?

Day 2 of Carnival in Trinidad is more of the same, with parades, drinking and lots of colors. But the costumes are more elaborate. On Tuesday, many women come out wearing big wings and basically nothing else. Some women just wear bathing suits. Many men are similarly dressed — some wearing wings or feathers, some wearing not much of anything at all.

More feathers

More skin

A core part of the Day 2 celebration is “Mas.” Participants play Mas by dancing through the streets in their costumes as bands (the musical type) or DJs blast music, including heavy base. There are costume competitions and drumming competitions, and people party all day.  

Playing Mas

The local music, called Soca, is integrated into much of the celebration. Soca is an offshoot of traditional Trinidad and Tobago Calypso music with influences from Latin, cadence, funk and soul. In my opinion it’s not really music.

Lots of stages for musical performances

I couldn’t stick around all day on Tuesday because I had a flight to catch, and I thought it would take a long time to get through the Carnival revelers and to the airport. I returned to the homestay, said goodbye to my Indian host and took off for the airport five hours before my departure time. It turned out the drive to the airport was much faster than expected. It only took a half hour. 

Did Trinidad disappoint me?

I departed Trinidad having found Carnival be overrated, yet having enjoyed my time on the island. There is a lot more to see in Trinidad than Port of Spain and Maracas Beach. I think I’d like to come back to see more of the island to visit Tobago, too.

Something you might find surprising is that both Port of Spain and Trinidad and Tobago have very high homicide rates. I walked around town alone at night multiple times and felt quite safe. And I didn’t have any problems during Carnival. In fact, people were very friendly. 

So while I rate Trinidad Carnival as mediocre at best, I left with a positive impression of the country, much to the contrary of Guyana and Suriname, which bookended my Trinidad visit. I also left having seen enough of Carnival to satisfy my people watching appetite. That’s the main reason I was there in the first place. 😉

With people like this, how can you not enjoy watching? 😉