Visiting Trinidad’s Pitch Lake

Mj 618_348_visiting trinidads pitch lake
Robert Harding Picture Library / Alamy

Trinidad is a beautiful island of swaying coconut trees, long beaches, and bikinied women, but it doesn’t look like much from the back of a van. The potholes are deep and frequent enough that constant bumps blur the view of brush fires on the side of the highway and threaten to detonate bottles of beer. The shoddy infrastructure is a dead giveaway that this island, unlike its Caribbean neighbors, doesn’t rely on tourists to bring in foreign currency. The island owes its bouncy authenticity to its oil and natural gas reserves and the economic practicality of exporting asphalt, which is worth more painted across American highways than Trinidadian lanes.

That economic reality was the reason my driver started laughing as we neared the 99-acre, 246-foot-deep geological anomaly known as La Brea Pitch Lake – one of the only tar lakes on Earth. We could see handwritten signs tacked to telephone poles next to the muddy track. “Fix our roads,” they demanded. There was no formal reply, but it was easy to infer the answer: a simple “no.”

The lake has been feeding foreigners hungry for bitumen since Sir Walter Raleigh washed up on these shores looking for El Dorado. He used the tar to caulk his ship and brought several barrels back to England, where he used it to impress other sailors and the queen. Trinidad still exports tar to the U.K., as well as the U.S. and mainland Europe. You‘ve almost certainly walked on it.

And that’s what I was preparing to do. The black pool, thick enough to support a grown man, smelled like a highway construction zone in summer and looked like a carelessly paved parking lot. My guide informed me that there was a 400-year supply of tar left under my feet, and I was advised not to stand in one place too long if I didn’t want to become fossil fuel myself. I dug into the viscous surface with a stick and pulled up a strand of pitch that reminded me of used chewing gum and made me feel like a fly in a trap. I sought refuge from the heat in one of the cold pools that sit amongst the hot pockets of pitch, plunging neck-deep into the foul-smelling, sulfuric water.

After wading and stumbling back to completely solid ground, I was eager to head back toward my sudsy beer and the beach. Having been to the place where roads start, it was almost a relief to leave asphalt behind. Almost.

More information: United Airlines offers regular flights from Houston to Port of Spain, Trinidad’s colorful capital. It’s a long drive to Pitch Lake, which sits close to scenic Freemans Bay, a great place to relax after soaking in tar.

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