Paving the World...La Brea Pitch Lake
Trinidad and Tobago, being a Caribbean island might be best known for its beautiful beaches, and of course our world famous Carnival. However, it is also home to the largest pitch lake in the world, fondly referred to as the eighth wonder of the world by the locals. So, for someone who wants to travel the world, and explore all the hidden gems in far corners of the globe, it was shameful that I'd never visited this attraction in my own little corner of the world. This was for no reason other than feeble excuse of it being too far, being in the South Western part of the island. Now for a girl who has travelled between Sangre Grande and Port-of-Spain daily for most of my life, that is the poorest excuse, as Trinidad is such a small island, no place is actually too far to visit.
When I saw this come up as a part of a tour offered by a local tour company (Road Trip TT), I immediately jumped at the opportunity and committed to the trip. The tour was called “Down South Road Trip” and included stops at the Wildfowl Trust, Pitch Lake and Vessigny Beach. This post is all about the pitch lake visit in La Brea which is approximately and hour and a half away from Mt. Hope which was our pick up point. It was well worth the drive. We went with a maxi, so it was convenient and facilitated a nap on the way back (or to if you wanted, but I was enjoying the scenery). However, it's very simple to take a drive on your own, and when you get there, head to the office and organise a tour of the lake. Don't go wandering around on your own please. There's a cautionary picture at the Pitch Lake of a guy who in true Trini fashion decided that he did not need a guide to visit, and ventured out on his own, only to return covered in pitch. This was pretty recent as well..in 1998. So, when the guide said to form a line and follow her footsteps, best believe I didn't argue. I mean I did wander slightly off path sometimes but that's because I'm naturally unsteady, and easily distracted. Don't be like me. Or worse..that cautionary tale guy from 1998.
We visited on a very hot day. It was so hot that there were actually a lot of bush fires on that day, and one specifically at the entrance to the pitch lake, When we arrived, we weren’t sure we would be able to actually go out onto the lake because the fire was still very active, and the smoke was considerable. Luckily, we were able to go out, even though we had to pass through a good bit of smoke when we passed the bush fire. We actually joked that it felt like we were in a horror movie at the beginning with us walking into the vast unknown through the smoke.
So, where did the magical self-refilling lake come from?
The lake was a volcanic eruption. The first set of people was the Amerindians. Trinidad and Tobago is also known as the Land of the Hummingbird. One legend says that the Great Spirit of Trinidad, was so angered by the tribe that had settled on the land and were killing these sacred hummingbirds that he arose from slumber. This powerful arising from beneath the earth resulted in the newcomers being swallowed, leaving in its place the pitch lake. However you look at it, it's pretty crazy how the pitch lake came about, and as cool as it is, the formation is a bit creepy. Sir Walter Raleigh re-discovered the pitch lake in 1595 on his way to El Dorado in search of gold, and the Amerindians used the pitch to caulk his ships. He took it back to England and called it black gold. The first roads to be built in England were in front of Buckingham Palace, and were paved with pitch from Trinidad. La Brea, located on the South Western part of Trinidad was originally called Terra de Brea by the Spanish, which the British later translated to Land of Pitch, or La Brea which means pitch.
What is pitch used for?
Pitch is the raw form, and when this is heated, it is called asphalt. Asphalt is the form which is exported out of the country, mainly for road building and airport runways. So..yeah, our Trinidad and Tobago pitch is literally the foundation and pathways of countries all over the world. How cool is that? Also...does the title make sense now?
What does it feel like to walk on the surface of the lake?
You mean other than a sense of power, and invincibility from that walking on water complex? Well…there are solid areas, but generally the lake is spongy, and not firm, and your footprints are seen as you walk. It's difficult to stand in these spots for any length of time before sinking and getting stuck. The lake is a mix of varying levels of firmness, interspersed with channels with different colours and volumes of water. There’s also a lot of wheat grass growing on the lake, as well as some water lilies, a water lily field in fact. On the outskirts of the lake are the pump house and other necessary buildings and equipment used for processing the pitch. The combination of these aspects makes for a very interesting setting (for the horror movie..just kidding!).
Will the lake suck me in?
Well...the location of the lake was once a forest. What was at the bottom comes to the top and what was at the top goes to the bottom. It definitely sounds terrifying. We noticed tree stumps coming out of the lake, and it was noted that these often disappear as quickly as they appear. These tree stumps are from that original forest and resurfaces from time to time. There are places where you should not step, and these were noted by the guide. Even on the path, there were bubbles just under the surface that erupted in little baby explosions, and released hot water. So, just that was enough for me to not want to risk going off the guide led path. Some pools cannot be used for swimming. If you step into those pools, it will open and suck you in. We were warned that if the depth cannot be determined, and there is oily residue at the top, stay away from the pools!
Why is there water on a pitch lake?
When the rain falls, it adds water to the lake because the pitch contains 30% of water, 30% of mineral matter, and 40% of bitumen. When there is too much water, this needs to be pumped out to be able to mine the pitch. There are three types of water on the lake, fresh water, salt water and sulphur water. The water is different colours at different points because of the different minerals they would contain. We were told that during the wet season, the water can get as high as waist deep, but as we went during the dry season, it was rarely above ankle height where we did have to pass through water, and this water was very warm. There are sometimes fish (guppies, wabines, cuscurub) which are washed into the lake from the oceans and rivers. So we actually saw some fish swimming in the little ponds formed in the lake. So, again, it's like the lake is its own eco-system.
What's this about the lake having magic healing powers?
Well, one of the types of water found on the lake is the sulphur water. There are several sulphur pools in the lake. People swim in these sulphur pools which people swear have medicinal purposes. It’s said to be good for psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, mosquito bites, skin diseases, and a host of other ailments. The best time is to swim in the wet season. We went during the dry season when the water was stagnant. There were persons bathing in the pools still, but our guide advised it was not recommended, and as a germophobe, I was more than happy to heed her advice.
Why are the roads in Trinidad so bad when we have an entire lake of pitch at our disposal?
In Trinidad, we have two seasons while other countries have four. The last residue of crude oil called bitumen is combined with methodic material to make hot mix. Hot mix is used in the dry season and cold mix is used in the rainy season. The hot mix would not hold the surface when the rain is falling. For example, if the raw pitch is used, and the day is hot, and a vehicle is parked, the vehicle will sink. This was our guide’s explanation, and she even showed us a part of the car park at the lake where it had caved in.
Will we ever run out of pitch?
Previously there was no system in place, and the pitch was mined more or less haphazardly. However, now a map system is used. The lake is approximately 95 acres, with a depth of 250 ft. The method used is strip mining, which allows the pitch to refill itself within a couple days. Based on the current map system, estimates indicate that we have a reserve of pitch to last another 400 yrs. So don’t wait for that last century to visit. There's no time like the present.
All in all, it was a great experience. We had a guide, Amina, from the Pitch Lake office, and she was fantastic. She was extremely knowledgeable and you could tell she was passionate about the knowledge she was imparting. She definitely made the tour memorable, and very educational. We were also able to walk on a piece of pitch that was soft and spongy (semi-solid) and massaged your feet. However, it was hot, so she threw sulphur water which was also nearby to cool your feet while you walked. It did feel very therapeutic. Other than the tree stumps, and leaves, and miscellaneous odds and ends, there have been other interesting items found on the lake over the years, such as Amerinidian artifacts, fossilized remains from a prehistoric giant sloth, and a mastodon tooth, some of which are stored in the museum. I was not able to visit the Museum because I think they closed early due to the bush fires and the smoke in the air. I don't think this was my last visit to the pitch lake, as I would definitely love to visit in the rainy season to experience a healing bath in the sulphur springs. I could definitely use it with my eighty year old aches in my twenty-something body. I highly recommend that everyone visit at least once, and in case you're worried, you don't need to be in any great physical shape. I was limping on this day, and I was good.
Some scientists believe that the Pitch Lake has similar properties to the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan, Saturn's moon. They believe this could help in answering the question of life on other planets.
- Pitch is brown. Not black.
- Raw form is called pitch, and the refined form is called asphalt.
- The pitch does not grow. It refills itself.
- Even on the hottest of days ( I visited on one of those days), out on the lake is cool. There was a cooling breeze blowing due to the openness of the space I guess, which was a relief, because it would have otherwise been unbearable to be out there in the heat for the length of time of the tour. The water in the pitch would probably also have contributed to the cooler temperature.
- It is home to magic healing sulphur pools
- Eighth wonder of the world - what more do you need to visit?
Tips for visiting:
- Make a day and adventure out of it.
- Invite a group to share the experience, but all you really need is one person. Hell, you don't even need a person because you'll have the company of the guide.
- Make sure your footwear can handle the water and you’re okay with it losing its sole to the blackness of the pitch. (Hahaha..I couldn’t resist!)
-Take some water to drink with you. You’ll need it. Bonus – you can use the bottle to take some of the magic sulphur water home.
- While you're out there on the surface, stop for a couple minutes and just think that an entire village was going about their daily life when with no warning, the earth opened up swallowing them, and leaving in its place this black goo....Maybe it's a symbol of their evil hearts? Either way...it's history, and just a humbling experience.
In case you didn't know:
Trinidad and Tobago, being a Caribbean island has two seasons, dry (Jan – Jun) and wet (Jul-Dec).
Have you ever been to the La Brea Pitch Lake? What was your experience. Let me know, and remember to share so that more people will get excited about visiting!
As always, light and love!