By Omilla Mungroo. “I sit and wait, deserted with all my jewels. I lie alone at nights like one drifted apart from incongruous main lands, not sure to which I really belong, but claimed by one; the smaller yet more precious in my sight, from my jetty, where I see lights flickering in the distance, and hear the far away, pulsating rhythms of soca music at Carnival time. I wait for those who will seek adventure, for those who yearn for seclusion, tranquility, even sanctuary when they soak up my salty air. I am a home where no one lives, but a home only to those whose lives are enchanted by my beauty, and to those who taste the roasted foiled fish caught fresh from off my waters… I am Chacachacare. Come to my island!”
Situated about 10 degrees 41 minutes north latitude and 61 degrees 45 minutes west longitude, the island of Chacachacare spreads across only 3.642 square kilometres of land space. It is the western most of the Bocas Islands that belong to Trinidad and Tobago, the others being Monos Island and Huevos Island. It is presently abandoned except for the lighthouse keeper who stays on the island, and can be a perfect paradise and haven for those seeking a short, quiet recluse. After camping with my family on this island for over a period of twenty years, I recommend a visit for those seeking a quiet, peaceful getaway from city life, for history lovers, and for those who just want to rejuvenate.
This tiny island, embossed with solemn history, and filled with extravagant beauty, remains an enigma to its first time visitors and yet, a memory to relive for every subsequent visit. You visit Chacachacare once and feel compelled to return, again, and again and again; the island’s strange magic never fading with each visit; its serenity ever drawing you back for more.
The island’s disturbing history spans from the early 1500s when on his third voyage, Columbus named it the “Port of Cats” (because it was said to be inhabited by wild cats) until 1984 when the last of the lepers died and left the place abandoned. It is also said that Columbus called it El Caracol meaning The Snail, because of its shape. Its present name Chacachacare, though, was given by the Amerindians who lived there at the time. The island was used at first as a cotton plantation, then a whaling station, and finally a leper colony. It also served as a base for approximately 1000 US Marines in 1942, who built barracks on the island. Today, some sea-island cotton trees can still be seen scattered on the island.
On the far right side of the island there is a Hindu temple which people say is still used today. Most of the lepers were Hindus so the temple was built for them to have their prayers and rituals done. It is located in such a remote part of the island that people who visit, hardly know it even exists. You can hike from the jetty to go there, if you wish to see it.
The leper asylum ruins can be seen if you hike across from the jetty to the western end of the island. Ruins of the nun’s quarters still stand to the eastern side.
Lower down to the south eastern side of the island, there is a pond that is said to be a salt lake, where the deadly Manchineel tree fringes around it. It is said that the Salt Pond was made to combat a mosquito invasion on the island but it is really an entrapment of sea water from the sea. The early inhabitants had tried to extract salt from it, hence its name, the salt pond. We hiked across to find the salt pond during one of our camps on the island, after hearing stories of it from an old fisherman we met there. What a sight it was!
Chacachacare’s lighthouse stands on the highest point and the view from there is one of the most panoramic! The journey to the lighthouse, about 3 miles, provides visitors with adventure and excitement. The once paved road is now broken in some areas along the way, but getting there is worth the walk. From every angle atop the lighthouse there is beauty. On some days the mountains of nearby Venezuela, which lies just about 8 miles to the east, can seem so close, they feel almost like home. Visit the lighthouse for yourself and see. It’s a joy to experience, all on its own!
For local campers, Chacachacare holds many attractions: hiking, fishing, sea-bathing and crab-catching at certain spots across the island. You can find crabs, iguanas, (the wild cats now extinct, I haven’t seen any in all the years we camped there) squirrels, and birds of various species, some from the nearby mainland of Venezuela. Fish like groupers, grunts, parrot fish, pompano, and sometimes shark, can be caught off the waters surrounding the island. During one camp, we caught two lobsters at the Boca Grande. We also saw a stingray feeding early one morning by the jetty.
To get to Chacachacare
To get to Chacachacare from the mainland in Trinidad, you have to take a boat-taxi from the boat yard at Island Property Owners Association in Chaguaramas. The trip is 5 miles to Chacachacare, and may take about 45 minutes to get there.
During the Easter weekend, and on Carnival Tuesday or Ash Wednesday, there are several cruises and one-day excursions to Chacachacare. During many of our camps, we have met people who visited Chacachacare for the first time, on board one of the small cruise ships that made trips there. They are usually interested right away about camping.
The CDA – The Chaguaramas Development Authority is the sole authority for those wishing to camp on the island. You have to obtain a permit if you want to camp on the island. There are no toilets, no changing rooms, and you have to carry everything you need like drinking water, food, etc. If you get on one of the boats like Pier 1 Cruises or the Treasure Queen, most likely you pay for your trip to and from the island, and whatever food, drinks, and entertainment the boat provides. No permission needed for that!
We usually cleaned up as much as we can, before and after setting up camp. So if you plan to camp, please leave the island cleaner than you found it!
The most popular beach in Chacachacare is La Tinta beach. From its shores you can see some of the mountains of Venezuela too. La Tinta is so named because of the black bottom of its sea bed, but the water is very clean and clear. Most visitors prefer to bathe in the Sand Beach to the front of the island on Sanda Bay though. The sea-bed is sandy, and remains shallow a good distance from the shore making it very safe for children.
Snorkeling, fishing, jet skiing, or just chilling out on a yacht like the yachties do… Chacachacare is perfect for more than all that. Come to my island this Easter and see for yourself!
December 2014 – Issue 13 www.sweettntmagazine.com
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