Pitch Lake at La Brea
Home of the original "tar baby."
Location: From Port-of-Spain, take the Solomon Hocoy Highway west; it's about a 2 hour drive to the village of La Brea, which is on the lake's north shore.
The Pitch Lake at La Brea (Spanish for "pitch") on the southwest coast is the largest deposit of asphalt in the world, measuring 300 deep at the center and covering a surface area of 89 acres.
Like most parking lots--and that is what it most looks like--you can actually walk on the goo but it is springy underfoot. Avoid air holes bubbling up from the pressure. You leave an imprint walking, and if you stand still, you'll start to sink.
They say it takes between 1 to 2 hours for someone to totally disappear, to become a preserved tar baby which may one day reappear.
The lake is continually being stirred, so everything from prehistoric tree trunks to fast food garbage occasionally surfaces.
Several theories about how this remarkable phenomenon was created. One story says an Arawak chief once killed a sacred hummingbird, and the angry gods got even by glopping the whole village with pitch.
Another variation claims an entire tribe of Chaima Indians were punished for eating sacred hummingbirds containing the souls of their ancestors. The village sank into the ground, replaced by the tar pit that continually refills itself.
The most mundane theory suggests it was formed millions of years ago when asphaltic oil flowed into a mud volcano. The oil and mud were mixed by underground gases that resulted in the big asphalt pool.
Many locals will tell you the lake is self-replenishing but that is not true. The level is dropping steadily as the asphalt is shipped around the world for road construction projects. One estimate says that at the removal of 300 tons per day, the current level, will deplete the lake within a half century.
Official tours are no longer given around the lake, but many former guides are always present to haggle over a tour. Set a fee in advance and make certain whether it's TT$ or US$. It's the history and lore of the lake that makes it fascinating more than the actual sight of it.
Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with discovering the lake in 1595. He found it to be excellent ship's caulking because it did not appear to melt in the sun. He was wrong. After carrying pitch back to England and asphalting Westminster Bridge for the opening of Parliament, the asphalt did melt and clogged the coach wheels and horses' hooves.
Since then, it has worked more successfully covering streets not only in Port-of-Spain but Cairo, Singapore, Bombay and London.
Trinidadians also tried covering weeds with the stuff, but apparently the mud/oil combination was such an ideal fertilizer that weeds were worse than ever.
Attempts were also made to burn it for street lighting, but the foul stench and smoke was more than anyone would tolerate.
However, it was used to fumigate Port-of- Spain in 1920 after a small pox epidemic. These and many other tales are readily supplied by the guides.
The lake has supplied many of the island's most valuable Amerindian artifacts that are displayed at several museums around the island. Still no sign of the village that was swallowed up.