Pitch Lake in Trinidad: Where Tar Comes From

by  Will McGough | Sep 4, 2013

When Sir Walter Raleigh arrived at a peculiar, black-colored lake on the southeast coast of Trinidad in the late 17th century, he ordered his men to barrel up its contents. Though originally in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, Raleigh instead stumbled upon a different treasure – tar – and began using the stuff as caulk for his ships.

Known today as Pitch Lake, or Tierra de Brea, what Raleigh had unknowingly discovered was the world's largest natural asphalt deposit (there are four others: three in California and one in Venezuela). Though don’t let its name fool you: while small pools tend to form during the rainy season, it’s far from a typical lake.

Dig a stick into the ground, and it will come up covered in raw, unrefined tar. Stand in one place too long, and you’ll feel your shoes begin to sink in. Some of the pools are big enough to take a dip, or stand in up to your waist (you can even dunk your head under!); the sulfur-infused mineral water is actually said to be good for the skin. The visitor center provides photos of people who have been in up to their waist, but you might want to start with a handprint.

The lake itself is about 99 acres in size and, according to a local guide, its supply of tar should last another 400 years (pitch is still extracted and refined to this day, with almost all of it being used as roads and runways). Ironically enough, because Trinidad exports the hell out of it to the States and Europe, its own roads are some of the worst in the Caribbean.

Guided tours are offered daily from the visitor center and allow guests to walk out onto the lake to see its unique properties firsthand. The price of a tour should be around $5, so be wary of guides trying to overcharge you (many unofficial guides will wait at the gates and try to stop you before you enter the park). If you want transportation included, you can look into organized tours. Otherwise, renting a car or catching a cab is the only way to get there from Port of Spain (a one-hour drive).

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