trinidad’s pitch lake: the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world


Every country has its natural tourist attractions such as the Grand Canyon in the U.S., Iguaçu Falls in Argentina and Brazil, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Ayers Rock in Australia. The island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, however, has a unique and not very well known natural wonder that continues to evade exact explanation to this day.

Located approximately forty-five minutes south of Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad, Pitch Lake is the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world. Since its discovery [or shall we say “rediscovery] in the late sixteenth century by Sir Walter Raleigh, this natural wonder has been mined for its asphalt. The mining continues today. It is one of three natural asphalt lakes in the world, the others being in California [the La Brea Tar Pit] and Venezuela.

Holding an approximate ten million tons of pitch [natural asphalt], Pitch Lake is approximatley one hundred acres across and two hundred and fifty feet deep in the center. According to approximate calculations based on the current rate of extraction, the lake has a renewable reserve of pitch for the next four hundred years. Among many other places, pitch or asphalt from the lake has paved the road in front of Buckingham Palace in London and the Lincoln Tunnel and La Guardia Airport in New York.

When you arrive at Pitch lake, you enter a small visitor’s center where you buy your tickets and then proceed to the lake with a guide. Above the small visitor’s center is a museum that contains an abundance of important information about the lake, including theories on its formation and a short history. While you must be guided to the lake by an official guide, I recommend you visit the museum first. This will give you the important background information that you will be able to tell the guide when he forgets to mention it. Needless to say, the guides give a very basic tour of the lake, the best moment of which is when they demonstrate the areas where the liquid pitch still surfaces, using a long stick.

The surface of the lake is firm enough to walk on except for a small area in the center called “the mother of the lake.” In this way, it is like a giant crème brûlée where the surface is hard but just underneath is the gooey natural asphalt. When cracks on the surface become filled with rain water, gas can be seen bubbling in them. The cracks may reach a depth of up to five feet. Due to the sulphur content of the water, people come to bathe in it believing it has natural healing properties. One of the strangest events in the lake’s history came in 1928, when a large tree, estimated to be four thousand years old rose from the middle of the lake to a height of about ten feet before it slowly sank again into the pitch abyss. A cross-section of the tree was cut off and kept for posterity.
There are two local legends about the origins of the lake. The first, the Callifaria legend, is about two young lovers who were responsible for the destruction of the settlement of La Brea. Callifaria was the daughter of Callisuna, who was the chief of the La Brea tribe. She fled from her tribe to the long arms of her boyfriend, Kasaka, who was a prince of the Cumana tribe. Callisuna was angered by his daughter’s actions and his warriors fought Cumana. They captured his daughter captured his daughter, tied her to a horse and speedily returned to La Brea. However, Pimlontas, the winged Arawak god, damned the village of La Brea because he was angered by Callisuna’s hasty actions. Pimlontas made the village sink into the earth, replacing it with a thick black substance, the Amerindians called Piche or pitch.

The second, the Colibrie humming bird legend is related to the native Chima tribe. This tribe lived on the exact location where the present lake exists. As the story goes, after a victory the Chima had jubilant celebrations which included a grand feast in which huge quantities of Colibrie Birds [or humming birds] were cooked and eaten. The plumes of these small birds were used as accessories. The Chima became obsessed with this victory and the ensuing celebrations causing them to forget that the delicious Colibrie birds were really the spirits of their ancestors. As a result, the winged God opened up the earth and summoned up a lake of pitch that consumed the entire Chima village and its people.

Whether we can thank young lovers or a winged god, the result is a magnificent and peculiar but little-known natural wonder. All the more reason to visit.