The most westerly and possibly the farthest isle away from Tobago in the same country is Chacachacare. It lies in the Bocas, the body of water that separates the northwest peninsula of Trinidad from Venezuela.
This island is a reflection of our human history from colonisation, slavery, revolutions, agriculture, war and disease.
Today, Chacachacare is visited by boaters and hikers who take the half-hour trek west to the island to swim in calm sheltered bays and wander the overgrown roads that lead to the lighthouse in the north, and to the famous salt pond in the south, on paths that have been trodden for hundreds of years.
The records of Chacachacare date back to pre-Columbian times. Archaeologists have discovered Amerindian presence in middens, piles of shells, pottery and food remains. In 1498, when Christopher Columbus rediscovered TT, his fleet stayed one night in what they called Monkey Harbour (back then it was inhabited by the red howler monkeys).
Under Spanish rule during the 1700s, Chacachacare was converted to a cotton estate. It is thought that the name Chacachacare was derived from the Amerindian word for cotton – Chac – and the family name of the estate owner, Don Geraldo Carry.
At the end of the 1700s, Carry also began whaling, as whale oil was becoming economically viable and whaling stations were set up on several islands in the Bocas.
By the 1800s the British had taken control of Trinidad, but the cotton industry and whaling continued on the island for most of the 1800s, even when slaves were emancipated in 1834. By mid-1800s some 400 people lived on the tiny island, enough to have a church. A lighthouse was also erected.
In 1845, an outbreak of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) resulted in the assembly of an asylum in Cocorite. In 1865, the Dominican Sisters arrived in Trinidad to assist in the treatment and care of the patients. Realising the difficulty of keeping the disease from spreading, plans were put in place to establish facilities on Chacachacare to care for them in isolation. A church, presbytery and leprosarium were constructed. The patients were rounded up in the early hours of May 10, 1922 and moved to the island. Here, the men and women lived separately in adjacent bays – Coco Bay for men, and Sanders Bay for the women.
The sisters worked tirelessly for their patients for over 22 years, until there was a cure for leprosy and the remaining patients were able to be treated, a slow and painful process. In 1945, there were 388 patients. In 1946, the Sisters of Mercy took over from the Dominican Sisters and continued to care for some 375 patients.
During World War II, the connection between Chacachacare and the rest of the world closed in as the nuns saw a German submarine make its way towards Port of Spain in 1942.
The following year, Chacachacare was selected as a strategic location to station American marines, who built barracks and a medical unit on the island. About 300 marines were stationed in nine military barracks adjacent to the leper facility until 1947. Leper residents continued to live on the island up to 1984.
Today, the island is administered by the Chaguaramas Development Authority. When I visited last week, it was hard to believe that this quiet island bore such a history. Below the canopy of trees, we spied ancient buildings hollowed out and dilapidated from years of neglect.
On the island, we had a mission to visit the salt pond in the south, which may have been dammed over hundreds of years ago or naturally occurring, as it is something commonly found on the drier islands of the Caribbean.
The trek to the lake from La Tinta Bay on the western side followed an old pitch road that is heavily overgrown with vegetation, including cotton plants, cacti and leather plants adapted to the dry conditions. Along the first stretch of the road, we came across the one panel van working on the island and the two workers, who were likely the lighthouse keepers or maintenance crew heading to the lighthouse.
We followed the road to the jetty and meandered along a destroyed seawall to a neighbouring beach with strewn plastic bottles and bags almost as common as the pebbles on the beach. The shallow underwater environments seem to be covered in algae and devoid of fish. I wondered whether the environmental problems of today are our signature on an island that already reflects so much history. Or will we, through ecological and cultural conservation as a national parks area, revive Chacachacare?
We continued along the beach in search of the road to lead us to the salt pond. The path took us around the pond, and we entered the lake from the rocky beach. The lake looks refreshing and inviting to any visitor trying to escape the heat, but a swim will catch everyone by surprise.
The salt pond, which is over 200 metres in diameter, has about four or five times the salinity of the ocean, making the water denser; it is the lake you can never drown in, although it can easily dehydrate you. Naturally, we had to go in and try our buoyancy, and the lake did not disappoint. You can stand upright in the water without kicking and have your shoulders inches above the water.
Salt ponds are naturally formed when a bay gets enclosed by sand or coral rubble along a coastline. Eventually, mangroves grew along the edges, stabilising the substrate even further. Ground seepage maintains the flow of seawater into the pond and evaporation makes the water extremely salty.
There are few organisms that can tolerate such salty conditions, including microbes, species of worms and crustaceans and even some birds.
Our hike to this interesting offshore island highlighted two things: firstly, the resilience of nature and the island, to grow over old buildings and infrastructure; and how quickly human land use can change and be erased over a few decades. Chacachacare is one of about two dozen islets and rocks off TT’s coasts, each an interesting habitat and ecosystem to be explored and studied.