Lepers and Lighthouses - Pt. 2

Exploring Chacachacare Island, Trinidad

We had a hard time figuring out where to find the path to the lighthouse. We had climbed it once before, but access had seemed more evident. During the week, men had been working, in a rather desultory manner, on an old, decrepit public wharf which proved to be inaccessible by the dinghy. The wharf area was all fenced in. Behind it, we could see a sign welcoming us to Chacachacare Island. Dozens of vultures stood sentry, not bothered in the least by our presence, just daring us to come ashore. We had found a hiking map for Chacachacare on line, but the shore road delineated on the map had collapsed. It appeared however, that the road to the lighthouse led from the wharf. We beached the dinghy nearby.

vultures on the welcome sign

On shore, empty oil drums were everywhere...some overflowing with trash, others knocked over with trash spilling out of them. Tens of torn, black plastic trash bags disgorged their contents. Plastic bottles, beer bottles and rubbish was thick on the shore. A No Littering sign stood firmly in the midst of the junk and debris.

no littering sign

We carefully picked our way through the rubbish and found the asphalt road leading up to the lighthouse. The first few hundred feet were covered in trash, but soon the trash was left behind (obviously it's inconvenient to litter further up a steep hill) and we were climbing the pleasant, albeit steep, switch-backed road to the summit of the hill (825'/251.5m) where the lighthouse stood. The Brits built the lighthouse in 1876 and cut the road to the top. Hardy weeds poked through the crumbling asphalt and remnants of a sturdy, retaining wall could be glimpsed midst the heavy jungle foliage.

retaining wall

We climbed and climbed, stopping for brief respites in shady spots. Cotton plants bloomed and rotten bolls hung from the blossoms. Colorful butterflies and dragonflies flitted past. Birds sang in the trees. And, as always, vultures circled overhead.


We remembered reaching the top on our last visit. The lighthouse was still tended then and we chatted with the lighthouse keeper. The area was kept fairly neat and tidy. We took turns swinging on an old swing suspended from a sturdy branch. What a change! Old diesel oil drums were haphazardly lined up like undisciplined soldiers...some in the bush, rolled half way down the hill. Trash and debris was scattered all over. The old swing hung limply, the thick weed patch below it testifying to its disuse.

old swing

The once stately Bocas Lighthouse was faded and in sad shape. Solar panels had been added. No lighthouse keeper was needed any longer. The area was all fenced in and an unsightly, erector-set communications tower stood beside it. A committee of vultures had established their territorial presence on both structures and had no intention of moving away.


We ambled back down the path, much faster on the descent than the ascent had been. We always see new sights when the path is viewed from a new perspective. An abandoned oropendula nest suspended from a bamboo tree, swayed in the breeze. Several different species of butterflies fluttered past. Birds twittered away in the dense foliage, keeping themselves well hidden.

oropendula nest

We returned to the dinghy and headed back to Cups. We weren't really disappointed, as much as dismayed by the volume of trash and garbage that had accumulated and remained in such a beautiful place. We remembered a sign in a bus in Ecuador years ago which read “Keep this bus clean. Throw trash out the window.” Chacachacare Island remains under the auspices of Trinidad's national parks system, but it appears it's an orphaned child. It would take an army to clean it up and haul all the refuse away. We postulated that a prison work detail would make a good dent in it, but then who would continue to keep it up? We're hopeful that the workers we saw on the wharf are the beginning of a solid reclamation project.

After five days in our blessedly peaceful Chacachacare anchorage, it was time to face the congestion and frenzy of Chaguaramas. Sigh! We waited till the very last minute and sailed across the bay just a couple of hours before our scheduled haul-out time. No more tranquil anchorage. No refreshing evening dips. Back to reality.

Lepers and Lighthouses - Pt. 1

Exploring Chacachacare Island, Trinidad

Chacachacare Island is only 7nm from Chaguaramas, but it's a whole different world here. It's calm and quiet (at least during the week) and it's steeped in local history. In the past, the island has been a tobacco and a cotton plantation, a whaling station, a leper colony and a base for US troops during WWII. We explored the island with friends when we visited Trinidad in 2002 . We decided to take time from our task schedule (read that Marcie convinced the captain) to make a couple of early morning forays ashore and explore again. Our memories being what they are, it was a whole new experience this time.

From Nine of Cups' deck, we could see a dilapidated building that time, weather and vandals have nearly destroyed. A decrepit, old cement jetty, reputedly from the old whaling station, is now unusable except by a squadron of perching pelicans.

old building on chacachacare island

We dinghied ashore, picked our way carefully through the detritus, rubble and mounds of litter to check it out more closely. There wasn't much to see. A faded sign informed us that the Dominican nuns had established a leper colony on Chacachacare Island in 1924. The adjacent map was so faded, it could not be read. Any existing paths were long since overgrown. Incidentally, this was the leper's island that Papillon had escaped to … the nuns turned him in to the officials.

Through the dense jungle foliage, remains of other old buildings could be seen. A stone staircase climbed to nowhere. Piles of debris, plastic bags and bottles were strewn everywhere … it wasn't a pretty sight. But the gravel beach was a great place for finding smooth, colored sea glass ...mostly green.


steps to nowhere on chacachacare island

Across the bay, we could see three large buildings straddling the hillside. Even from a distance, they appeared abandoned. These were the main buildings of the leprosarium and included the nunnery, a hospital and a chapel. We dinghied over, tied up at a small, covered dock and climbed up a steep, but well-defined, shady, stone-step path to inspect the buildings. Small lizards rustled in the leaves and skittered across our path. It smelled damp and earthy.

stone step path on chacachacare island

These buildings were in sad shape, too, but better condition than those across the bay. Graffiti covered the walls... inside and out. A sign warned us of asbestos, but honestly, there was more chance of the building collapsing on us than of contracting asbestosis. Floorboards were torn out or rotted; doors yanked from their jambs; the foundation and walls were crumbling.

graffiti on the buildings

We proceeded up the path to the chapel. It was quite ornate, especially for nuns, with some of the gingerbreading still in situ. When we were here last time, there were still small shards of stained glass in the windows. This time, nothing was left.

gingerberad decorations

The plastered walls of the apse were disintegrating and leaves covered the concrete floor, but the graceful roof structure remained intact.

chapel apse

The hospital was not easily accessible. What the jungle had not overtaken, vandals had. We gave it a pass.


Further up the path, in a quiet, fenced area overlooking the bay, was the nun's cemetery. Above each of the ten stone-covered graves, a small plaque showed the name, birth-death dates and place of birth for each Dominican nun who had died on the island.

nun's cemetery

It's interesting, but eerie walking around in a place like this. As we descended the path back to the dinghy dock, a vulture perched on the top of the roof and eyed us furtively. Time to head back to Cups. Our next foray will be climbing the steep road to the lighthouse on another part of the island. Take a breather, have a cuppa and join us tomorrow.

Unwinding at Chacachacare Island

Customs and Immigration are pretty strict in Trinidad. They require a tie-up at the Custom's dock (though they don't inspect the vessel) and immediate check-in upon arrival. We were all secure and tied up at the dock at 0845 and standing in line at 0900. The lines at Immigration and Customs were long and slow. We filled out all the requisite forms in duplicate and triplicate, using well-worn carbon paper that Columbus had no doubt used sometime in the past. The waiting area had lots of seats and a movie was playing on the TV. When we were finally called to the front counter, the Immigration officer was pleasant and informative. An hour later, we headed to Customs. We filled in several more forms providing all the same information we had provided to Immigration, paid our TT$50 (~US$9) and headed back to Cups. We dawdled long enough to pick up a SIM card and a data package for Internet, check with YSAT for a mooring and say hello to Sharon Rose and Jesse at Members Only, the SSCA Cruising Station Hosts whom we'd met on our last visit to Trinidad in 2002. YSAT had no moorings available and observing the crowded anchorage on our way in was discouraging. What to do? We remembered enjoying the anchorage off Chacachacare Island back in 2002. New Customs rules required a permit to go there. David went back to the Customs office to ask, and amazingly, the officer provided the permit within minutes.

We threaded our way back through the madding crowd of masts and frenzied boat traffic, past all the marinas, past Gasparillo Island and out of Chagaramas Bay. Just 7 nm away was a calm, beautiful paradise. We dropped the hook on the north side of Chacachacare Bay in 15' of clear, we-can-see-the-bottom water. Not another boat was in sight.

chacachacare island chart

First things first … we considered this the end of our passage from Cape Town to Trinidad and Neptune was due his tot of rum.

thanks neptune

We had a long list of chores and things to accomplish before we hauled Nine of Cups, but we had a few days to complete them and after several nights with minimal sleep, we opted to take the rest of the day off. No work … just relaxation … and a little planning. We had a late afternoon lunch and sipped cold beer, then took a refreshing dip in the cool, clear water. We watched some brown pelicans sitting on an old cement pier watching their cousins swoop and dive and soar gracefully inches above the water. Vultures circled overhead, but they weren't waiting for us. We had our work schedule and lists all planned, but tomorrow is another day.

vultures at trinidad

Chacachacare Island, by the way, is quite an historical place. Over the years it has been a whaling station, a leper colony, a cotton plantation and, during WWII, an American military base. We can see an abandoned building ashore and other abandoned buildings across the bay. Midst the planned work schedule, I'm sure we'll do a bit of exploring. Hmm … I'd better let the Captain know.

cups at anchor