Just off the tip of my nose, I swear, are two of the skinniest legs in Trinidad. And the head perched a top the body supported by these spindly twigs is talking non-stop, sounding like a two-wheeled motivational speaker, urging us up a steep, muddy pitch.
"You guys will curse me, swear at me, but at the top, you will thank me," says Derick Legall, shop owner and our guide on the day's ride, his infectious good nature undaunted by a sweltering sun.
The group I'm riding with resembles a United Nations peacekeeping force, with a full palette of skin tones, some sporting body armor, all with helmets cinched down tight. Yet, aside from my friend and me--the two Americans on board--everyone in the group is from Trinidad. We're a microcosm of the diversity that defines this island nation. And all of us share one passion--riding. We've already sampled the rooty, rocky technical track that leads up to Edith Falls in Trinidad's northwest corner. Right now, though, we're all carrying our bikes up the slippery backside of Tucker Valley, blindly believing in Legall's promise of a life-changing experience.
A few huffs and puffs later, we're back on the bikes, jamming on a swerving, rolling ridgeline singletrack that's splitting a corridor of tropical overgrowth. Through the dense vegetation, I spy a hint of ocean, but don't dare let my attention drift from the trail. Within moments, we burst into a clearing, the trail running right along the edge of a sheer, 1,000-foot drop. We stop to pay homage to a stunning panorama--the glistening Caribbean waters, powder-blue skies, and the deep-water harbor of Macqueripe Bay, which once housed a U.S. naval base. Large black vultures, called corbeaux, circle below us.
"Not bad, eh," says Legall, his pearly whites gleaming.
"Damn near perfect," I reply, laughing.
The trail, and the surrounding views, are some of the most amazing I've ever laid eyes on. David Hackshaw, a 38-year-old landscaper along on the ride, nods in agreement. He leans over, and whispers in almost conspiratorial tones: "Nobody knows about this stuff."
That's about to change.
The next Costa Rica
Trinidad and Tobago, a tiny, two-island Caribbean country off the northern coast of South America, used to register on my radar once every four years, when its national soccer team played the giant U.S. of A tooth-and-nail for entry into the World Cup. Thing is, most Americans that I know (at least those who aren't into soccer) don't know much--if anything--about Trinidad and Tobago.
And so far, that's been our loss--especially for mountain bikers. Think a Caribbean vacation is all fun, sun, surfing, diving, crystal-clear aqua-blue waters lapping against powdery white sand, pleasantly numbing cocktails? Well, yes, and Trinidad and Tobago have all that. But here, beyond the beaches and kicking back with a few cool ones, there's another island pleasure: lush hillsides with incredible riding trails.
In truth, T&T are sure to be next in a string of well-known fat-tire island paradises--this is a land of almost unimaginable beauty and variety, from the people to the plant life, the wildlife to the nightlife. You also find oppressive poverty against this backdrop of extraordinary natural riches, but for a visitor, the juxtaposition makes for an unvarnished, sometimes jolting experience. The good and the bad--it's all part of this complex country.
The pedaling can be unvarnished as well. Despite a fairly impressive history of road and track cycling in the country, the sport has fallen on hard times lately. Fifty-one-year-old Leslie King, a member of the 1968 and 1972 Olympic cycling teams, confides that motorists are a lot less accommodating these days. A quick drive through the narrow roads of the capital city of Port of Spain convinces any doubters. The city wasn't designed for a population boom and all the cars that came with it. Lead-footed drivers careen down narrow roads littered with table-sized potholes and lined with open drainage trenches. I fear for my life as honking cars pass within inches--and I'm sitting in a bus.
But it's because of the great boom in automobiles that cyclists started taking their rides off road. Smart move, since the abundance of terrain is overwhelming. In six days, we rode through rainforests and evergreen forests, along ancient trade routes and hunting paths, and sampled new singletrack built by locals inspired by American cycling magazines and the Outdoor Life Network. It's all good, provided you bring the right frame of mind.
Bring the right frame of mind - and spare parts
The trails of Trinidad's northern range, and its smaller, cigar-shaped sister island, Tobago, beckon hard-core cyclists, but require a pioneering spirit. These aren't well-traveled routes. And the topography, highlighted by the 3,085-foot El Cerro del Aripo, is raw and intimidating. In the rainforests particularly, aggressive plant species can quickly take back a trail, and heavy showers can reduce the best routes to mud-filled quagmires. As my friend Ivan Charles would say, "You must remember, this is still a Third World country." Buff it's not.
"It's a very robust ecosystem," says Courtenay Rooks, the bespectacled owner of Rooks Nature Tours and managing director of Paria Springs Eco-Community, who led us on our first day out into the dense bush that passes on the maps as a trade route between the northern towns of La Croix and Paria. "This trail, if no one else comes through, won't be here next week."
We'd started the day with a teeth-chattering, rim-rattling drop from the Aripo Mountains. The battered backcountry roads, slick with rain and peppered with switchbacks, provide a hair-raising wake-up call. I'm glad I brought my own bike. Conditions here will punish those with unfamiliar equipment. Columns of mist rise from the verdant valley floor, meeting a bank of overhanging clouds and pushing them past the saturation point.
"What you're seeing is the forest actually raining on itself," says Rooks.
At least it's a warm rain.
We see plenty of water over the next few days, and it takes a toll on our gear. My brake pads, after a day of wild descents and muddy bogs, are worn to bare metal. (Always bring spare parts.) We spend the better part of the next day trying to find a shop in the bustling village of Arima for replacement pads.
If you're fussy, bring a sleeping bag too. Accommodations in Paria and other villages can be as unsophisticated as the trails. Rooks offers an authentic island experience for his guests--one that includes bats darting through the eaves, tarantulas clinging to the walls, and some of the most delicious Caribbean cooking found anywhere.
"I want visitors to eat the food local people eat, and stay at a place like local people have," Rooks says. He's certainly succeeded in offering us an authentic experience.
Beware the second bite
For Rooks, mountain biking is the natural progression in the evolution of Trinidad and Tobago's promising eco-tourism business. A bike tour with him is a rolling ecology classroom. We learn this island of only 1,864 square miles cooks up a robust biological stew, with more than 100 species of mammals, 500 species of birds, 600 species of butterflies and 2,000 flowering plants. We're introduced to daytime flying bats--which evolved to avoid nighttime competition--armies of industrious leaf-cutting ants, and, at one point, a poisonous bushmaster snake hidden underneath deadfall smack in the middle of a trail at Arena Plantation.
"Its venom is a hemotoxin, which means it will attack your blood cells, causing them to burst," says Rooks. "The first bite is very painful, but rarely lethal. The second bite, however, can be much more dangerous, and require immediate hospitalization."
For our last day in Trinidad, Rooks hands us over to Derick Legall. Legall, owner of the curiously named Merlin Genuine Spare Parts in Port of Spain, becomes our tour guide for the roller-coaster trails to the shores of Macqueripe Bay.
After our ride is complete, I thank Legall, just as he predicted. I also mention we're heading to Tobago the next morning for a one-day tour. He flashes his trademark megawatt smile. "Make them show you Chocolate Cake," he says. "It's something special."
Dessert on a small island
Saving the best for last, we shuttle to Tobago aboard a British West Indies Airline jet. Soon afterwards, we're among the big, meaty curves and lush vegetation that characterize this volcanic island. Eamon Healy-Singh and Mark "Chi" Santano are our guides--a couple of rasta friends who came to check out Tobago, and never left.
"You'll love this stuff," says Healy-Singh, his eyes practically vibrating. "It's hyper."
Led by Healy-Singh, Santano and a clean-cut birthday boy, Sean "Ice" de Frietas, we embark on a series of butt-tightening downhills that have my heart in my throat and my brakes on overload. We warm up along "Coke Kills" and "Indian Walk," careful to avoid the dreaded gru gru beve, a native palm tree with thin spikes that readily break off in your skin, or your inner tube. Patch kits are mandatory. So are seatpost quick releases, which our guides use regularly to lower their seats on particularly insane inclines.
Lusting for more, we head across a shortcut dubbed "My Way," to Tobago's showcase trail. "Betty Crocker don't want no part of this Chocolate Cake," says Healy-Singh.
Staring down the nasty, high-consequence ramp, I can understand why. Chocolate Cake is a two-mile collection of unrelenting high-banked turns and gullies, disappearing under a thick canopy of tropical vegetation. Ahead of me, de Frietas is howling an impulsive burst of joy as he rips a wild line.
"I couldn't ask for anything better than that--just coming out at the bottom in one piece," he says, with a childlike grin that belies his 30 years.
The trail spills out to a beach on Tobago's north coast, with soothing sand and a rip-curl surf. We take a moment to work the knots out of our forearms and calves, before again hoisting bikes on our shoulders. The hike back up the hill is a grunt, but what dessert doesn't come at a cost? It's our last day here, and I'm happy to pay the price. Thankful, even. I've been let in on the secret. Now you have, too.
Plan your own trip
Want to take the perfect mountain biking/island vacation? Start your planning here.
For Trinidad: Tourism and Industrial Development Company of Trinidad & Tobago: 868/623-6022-3; www.visitTNT.com
Rooks Nature Tours/Paria Springs Eco-Community: 868/622-8826; www.pariasprings.com
Wildways Caribbean Adventure Travel: 868/623-7332; www.wildways.org
And, of course, once you're in Trinidad, be sure to look up Derick Legall's Merlin Spare Parts: Invaders Bay, Wrightson Road, Port of Spain, Trinidad; 868/623-9184
For Tobago-specific riding: Check out www.mountainbikingtobago.com or call 868/639-9709.