Chacachacare Island

View of the nunnery from the jetty

I have been fascinated by Chacachacare island since I first read about it a few years ago in a book by Elizabeth Nunez named Prospero’s Daughter: A Novel. Now virtually abandoned (except for a small staff that maintains the lighthouse), the island is the westernmost of the Bocas islands (which lie between Trinidad and Venzuela) and is only eight miles from the Venezuelan coast. At various times in its history Chacachacare has served as a leper colony, a whaling station and a cotton plantation. It also housed almost 1000 US soldiers during the Second World War.

I had the opportunity to visit Chacachacare last Sunday with Papa Bois Hikes. We caught a very comfortable cabin cruiser from the Trinidad & Tobago Yacht Club in Westmoorings with about 15 other people and were met at Chac by another group that had taken a boat from Chaguaramas – our ride lasting about 45 minutes in very calm water. The boat took us past all of the outlying islands (where many Trinidadians go ‘down the islands’) including Carrera island which is used as a prison.

Chacachacare (meaning ‘cotton island’ in Amerinindian) is very green and bushy but as our guide explained, the Northern Mountain Range in Trinidad actually pulls rain away from the island so it only gets about 14″ a year (some parts of the Northern Range get up to 4ft!). The plants on Chac have adapted, either becoming succulent, poisonous or growing thorns.

The small cemetery has the graves of some of the nuns who
worked at the Leprosarium and died from the disease themselves

I was horrified at how much garbage has been left on the island even with all of the “no garbage” signs. One of the guides explained that there is a certain party cruise that lands there which does not provide garbage bags so the entire landing area and down to La Tinta beach is just unsightly with cans, plastic bottles, paper plates and various other bits of junk that people have just left there. I find it disgusting that anyone can go to such a beautiful place and think it’s OK to turn it into a garbage dump! Luckily most of the garbage is confined to that area and the rest of the island is fairly unspoiled.

Our guides took us from the jetty, which is on the western side of the island, across a small spit of land to La Tinta Beach which faces Venezuela. From there, you can see mainland South America as well as a small island named Patos which once belonged to Trinidad but which was ceded to Venezuela in 1942 – when asked what Trinidad got in exchange, our guide explained that Trinidad was not made a colony of Venezuela!

As we made our way up a paved road (built by the US military) towards the lighthouse (supposedly the oldest in the western hemisphere), I was fascinated by the hundreds of corbeaux (vultures) circling in the air – at times I felt like they were just waiting for one of us to collapse from the heat! It’s a strenuous hour-long hike up the hill and on the way the guides took the group into the bush to see some old US military installations. As a non-hiker and having my seven-year-old daughter with me, I decided not go with the main group, instead a few of us went down to a small beach where we relaxed in the warm, green water. After a few hours, the rest of the hikers joined us for lunch and a swim. It was all very civilized and charming; one of my fellow hikers even brought wine and plastic wine glasses, carried to the beach in a cooler from the boat by the captain in his small dingy.

Hiking to the nunnery

When lunch was over, we all hiked to the abandoned nunnery, a fairly easy 40-minute walk through the bush. On arrival, we explored the old buildings and the cemetery, which are slowly being reclaimed by the forest. The nuns’ sleeping quarters are very creepy, set amongst the overgrown trees which even in bright daylight make the ruins gloomy and mysterious. It’s easy to see why the buildings became a subject for Ghost Hunters International, especially if you carefully make your way upstairs and see the bizarre person-shaped cutouts in the wooden walls (it’s believed these are where statues were fastened and it was just easier to take out the wall than detach the statue). My imagination started to play tricks with me and when a bat flew out of the building, my heart nearly flew through my chest!

The old chapel and admin buildings are still standing too although all of the buildings have unfortunately been defaced by graffiti and some of the wooden walls, floors and ceilings have been torn up to fuel campfires. The view from the admin building is pretty spectacular and, being made from concrete, felt the safest to me. I just wish that I had carried more water as it was hot and humid and we ran out when we got to the nunnery.

The group had wanted to visit the old lepers’ colony but unfortunately did not have the time. Of course that means that I will have to go back because that is one place I really did want to see.

We got back to Yacht Club around 6pm, just in time for some beastly cold beers at the bar and some excellent conversation. Many thanks to Marc and Papa Bois Hikes – what a great day! And thanks to Stacey Williams for allowing me to use her images!