In his 18 years as a licensed tour guide, Garvin Charles has taken countless tourists from around the world to experience La Brea’s famous Pitch Lake – and learned about their countries as well.
“I’ve done tours for people from everywhere – Somalia, China, Russia, USA, UK, Canada and even within the Caribbean,” the cheerful 59-year-old told me, as we sat in the receiving area at the Pitch Lake Visitor Centre.
Charles’ favourite part of being a tour guide is sharing the lake, which is such an integral and emblematic part of La Brea, with the world. He's well acquainted with the various myths and legends about its origins and history, as well as the actual geological and scientific explanations for its myriad phenomena. And even though he’s never left Trinidad, he likes to think he’s learnt as much about different cultures in the world just from befriending the visitors who come to tour the lake.
When Business Day spoke with Charles on Sunday, he had just returned from giving a tour to a young couple, Nathan and Megan Braski, from Minnesota in the US. Nathan, whose mother is Trinidadian, had visited the lake once before when he was very young, but was excited to bring his wife to experience what is often called one of the natural wonders of the world.
Charles was born and raised in La Brea. The Pitch Lake has, therefore, always been part of his life. He worked in his younger years at Lake Asphalt Ltd and then at a dry-docking facility repairing boats. But he was always passionate about sharing the Pitch Lake with others. “I became a tour guide long ago. When (my friends and I) were children, we would hop on to the trucks that would be going for the pitch and listen to what the older men on site would be saying, as they explained the lake to visitors. It was then I decided that was what I wanted to do.”
Tours of the Pitch Lake last on average 45 minutes, but can be a little longer if visitors decide to take a bath in the mineral-rich lakes that form naturally from rainfall. Chock full of sulphur, iron and copper, among countless other elements, the waters of the Pitch Lake are renowned for their purported benefit for a variety of skin ailments from psoriasis and eczema to hives and sunburn. For best results, Charles advises visitors with skin conditions to come in March when, at the height of the dry season, the minerals are most concentrated and will work the best.
Other highlights include walking along the elephant skin (the solid top layer of the lake, which because of its wrinkled appearance resembles, well, the skin of an elephant) and a trip to the “mother of the lake” – spots along the surface where molten pitch has oozed through – a popular photo op for tourists who can use a stick to prod the viscosity of the material. Charles in particular likes to take tourists to soft spots on the lake where the pitch is squishy but not tacky, so visitors can walk along barefoot for a natural massage. “It was very therapeutic,” Megan told me, laughing.
People often think the Pitch Lake is a big bubbling pit, Charles said, so when they see it and realise they can walk on it and even swim in it, they are amazed.
Tours prices are a bargain for what’s on offer – just $30 for adults and $12 for children 12 and under. Children under six are free. And for groups that are more than 20, the rate is $25 per adult and $9 for children. That price includes parking on the compound of the visitors’ facility. “We know sometimes not everyone can afford even that so we are willing to negotiate and still take them on the lake because we want them to have the experience,” he said. The official tour guides pool and share this money among themselves. They are not paid official wages by the Tourism Ministry or any other tourism agency; it's almost a community service.
The visitor’s centre is maintained by the ministry, and there’s even a free museum that’s only opened on weekdays. A liaison officer is stationed at the centre to take a record of the number of visitors but is also only on duty during the week, which, when one considers the number of visitors on the weekend (on Sunday there were at least three different tours happening simultaneously with multiple participants), seems inefficient.
And even though there are signs imploring visitors to use official tour guides (there are seven licensed guides working out of the centre), there is a thriving black market, where unlicensed tour guides try to poach visitors claiming alternative routes and experiences – and charging as much as US$20 (TT$140) per head for basically the same tour. (On my visit to the Pitch Lake, one such guide tried to convince me to eschew the official guides for his services, claiming the route was flooded and he knew a better way.)
Charles and his other official guides have to renew their tour guide licences every year at the district magistrates’ court. It costs $25 for the licence and $50 for a police certificate of good character. The unofficial tour guides don’t have to do that.
“We have invited them to come into the system but they want to get everything. All the perks and not contribute to anything,” Charles said.
The police are supposed to monitor the situation, and the Ministry of Tourism and the various tourism agencies have written to complain about the situation, Charles said, but nothing has happened.
The peak season for tours are Christmas into Carnival and the July/August school holidays. During that time, there can be an average of five tours a day. That’s significantly fewer than when Charles first became a tour guide when, he said, some days could average 20 tours a day.
Crime, he suggested, is a big contributor to the drop in interest. There’s also a lack of advertising and promotion by the government and the relevant state tourism agencies. It’s more word of mouth advertising than anything else.
And a lack of adequate and easy to follow signage – coupled with digital maps using GPS to find the “fastest route” – can complicate matters. “Even with the directions to come here, a lot of people get lost trying to come. If they take the highway (like map apps might suggest they do), they might take the wrong route and come out past the Pitch Lake, although it’s easier to come along the old Southern Main Road.”
Still, despite the challenges, Charles gets joy every day from giving these tours. “I get to meet people from all walks of life, and seeing their faces light up when they experience the lake makes me very happy.”