La Brea Pitch Lake
Trinidad

The La Brea tar pit of southern Iere...


Golden Compass

"Tierra de Brea", the "Land of Tar" was the original name of the area surrounding the La Brea Pitch Lake in southern Trinidad. Pitch is just an archaic English word used by Trinidadians, which simply means tar, or emulsified asphalt to be accurate.

The indigenous Caribs and Arawaks called the black stuff "Piche", and believed that the Pitch Lake, formed by the gods as punishment, swallowed an entire a tribe after they ate humming birds, which were believed to be the souls of their departed ancestors.

Suited visitors look across the Pitch Lake in the early 1900s Sir Walter Raleigh 

When Sir Walter Raleigh "discovered" the Pitch Lake in 1595, it was already known as the Tierra de Brea, it's Spanish name, by the Amerindians guides who introduced Sir Walter to the 95-acre lake of black gold.

Sir Walter Raleigh immediately recognized the potential, even if he did not discover the lake, and began caulking his ships with the tar; proclaiming it "most excellent good", far better in fact than the tar being used at the time in England.

Men extracting the pitch from the Pitch Lake by hand Raleigh Exports Tar 

On his second voyage to Trinidad, Sir Walter Raleigh seized the opportunity to take some of the black gold home with him, where it was used to pave Westminster Bridge for the opening of Parliament. Unfortunately the raw pitch melted in the sun, as it has a tendency to do, covering horses hooves and gumming up carriage wheels.

Since that time however, tar from the La Brea Pitch Lake in Trinidad has been used to provide high grade road surfaces not only in Trinidad, Tobago and the other islands of the Caribbean, but it has also paved streets in over 50 countries including the United States of America, England, India, Singapore, Egypt, and even Japan.

Looking across the La Brea Pitch Lake in Trinidad La Brea’s Pitch Lake 

The La Brea Pitch Lake, once considered to be the 8th wonder of the world, is the worlds largest natural deposit of emulsified asphalt.

While not all areas are completely safe, it is possible to walk across the lake, which some disappointed visitors described as looking much like a parking lot. But when you visit you will find that Pitch Lake is not like any parking lot you've ever walked across...

Rather, the surface of the lake is gray and wrinkled like the hide of an elephant or dinosaur, blood warm to the touch, blistered in places, yielding slightly when trodden upon like living flesh. So it's more like treading upon the flank of some immense prone beast, a gigantic mammoth lying prostrate in the sun.

Lush vegetation surrounding the La Brea Pitch Lake in Trinidad Saturn's Moon Titan 

The Pitch Lake is alive: Not only are the pools at its edges alive with fish, reeds and pink and purple water lilies, which are surrounded with a profusion of Cashew, Tonca Bean, Breadfruit, Guava and palm trees...

But during a recent study, connected with The European Space Agency's exploration of exposed hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn's moon Titan, it was discovered that microbes live and breed beneath the surface of the tar in the lake. A discovery that may one day help answer the question whether or not life exists on other planets.

For more information you can read the transcript of ABC's Science Show on discovering new life in Trinidad's Pitch Lake.

Red-shirted guide showing a visitor the  The Mother of La Brea's Pitch Lake 

Picture the La Brea Pitch Lake in Trinidad like a pot on very slow boil, and the plates you walk on as similar to the tectonic plates of Earth's crust.

These plates are in constant slow motion and where they meet you'll see what local guides call "the mother", soft petroleum seams that lubricate the shifting plates of semi-solid asphalt, and supply much of the sulfur to the ribbons of water that section up the lake.

In the wet season, when the water is deeper, locals bathe in these rain water pools believing, not without some merit, that these sulfur rich waters can cure all manner of skin maladies including rashes, pimples, infections, mosquito bites and even psoriasis.

If you visit during the rainy season wear shorts, or travel with a bathing suite and a towel. Bathing in these sun warmed, sulfur rich waters is an experience you won't find anywhere else in the world, and doing so will definitely add to the uniqueness of your visit.

The slowley shifting plates of Trinidad's Pitch Lake in La Brea La Brea Tar Pit Origin 

This tar pit, the La Brea Pitch Lake, is believed to be the result of 2 phenomena:

The first is the intersection of the Barbados Arc, an arm of the Caribbean Plate, with the Los Bajos fault, and the resulting subduction crushing oil-bearing rocks beneath, which release petroleum that percolates to the surface through fissures in the form of emulsified asphalt.

The second phenomenon is related to the volcanic forces that create numerous mud volcanoes in southern Trinidad. This volcanic activity mixes the oil, seeping through the colliding plates, with water and fine clay, and gives rise to the Pitch Lake, which is believed to be some 250 feet deep at it's center. It is estimated that at current mechanized levels of commercial extraction there is enough tar to last for 400 years.

For more information about the Geology of the Pitch Lake you can check out the Geological Society of Trinidad and Tobago's paper on the area.

La Brea Pitch Lake Visitor Center, southern Trinidad La Brea Village 

Underground fissures or fingers of asphalt cause the entire area around the La Brea Pitch Lake to be unstable, road surfaces to buckle and building foundations to sink.

As a result roads are often roller coaster like, and the predominately wooden homes of villagers must be propped up regularly as one corner of the building or the other sinks into the ground.

Water lilies grow profusely at the La Brea Pitch Lake Stories & Examples 

There's much at the Pitch Lake for active inquiring minds to explore.

Stories both old and new for a good guide to entertain you with during your 45-minute tour. Stories of past and sometimes unhealthy uses like during the 1920s when tar from the La Brea Pitch Lake was burnt to fumigate Port-of-Spain after an outbreak of smallpox, not that it did anyone much good.

Red-shirted official guides at the La Brea Pitch Lake in Trinidad Choosing a Guide 

Be weary when choosing guide, while there are many local residents who are eager to show you around the lake for a fee, we suggest that you drive into La Brea Pitch Lake Visitor Center and hire an official red-shirted guide for the very reasonable price of $30TT, approximately $5US, £3UK or €3.50EUR, which includes safe and secure parking.

Sailing ships being loaded with tar at the turn of the last century, La Brea, Trinidad Museum Exhibit 

There is also a new Museum Exhibit at the Visitor Center, which pays homage to the unique topography and prehistoric history of La Brea, explores the early settlement of Trinidad's first people, the myths of El Dorado and Sir Walter Raleigh's visits, the La Brea Pitch Lake's connection with the worlds first oil well, and other interesting facts about the unique history of the area and the continuing extraction and export of pitch from the lake.

The La Brea tar pit is a great place to visit when combined with other tours like exploring the East Indian culture of Central Trinidad, a visit to the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, or even a trip to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary.

Request more information about tours to the La Brea Pitch Lake.

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East Indian Culture Tour
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List of Trinidad and Tobago Tours

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