When Melissa Ramnarine and the Palance 868 Adventures Club sat down to have refreshments on one of their trips to Paramin about two years ago, they got the fright of their lives.
"All of a sudden we heard a scream that sounded very scary. It's a very steep hill up; you don't see the bottom from the top. Everybody was hearing the beating of the Crix tins and noises and everybody was like, what is that and started to get concerned. Then there was just fire in the air and blue devils coming up the hill.
"The guys from our group were acting like they were trying to protect us and one of the girls thought the blue devils were just acting, but they don't come out of character and one of them came up to her and screeched and really scared her. She was there screaming and everybody was laughing," Ramnarine chuckled.
After that adrenaline-charged experience, the group which offers trips to hidden gems and far reaches of T&T could not help but add blue devils to their Paramin tour.
"We just want people to see Trinidad and Tobago the way we see it. It is absolutely beautiful. We sometimes have events Saturday and Sunday, 52 weeks for the year and it's still not enough to cover everything that we want to do. There's such a rich history and culture."
A founding member of Palance 868, Ramnarine's passion for exploring and showcasing the untold beauty of this country was apparent as she spoke with Sunday Guardian recently.
Weekend hikes to local waterfalls, rivers and beaches, road trips and experiences are part of the Palance 868 adventure. A typical road trip to south Trinidad, for instance, would mean stopping at Knolly's Tunnel, San Fernando Hill, the Pitch Lake, Great Icacos Lagoon, Columbus Bay and Cedros where visitors get to see coconut oil made from scratch.
And there are also foodie road trips along the East Coast where stops to "Ducky's" for lobster and to other places for roast fish and oysters create the ultimate culinary island vibe en route to attractions like the Growing Stone in Biche and the Nariva Swamp.
The club also kicks outdoor camping up a few notches by offering glamping, a more sophisticated, modern trend.
Tiki lights and lanterns; elegant tents; a bonfire at night (outside of the turtle nesting season); cocoa served in enamel cups for the rustic feel; games and a formal breakfast at sunrise at the Blanchisseuse beach facility are highlights of the glamping experience. One of the group members is a chef who prepares all meals gourmet style.
Ramnarine, a petroleum reservoir engineer, said the club's 25 core members have their respective professions, but now operate Palance as a company in Diego Martin, offering public tours on weekends. The group started in 2015 with seven or eight friends from all over Trinidad who wanted company to go on hikes and trips. They would invite friends and family and post their activities online.
"Eventually we ended up with 25 people who can't get enough of each other," Ramnarine said.
Nor can their 50,000 plus followers on Facebook and over 6,000 on IG get enough of them. Many welcome the local activities, especially while borders are closed.
Ramnarine said she never gets tired of visiting places like Turtle Rock, Paria, where the waterfall is breathtaking or expansive and beautiful Brasso Seco with its Manchuria Estate where visitors have lunch and play old-school games. There, a river tour to seven waterfalls or an all-day hike to the Sobo waterfall is also offered.
In Tamana one can view the process of making award-winning mountain chocolate and in Mundo Nuevo, visit the museum, see bread and pizza prepared in a dirt oven, and sample freshly-brewed cocoa, Ramnarine said. In the West, she hailed the "beautiful" and "clean" trail to the Chaguaramas plane crash site of 1975 where a pilot and co-pilot crashed on a mountainside near Tucker Valley but survived.
"On afternoons you hear the howler monkeys, see a lot of birds, so it's very calming," she said.
Palance 868 also collaborates with the Lopinot Tourism Association for personalised tours like the dancing of the cocoa demonstration, cake baking in pots in a local's yard near the river, catch-and-release fishing and hot apple cider tasting.
As a group, Ramnarine and her friends have explored Tobago, where apart from Argyle, they have enjoyed the invigorating waterfalls of Highland, Castara and Parlatuvier and pristine beaches accessed by hiking or boat like Cotton Bay. Buccoo Reef and Nylon Pool are spectacular on a moonlit night, she said, adding that bread and cakes baked on Castara beach were not to be left out.
Despite her love for all of T&T, Ramnarine said her heart was in Paramin with its endearing natives, Aunty Julia and Uncle Clyde, dramatic blue devils and arresting views.
"Sometimes a mist will pass through and it's literally like being in the clouds. People think Paramin is parang, but you've literally driven only five minutes in on the Soho side for the parang. It takes three hours to see all of Paramin."
To ensure that clients see all of the enchanting village set in the hills of Maraval, the club enlists a guide from the area. There is the Lady of Guadalupe church; a cave; farming of green seasoning and vegetables; a small toolum factory and lookout points. Visitors also get a taste of the village's indigenous culture like pot bake from Aunt Julia and the transformation and antics of blue devil Carnival characters.
Ramnarine has also been impressed with the friendliness of the people and their preservation of Patois and old-time remedies.
"It's somewhere that every Trinbagonian must visit in his or her lifetime. Sit with Uncle Clyde, have soup find out about his teas. This is knowledge people would not have had passed down by their grandparents because we go to the doctor, the pharmacy, but they don't have that. The community is very self-contained."
Her affinity with the area and its people run deep.
"Sometimes, if I had a really hard day, I would just drive up by Aunty Julia. She's like one of those best aunties you've ever had, like they know just what you need. She would make coffee and her place overlooks the entire North Coast, so I would just relax and take it all in," she said.
Because of COVID restrictions, the club now offers only beach and road trips, and experiences using four by four vehicles instead of maxis, booking families and smaller numbers to reduce health issues during the pandemic.
Only ten spots are available to the public for their Valentine's Day event, "Love on the Estate" at the Belle Plain Estate in Paramin. It will feature a brunch, treasure hunt, sandcastle competition, and bonfire.
"I think people like our vibes because they don't get the feeling that they're with a tour company. They feel like it's a family because that's what we consider ourselves," Ramnarine said.
The club can be accessed on IG at palance868_adventures.
Trinidad is as beautiful as Italy—tourgoer
"It's like you're in Italy. When you look down from the cliffs, it's like, wow. You don't have any words," Joel Wharton, 33, said as he recalled his view from the Chacachacare Lighthouse, the last stop on a recent tour with Palance 868 Adventures Club.
Nature and travel lovers, Wharton and his girlfriend, Dinnel De Gazon, took full advantage of the Down the Islands (DDI) "Explore Chacachacare" tour last Sunday.
The Sangre Grande welder/fabricator said they had the "perfect" outing from start to finish to places like the Salt Pond, Nunnery and Lighthouse after someone made a last-minute cancellation. He praised the tour guides' wonderful personalities and "on point" organising skills for making the occasion fun and memorable.
The couple who has been together for 16 years frequent rivers and enjoy travelling, having been to Panama and Cancun, Mexico, and had hopes of going to Dubai this year. To them, the tour was a wonderful escape in a time of closed borders and heavy constraints on movement.
The dark green waters of the Salt Pond were intimidating at first, but Wharton and De Gazon soon found themselves luxuriating in its warmth.
"The tour guides did a perfect job. I can't float. I can swim, but for years I've been trying to practise floating. When I went in and realised I was floating, I was yes! We didn't want to leave," said Wharton who had always wanted to visit the pond, but always had to work.
At the Nunnery and hospital, the Dominican Sisters of Mercy were said to have cared for people with leprosy from 1868 to around 1955, with the colony being completely shut down in 1984. Wharton said he was moved by the tragic story and marvelled at how the nuns sacrificed their lives and well-being for others. Wanting to bring a moment of light-heartedness, he grabbed De Gazon for a smooching pic, to the delight of the group.
"That's us on a whole, though. Any opportunity we get to have a fun time, we just create memories," he said.