La Brea Pitch Lake-Trinidad

Written by on June 4, 2017

The Pitch Lake is beside the village of La Brea, in southwestern Trinidad. It is the largest of the world’s three natural asphalt lakes, the others being the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and Lake Guanoco in Venezuela. The lake is approximately 250 feet deep, with a surface area of 100 acres. The liquid asphalt is black and viscous, but the surface is semisolid, and can be walked on.

Creation of the Lake

The lake was created thousands of years ago by the process of subduction, when the Caribbean continental plate was forced under another plate. This opened fault lines that allowed oil from deep underground deposits to rise to the surface, where it collected in a volcanic crater. The air caused lighter elements of the oil to evaporate, leaving behind the heavy asphalt, a mix of oil, clay and water.

Legends About the Pitch Lake

One local legend involves Callifaria, daughter of a local tribal chief, who fled to her lover, Kasaka, a prince of the rival Cumana tribe. Her father, Callisuna, attacked the Cumanas, recaptured his daughter, and forced her to return home, tied to a horse. The winged Arawak god, Pimlontas, was so angry that he damned the village and caused it to sink into the earth, then covered it up with “piche.” The second legend relates to the Chima Indians, who once occupied La Brea. After winning a battle, the Chimas celebrated by creating a great feast of hummingbirds, and the tribe used the feathers to decorate themselves, forgetting that hummingbirds were the spirits of their ancestors. In punishment, the winged god opened up the earth and summoned the pitch lake to swallow the village.

Sir Walter Raleigh

In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh arrived in Trinidad in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. He attacked Port of Spain with cannons, and sacked St. Joseph. While sailing across the Gulf of Paria, he reputedly smelled the tar, and put into shore at Terra de Brea. The Caribs led Raleigh to the pitch lake, and he realized that the substance was ideal for caulking his ships. He took several barrels home with him, and has since been credited with “discovering” the lake.

Asphalt Mining

Mining of the lake started in 1867, and an estimated 10 million tons of asphalt has been extracted since. Lake Asphalt of Trinidad & Tobago Ltd. ( is a state-owned enterprise which mines, processes and exports asphalt around the globe, where it is used for paving roads, runways and race tracks. The company is vital to the local economy, as the major source of employment. The lake is estimated to contain reserves of around 6 million tons, which would last 400 years at the current rate of extraction.

Fun Facts

Items found in the Pitch Lake include Amerindian artifacts, fossilized remains from a prehistoric giant sloth, and a mastodon tooth. In 1928, a massive tree, estimated to be around 4,000 years old, suddenly emerged from the center of the lake, then sank back down, although a section was rescued for posterity. Some scientists think the Pitch Lake is similar to hydrocarbon lakes on Titan, Saturn’s moon, which could help to answer the question of whether they could support life.

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