Turks and Caicos
Although they're often overshadowed by their closest neighbor, the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands are a worthwhile vacation destination in their own right. In fact, in many ways, this charming island chain offers a more authentic "deserted island" feel than any other group in the Caribbean. Technically located in the Atlantic, the Turks and Caicos Islands - or TCI, as they're often referred - are still considered to be part of the Caribbean, and they offer a wide range of amazing things to see and do throughout the year. There are all kinds of reasons to visit the Turks and Caicos.
However, the vast majority of visitors are lured here by the island chain's incredible, largely pristine beaches. Even its most popular beaches are long and wide enough to ensure that everyone has plenty of privacy, so you never have to worry about competing for space with massive throngs of people. Like any Caribbean vacation destination, Turks and Caicos is home to several world-class resorts, but it's also characterized by quaint, charming inns that offer surprising levels of personalized service. With friendly locals, gorgeous year-round weather and some of the warmest, most vibrantly turquoise waters in the Caribbean, the Turks and Caicos deserve to be on everyone's must-visit list.
The Turks and Caicos Islands make up the Lucayan Archipelago along with the Bahamas, which is itself part of the Antilles Island group. The chain, which is located in the Atlantic Ocean, is southeast of the Bahamas and north of Hispaniola. It stretches over an area of approximately 238 square miles and has a total land area of around 170 square miles. As the name implies, TCI is made up of two island groups. The Caicos Islands is made up of larger islands, with Middle Caicos being the largest but very sparsely populated.
With a population of nearly 23,800, Providenciales, or Provo, is the most populated island in the entire territory, so it looms very large. The name Caicos comes from "caya hico," a Lucayan term meaning "string of islands." The Turks Islands, meanwhile, are made up of smaller islands, including Grand Turk and Salt Cay. The two island chains are separated by the Turks Passage, and the territory is separated from the Bahamas by the Caicos Passage. The name Turks comes from the Turk's cap cactus, which is one of the most prominent and distinctive plants in the region. In terms of topography, the Turks and Caicos - which include eight main islands and nearly 300 smaller ones - are mostly characterized by low, flat limestone terrain. The interior often includes mangrove swamps and marshes, and the territory boasts nearly 130 square miles of beaches. Fresh water is difficult to come by as there are few lakes, ponds, rivers or streams.
Turks and Caicos Map
- West Caicos
- Providenciales (Provo)
- North Caicos
- East Caicos
- South Caico
- Cockburn Town
Climate and When to Visit
The Turks and Caicos have what is known as a marine tropical climate. Compared with most territories and nations in the Caribbean, the climate is remarkably arid. Temperatures tend to be quite consistent throughout the year, with the summer months from June through November bringing frequent hurricanes and most of the approximately 50 inches of rainfall that occur annually. Temperatures tend to run between the high 80s and low 90s, but low humidity and ongoing breezes make it quite comfortable. The ocean has an average temperature of 84 degrees. During the winter, from December through May, temperatures run between the high 70s and mid-80s. The ocean has an average temperate of 75 degrees at this time of year. Peak tourism season in the Turks and Caicos runs from January through April, which is mostly because of the high threat of hurricanes during the other half of the year. Prices tend to surge around the holidays, so keep that in mind when booking a vacation here.
The total year-round population of the Turks and Caicos is around 31,500 people. Of that total, nearly 75 percent live on Providenciales. Only eight of the 30 largest islands are inhabited, with about 4,800 people residing on Grand Turk; around 100 living on Salt Cay and around 23,800 living on Providenciales. Like so many areas in the Caribbean, the Turks and Caicos has a fairly diverse population. In terms of demographics, the population is about 88 percent black and about 8 percent white. The remaining population mostly consists of mixed races and people of East Indian descent.
Key Facts for Visitors
Before traveling to the Turks and Caicos, it pays to have a basic understanding of a few key facts. For instance, the official language is English, which is very convenient for visitors from Canada, the U.S. and other English-speaking nations. The U.S. dollar is the official currency, which is another reason that TCI tends to be popular with people from North America. Residents here are largely Christian, with 40 percent of the population identifying as Baptist, 16 percent identifying as Methodist and 18 percent identifying as Anglican. TCI has a very devout population, so you can expect the local churches to be bustling on Sundays. Most travelers arrive in the Turks and Caicos by air. Providenciales International Airport is the main point of entry, and numerous flights to and from major U.S. cities are available through carriers like American Airlines, Delta and U.S. Airways. The rest of those who visit mostly arrive on cruise ships at the Grand Turk Cruise Center on Grand Turk Island. However, some folks arrive on personal vessels as well.
Due to the fact that the native population was completely removed from the islands so long ago and that the islands then remained uninhabited for so long, cultural traditions here have largely been borrowed by neighboring countries and territories. For example, the predominant musical genre, ripsaw, is very similar to rake and scrape music from the Bahamas. This lively music gets its name from the fact that a knife is typically run along the teeth of a saw and is accompanied by instruments like the box guitar, the triangle, the drums and the accordion. If you come to TCI, make sure to take in at least one performance of ripsaw music. You won't soon forget it! Popular sports in the Turks and Caicos include soccer, sailing, fishing and cricket, which is the official national sport. Hats and baskets made out of straw are among the most popular locally handcrafted items, and they are sold in all of the most populated areas.
Because the original inhabitants of the Turks and Caicos were enslaved and removed from the country by the Spanish, the territory doesn't have much in the way of an official, distinctive cuisine. However, you can expect to run into a few common themes while visiting. Most notable is conch, which is served up in a variety of ways. Conch fritters and conch salad are the most popular examples. Jerk chicken, which comes from Jamaica, has gained a strong foothold here, and Bahamian cuisine is ubiquitous as well. Fresh seafood abounds, but there isn't much in the way of local produce due to the topography. Therefore, most of the food is imported from elsewhere. The most common dishes enjoyed by locals include boilfish and grits, which is often served for breakfast, boilfish and johnnycake and peas and hominy.
Tourism in the Turks and Caicos
Not that long ago, the average number of annual visitors to TCI hovered around 87,000. That number has soared of late, with more than 350,000 visitors in 2009. This surge largely has to do with the fact that many cruise lines now include the Turks and Caicos as a port of call. In 2010, more than 240 cruise ships paid visits to the islands. Most of them arrived at the Grand Turk Cruise Terminal, a state of the art facility with a variety of dining, shopping and entertainment options. Most vacationers choose TCI for its beaches, but the territory is also world-renowned for its amazing diving due to the fact that it has the third largest coral reef system in the world.
Getting Around Turks and Caicos
You can take your pick from the usual array of options when it comes to getting around the Turks and Caicos Islands. Rental cars are readily available, but you can also rent bicycles, jeeps, motor scooters and even boats in the more populated areas. Taxis are ubiquitous in population centers like Cockburn Town, and many drivers pull double-duty as tour guides as well. This is a great way to get an insider's view of the local area, so be sure to ask which taxi companies offer this service.
It should come as no surprise that the most popular activities in the Turks and Caicos revolve around the water. Since the 1970s, scuba diving has been wildly popular in the region. The most popular areas to scuba dive are off Grand Turk, South Caicos and Salt Cay, but numerous other sites are scattered around the islands. West Caicos Marine National Park is also a very popular diving location. The coral reefs of these islands are truly stunning, and divers encounter huge schools of fish, gray reef sharks, nurse sharks, turtles, octopuses, eagle rays, gray reef sharks and all kinds of other critters. In addition to diving and snorkeling, popular activities in the Turks and Caicos include sailing, parasailing, gambling, golfing, shopping, dining and fishing. Some of the most populated areas boast amazing spas and salons too.
For being such a laid-back place, there's really never a dull moment in the Turks and Caicos. You can just as easily spend your entire vacation lounging on a gorgeous beach as you could keep busy with all kinds of fun activities. Either way, it pays to be familiar with the most popular attractions on the islands, and you can take your pick from a nice assortment of options. Some of the most popular include:
Grace Bay Beach
- Grace Bay Beach - If you're looking for a lovely beach on Providenciales, or Provo, as it's known by locals, Grace Bay is a great choice. In addition to offering warm, turquoise waters and broad, sandy beaches, this location is a great place for bird watching. Many migratory species pass through, so be sure to bring your binoculars. Numerous hotels and resorts run along this beach, which is one of the longest in the islands.
- Chalk Sound National Park - Also located on Provo, Chalk Sound National Park stretches along a three-mile-long bay. The main attraction here is the excellent beach, but there are trails and other things to see and do as well.
- Cockburn Town - As the capital of the Turks and Caicos Island, Cockburn Town is a worthwhile place to include on your visit. A monument honoring the first landfall of Christopher Columbus on April 12, 1492 is not to be missed. Make sure to stroll along Front Street and Queen Street, which are both studded with lovely old homes that offer amazing views of the water.
- Caicos Conch Farm - At every turn, you're sure to run into conch dishes and conch shells on the islands. After a while, you'll probably get curious about how the shellfish are harvested. Satisfy your curiosity with a visit to the Caicos Conch Farm. It offers an eye-opening look into how conch are raised. Though it sounds simple enough, the process is actually quite complicated and very fascinating.
- Grand Turk Lighthouse - This lovely lighthouse has long guided sailors around the treacherous Northeast Reef, which has been the site of countless shipwrecks through the centuries. Constructed out of local limestone blocks, the lighthouse is one of the most important landmarks in the islands and should be at the top of your must-see list.
- Columbus Landfall National Park - This scenic national park runs along nearly the entire west side of Provo. It's where you'll find Governor's Beach, which is one of the most popular beaches in the island chain. The reef here includes The Wall, which drops dramatically from 30 feet to more than 7,000 feet below the water. If you're going to do any scuba diving or snorkeling while in the Turks and Caicos, this is the place to do it.
- Flamingos and Other Wildlife - The interior of Grand Turk Island is dotted with numerous salt ponds that attract large flocks of gorgeous flamingos. If possible, make a point of stopping by one of these ponds to check out these beautiful birds for yourself. The island is also home to two herds of wild horses. Ask a local where you can find them because they tend to move around a lot.
- The Hole - Over in Long Bay, you will find this jaw-dropping sinkhole. There's one pretty important catch, though: It's not fenced in at all. While it's a sight to behold, to be sure, do not venture too closely to the edge of it. While there haven't been any recent reports of accidents at the site, it's better to be safe than to be sorry.
- Sapodilla Hill Rock Carvings - Although you probably assume that "rock carving" refers to ancient artwork by indigenous peoples, that's not what the Sapodilla Hill Rock Carvings are all about. Rather, this protected historic site gets its name from the long list of names of shipwrecked sailors from the early 1800s. The carvings are interesting to look at, but the view from the site, which overlooks Sapodilla Bay and South Dock, is reason enough to stop by.
- Cheshire Hill Plantation - No visit to a Caribbean country or territory would be complete without visiting at least one plantation. Unlike many areas in the Caribbean, the Turks and Caicos never really produced tobacco or other crops. However, cotton was grown at this 18th-century plantation for many years, so you can catch a glimpse of what life was like on these islands so many years ago by paying a visit. As an added bonus, numerous trails wind through the property and are worth exploring.
- Glow Worms - One of the best-kept secrets about the Turks and Caicos involves the occasional presence of marine glow worms in the nearby waters. The arrival of the Odontosyllis enopla worms typically occurs about three to six nights after a full moon. In terms of locations, that varies, and it is generally best to inquire with a local tour company to learn more. Speaking of tours, most people opt to take boat tours to see the beautifully glowing worms up close. It's a truly mesmerizing experience and unlike anything else you're likely to encounter elsewhere in the region. There are lots of great reasons to take a boat tour, but one of them is that the tour guides explain the phenomenon in great detail.
- Carnival Cruise Terminal - Even if you don't arrive on the islands via a Carnival cruise ship, make a point of stopping by this first-rate terminal. It's home to one of the largest swimming pools in the Caribbean, and it also has a tourism village with all kinds of restaurants, shops, boutiques and other establishments. This is a great place to while away a few hours on one of the very infrequent rainy days on the islands or to just take a break from the usual fun in the sun.
You can take your pick from the usual array of accommodations in the Turks and Caicos. Lately, a few very upscale private resorts have been developed on uninhabited islands. Parrot Cay is, without a doubt, the most popular and well-known of them all. Pine Cay is another example, and it really stands out with its gorgeous, 2.5-mile-long beach and amazing amenities. Of course, you don't have to splurge on a high-end, all-inclusive resort while visiting the Turks and Caicos. Providenciales, in particular, is home to numerous lovely hotels that are positioned right on the beach. However, small inns and other locally owned and operated motels are par for the course here, and it's where most visitors stay. Quaint and personal, these inns offer a nice, relaxing change from the usual Caribbean resort lifestyle. Whether you opt for an inn, a luxury hotel or an upscale resort, you can expect to find condo-style accommodations complete with a full kitchen and other amenities.
A Brief History about Turks and Caicos
If you're planning a trip to the Turks and Caicos, odds are that you intend to spend most of your time on or near the water. Still, it's nice to have a basic understanding of the local history of a vacation destination, and the TCI's is colorful, indeed. The islands' original inhabitants were Taino people, an indigenous group that was later joined by Lucayan people. The first documented European sighting happened in 1512, when Juan Ponce de Leon of Spain first happened upon the group. Spain proceeded to enslave the Taino and Lucayan people and brought them over to nearby Hispaniola. As a result, the Turks and Caicos were essentially uninhabited from 1513 through the end of the 17th century. Control of the islands has changed hands numerous times, with Spain, France and Britain being the primary occupiers. However, the first European settlement didn't happen until 1783, when British Loyalists fled the United States following the revolution. For a while, the Turks and Caicos were annexed to the Bahamas by the British. Today, however, TCI is a separate, autonomous British Overseas Territory and has been so since 1973.
Turks and Caicos general information
The Turks and Caicos make up the other part of the Lucayan Archipelago. This British Overseas Territory is made up of around 40 islands and cays; 12 of them are inhabited. The name of the territory comes from Grand Turk Island and Providenciales, which is otherwise known as Caicos. The population hovers around 31,000 people, but the main islands aren’t too sparsely populated because they are relatively small.
The official currency of the Turks and Caicos is the U.S. dollar, which is convenient for traveling Americans. Though English is the official language, Haitian creole and Spanish are widely spoken too. The country enjoys a warm, pleasant climate. Compared with many Caribbean islands, it is remarkably arid, and an average of only around 50 inches of rain falls per year. The majority of the precipitation occurs during the summer months, which is also the danger zone for hurricanes.
Most people visiting Turks and Caicos arrive via cruise ship or plane. If you fly into the country, you will likely arrive at Providenciales International Airport, which is near the capital city of Cockburn Town. The islands are crammed with fun things to see and do, including casinos, scuba diving, sailing, birdwatching, whale watching and golfing. The cuisine is eclectic, and rum punch is the drink of choice.
- Capital city - Cockburn Town
- Language - English and Spanish
A vacation in the Turks and Caicos can be anything you want it to be. Whether you spend most of your time lazing about on an isolated, sun-kissed beach or if you rent a boat and tour as many islands as possible, your time here is sure to be amazing and memorable. Not long after arriving, you're sure to understand why so many consider TCI to be among the best Caribbean vacation destinations.