A vision of fruit fields and soft beaches, it is little wonder that Isla de la Juventud, or “La Isla” as it’s known in Cuba, allegedly captured Robert Louis Stevenson’s imagination as the original desert island of Treasure Island. Although Christopher Columbus chanced upon the island in 1494, the Spanish had scant use for it until the nineteenth century and development unfolded at an unhurried pace. Even today the quiet, underpopulated countryside and placid towns have the air of a land waiting to awaken.
The main focus for the island’s population is in the north, where you’ll find many of the sights and the island capital of Nueva Gerona. Nestling up against the Sierra de las Casas, this town is satisfyingly self-contained, ambling along a couple of decades behind developments on the mainland. Spread around it is a wide skirt of low-lying fields, lined with orderly citrus orchards, fruit farms and two of the island’s modest tourist attractions. Both are former prison buildings, a testament to the island’s long-standing isolation. El Abra is a delightfully located hacienda that once held captive the nineteenth-century independence suffragist José Martí, while the Presidio Modelo, set up in 1926 to contain more than six thousand criminals, most famously Fidel Castro, is a contrastingly ominous-looking place. Deserted, but still a dominating presence on the island’s landscape, the prison and its museum make for a fascinating excursion. There are also a couple of brown-sand beaches, Playa Bibijagua and Playa Paraíso, within easy reach of Nueva Gerona.
South from the capital are several sights that can be explored in easy day-trips. To the west of the island’s second-biggest town, the rather mundane La Fe, are verdant botanical gardens La Jungla de Jones, on a long-term recovery from hurricane damage but still worth a visit. South of La Fe is a crocodile farm offering an excellent opportunity to study the creatures at close range. Further south still is the military checkpoint at Cayo Piedra, in place to conserve the marshy southern region that forms the Siguanea Nature Reserve, access to which is strictly controlled. South of the checkpoint on the southeast coast is one of the island’s most intriguing attractions, the pre-Columbian paintings in the Punta del Este caves. On the west side of the south coast is the tiny hamlet of Cocodrilo, set on a picturesque curve of coastline and an ideal spot for swimming, while close to hand is the picture-perfect white-sand beach of Playa El Francés. Just offshore here you can enjoy the island’s celebrated dive sites, including underwater caves and a wall of black coral, but to do so you’ll need to set off from the Marina Siguanea, north of the protected area near the island’s best hotel, the Hotel Colony.
The island’s earliest known inhabitants were the Siboney people, who are thought to have settled here around a thousand years ago. They lived close to the island’s shores where they could fish and hunt, eschewing its pine-forested interior. Tools and utensils made from conch shell and bone have been found at Punta del Este, suggesting that the Siboney based themselves around the eastern caves.
By the time Christopher Columbus landed here in June 1494, on his second trip to the Americas, the Siboney had disappeared. Though Columbus claimed it for Spain, the Spanish Crown had little interest in the island over the next four centuries. Neither the mangrove-webbed northern coastline nor the excessively shallow southern bays afforded a natural harbour to match the likes of Havana, and the Golfo de Batabanó, separating the island from mainland Cuba, was too shallow for the overblown Spanish galleons to navigate.
Isla de la Juventud’s only sizeable town, NUEVA GERONA lies in the lee of the Sierra de las Casas, on the bank of the Río Las Casas. Whether you travel by plane or boat, this is where you’ll arrive and where you’re likely to be based. According to an 1819 census, the population stood at just under two hundred and it boasted just “four guano huts and a church of the same”. While the town has certainly moved on since then, it’s still a small and quirky place, with a cosiness more suited to a village than an island capital, and a sleepy peacefulness offset by the hub of action around the central streets. Even half a day here breeds a sense of familiarity, and much of the town’s attraction lies in wandering its relaxed streets, where the local appetite for pestering tourists has not developed to the same levels as in other towns in Cuba. Basing yourself here and exploring the hillsides, beaches and museums around Nueva Gerona can easily keep you occupied for a couple of days.
Architecturally, Nueva Gerona floats in a no-man’s-land between old-style colonial buildings and modern urbanity. Many of its concrete one- and two-storey buildings are painted in pastel colours, and its few older buildings, complete with stately colonnades and red-tiled roofs, add a colonial touch.
Nueva Gerona’s heart lies on Calle José Martí (also known as Calle 39 and often referred to simply as Martí), the amiable central street that gives the town its defining character and which holds the majority of shops and restaurants. It’s a good-looking strip, with the verandas of the low buildings offering welcome respite from the sun. At the northern end of the pedestrianized section, sometimes referred to as Boulevard, is a small park called the Parque de las Cotorras.
Sierra de las Casas
Sierra de las Casas
The best way to appreciate Nueva Gerona’s diminutive scale is to take the short but exhilarating climb up the hills of the gently undulating Sierra de las Casas range, just to the west, for a bird’s-eye view over the town and the surrounding countryside. It’s under an hour’s easy climb up to the highest summit, beneath which are spread the town’s orderly rows of streets, curtailed by the stretch of blue beyond. To the east, below the cliff-edge, the island’s flat landscape is occasionally relieved by a sparse sweep of hills; to the south, you can see the gleaming quarry which yields the stone for so many of Cuba’s marble artefacts.
To get to the hills, head 500m west from Neuva Gerona’s centre down Calle 24; take the first left turn and carry on another few hundred metres along a well-trodden path until you reach the foot of the first hill, marked by two lone concrete poles poking out of the ground
Before heading back to town from the Sierra de las Casas, make time to explore the underground Cueva del Agua, whose entrance is at the foot of the hill. The steep, narrow staircase cut from the rockbed can be slippery, so take care descending and bring a torch. There’s a natural lagoon and captivating rock formations but the real treat here lies along a narrow tunnel on the right-hand side just before the mouth of the pool, where intricate, glittery stalactites and stalagmites are slowly growing into elaborate natural sculptures.
Museo Presidio Modelo
Museo Presidio Modelo
The looming bulk of the Museo Presidio Modelo lies 2km east of Nueva Gerona. Although this massive former prison has housed a fascinating museum for over thirty years and is now one of the most-visited sights on the island, its forbidding atmosphere has been preserved. Surrounded by guard towers, the classically proportioned governor’s mansion and phalanx of wardens’ villas mask the four circular cell buildings that rise like witches’ cauldrons from the centre of the complex.
Commissioned by the dictator Gerardo Machado, the “Model Prison” was built in 1926 by its future inmates as an exact copy of the equally notorious Joliet Prison in the US. At one time it was considered the definitive example of efficient design, as up to six thousand prisoners could be controlled with a minimum of staff, but it soon became infamous for unprecedented levels of corruption and cruelty. The last prisoner was released in 1967 and the cell blocks have long since slid into decay, serving to increase the sense of foreboding inside.
The cell blocks
Unmanned by museum staff and falling into disrepair, the four huge cylindrical cell blocks still feel as oppressive as they must have been when crammed with inmates. The prisoners, housed two or more to a cell, were afforded no privacy, constantly on view through the iron bars. Note the gun slits cut into the grim tower in the dead centre of each block, allowing one guard and his rifle to control nearly a thousand inmates from a position of total safety. To really appreciate the creepy magnitude of the cell blocks, you can take the precarious narrow marble staircase to the fifth-level floor.
The prison museum
Less disturbing than the cell blocks, the prison museum is located in the hospital block at the back of the grounds. Knowledgeable Spanish-speaking guides take you around and will expect a small tip. The most memorable part of the museum is the dormitory where Fidel Castro and the rebels of the Moncada attack were sequestered on the orders of Batista, for fear of them inflaming the other prisoners with their firebrand ideas. Above each of the 26 beds is the erstwhile occupant’s mug shot and a brief biography, while a piece of black cloth on each sheet symbolizes the rags the men tore from their trouser legs to cover their eyes at night, when lights were shone on them constantly as torture.
On February 13, 1954, Batista made a state visit to the Presidio Modelo. As he and his entourage passed their window, the rebels broke into a revolutionary anthem. As a result, Castro was confined alone in the room that now opens off the main entrance but was at the time next to the morgue, within full view of the corpses. For the early part of his forty-week sentence he was forbidden any light. Despite the prohibition, a crafty home-made lamp enabled Castro to read from his small library and to perfect the speech he had made at his defence, which was later published by the underground press as La Historia me Absolverá and became the manifesto of the cause.
- The southern protected zone
Diving off the west coast
Diving off the west coast
All the diving on the island is from the Marina Siguanea, but should be booked through the buro de turismo (daily 8am–5pm; t 46 39 8181) at the Hotel Colony. A five-day SNSI course costs $365CUC and gives you a training day in the swimming pool, plus three dives. If you already have a diving certificate, a single dive costs $36CUC and a night dive $40CUC. There are discounted packages of six and twelve dives also available.
There are over fifty dive sites along a 6km strip of coast between Punta Francés and Punta Pedernales, at the western tip off the island’s southern coastline, and close to Cayos Los Indios, about 30km out from the hotel, where there are two shipwrecks. The following sites are among the highlights.
El Cabezo de las Isabelitas
5km west of Playa El Francés. This shallow site has plenty of natural light and a cornucopia of fishes, including goatfish, trumpetfish and parrotfish. An uncomplicated dive, ideal for beginners.
2km west of Playa El Francés. Reaching depths of 42m, this site takes its name (“the blue cave”) from the intensely coloured water. Although there are several notable types of fish to be seen, the principal thrill of this dive is ducking and twisting through the cave’s crevices.
4km west of Playa El Francés. You’ll be provided with a lamp to explore this dark, atmospheric cave where Christmas tree worms, tarpon and a wealth of other fish species take refuge.
Los Indios Wall
5km from Cayos Los Indios. A host of stunning corals, including brain, star, fire and black coral, cling to a sheer wall that drops to the sea bed, while you can see stingrays on the bottom, some as long as 2m. There’s a $10CUC supplement for this dive and you need a minimum of five people.
Pared de Coral Negro
4km northwest of Punta Francés. The black coral that gives this dive its name is found at depths of 35m, while the rest of the wall is alive with colourful sponges and brain corals, as well as several species of fish and green moray eels.