Although rumours abound concerning the purpose of the military presence in the southern third of the island, its primary function is simply to conserve and restrict access to the Siguanea nature reserve. Parts of the reserve are completely closed to the public – you need a pass and a guide to go south of the military checkpoint at Cayo Piedra – as the luxuriant vegetation of the area shelters such wildlife as wild deer, green parrots and the tocororo, Cuba’s national bird.
The flat land south of the checkpoint conforms to the storybook ideal of a desert island, with caves and sinuous beaches fringing a swampy interior of mangroves and thick shrubs. It’s also home to one of the most impressive sights on the island: the pre-Columbian cave paintings in Punta del Este, believed to date back some 1100 years, making them among the oldest in the Caribbean. Along with the caves, the most popular reasons for a visit here are the fine sand beaches at Punta del Este and Punta Francés, on opposite sides of the southern coastline.
Near Punta Francés on the island’s western hook is Cocodrilo, a tiny hamlet whose pleasant charms are increased by a rugged granite-rock coastline that forms natural pools ideal for snorkelling. Most visitors to the beach at Punta Francés do not approach it by land along the southern coast but by boat from the Hotel Colony, situated just north of the military border on the west coast. Whichever part of this area you visit, be sure to bring insect repellent with you.
Cuevas de Punta del Este
Cuevas de Punta del Este
Within walking distance of the southeast coast, 25km down a dirt track leading east from the checkpoint at Cayo Piedra, the Cuevas de Punta del Este, half-buried amid overgrown herbs and greenery, contain significant examples of early pre-Columbian art, pointing to an established culture on the island as early as 900 AD. These paintings are among the few remaining traces of the Siboney – among the first inhabitants of Cuba – who arrived from South America via other Caribbean islands between three and four millennia ago; they are thought to have died out shortly after the paintings were made.
The six caves, only two of them accessible, were discovered by accident at the turn of the twentieth century by a north American named Freeman P. Lane, who disembarked on the beach and sought shelter in one of them. The discovery made archeologists reconsider their assumption that Siboney culture was primitive, as the paintings are thought to represent a solar calendar, which would indicate a sophisticated cosmology.
Caves One and Two
On March 22 each year, the sun streams through a natural hole in the roof of Cave One, the largest of the group, illuminating the pictographs in a beam of sunlight. Being linked to the vernal equinox, the effect is thought to celebrate fertility and the cycle of life and death. When bones were excavated here in 1939, it became apparent that the caves’ function was not only ceremonial – they had also been used for habitation and burial.
Of the 230 pictographs, the most prominent are the tight rows of concentric red-and-black circles overlapping one another on the low ceiling of Cave One. Despite creeping erosion by algae, the fading images are still very visible. Major excavation work got under way in the 1940s, when five more caves were discovered, though the paintings within are in a far worse state of repair and you’ll need a keen eye to spot them. Even so, you should take a look at Cave Two, 500m away, where more fragments of circles are outshone by the fragile remains of a painted fish.
From Cocodrilo a 10km track heads northwest to the island’s most remote upturned hook of land, Punta Francés, where you’ll find the island’s top beach, Playa Francés. There is over 3km of beach in all, split by a sandy headland into two broad curves of silver, powdery shore ringed on one side by the lush green of a woody, palm-specked thicket and on the other by the glassy, brilliant turquoise of the Caribbean Sea. The deserted tranquillity of this private world is all part of what makes it exceptional, though this is sometimes destroyed by hordes of cruise-ship visitors. Equally attractive is the excellent diving offshore. There is no food and drink available at the beach, as the ranch-house restaurant that once stood here was destroyed by hurricanes, though a couple of small jetties remain. A slightly easier way to get to the beach is to catch a boat from Hotel Colony. Although you will be in the protected part of the island, you don’t need a permit to visit Punta Francés by boat – though you are strictly prohibited from going any further than the beach.
The beach at Punta Francés is named after the French pirate Latrobe, who frequented the Ensenada de la Siguanea, on the north side of the land spit. In 1809 he captured two Spanish ships laden with gold and jewels, and made swiftly for the southern coast to hide, rightly deducing that the theft was unlikely to pass unavenged. With just enough time to bury his treasure, Latrobe was captured by North Americans and sent to Kingston, Jamaica, where he was promptly executed for piracy.
The whereabouts of the treasure has haunted bounty hunters ever since. The night before his execution Latrobe is supposed to have written a note to his fellow pirate Jean Lafitte, cryptically hinting that the hoard was buried ninety paces “from the mouth of the boiling spring”, but Lafitte never received the note and the treasure is still hidden. Though unlikely to be anything more than romantic fancy, legend has it that the booty is buried somewhere on the coast of the Ensenada de la Siguanea.