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.