About 100km south of the mainland, the little-visited Isla de la Juventud (Island of Youth) is the largest of over three hundred scattered emerald islets that make up the Archipiélago de los Canarreos, a fantasy paradise of pearl-white sand and translucent, coral-lined shallows. Extending from the island capital of Nueva Gerona in the north to the superb diving region of Punta Francés, 70km to the southwest, the comma-shaped Juventud is bisected by a military checkpoint designed to control access to ecologically vulnerable swampland in the south, which is rich in wildlife; the northern region is mostly farmland, characterized by citrus orchards and mango groves. Although it has an air of timeless somnolence, Isla de la Juventud was actually once a pirate haunt, ruled over for three centuries by French and English buccaneers and adventurers. Development here has been unhurried.
It probably won’t be your first choice for a beach holiday, although it’s a good place to unwind once you’ve visited the more flamboyant – and hectic – sights elsewhere in Cuba. With little tourist trade, Juventud’s charm is anchored to its unaffected pace of life and pleasant beaches, and the lack of traffic and predominantly flat terrain make cycling an excellent way to explore. The single real town, Nueva Gerona, founded in 1830, has few of the architectural crowd-pullers that exist in other colonial towns, and so is a refreshingly low-key place to visit, easily explored over a weekend. For those keen to explore further, there are some intriguing pre-Columbian cave paintings in the south and, close to the capital, the museum at the abandoned Presidio Modelo, a prison whose most famous inmate was Fidel Castro. With a couple more small but worthy museums, some of the country’s best offshore dive sites and one beautiful white-sand beach, Isla de la Juventud is one of Cuba’s best-kept secrets.
Lying off the southern coast of Artemisa province, the Isla de la Juventud is an inconvenient three-hour ferry ride or a forty-minute flight away from the mainland. However, its remoteness is part of its appeal and it feels even more time-warped than the rest of the country. Easily explored over a weekend, the island promises leisurely walks and some of the best diving in the country. It also has a personable, low-key capital town in Nueva Gerona. In the same archipelago is luxurious and anodyne Cayo Largo, the southern coastline’s only sizeable beach resort.
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 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. Official colonization would not begin for another three centuries.
All the diving on Isla de la Juventud is arranged through the Marina Siguanea, which offers five-day training courses, plus single dives (or a range of dive packages) for certified divers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, which many visitors get to by boat from the Hotel Colony, situated just north of the military border on the west coast, rather than by land.
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. Whichever part of this area you visit, be sure to bring insect repellent with you.
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.
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.
The beach at Punta Francés is named after the French pirate François Le Clerc, 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 Isla de la Juventud's southern coast to hide, rightly deducing that the theft was unlikely to pass unavenged. With just enough time to bury his treasure, Le Clerc 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 Le Clerc 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 in the waters of the Ensenada de la Siguanea, offshore of the southern protected zone’s west coast.
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 El 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.
Separated from the Isla de la Juventud by 100km of sea, Cayo Largo, a narrow, low-lying spit of land fringed with powdery beaches and no permanent local population, is geared entirely to package holiday-makers. The tiny islet, measuring just 25km from tip to beachy tip, caters to a steady flow of international tourists who flock here to enjoy its excellent watersports, diving and all-inclusive hotels. For a holiday cut adrift from responsibilities and the outside world, this is as good a choice as any. But while Cayo Largo is undoubtedly the stuff of exotic holiday fantasy, it’s not a place to meet Cubans. There are no born-and-bred locals and the hotel staff only live on the island in shifts, so though people are as friendly as elsewhere in Cuba, the atmosphere is more than a little contrived.
Development of the cay began in 1977 when the state, capitalizing on its extensive white sands and offshore coral reefs, built the first of the small set of hotels that currently line the western and southern shores. Construction has suffered several setbacks over the last decade as the cay has been ravaged by a series of hurricanes, forcing a couple of the smaller hotels to close altogether. Although the cay is being steadily developed, it has a long way to go before being spoilt; indeed, the infrastructure away from the hotels is so sparse that for some the cay won’t actually be developed enough, relying too heavily on the hotels themselves for entertainment and eating options. There is a small artificial “village” on the west of the island, which has a distinctly spurious air, consisting of just a shop, restaurants, a museum, a bank and, behind the tourist facade, blocks of workers’ accommodation. The interior is a mixture of grassland, rocky scrub and crops of pine trees, but there is not much to see.
The southern coast of Cayo Largo boasts some of the very best beaches in Cuba, with warm, shallow waters lapping onto a largely ribbon of pale downy sand. Protected from harsh winds and rough waves by the offshore coral reef, and with over 2km of white sands, Playa Sirena, at the western tip of the cay, enjoys a deserved reputation as the most beautiful of all the beaches on Cayo Largo, and is consequently the busiest. This is now where all the beach watersports facilities are based. Further south along the same strand, Playa Paraíso is almost as attractive and popular as Sirena, with the added advantage that its shallow waters are ideal for children. Heading east, Playa Lindamar is a serviceable 5km curve of sand in front of the Lindamar, Pelícano, Soledad and Coral hotels and is the place to come if you’re looking for some surf and wind.
For real solitude, though, you need to head off up to the eastern beaches. Playa Blanca, occupied at its western extremity by the Hotel Playa Blanca, boasts over 6km of deserted, soft beach, backed by sand dunes, and staking out your own patch shouldn’t be a problem (though you’ll need to bring your own refreshments as there’s not an ice-cream stand in sight). Further east still, the lovely Playa los Cocos is seemingly endless, while far-flung Playa Tortuga is similarly deserted.
There are a number of nudist beaches on Cayo Largo, though none is officially designated as such. The nudist sections have evolved thanks to a policy of tolerance rather than outright endorsement from the Cuban authorities. Generally they are found at one end or another of each beach, as opposed to right in the middle.
With over thirty dive sites in its clear and shallow waters, Cayo Largo is deservedly well known as one of Cuba’s best diving areas. Particularly outstanding are the coral gardens fringing the islet, while other highlights include underwater encounters with hawksbill and sea-green turtles. The cay’s dive centre at the Marina Cayo Largo offers dives including all equipment and transfer to the site. Open-water SSI courses take a week.
The marina also runs a variety of day-long excursions to the surrounding cays, including tiny Cayo Iguana, the nearest islet to Cayo Largo (where the eponymous reptiles can be fed by hand), Cayo Rico and the Cayos Pedrazas, 12km from the western tip of Cayo Largo. Most excursions include snorkelling at one of the surrounding coral reefs and a visit to a “natural swimming pool” where the water is only 1m deep, along with a lobster lunch and an open bar.
The waters around the cays also make for excellent fishing. All fishing around Cayo Largo is managed by Avalon, in partnership with the Marina Cayo Largo. They offer four- and eight-hour high-sea expeditions. Fly-fishing is also possible.