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.