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.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Cuba features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Video: a 1 minute guide to Cuba

Video: a 1 minute guide to Cuba

From the gorgeous countryside of Viñales to the brilliant beaches of Varadero – not to mention the atmospheric, timeworn streets of Havana – Cuba is a begu…

17 Nov 2017 • Colt St. George videocam Video
Budget trips: 20 of the cheapest places to travel

Budget trips: 20 of the cheapest places to travel

That ever-growing travel wish list might be putting some pressure on your pocket – but there are plenty of destinations where you'll get more bang for your b…

11 Oct 2017 • Emma Gibbs camera_alt Gallery
12 tips for backpacking Cuba

12 tips for backpacking Cuba

Cuba’s captivating, colourful streets and carnaval­ feel make it appealing for travellers year­-round. And, as relations with the US thaw, the country's p…

23 May 2017 • Freya Godfrey insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook