I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth, formerly called the Island of Pines). Informally referred to as La Isla, it is located south of Havana, about 50-100 miles from various coastal areas of the western part of the main island. It is about 40 miles across, and is the second largest of Cuba’s 4000-plus islands. It is the only major part of Cuba I’ve never visited.
La Isla’s earliest know inhabitants sailed around the Caribbean in dugout canoes about a thousand years ago and lived on the island for several centuries, as indicated by remnant utensils and cave paintings. They disappeared from the island before Columbus discovered it on his second trip to the New World in 1494. Columbus claimed it for Spain, which had very little interest in it for the following four centuries. Apparently it was too far off the beaten path to exploit and pillage. It had no deep natural harbors, and the Golf of Batabanó separating it from the mainland was too shallow for the large Spanish galleons to navigate easily. Thus it became a haven for pirates such as John Hawkins, Henry Morgan, Calico Jack, and the Frenchman Latrobe. It was perfectly located for them to raid mainland cities and escape to, after attacking Spanish treasure ships returning to Havana from Central and South America. Many historians believe it was the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
I had to be at the bus station at 7am this morning. While waiting in line I met a lady named Barbarita whose family owns a casa particular—a bed-and-breakfast place in Nueva Gerona—the main town on La Isla. She convinced me that it would be a nice place to stay for a couple nights. We rode the bus to the coast south of Havana and the port of Batabanó. I think I was the only non-Cuban on the bus. After arrriving at the port and clearing a security checkpoint, I bought my ticket for the large 300-passenger Russian diesel hydrofoil ship. The ride was smooth, but the only scenery was the open ocean. It took us three hours to reach La Isla at the mouth of the Rio Las Casas. We slowly cruised upstream about a quarter mile and docked. Barbarita’s daughter Juana met us and we took a local taxi to their home.
Right now I am resting in a nice room with a private bath. I’ll be served dinner on the patio later tonight by Barbarita’s husband Juan. I found out that there are relatively few foreigners who visit Nueva Gerona, and most of them are not Americans. Too bad—it really is a mellow, laid-back town. The pace of life here is even slower than on the main island. It seems that there aren’t any organized tours available, but my options include hiring a taxi for a full day, or finding a private car and driver. Juana made arrangements for her family friend to pick me up in the morning.