Holidays in Isle of Youth
Cuba's second-largest island is nothing like the Cuban mainland. Here, an eclectic array of diverse cultures merge. You will find expat communities of Cayman, American, and Japanese ancestry, pristine stretches of wild forests, beaches of all kinds, wetlands, and sleepy towns on serene riverbanks that come alive at night with the rhythm of sucu sucu. If you're planning a visit to Cuba and you like to experience , you are well advised to plan a foray to the "Island of Youth."
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Isla de la Juventud, or the "Island of Youth," is the second-largest island in Cuba and the seventh-largest island in the West Indies. Though it is situated directly south of Havana a mere 50 kilometres south of Cuba's main island, this island of 100,000 residents boasts its own unique cultural flair. From Afro-Cuban communities to Japanese enclaves, Isla de la Juventud is a cultural melting pot, full of fascinating sights, sounds, and smells. If you would like to run on a different clock than most of tourist in Cuba, Isla de la Juventud is advised.
Once a haven for pirates, privateers Sir Francis Drake, FranÃ§ois LeClerc, and Henry Morgan battled it out with Spanish convoys in the island's many coves and caves. The island's thrilling past left a mark on the imaginations of many 18th and 19th century writers. Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" is based on accounts of the island and its pirate inhabitants, as is J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan," now a Disney classic. While the island is no longer teeming with swashbuckling outlaws, visitors who crave a thrill will undoubtedly find it. Today there is little infrastructure and few hotels, so it is the perfect destination for those craving a bit of off-the-beaten path adventure. Venture into one of the island's many caves to get an up-close look at some of the most elaborate and well-preserved indigenous cave paintings in all of the Caribbean, or take a trek through the island's dense pine forests. And don't forget to pack your flippers! The waters around Isla de la Juventud boast some of the best scuba diving sites in all of Cuba.
The island is full of beaches well off the beaten path, with little tourist promotion. If you are a beach lover, you will want to make the trek to Playa Punta Frances. Here you will find white sand and transparent waters with gorgeous coral reefs and mysterious sunken boats. If you are up to the challenge, bring your diving gear; you can even explore the wreckage. Playa Blanca is arguably the island's most virgin beach. There is no road that takes you there, so you will have to be prepared for a trek. Other highlights include the black, marble-flecked Bibijagua Beach. One destination strongly recommended is Cayo Largo, the main tourist resort on the island, easily accessible.
Of course, there is more to this island than just outdoor adventure. You can pay a visit to Presidio Modelo, the now-closed but still daunting maximum-security prison where Fidel Castro was once held. Literary lovers shouldn't miss out on the Museo Finca el Abra. The teenage Jose Marti, arguably Cuba's most famous literary figure and one of Latin America's most iconic poets, spent nine weeks exiled here in the fall of 1870 prior to being deported to Spain. Even if the literary intrigue doesn't appeal to you, the beautiful surroundings make the trip well worth it. The finca is set just under the gorgeous Sierra de las Casas and surrounded by Cuban oaks and eucalyptus trees. Lastly, Nueva Gerona, the largest city on the island, also deserves a visit. Though it's well off the beaten tourist path, its residents are friendly and it boasts a lively entertainment scene.
You can easily get to Isla de la Juventud via ferry from Havana. Tickets will typically run you CUC$13, and it is a good idea to purchase in advance. Flights are also available. Cubana offers flights from Havana to the Rafael Cabrera Mustelier Airport, situated about 5 kilometres southeast of Nueva Gerona, three times daily for CUC$34.50.
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