Isla de la Juventud: The Isle of Youth
You may have heard of Isla de la Juventud, Cuba’s Isle of Youth, but the chances are good that you have never visited anyplace like it. People familiar with the Isle of Youth believe there is no place that compares to the peaceful isolation that one can enjoy on this remote island.
Before Christopher Columbus happened to land and explore the island on his second voyage to the shores of Cuba in 1494, not much was known about the island. Many visitors still feel that the island is a throwback to another era when life on the Isla of Youth was simpler than today.
Not much is known about Isla de la Juventud prior to Columbus and in the years immediately following. However, much can be learned from 235 historic and important murals dotting the walls of some of the island’s caves at Punta del Este beach. The carvings tell a story of a peaceful existence on the rich farmland where fish were abundant around the island’s shallow coral reefs and where tall pines grew in naturally protected forests.
Indeed, the pines, plentiful fish and agriculture are what lured Spanish citizens and Americans to the island. When Castro nationalized the island, many Americans lost significant land holdings and the lucrative lumber industry on the island came to a halt.
But, Isla de la Juventud is not without its mystique. In fact, the island has had many names and fictional and non-fictional associations that have added to the enthralling local folklore. Columbus named the island La Evangelista when he claimed it for Spain. The Isla de la Juventud is not usually part of pre-arranged People-to-People Cuba tours but can be included on custom tours. Contact Dave or Yordi for details at Info@travelguidecuba.com for more information about custom tours.
Later, the island would be called Isla de Tesoros (Treasure Island), the Isla de Cotorras (Island of Parrots) and the Isle of Pines for the large pine forests that exist on the island. Lumber was big business on the island when Americans migrated there and established shipping links to the mainland and to the US.
The Island of Youth is a popular tourist destination. However, it is a six-hour ferry ride from the mainland although private charters can be arranged and takes significantly less time. Most travelers arrive via plane at Cayo Largo International Airport.
There is plenty to see and do on the Island of Youth. Some of the best beaches in the Caribbean rest quietly on the isle’s shores. The destination is generally regarded as a fishing, diving and sailing paradise although the natural fauna and foliage are enough to keep the nature lover engrossed for weeks. Hiking and biking are popular activities on this tourist haven.
The Isla de la Juventud lies directly south of Havana and Pinar del Rio. It is a special Cuban municipality in a province by the same name. The capital city is Nueva Gerona on the north side of the island. The Cuban government presides over the province.
The population of the province is about 100,000 residents. Other communities on the island are Columbia, La Demajagua (once called Santa Barbara), MacKinley, Cuchilla Alta, Punta del Este, Sierra de Caballos and Sierra de Casas.
The island has influenced some important literary works including Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M Barrie. Barrie used the island as the backdrop for Peter Pan and Stevenson’s Treasure Island was based on the island’s historic and extremely pirate population.
Natives built long dugout canoes to travel around the island and to the mainland. Pirates soon found this was the easiest way to move their wares around Cuba. The dugouts were relatively easy to fashion because of the island’s rich hardwood supply.
When Span relinquished all claims to Cuba in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, Americans soon flocked to the rich lumber fields on the island. The ownership of Isla de la Juventud was the subject of great debate for many years. In 1907, the US Supreme Court ruled the island’s fate was a political issue not a judicial matter. It was not until 1925 that a political solution recognized Cuba as the owner of the island.
However, when Castro seized control of the island’s foreign holdings, many Americans lost their land. A popular Hilton Hotel on the island was also seized.The Isla de La Juventud housed one of Cuba’s most feared prisons, the Presidio Modelo, which was built by president Gerardo Machado. It was at this prison that Cuban president Fulgencio Batista sentenced Fidel Castro after the rebel failed in his 1953 bid to take over the Moncada barracks in the Oriente Province. Today, the prison is a museum.
Isla de la Juventud is the second largest island in Cuba. It is the 7th largest island in the West Indies behind Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Andros Island. In 1978, the name was changed from Isle of Pines to the Isle of Youth. It is the largest island in the Canarreos Archipelago.
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