Isla de la Juventud: Cuba’s remote nature paradise

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Claire Boobbyer (BBC Travel) says, “From pirate haven to ecological hotspot, Cuba’s “Treasure Island” is a far-flung gem home to some of the Caribbean’s rarest animals.”

A pirate hideaway, a one-time US colony and a biodiverse hotspot home to endangered crocs, parrots, sharks and turtles, Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud is an enigma. The Caribbean nation’s largest offshore island lies 60 miles south off the mainland and is a comma-shaped arc of palm and pine trees, citrus groves and marble hills that few visitors ever see. 

In centuries past, real pirates of the Caribbean slipped into the island’s coves, with boats bearing illicit booty. Today, visitors come from the port of Batabanó, 56km south of Havana, on a three-hour ferry ride that costs $0.50 Cuban Pesos (£0.35) and requires reserving a month in advance, or securing a seat on irregular flights. 

Those who make the journey usually come to dive off the south-western tip, Punta Francés, staying at the island’s one hotel. Or, they tour the island’s panopticon prison, Presidio Modelo (now an eerie museum), where Cuba’s late Communist leader Fidel Castro was incarcerated in 1953 for attacking army barracks – an event that triggered the 1959 Cuban Revolution. But beyond its few attractions, the island’s sugar-soft beaches, unique culture and history, and protected wildlife havens offer a vastly different Cuban experience than the crumbling colonial facades and raucous rum bars of Havana.

When Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic for a second time in 1493, he dropped anchor close to the island that would later prove to be the perfect refuge for pirates. From the 1850s, Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and their ilk ransacked the Spanish Crown’s treasure fleet as ships, bulging with gems, silver and spices, sailed past La Isla enroute from the tip of South America to Havana. Because of this, La Isla was dubbed both “Island of Pirates” and “Treasure Island”. It was even thought to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic book, Treasure Island. 

In the late 1970s, Fidel Castro opened dozens of universities on the island for foreign students, and in 1978, the island was renamed Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) from Isla de Pinos (Isle of Pines). The schools closed in the late 1990s, but their legacy remains in the island’s name.

[. . .] To enter the protected area, travellers must first obtain permission from the agency Ecotur or a local B&B and pass a checkpoint at the northern limit so officials can monitor the trafficking of wildlife, people and drugs. Three times a week, a bare-bones bus jangles three hours south from the island’s capital, Nueva Gerona, through forest rooted in limestone karst. Within its tangled embrace is Ciénaga de Lanier (Lanier swamp), refuge of the critically endangered Cuban crocodile. The elusive crocs were almost wiped out in the 20th Century by fire, drought and hunting. A few specimens were discovered in 1977 and a reintroduction programme launched in 1987. 

“We know American crocodiles and the introduced spectacled caiman are there, but in the last two expeditions, our experts haven’t seen Cuban crocodiles in the wild,” said Yanet Forneiro Martín-Viaña,senior conservation specialist for Flora y Fauna, which manages the island’s southern APRM zone. 

Forneiro Martín-Viaña is confident though. “We continue to search for [Cuban crocodiles] and reintroduce more individuals into the swamp,” she said. “We know this area has great potential for the habitat of this species.” [. . .]

According to Dr Julia Azanza Ricardo, a turtle expert and professor at the Higher Institute of Technologies and Applied Sciences of the University of Havana, Guanal is one of the most important nesting areas in Cuba. However, climate change is threatening their future. Turtle gender is linked to the temperature of the nest during incubation, and the rising temperatures are resulting in fewer males being born. 

“More than 90% of turtles born in Cuba are female, Azanza said. “In a short time, we expect to reach 100%. When we started monitoring nest temperature 15 years ago, they were 28, 29, 30 degrees. Now it’s 32, 33, 34. It will only take a rise of two degrees to reach 100%. If all males are wiped out, then it’s the end of local populations and then the end of the species.” Solutions, Azanza explained, include vegetation shading by planting certain species of bushes, moving nests to cooler spots or watering the sand. [. . .]

West of turtle country and 86km south-west of Nueva Gerona is the village of Cocodrilo, the most remote inhabited spot in Cuba. Founded as Jacksonville after English-speaking Cayman Islanders settled it in the early 20th Century, 122 families now live in single-storey concrete and wooden homes facing the sea. Twenty-four-hour electricity only arrived in 2001. 

Here, conservationist Reinaldo Borrego Hernández, known as “Nene”, runs a tourism and conservation project, Consytur, with his wife, Yemmy. Nene’s mission is to preserve and protect the coral reef, wildlife and nature of his home village. 

“I’ve lived in this natural environment all my life, and my wish to protect it is in my blood,” said Nene. 

By staying in Nene’s B&B, Villa Arrecife (one of only three B&Bs in Cocodrilo), visitors help fund conservation work focused on collecting rubbish from beaches and the seabed, capturing lionfish – an invasive species – and serving it to guests, and growing and planting new branches of critically endangered staghorn coral. [. . .]

For full article, see

[Photo above by Martin Llado/Getty Images; “Turtles” by Claire Boobbyer.]

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