La Isla de la Juventud is a little-visited corner of Cuba, popular with divers and rich in beauty and pirate tales – if not in gold
“If there were any treasure, do you think I’d still be here?” winked Vladimir, my Cuban scuba guide.
“Well, if there are no buried chests of coins, why do people still come here and search?” I wondered.
He shrugged and admitted that, although various glittering items had been turned up over the years, there probably wasn’t much left and, if any were found under Cuba’s sapphire seas, the world’s media was not likely to hear about it.
Vladimir and I were supping coconut milk while mulling a modern-day Long John Silver scenario on the beach at Punta Francés, part of a national marine park on the pirate coast of Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), known for its tales of treasure and treason.
This large,tear-shaped island droops 60 miles off the south coast of Cuba. In the 16th and 17th centuries, its coves and caves were the sites of battles between the Spanish empire’s convoy ships and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake and Wales’s Henry Morgan, and other European buccaneers.
Gold and jewels might have been off the menu, but I still wanted to explore, so Vladimir and I set off on foot to the troglodytic, weathered stone refuge of French pirate François LeClerc, further along the sandy finger of Punta Francés. Clambering down under rock arches into the eroded chamber, we glimpsed the turquoise sea from where LeClerc could disembark in secret from his galleon and go ashore unseen.
It’s easy to believe the legend that Robert Louis Stevenson based Treasure Island, published 130 years ago this year, on this untrampled corner of the Caribbean. The treasure we found, after a sandy tramp through searing heat past butterflies, crabs and lizards, was the nest of an American crocodile, watched over by a park ranger. It may have been less glittery than the hauls of yore, but it was no less valuable.
Thinking I might have better bounty-hunting luck on the seabed, I joined Vladimir’s dive boat from the only hotel on the west coast of the island, El Colony. No gold coins glinted beneath tufts of sand, but we swam with hawksbill turtles, barracuda, and Goliath grouper amid the brain coral and sea fans of the reef that filters out along this pirate coast.
Back at El Colony, I took stock. The low-slung hotel, built as a Hilton and opened just weeks before the Cuban revolution in 1959, sits alone on Red Beach, which is famous for its shocking-pink sunsets. Here, I unwrapped my modern-day maps in the hope of better treasure-hunting luck and set off to explore the interior of the island, which is peppered with palms and pines, and has some shiny attractions of its own – the marble mountains.
Cuba’s Isle of Youth is a misnomer. In 1978, Fidel Castro turned the island into a grand communist university for students from around the world. Today those young pupils are long gone and many of the buildings lie abandoned amid the seemingly limitless forests of pine, mango and citrus, or have been converted into community housing. This sense of abandonment extends beyond the erstwhile university project, though.
The Isle of Youth is Cuba’s least developed corner and is the antithesis of the all-inclusive beach resorts so popular on many other Cuban beaches. There’s no tourist promotion, little infrastructure and few hotels. This is the only place in Cuba where the “scheduled” flights depart and arrive when an aeroplane becomes available from another part of the country. Yet mainland Cubans flock to the island in the summer, packing out the B&Bs dotted among the flowery bushes of the small island capital of Nueva Gerona and surging towards the nearby black, marble-flecked Bibijagua beach for sunny mayhem, picnics and games of dominoes.
It’s only the most inquisitive and determined overseas visitor who books well ahead for the ATR flights, or the more expensive three-hour catamaran from Cuba’s southern coast, and gets to experience this slice of unvarnished Cuban reality.
Over a dinner of chicken fricassee at Paladar El Chévere, a new, modest, private restaurant in Nueva Gerona owned by an ex-state security agent, I asked a fellow diner, Miguel, why the island appears to have been cast adrift.
“Castro threw dust at la isla,” he deadpanned, referring to curses used by practitioners of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. Spluttering on my rum and cola, I asked if Castro had cursed the island because he had once served time in its infamous jail (60 years ago, with Che Guevara, for a failed attack on the government), now an eerie museum.
“No,” Miguel explained, “it’s because he doesn’t want the Americans to take it over again.”
During the Spanish-American War in the early 1900s, the US, with one eye on creating a second naval base, claimed the island, in the same way it did Guantánamo Bay. It didn’t relinquish sovereignty until 1925. It hasn’t been the only nation, however, that has attempted to colonise the island.
Christopher Columbus dropped anchor in 1494, naming it Evangelist Island but it wasn’t officially colonised until 1830 – and then only because the English threatened to occupy it.
The Isle has also suffered a 500-year identity crisis. Over the centuries it has borne a number of aboriginal names, several Spanish empire names, one post-colonisation name (its current title), and five popular monikers – Treasure Island, Pirate Island, the Siberia of Cuba, the Isle of 500 Murders and Forgotten Island. They all play on a history of treason that reflects little of its current bounty: swamps teeming with protected wildlife, pre-Columbian rock art, white-sand beaches, and pine and mango-tree forests, which I hiked through on a new route, guided by Arcadio Rodríguez, an Angolan civil war veteran-turned-ranger.
As we bathed in a clear, natural pool, woodpeckers rattled the forest and we feasted on Arcadio’s farmyard lamb and sweet Cuban coffee. I wondered whether those pirates of the Caribbean had ever savoured the true treasure of the Isle of Youth – its natural beauty – rather than merely plundering its passing loot.
• The Holiday Place (020-7644 1755, holidayplace.co.uk) tailormakes trips to Cuba taking in Isla de la Juventud. Hotel El Colony (+53 46 398181, hotelelcolony.com) has doubles from $52 B&B. Paladar El Chévere (+53 46 32 8326) offers mains from £1.30.