About 100km south of the mainland, the little-visited Isla de la Juventud (Island of Youth) is the largest of over three hundred scattered emerald islets that make up the Archipiélago de los Canarreos, a fantasy paradise of pearl-white sand and translucent, coral-lined shallows. Extending from the island capital of Nueva Gerona in the north to the superb diving region of Punta Francés, 70km to the southwest, the comma-shaped Juventud is bisected by a military checkpoint designed to control access to ecologically vulnerable swampland in the south, which is rich in wildlife; the northern region is mostly farmland, characterized by citrus orchards and mango groves.
Although it has an air of timeless somnolence, Isla de la Juventud was actually once a pirate haunt, ruled over for three centuries by French and English buccaneers and adventurers. Development here has been unhurried, and even today there are as many horse-drawn coaches on the roads as there are cars or trucks.
It probably won’t be your first choice for a beach holiday, although it’s a good place to unwind once you’ve visited the more flamboyant – and hectic – sights elsewhere in Cuba. With little tourist trade, Juventud’s charm is anchored to its unaffected pace of life and pleasant beaches, and the lack of traffic and predominantly flat terrain make cycling an excellent way to explore. The single real town, Nueva Gerona, founded in 1830, has few of the architectural crowd-pullers that exist in other colonial towns, and so is a refreshingly low-key place to visit, easily explored over a weekend. For those keen to explore further, there are some intriguing pre-Columbian cave paintings in the south and, close to the capital, the museum at the abandoned Presidio Modelo, a prison whose most famous inmate was Fidel Castro. With a couple more small but worthy museums, some of the country’s best offshore dive sites and one beautiful white-sand beach, Isla de la Juventud is one of Cuba’s best-kept secrets.
A necklace of islets streaming 150km east, the cays of the Archipiélago de los Canarreos are mostly too small to sustain a complex tourist structure, though Cayo Largo, the archipelago’s second-largest landmass after La Isla, is the destination of choice for most visitors to the area. Arguably Cuba’s most exclusive holiday resort – if only in terms of accessibility – this comparatively tiny islet is beaten only by Varadero for package-tourist pulling power. Unlike its mainland counterpart, however, this resort is completely devoid of a genuine local population. Created in 1977 and now serving flocks of sun-worshipping Canadians and Europeans, the resort capitalizes on its flawless, 22km-long ribbon of white sand and features a marina, dive centre and a growing clique of all-inclusive hotels.
Both islands, but particularly Isla de la Juventud, have endured horrific storm damage over the last decade following a succession of devastating hurricanes, and though it’s business as usual at the resort on Cayo Largo, some of the infrastructure on La Isla is still in a state of disrepair.