There are number of places which could have been the real inspiration for Treasure Island, the famous novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Cayo Levisa is certainly one of them and I reckon no better image could sum up the magic of this small islet off the coast of Pinar del Río Province, west of Havana.
Such was the feeling that accompanied us all the way to Cayo Levisa, especially the few in the group who would have their first experience on the island - adventure, mystery and even, who knew?, the site of the buried treasure of Captain Flint. Grownups and kids alike, we were all pretty excited boarding the mini-bus in Havana.
Driving to Cayo Levisa will take you through some of the most beautiful valleys in Cuba. Pinar del Río, the province that borders Havana and spreads to the western tip of the island, is known for its natural beauty and as home of the best tobacco plantations in the world. Our destination was on the coast though, so we had to leave the highway and take a mountain road that rapidly had us surrounded by a savage green landscape. The luxurious tropical forest was interrupted here and there by a couple of houses, a medical post and a public school where all the uniformed children greeted us from the side of the road.
Cayo Levisa is just off the coast, and one can only get there over water. There is a state-operated twice-a-day ferry, so normally one has to plan the trip accordingly. There are, nonetheless, other boats available for nonscheduled transport, making it good to know that you won’t be stranded on an island with no options to get out.
As we had our trip well organized, we reached the ferry on time. At the terminal, a small bar offers a place to freshen up and hear the stories of local fishermen about the dolphins you may encounter, the coral reefs ahead, and the gigantic marlin one caught the day before.
The ferry is hardly state-of-the-art, but then again, nothing is in Cuba. Nonetheless, it was operational and had all the necessary safety equipment to face an emergency. This was tested inadvertently when the straw hat of one of our friends flew overboard. Seeing the hat drifting away, the captain did not hesitate, but turned the boat around to retrieve it. Everybody on the boat was cheering as the skipper fished the hat out with an oversized harpoon. This hilarious moment put everyone in the mood for the arrival on the island.
The first impression of Levisa, we have to admit, is a bit disappointing, for one only sees a jetty surrounded by mangrove and muddy, swamp-like ground, not a single grain of sand in sight. One wonders where the promised paradise is, as we walk the wooden planks across the islet. Then, past the last trees, it hits you, like a work of art: the green sea, the golden sand and the magnificent sunset.
The hotel is a small complex of 33 bungalows right on the beach, with a small restaurant and an outdoor bar, where we were welcomed by the extremely helpful staff and a complementary Cuban cocktail.
Check-in was smooth and in time to enjoy the sunset. The sun became red, contrasting with the emerald of the ocean. We stared at the burning sky in a profound silence, overwhelmed by the beauty of this setting. The beach, the sea and a piña colada; we were in paradise.
Cayo Levisa is a family place, where children feel completely free, releasing the Robinson Crusoe inside them. The oldest would explore the island, build huts and go fishing. The youngest would play in the sand, building castles or digging holes. Then, they’d all jump in the sea, where the warm water, calm as a pool, was always calling them. It’s a place of happiness and relaxation, where parents don’t feel the pressure of constant surveillance and are able to simply enjoy the smiles on their children’s faces.
Here, you can enjoy the simple pleasures of life, a stroll on the beach, the book you’ve been longing to read, sipping a daiquiri with your feet in the ocean. The dolce fare niente the Italians transformed into an art form. The more adventurous would be off for a catamaran ride, a snorkeling trip or a deep-sea diving excursion. Deep sea fishing was also an option, with the kitchen personnel ready to prepare the day’s catch.
As far as I am concerned, mid-morning strolls along the beach were the most pleasant. We would walk to the tip of the island and contemplate the ocean, completely alone, on our own private beach.
Lunch time was when our whole group would gather. Staff at the bar would prepare a large table where we’d share our morning adventures and plan the activities of the afternoon, be it a pedal boat ride or a competitive beach-volley match, or frequently none of the above, for we ended up just talking, exploring the cocktail list at the bar, and just enjoying the stress free environment of Cayo Levisa, a world apart from the worries of day-to-day living, the 9 to 5 schedules and the traffic jams.
As night fell, we would once again reunite for the sunset. One really has to see it, for it makes you wonder if it was drawn by a superior artist for that special occasion. Our only concern was to make sure the barman knew which rum to serve us in our daiquiris and mojitos.
Evenings end rather early, for there are no discotheques or salsa clubs on the island. Night birds had to improvise on the beach with a couple of beers or a bottle of wine, the music from a laptop and the atmosphere. One could talk, play games or just listen to the sound of the inviting waves. And yes, you can bathe in the ocean at night, for the water temperature is always pleasant.
The best thing in Cayo Levisa would have to be the waking up to the sound of the waves. Just the thought that all I had to do was open the room door and I would find the ocean just a few feet away, would immediately get me in a good mood. As I left the room, there it was, the white sand, the blue water, the kids running around, playing and swimming in permanent joy.
But even on a tropical island not all is perfect and it’s good to know that Cuba boasts one of the most impressive Civil Protection services in the world. This being said, and although we were on an island, we all felt quite safe on Cayo Levisa. On one occasion, when we were off the coast in a pedal boat, a storm suddenly appeared with heavy showers and strong winds. As we tried to get back ashore, the wind blew us back, rendering our efforts worthless.
For the children that were with us, it was nothing more than an adventure. I, on the other hand, was beginning to feel a bit apprehensive, for I feared we wouldn’t find it easy to get back to the beach. Fortunately, rescue was on its way. The lifeguards, quick to respond, towed us back to shore.
On another occasion, one of our friends hurt his back while playing volleyball. What was seemingly a minor injury, ended up revealing itself as a more serious problem. As night fell and his pain increased, we considered having him evacuated to a mainland hospital. But the hotel’s doctor, permanently on site, took good care of him and was able to give him a dose of muscle relaxants and pain relief medicine that guaranteed him a good night’s sleep. At the end, all went well and he was able to return to Havana the following morning.
Going back to Havana was hard. Bidding farewell to the hotel staff was like saying goodbye to family that you’re not sure to meet again anytime soon. But that’s part of the charm of Cayo Levisa, you end up gaining a certain affinity with its whereabouts and its people, that we surely would miss coming back home. Still, we knew in our hearts that it wasn’t really goodbye. Maybe a “see you later”; most likely a “see you soon”. In any case, it is surely an experience that we all want to relive.