The Isle of Youth, An Island of a Thousand Treasures
By Hector Arturo Photos: Alejandro Gortázar
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the novel Treasure Island in which his young protagonist, Jim Hawkins, set sail on board the Spanish schooner, the Hispaniola.Ever since it was published in 1883, this novel about pirates and buried treasure was much talked about and it became a must have in the libraries of children and for adults with a sense of adventure.
I would like to tell you about a place that could have been the model for Stevenson's island although it doesn't have just one treasure but thousands of them. I have seen all these treasures and so can you if you venture there. I am referring to the Isla de la Juventud or, the Isle of Youth, shaped in the form of a coma and located south of the main island of Cuba and in the center of the Batabanó Gulf. It is the largest of the more than 600 keys and islands which make up the Canarreos Archipelago.
The Isle of Youth has a surface area of 2,200 square kilometers and is bathed by the warm blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. Its name refers to the thousands of young Cubans, Africans, Latin-Americans, Caribbean islanders and Asians who have studied and trained there to become professionals in the areas of medicine and health, engineering, architecture, geography, and in other fields of study.
The number of foreign students studying in the dozens of schools located In that territory was such that when Javier Perez de Cuellar, then Secretary General of the United Nations, visited the Island, he expressed that he felt as If he were In the General Assembly of the UN. But this was not its first name. On June 13, 1494, when Admiral Christopher Columbus ran Into It, It was baptized as LaEvangelista. But his sailors called It Isle of Pines for Its abundance of pine trees visible from all the coastal areas.
However, the aboriginal Inhabitants had different names such as Camaraco(Land of Water and Forests), Guanaja(Turkey Island), Siguaneaand Ahao.
As time went by, other names came up Treasure Island, Pirate Island, Parrot Island, and the Island of the Deported, all given with some real justification. The latter came from the Cuban patriots who were imprisoned on this island for opposing Spanish colonialism.
I have already mentioned that there were thousands of treasures on the Island. It is said that pirates and corsairs like Sir Francis Drake and Captain Morgan buried their treasures of gold and jewels in that territory where they found good shelter, food, firewood and water in its coves. There was also an abundance of talking parrots at the time.
Among all of these names, the one most commonlyused was the Isle of Pines but in 1975, its name was formallychanged in a public ceremony to that of the Isle of Youth.
Natural resources, culture ... and good music
Of course I am also referring to other treasures, material andspiritual. I am thinking of the beaches hugging the Island's coasts,all of them true and real from the excellent and enviable Punta del Este In the south east up to Bibijagua In the north, famous for itsblack sands created from the erosion of nearby marble fields.
The western beaches near to the Colony Hotel were where thefamous Cuban free diver, Deborah Andollo, broke numerousworld records in free diving. Near the Hotel is the InternationalDiving Center which has all the equipment and services for scubadivers to enjoy the coral and caves of the maritime national parkat Punta Frances. The Center even has a hyperbolic chamber.
The sea bottoms skirting the Island are rich with coral reefs andschools of fish, so much so that one of the world underwater fishing championships was held at the nearby Cayo Ávalos. And what can I say about its lobsters, the so-called Queen of the Caribbean, contributing thousands of tons of the most exquisite food from the sea bottom.
Another treasure of the Island is the abundant marble, in shades of black, green, gray, brown, red, and white, which can be found decorating walls and flooring all over the world. It can also be found in the form of beautiful sculptures. The Island is proud of AJexisLeyvaMachado "Kcho," one of the most outstanding young, audacious and enterprising painters and sculptors of the last few years whose works are highly valued in the international market.
There are also vast orange and grapefruit plantations whose fruit is much prized by European consumers and is usually the first to market in those countries. Crocodile farms reproduce the Crocodylusrombipherand acutusspecies in captivity in order to protect them from extinction.
As for natural wonders, besides its springs of refreshing natural mineral and medicinal waters, there happens to a be a tunnel formed by hundred year old trees whose branches have interwoven above a two kilometer length of roadway. The shade created is so complete that if you drive through there at noon, you will have to turn your headlights on.
An incredible artistic treasure can be found in the area of Punta del Este. Inside Gave Number One are more than 200 paintingscreated over centuries ago by aboriginal indians on the walls andceilings. These are considered by many experts as the 'SistineChapel of cave Art in the caribbean' and are certainly wortha visit.
Even the Islands music is special. Since the area was populated by immigrants born elsewhere in the Caribbean, mainly the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, you can find interesting blends of traditional music from those parts. For example, eighty year old Arnold Dixon, known in the artistic world as "Sonny Boy" is the son of a Cayman native and a Jamaican woman, who together with his band, has been able to keep these rhythms alive. Harry Belafonte, in his frequent visits to Cuba, always made a stop to meet with his great friend Sonny Boy and both sang to the rhythms of the Caribbean.
Another unique sound comes from Mongo Rives and his Tumbita Criolla. They are a traditional group playing with a lute, guitars, maracas, bongos and a machete, keeping alive a well-known and much liked Cuban rhythm known as the sucusuco which originated on the Isle of Youth.
And last but not least, there are the peoples of the island. Men, women, and children ban or raised on this Island, exceptional for their courtesy, polite manners, education, culture and proverbial hospitality, sharing their sincere smiles and friendly greetings to all those who, like myself, have ventured to this special part of Cuba in the midst of the blue, warm and transparent waters of the Caribbean Sea.