The Many Names of a Small Island
By: Yamilé González Luguera
Located in the Gulf of Batabano, some 162 kilometers south of Havana, Isla de la Juventud (The Isle of Youth) was discovered by Christopher Columbus on June 13, 1494, during his second voyage to the New World. It may be the Cuban region that has been renamed the most.
Columbus was the first to name it. He called it St. John the Evangelist. But between the 16th and 18th centuries it was known as Isla de las Cotorras (“Isle of Parrots”), because of the large number of these birds living there, and also Isla del Tesoro (“Treasure Island”), because of an old legend about the existence of chests full of jewels and gold coins buried there at a time when the island served as a refuge for pirates.
Indigenous Cubans called it Siguanea, Camaraco or Guanaja. However, the name that lasted longest was Isle of Pines, for the pine forests covering most of it. It was not until 1978 that it was renamed as Isle of Youth. The name was due to the thousands of young students who arrived from different developing countries to study in schools on the island.
At present, around 2,300 students from four continents are on the island, including those participating in a new training program for Latin American doctors, and others studying to be teachers.
It was not until the 19th century that the Spanish crown decided to colonize the island, the second-largest Cuban island and the seventh largest in the West Indies (after Cuba itself, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and Andros Island). Its capital, Nueva Gerona, was founded on December 17, 1830.
The island, the largest of the Los Canarreos archipelago comprising 672 keys and islets, has a rugged coastline and lush vegetation.
The main transportation to the island is boat and aircraft. Hydrofoils (kometas) and motorized catamarans make the trip between the southern coastal town of Batabano, in Mayabeque province, and Nueva Gerona in two to three hours. A much slower and larger cargo ferry takes around six hours to make the crossing. There is also an air connection from Havana to Nueva Gerona.
Isla de la Juventud became a special municipality (2,419 km2), not part of any province, in 1976. It is, therefore, administered directly by the central government of Cuba.
The province has only one municipality, also named Isla de la Juventud. Its main communities are Nueva Gerona, Santa Fe and La Demajagua, all surrounded by the green hills of the Sierra Caballo and Sierra Las Casas, providing a splendid sight. Those who choose to spend their vacations on this island have a wide range of accommodation including Gaviota Hotels, La Cubana, The Isla de la Juventud villa, El Colony, Isla Azul, Rancho del Tesoro, and the camping area Arenas Negras.
Before the 1959 Revolution, the area was known for being home to the Presidio Modelo prison facilities, built between 1926 and 1928 during the rule of President turned-dictator Gerardo Machado. It is a prison complex with five circular buildings, each with a Panopticon design that consists of a circular structure with an “inspection house” at its centre, from which the staff of the institution watched the inmates, who were placed around the perimeter.
Some 25 survivors of the rebel attacks against the Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship on July 26, 1953 at the Moncada Barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, were imprisoned here, including Fidel Castro and his brother Raul Castro. These prison facilities were in operation until they were permanently closed by the government in 1967. The prison now serves as a museum and was declared a National Monument, and the old administration building now serves as a school and research centre.
The economy of the Isle of Youth is based on agriculture, mainly citrus fruit production, and fishing. However, the soil of its hills covers a variety of valuable reserves, including green, pink, black and white marbles.
One of its most eye-catching sites is the Lanier Swamp National Park, with a protected area of abundant natural treasures and archaeological elements, and dense tropical forests that are home to iguanas, parrots, birds, alligators and pigs. The National Punta Frances Park, in the southwestern coast, is a must for cruise tourists who visit the Cuban archipelago, where visitors can enjoy excellent beaches, water activities and land excursions to points of interest throughout the island.
Its crystal clear water allows one to observe the beauty of the seabed, home to one of the best-preserved coral reefs on the planet. The six-mile long coastline between Punta Pedestales and Punta Frances ios the place to go for the activities of the International Diving Centre located at Hotel Colony. Divers have their choice among 56 diving sites, including those known as the Black Coral Wall, the Tunnel of Love, the Blue Cave, Hidden Passage, Coral Stone, Pirate Anchor and Small Kingdom.
Another attraction of this small island is Bibijagua Beach, famous for its black sands, the result of the sea's erosive action on marble rocks. Archaeology also has its place in the Punta del Este Caves, located in the southern part of the island, and known as the “Sistine Chapel” of Cuban art due to the great historical value of their indigenous red and black paintings.