When Robert Louis Stevenson penned Treasure Island, he based his tale on Parrot Island and the escapades of celebrity pirates Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan.
Today, Parrot Island is known as Isla de la Juventud, Cuba’s Island of Youth. It’s the latest in a long list of re-inventions: from Columbus conquest to pirate’s cove, from political prison to American party island, from communist university island to the top Caribbean dive-site it is today.
Apart from the name, not much has changed on the island over the last 50 years. Getting there is notoriously difficult, with most visitors to Cuba opting to remain on the main island and well-worn tourist track instead.
La Isla, as the locals call it, is as far off the beaten track as you can get in Cuba, where all points of interest are well-guarded by government officials and companero’s (comrades), who herd tourists towards approved establishments and scenery. Getting to La Isla is like taking a deep breath of real Cuban air.
Although difficult, travelling to Isla de la Juventud is possible by boat and by air. Flying is more reliable and often fully booked weeks in advance.
Getting off the airport means gathering a few lost tourists and commissioning a taxi to take you where you need to go. For most visitors, this means either the main town of Neuvo Gerona or Hotel Colony on the opposite side of the island, where most scuba divers congregate.
Hotel Colony is an institution. Established in 1958 as part of the Hilton hotel chain, it opened its doors a year before Fidel Castro came to power. When he promptly confiscated it. So it’s stuck in its 1950’s glory – the same oversized faded pink sea creatures still welcome you in the foyer. After 50 years the main building is somewhat run down, but the newer beach cabins are great: Bright and sunny with unobstructed sunset views from the patio.
One drawback of being this far off the beaten track, is that there’s not much to do when the weather makes diving impossible. But because the diving was rumoured to be the best in Cuba, it was a risk we were happy to take.
Sadly, we were disappointed. We saw better reefs, more variety and had better visibility on the south coast of Cuba at Cienfuegos.
So was the trip to La Isla worth it? Not for the diving, no. But to experience non-tourist Cuba? Yes. Definitely. For a few days we could escape the CUC-mad mainlanders and chill.
Deciding to visit La Isla will probably depend on your budget. Coming from Europe, Cuba is already a very expensive destination to travel to. Extending the trip to incorporate Isla de la Juventud will set you back an extra few hundred dollars.
A five day trip including flights, meals and 6 dives costs about EUR 700 for two people (booked at http://www.cuba-junky.com/cuba/diving-islajuventud_package.html and through http://www.cubaincentives.com/).
We decided to book the flights and first few nights’ accommodation through an agent – simply because it’s almost impossible to do it yourself over the internet because of government regulations. Agents also provide the tourist visa’s needed to enter the country.
Once on the main island, we fell into the casa circuit, where we were referred from one family-owned b&b to the next. Spending 70% less per night than we would have at the cheapest hotel.
Once there, Cuba is easy to navigate. You make a plan, you become a problem-solver. You consequir your way around the country. No problem! You wing it. You do life, the Cuban way.
Sometimes with a cigar and a glass of rum. Just like a pirate.