Western Cuba: Places to Explore

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Isla de la Juventud

Flat, scrubby, and—except for its subaquatic marvels—geographically undistinguished, the island was a pirate refuge for centuries after Columbus discovered it in 1494. In the 19th century, the Spanish sent exiles here. Later that century, emigrants from the Cayman Islands started a British colony here, leaving some native English-speakers even today around the town of Cocodrilo on the south coast. Americans colonized the island in the early 20th century, thinking it could become another state; the Mafia considered making it an insular gambling paradise in the 1940s. Finally, after the Revolution, Castro established his experimental, international student community—a plan to combine work and study and, in the process, convert the island into a citrus power. The experiment fell apart during the Special Period in the 1990s; most of the boarding schools are now in ruins.

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