By Katie Thompson, CMRC Program Coordinator
Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud, or Isle of Youth, had always been described to me as a remote, beautiful, and curious place. It has a unique history and some of the country’s most untouched natural environments. I was able to visit the island last month as part of a scouting trip for future CMRC projects.
Just getting to the Isle of Youth is part of the adventure. The plane is Soviet-made from the 1960s or 70s and it was the first plane I ever boarded from a dropdown staircase in the rear. With one window every third seat the inside was slightly claustrophobic. Fortunately I was able to snag a window seat and watched the passing Cuban countryside below—large cement apartment buildings and small towns scattered among the many farms.
Upon arrival to Nueva Gerona, the major city on the Isle of Youth, I took a taxi to Hotel El Colony on the west coast of the island where I was staying. On the way we passed by grown-over fields of grapefruit trees, which was once the island's major source of income. We also passed what looked like large factories from afar but were actually the remnants of international boarding schools that once held students from African, Asian, and Latin American countries in the 1970s. (For a great overview of the island’s various development stages and unique history, see the article Cuba's Island of Broken Dreams by Nick Miroff of the Washington Post.)
Today, the tourists that make it to the Isle of Youth are mostly divers headed for one of the dozens of dive sites off of Punta Francés. I was able to go diving myself and see why the adventurous tourists make the trek. The crystal clear waters and healthy reefs were worth the trip. Not to mention the most delicious fresh lobster we had for lunch--it melted in my mouth and was exactly what I wanted after a day of diving.
I then headed to Cocodrilo, a small fishing village on the southern tip of the island. CMRC has a long-time relationship with Cocodrilo and CMRC’s director Fernando Bretos had always told me how wonderful the place was. It was founded in the 19th century by families from the Cayman Islands and there are still a few residents who are native English speakers.
Just like getting to the island, getting to Cocodrilo was also an adventure. I had to receive special permission from the Cuban government to enter the town. The trip was long (2 hours on a bumpy road in a 1948 truck) but well worth it. It was immediately clear why Fernando had always talked so highly of the place.
When I arrived I was received with open arms and fed a delicious meal of fish and congri (beans and rice). CMRC first began working in Cocodrilo in 2011 when we helped start local sea turtle conservation festivals. I was pleased to find out that Cocodrilo has continued to run the festivals even without our support. Evelio, the town’s mayor, couldn’t stop talking about next year’s festival and his plans to invite children from other communities. The growth of these festivals is significant considering fishers from Cocodrilo were catching sea turtles less than 10 years ago.
At the time I couldn’t tell what was different about my conversations with people in Cocodrilo as opposed to my conversations with people on other parts of the island. There was something about Cocodrilo I couldn’t put my finger on until writing this post. It's now clear, based on my experience, that on the rest of the island there is a focus on what was--people kept talking about what the island used to have. In Cocodrilo, however, the people continuously talk about the future, always looking ahead at what could be.
I headed back to Havana on the same plane on which I arrived after spending a 16 hour flight delay on the beach. Going to the Isle of Youth allowed me to learn a little more about a truly unique part of Cuba—I hope it’s the first trip of many.