June 20, 2019

ROB O'NEAL/Paradise
Royal Palms line the road through the countryside on the Isle of Youth, an island of the southern coast of Cuba.

ROB O'NEAL/Paradise Royal Palms line the road through the countryside on the Isle of Youth, an island of the southern coast of Cuba.

About 60 miles off the southern coast of Cuba, across the Bay of Batobano lies the “special municipality” of the Isle of Youth. First “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1494, the island is the second largest in a collection of some 350 Cuban islands, and the seventh largest in the West Indies. Hard to reach and somewhat mysterious, “La Isla,” as Cubans call it, has had several names over the centuries including the “Isle of Pines” and “Treasure Island,” which most agree was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of the same name.

In 2004, with my Cuba photo bucket list still in its larval stages, a reporter and I made our first attempt to visit the island. Falling for a lame sob story from some Cuban guy at the bus station, we hired a car and gave him a ride to the port of Batobano, about an hour south of Havana. His promise of “knowing the boat captain” of the hydrofoil that ferries people to the Isle of Youth quickly fell through. But the ultimate diss didn’t happen until we realized that our driver, who was headed back to Havana anyway, had already beat feet back to the capital city, leaving us stranded in one of the worst locales I’ve seen in Cuba to this day. After finding an outrageously overpriced ride back to Havana, tails firmly tucked between our legs, we regrouped at my friend’s place for the night. The next day, he bailed back to the U.S., while I boarded the scariest airplane I had ever seen. Most “in-country” flights in Cuba are conducted on aging Russian airplanes, and it’s always an experience. Once on board, nervous, but absolutely determined, I marveled at the fact that nothing was in English, nor Spanish. Thankfully, this wasn’t my first time on Cubana Airlines so I knew not to freak out when the steam started pouring out of the floorboards. Nope, this is, ahem, normal.

Anyway, 30 minutes later, I was safely in Isle of Youth’s capital city of Nueva Gerona and while the details escape me, my friend had arranged for a nice place to stay that came with a ride from the owner. With only a day and a half on-island, I quickly knocked out the Presidio Modelo prison where a “who’s who” of Cubans, including the Castro brothers, had been jailed. We also checked out the volcanic, black sand beaches and the American cemetery. You learn that before the Revolution, Americans owned the better part of the island and farmed the land with livestock and citrus fruits. These days, it’s more about lumber, charcoal and a bit of diving tourism.

That night, my only night on the island, my host served me my first plate of crocodile meat. It was a memorable meal, but my strongest memory, though not necessarily my favorite memory, was leaping from my bed at 5 a.m. Before turning in that night, I was aware of the fact that the Cuban government was conducting war games in and around the town. They’re called “Bastion.” What I didn’t know was that they’d be setting off what sounded like a 500-pound bomb outside my bedroom window. I really don’t know how to explain what it was like and I certainly can’t do it without profanity.

Moving on. It’s hard to believe that was 15 years ago, and the bucket list has more or less been fruitfully fulfilled, but on my last trip to Cuba, my friend mentioned a place I’d never given much thought. But now, I have to go to the village of Cocodrilo, also on the Isle of Youth. Unfortunately, that’s easy to say, but there are several obstacles. The first of which is actually getting to the island. The plane is notoriously late, and the hydrofoils get mixed reviews. Having said that, and assuming we can reach the place, the possibly bigger problem is that the village of Cocodrilo is far to the southwest of the island and in a military zone. However, with a population of about 750 people, an insanely beautiful shoreline as far off the “beaten path” as possible and wild parrots flying around, I’m determined to make it. The potential ace in the hole is that my friend’s husband was born there, so if there’s ever been a chance to improve on my first experience to the Isle of Youth, it will be later this year. An uninterrupted night of sleep would be a step in the right direction.