I’ve had an interesting day traveling around this island. A family friend of Juana’s came by in his Russian Lada sedan to pick me up for my personal tour. Juana asked if she could join us. La Isla has an interesting history because of its isolation. After centuries of conflict, Spain eventually decided it made more sense to offer governorship positions and land to the pirates rather than trying to eradicate them. So the personality of its people developed in a similar way to that of Australia, relatively independent from the motherland and with citizens determined to do things their own way.
Our tour began at one of the most unique attractions on the island: the Presidio Modelo, built from 1926 to 1931 by President Machado. It was an exact copy of the equally notorious prison built in Joliet, Illinois. The projected maximum capacity of the four huge circular structures that make up the prison was 6000 prisoners. During WWII it housed prisoners of war from Japan, Germany, and Italy. (Cuba was officially “neutral” during the war, but it was a de facto colony of the U.S. Thus, it functioned as an ally.)
But the island’s most famous prisoners were Fidel and Raul Castro, who were imprisoned there in the 1950’s. It is difficult to believe that Batista didn’t execute both of them after the raid on Moncada, and he undoubtedly regretted not doing so for the rest of his life.
Other sites we visited included La Abra, where Cuba’s father-of-the-country José Martí was imprisoned by the Spanish in 1869 before being exiled to Spain. (He returned in 1895 and was killed early in the last Cuban-Spanish war for independence.)
We visited two beautiful but unoccupied beaches on the northeast corner of the island: Playa Paraiso and Playa Bibijagua. Both had small coffee shop/bars with few customers, but most likely there would be more beachcombers around by the afternoon.
We also hiked through botanical gardens of La Jungla de Jones, which was established in 1902 by Harris and Helen Jones. They were American botanists who imported plants from all over the world, then created trails over dozens of acres. Helen was the last to die in 1960, just after the Cuban Revolution. Their dream gardens lay abandoned until 1998, when restoration efforts began, and continue to this day.
We drove over to the west side of the island to the Colony at Playa Roja, which is a beachfront lowrise hotel and jumping-off point for terrific diving. The remains of several Spanish galleons which sank in relatively shallow crystal-clear water lie just a few miles south along the coast. The Batista regime built the Hotel Colony in the 1950’s as a casino hangout for wealthy sophisticated Americans. It was abandoned a short time after the Cuban Revolution. Today it serves as a really-out-of-the way hotel with old-fashioned decor and a spectacular, almost-private, sunset-facing white-sand beach. It seemed like there were more hotel staff around than visitors.
The southern quarter of the island is a restricted military zone. My guidebook said that the primary function is to conserve and restrict access to the wildlife reserve, and the only way for non-residents to visit this area is to buy a one-day pass and hire a registered guide. However, this area is currently closed to everybody with the exception of military personnel. I hope to return sometime when the zone is re-opened. There seems to be a lot to see there—historic lighthouses, beautiful beaches, thousand-year-old cave paintings, and excellent diving sites.
On the way back to my casa, I noticed a couple of paragliders landing at a baseball field as we drove by. I couldn’t figure out where they came from. I didn’t see any small aircraft. My driver Joel said they jumped off La Montaña—a steep hill located just west of town, and many miles from their landing point.
Right now I am relaxing back in my room. Tonight’s dinner was chicken, along with enough side-dish food to feed four others.
I’ve been thinking about those paragliders we saw landing at the baseball field earlier today. The steep hill they jumped from juts up into the air just west of town. My guidebook says there is a trail to the top, so I think I will go for a hike in the morning.