The territory of Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), located about 100 kilometers south of Havana, is a major destination for nature tourism, due to its beautiful beaches and sea bottoms to practice scuba diving and snorkeling, and has received several names for centuries.
Discovered by Admiral Christopher Columbus in his second voyage to the region, the isle was named San Juan Evangelista (Saint John Evangelist) on that occasion.
Its capital, Nueva Gerona, was founded in 1830 as Colonia de Reina Amalia (Colony of Queen Amalia), in honor of the then wife of King Ferdinand VII, and maintains a well-preserved eclectic architecture marked by neoclassical elements.
Other early names of the territory include Isla de las Cotorras (Isle of the Parrots) and Isla del Tesoro (Treasure Island), in a period from the 16th to the 18th centuries, when the island was a safe haven for several crews of pirates and corsairs.
For the aboriginal inhabitants, the island was Siguanea. Isla de Pinos (Isle of Pines), which is the most lasting name, refers to the forests of pine trees of the Caribbean species that grew in the region.
Declared a protected area due to its natural and archeological values, Isla de la Juventud has dense tropical forests inhabited by large iguanas, hutias, pigeons and boars, among other species of animals that live in their natural habitat.
In south westernmost tip of the island, 122 kilometers from Nueva Gerona, the Punta Francés Marine National Park covers an area of 4,000 hectares and holds one of Cuba's best preserved coastal ecosystems.
Precisely, that area is used for scuba diving and snorkeling at the Hotel El Colony, where a beach strip of six kilometers, between Punta Pedestales and Punta Francés, holds a one-of-a-kind marine environment.
Tourists can dive in 56 sites, many of which are inhabited by large colonies of corals and sponges, and have underwater caves, corridors and tunnels.
Experts highlight the spectacular beauty of diving sites like Pared de Coral Negro, Túnel del Amor, Cueva Azul, El Pasaje Escondido, Cueva de los Sábalos, Piedra de Coral, El Salto, Ancla del Pirata, Paraíso de las Levisas and Pequeño Reino.
Divers are also attracted to the zone where the cargo ships Jibacoa and the military ship Esparta sank and where there is a wide range of corals of different colors, algae, sponges and crustaceans.
The site known as Los Indios is characterized by vertical walls and coral formations, while in Fuera de Límite, the coral reef grows from the coast and then falls 15 meters.
Chinese, Japanese and US colonies settled on Isla de la Juventud, and Bibijagua Beach is famous for its black sand, due to the sea's erosive action on the marble rocks, which are abundant on the island.
History lovers can visit the Finca El Abra Museum, which was declared a National Monument, where aspects of Cuban National Hero José Martí's stay in that place are exhibited, including some of his personal objects.