The mosquitos haven’t woken up yet and the sun hasn’t quite risen on Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud. It’s 6 am and I’m on a horse-drawn cart with Rolando, leaving the town of Cocodrilo via an unpaved road. As the night sky gradually brightens, I make out the shadowed skyline of the thick jungle on each side of the road. Rolando’s headlamp cuts through the dark and flickers on the back of his horse. Over the steady din of the forest insects, I listen to the occasional tongue clicks and varying intonations of caballo that Rolando uses to communicate with his horse. There is no one else around.
I have been in Cocodrilo for five days. Rolando is my host’s neighbor and for 10 CUC (about $10), he gives me rides in his horse cart to just about anywhere on the coast, and even throws in a roadside snack of fresh coconuts or mangoes on the return trip. This morning, after a two-hour journey east, we arrive at the remote lighthouse of Carapachibey. One of the largest in Latin America, it towers over a scenic bay that offers views all the way to the other end of the island. Below, a lone lighthouse keeper mops the deck. He has set up a bed on the open-air base of the tower. On his mattress is a Spanish edition of The Evolution of Physics by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld. It doesn’t get more isolated than this.
Formerly home to a handful of workers and their families, a hurricane destroyed much of the lighthouse and today, only one worker remains, seen here silhouetted as he cleans the floor.
Ever since I was kid, I have had a habit of studying maps and trying to find geographically unique places––remote islands, towns far removed from any others, the very ends of peninsulas. This interest in isolation, geographic and otherwise, is what got me interested in going to Cuba. And when looking at a map with this in mind, you will likely notice Isla de la Juventud, a smaller island southwest of Havana. Look closer and you will see a dot in what is otherwise green emptiness on the southern half of the island. This dot is Cocodrilo.
I had been to Isla de la Juventud twice before. The first time was just for a couple of days, to see a baseball game in the small capital of Nueva Gerona, a town of about 60,000 people. On that trip, I noticed how different the island feels compared to the rest of Cuba. There are few antique cars, and the architecture is dominated by Soviet looking concrete apartment blocks. It’s almost completely devoid of the things people tend to romanticize about the country, lacks attractive and accessible beaches, and thus sees very little foreign tourism. It was during my second visit that I started talking to local friends about Cocodrilo. Their views on the place ranged from “there’s nothing there” to “it’s a mystical paradise,” and I knew had to come back again.