MORE IDYLLIC ISLAND ESCAPES
Isla de la Juventud, Cuba: Cuba’s second largest island lies directly south of Havana. This so-called Isle of Youth is famously friendly and it’s easy to get off the beaten track. Punta Frances is a top scubadiving spot and there are swaths of wilderness in the southern half of the island. Hotels on Isla de la Juventud are limited so it’s best to use one of the homestays, or in the capital, Nueva Gerona. Local airline Cubana flies from Havana. A two-hour catamaran trip from Batabano, 70km south of Havana, costs $US50 ($53) return. More: www.cubana.cu. For accommodation options, www.casaparticular.com.
Puerto Rico: Since the US embargo on tourism in Cuba, Puerto Rico has been middle-class America’s main Spanish Caribbean option. The capital, San Juan, is a vibrant city with a pretty colonial core and while it has plenty of shopping centres, luxury hotels and glitzy casinos, it also has cool restaurants and great nightlife. In the interior, there are crumbling colonial towns, coffee plantations and tropical rainforests, while the coast is full of dive sites. More: www.welcometopuertorico.org.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico: According to Mayan legend, this beautiful little island a short ferry ride from Cancun was used for fertility ceremonies. There are some good seafood and fish restaurants and lovely crushed-coral beaches. Day visitors leave about 5pm, when it gets far calmer and local shops begin to close. Express ferries take 15 minutes from Puerto Juarez and Gran Puerto Cancun (30 and 60-minute taxi rides respectively from the airport). More: www.isla-mujeres.net.
Ambergris Caye, Belize: It’s nowhere near as gritty or edgy as the mainland but this miniature, palmfronded paradise can be a welcome retreat. Speedboats go from Belize City and the tiny capital, San Pedro Town, has some great guesthouses, as well as cheesy themed resorts. There’s not much to do but kick back in a hammock, ride around in a golf cart and take the short boat trip out to one of the world’s greatest coral reefs for scuba diving or snorkelling. Maya Island Air flies daily from Belize City. More: www.mayaregional.com. Water taxis to San Pedro run daily for $US20 return. Chris Moss always trying to buy the land here, so they can build multi-storey hotels and flash resorts, but we are fighting to keep them out. It’s not easy, but we want to manage this at our own pace, in our own way.’’
Providencia is all about pace. I really don’t remember the last time I switched off to such a degree. Imagine a place with no mobile phone reception, no internet cafe other than in the main urban area, no shops, no chains of any kind, no chefs, no televisions in the bedrooms. Less is more, nothing is everything. Providencia by name and by nature. Colombia being off the map for so many years has ensured this island’s isolation from Latin America’s anxious, often half-baked urge for Europeanstyle development.
On my final morning the windfall mangoes wake me and Fed comes to drive me to the airport. To my small bag of T-shirts and bathers I have added a pot of tropical fruit jam. In Madrid airport on the way to London, a Customs officer takes my jam off me. She is the sort of Spanish bureaucrat that built Latin America. They never got Old Providence, though, and now I toast that gorgeous little island, as well as Henry Morgan’s head and buttocks, every time I pour a rum and Coke. The Observer
Qantas, LAN and Aerolineas fly from Australia to South America. Aerorepublica, Avianca and Satena fly several flights daily from Colombia’s main cities to San Andes. Satena flies from San Andres to Providencia twice a week.