Worth a Trip: Jardines de la Reina

The uninhabited Jardines de la Reina is a 120km-long mangrove-forest and coral-island system situated 80km off the south coast of Ciego de Ávila Province and 120km north of the Cayman Islands. The local marine park measures 3800 sq km, and is virgin territory left more or less untouched since the time of Columbus. It's the best place to dive in Cuba (nay, the Caribbean), but only allows a tiny trickle of visitors in annually on half-a-dozen live-aboard boats.

Commercial fishing in the area has been banned, and with a permanent local population of precisely zero inhabitants, divers must stay on board a two-story, eight-bedroom houseboat called Hotel Flotante Tortuga, or venture in from the port of Embarcadero de Júcaro (on the mainland) aboard one of five well-appointed yachts.

The flora consists of palm trees, pines, sea grapes and mangroves, while the fauna – aside from tree rats and iguanas – contains an interesting variety of resident birds, including ospreys, pelicans, spoonbills and egrets. Below the waves the main attraction is sharks (whale and hammerhead) and this, along with the pristine coral and the unequaled clarity of the water, is what draws divers from all over the world.

Getting to the Jardines is not easy – or cheap. The only way in is on a diving excursion with the Italian-run Avalon. One-week dive packages, which include equipment, seven nights of accommodation, guide, park license, 12 dives and food and drink, cost from CUC$3250 and up. Ask for a quote via the website. Another company, Windward Islands Cruising Company, incorporates the western tip of the archipelago into its one-week Cuba cruises.

Trocha de Júcaro a Morón

Many of Ciego de Ávila's provincial towns grew up in the mid-19th century around the formidable Trocha, a line of fortifications that stretched 68km from Morón in the north to Júcaro in the south, splitting the island in two.

Constructed by the Spanish in the early 1870s using black slaves and poorly-paid Chinese laborers, the gargantuan Trocha was designed to contain the rebellious armies of the Oriente and stop the seeds of anarchy from spreading west during the First War of Independence.

By the time it was completed in 1872, La Trocha was the most sophisticated military defense system in the colonies, a seemingly unbreakable bastion that included 17 forts, 5000 full-time military guards and a parallel railway line.

Armed to the hilt, it held firm during the First War of Independence, preventing the rebel armies of Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez from causing widespread destruction in the richer western provinces, where more conservative sugar planters held sway.

Despite renovations that doubled the number of forts and tripled the number of armed guards by 1895, La Trocha proved to be more porous during the Spanish-Cuban-American War, enabling the audacious Maceo to break through and march his army as far west as Pinar del Río.

A handful of old military towers that once acted as lookouts and guardhouses on La Trocha are still scattered throughout the countryside between Ciego de Ávila and Morón, standing as timeworn testaments to a more divisive and violent era.