Secret islands: the “undiscovered” Caribbean

There are seven thousand islands in the Caribbean, and though none of them is truly “undiscovered,” some come pretty close

Jardines de la Reina, Cuba. Photo by Jannik D. PedersenMayaguana, The Bahamas. Photo courtesy the Bahamas Ministry of TourismProvidencia, Colombia. Photo by Pipojackman/istock.comLes Saintes, Guadeloupe. Photo by Jlazouphoto/istock.comCulebra, Puerto Rico. Photo by Christian Wheatley/iStock.com

There are more than seven thousand different islands in the Caribbean, according to the reference books, most of them tiny by any standard. Even the most ardent geography buffs and cartography fanatics probably can’t name more than a hundred or so (give it a try). When travel guidebooks describe a place as “undiscovered,” we know that’s not literally so. But there are still dozens upon dozens of Caribbean islands so well hidden on the map that you’ve probably never even heard of them, much less thought of visiting. Some are uninhabited specks, unknown for good reason. Others are simply overshadowed by bigger and more frequented neighbours — which makes them perfect for travellers whose favourite place is off the beaten track.

 

Jardines de la Reina

Cuba
840 square miles • population approx. 12

Why is this 150-mile-long archipelago, which some scientists call “the Galápagos of the Caribbean,” so unknown to the outside world? Cuba’s relative isolation is one reason. Another is the marine reserve protecting the islands’ incredible biodiversity — and restricting the number of visitors to three thousand per year. As a result, the Jardines de la Reina — Gardens of the Queen, named by Colombus for Queen Isabella — boast one of the world’s healthiest coral reef systems alongside lush mangrove forests, teeming with goliath grouper, manatees, and saltwater crocodiles. But for the diving enthusiasts who find their way here, the main attractions are the sharks. The density of sharks in these waters is a sign of the health of the coral reef ecosystem — and a thrill for divers who can meet these sleek reef predators up close.

 

Mayaguana

The Bahamas
108 square miles • population approx. 300

The Bahamas archipelago is made up of over seven hundred islands scattered across a six-hundred-mile arc of sea — and at its easternmost tip is Mayaguana, which happily advertises itself as the most isolated and secluded island in the chain. (It’s also one of the few that still bears its indigenous Lucayan name.) Fishing and farming are economic mainstays, thoåugh a small number of nature-hungry tourists visit for the utterly unspoiled beacheås, reefs, sea caves, excellent fishing, and wildlife. Mayaguana is home to the Bahamian hutia, an endemic mammal, and a colony of the extremely rare Bartsch’s iguana. Why visit? For the “footprint free” beaches, where on an average day you’ll have miles of pristine white sand and turquoise water entirely to yourself.

 

Providencia

Colombia
6.5 square miles • population approx. 5,000

Not to be confused with New Providence (in the Bahamas) or Providenciales (in the Turks and Caicos), Providencia and nearby San Andres belong to Colombia — but they’re closer to the coast of Nicaragua and culturally akin to Jamaica, with an English-speaking population. Settled in 1629 by English Puritans, a sister colony to Providence, Rhode Island, Providencia was used as a base by the notorious pirate Henry Morgan, and his lost treasure is still rumoured to be buried somewhere among its coves. The village of Santa Isabel, known to locals simply as “Town,” is the de facto capital. Come for the scuba diving and rich underwater wildlife, centred on the Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Natural Park.

 

Les Saintes

Guadeloupe
4.9 square miles • population approx. 3,400

The Îles des Saintes are a tiny volcanic archipelago south of Guadeloupe: two inhabited islands, Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas (“High Ground” and “Low Ground”), and a scatter of smaller islets. Rocky and dry, they have never supported much agriculture — rather, Les Saintes were settled in past centuries by fisherfolk from Brittany and Normandy, who made a life from the sea. Today, the Saintois people are unusual in the Caribbean in being mostly European in origin, speaking a unique French Creole distinct from neighbouring islands’. The first hotel here wasn’t opened until 1969, but the islands quickly became a cherished port of call for cruise ships and yachties. Visitors flock to the gorgeous beaches and sparkling Bay of Les Saintes, with its landmark Pain-de-Sucre (Sugarloaf Hill).

 

Culebra

Puerto Rico
11 square miles • population approx. 1,800

Snake Island — the literal translation of Isla Culebra — is an unfair name for this forested gem, ringed by white sand and postcard-ready blue shallows. At Puerto Rico’s eastern end, Culebra is the shy sister to nearby Vieques. Once home to Taínos resisting European settlement, then a refuge for pirates, the island’s modern history properly begins in the late nineteenth century, when a permanent settlement was established. Like Vieques, it was used for decades as a bombing practice site by the US Navy, over the protests of locals. Now a National Wildlife Refuge, it’s known for its astonishingly clear waters, gently curved hills, and coastline dented by numerous small bays.