When Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, it quickly became Europe's doorway to the Americas. Many conquistadors and colonists treated it more like a doormat, though, decimating its native people and wildlife as they streamed in from the Atlantic.
Columbus wasn't oblivious to the natural beauty he had exposed. He was especially impressed with Cuba, gushing about its vivid environments in journal entries and letters back to Spain. "I have never seen anything so beautiful," he wrote on Oct. 28, 1492. "The country around the river is full of trees, beautiful and green and different from ours, each with flowers and its own kind of fruit. There are many birds of all sizes that sing very sweetly, and there are many palms different from those in Guinea or Spain."
Caribbean ecosystems were widely damaged or destroyed over the next 500 years, whether by intensive agriculture, invasive species, mass tourism, deforestation or overfishing. Yet pockets of pristine Caribbean wilderness still exist, including many undeveloped swaths of Cuba. One of the wildest remnants is Jardines de la Reina, or "Gardens of the Queen," named by Columbus himself to honor the Spanish monarch.
Located about 60 miles off Cuba's southern coast, Jardines de la Reina is an archipelago of more than 250 islands stretching across 75 miles of turquoise ocean, making it the third-longest barrier reef on Earth. It was designated a marine preserve in 1996, cementing its status as one of the last bastions of original Caribbean beaches, mangroves and reefs.
Many of the region's coral colonies have fallen victim to development or pollution in recent decades, and now climate change is piling on warm, acidic seawater that boosts coral bleaching and favors strong hurricanes. But Jardines de la Reina offers a haven for coral, and thus for an array of other wildlife, too. It's one of the planet's best places to dive with sharks — seven species are found there — and it's also teeming with goliath groupers, giant stingrays, hawksbill sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles and other fauna. Near the seabed, sunlight fades into eerie underwater caves and 17th-century shipwrecks.
Jardines de la Reina is a paradise for eco-tourists, especially divers, but access is limited to a few hundred visitors per year. While that helps protect the area from careless crowds, it also prevents lots of people from experiencing the natural Caribbean as Columbus saw it. Thanks to documentary filmmaker Rafa Herrero Massieu, though, we have this ethereal, unnarrated video to show us why Caribbean wilderness is worth saving:
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