Mass tourism can be a major buzzkill. Many Caribbean destinations have been tainted by overdevelopment, with major cruise lines unleashing thousands of travelers swarming their bustling colonial cities. But the best Caribbean islands offer visitors a chance to get away from the crowds and savor the peaceful tranquility of unspoiled nature. Here’s a look at 10 of our favorite islands, many of which can be visited on our upcoming Canal to Cuba or Hidden Gems of the Caribbean expeditions:
Often confused with the Dominican Republic, “The Nature Island” is 65% covered in rainforest, with 300 miles of hiking trails. Thanks to copious rain, impressive waterfalls are everywhere, with Emerald Pool, Trafalgar Falls, and Victoria Falls all worth a visit. Other highlights include the Morne Trois Pitons National Park (the eastern Caribbean’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site), Champagne Reef, and the Kalinago Barana Autê (home of the pre-Columbian Carib people). Thanks to a forward-thinking conservation program, it’s also one of the best Caribbean Islands for seeing nesting sea turtles.
Isla de la Juventud, Cuba
Formerly known as the Isle of Pines, the 850-square-mile Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) is located 31 miles south of Cuba. The largest of the 350 islands in the Canarreos Archipelago, the island has a population of around 86,000, mostly in the northern city of Nueva Gerona and the central city of Santa Fe. Much of the island is covered in lush pine forests, and a cave complex near Punta del Este features over 200 ancient cave drawings by its indigenous natives. Referred to as “Cuba’s Hidden Treasure,” the island also offers beautiful beaches, nature walks in search of local flora and fauna, and excellent snorkeling/scuba diving.
Isla de Providencia, Colombia
Set in the Caribbean Sea between Costa Rica and Jamaica, Providencia is part of a Colombia-owned archipelago located 482 miles northwest of the mainland. The mountainous island (max elevation 1181 feet) was the site of an English Puritan colony founded in 1629, but was best-known as the base for famed pirate Henry Morgan. Rumors suggest that treasure from his many raids on Spanish ships remain buried here, and forts and cannons can be found scattered on neighboring Santa Catalina Island, which is accessible via a footbridge. Visitors can also snorkel the island’s pristine coral reef system.
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Located six miles off the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, this 21-square mile island is part of the Yum-Balam Biosphere Reserve. Once a sleepy fishing village, this burgeoning ecotourism haven doesn’t allow cars: Visitors get around via golf carts and mopeds. The most popular activities here are fishing, kiteboarding, and swimming with whale sharks, who gather nearby annually to breed and feed on krill. The shallow lagoon that separates Holbox from the rest of Quintana Roo is also a birdwatchers dream, home to cormorants, flamingos, herons, and countless other bird species.
With its growing focus on sustainable development—including eco-resorts, agritourism initiatives, and innovative environmental practices—Grenada is emerging as one of the best Caribbean islands for nature lovers. The island has introduced/expanded its protected areas, including Levera National Park (a nesting site for leatherback sea turtles) and Grand Etang Forest Preserve (which offers birdwatching, hiking, and river tubing activities). If you get a chance, visit during cultural events such as the Grenada Chocolate Festival, Fish Fridays, and the Carriacou Maroon & String Band Music Festival.
The Grenadines are comprised of 31 islands and cays stretching between St. Vincent and Grenada, with ownership divided between those two countries. The largest of these islands—7.1-square-mile Bequia and 12.6-square-mile Carriacou—have populations in the 5,000-6,000 range. But most of them are measured in acres, and have little to no residents whatsoever. These remote, idyllic tropical paradises are rarely visited, offering travelers a getting-away-from-it-all experience with unspoiled beaches, endemic birds, and dazzling coral reefs teeming with marine life.
Little Corn Island, Nicaragua
With a distinctive Creole culture that incorporates African, Indian, and Spanish roots, this tiny island 43 miles off the coast of Central America feels more Caribbean than Nicaraguan. There are four different languages spoken on Little Corn Island—Creole, English, Miskito, and Spanish—and there are no cars or roads whatsoever. Originally known as a backpacker’s haven, the beautiful beaches and excellent snorkeling/scuba diving in this pristine paradise have attracted more upscale ecotourists in recent years. Thankfully, despite the gradual uptick in visitors, the remote island remains unspoiled by mass tourism development.
Located 40 miles off the northern coast of Honduras, Roatán is the largest of that nation’s Bay Islands. Its population is a mixture of Cayman Islanders who came after Britain abolished slavery in 1838, Mestizo migrants from the mainland, and entrepreneurs from the US, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. The sleepy island’s cities can be bustling, but there are also gorgeous remote beaches, wildlife refuges, and mangrove forests to explore. But the main reason to visit is the fact that the island sits atop the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest reef system in the world; the snorkeling and scuba diving here are incredible.
Measuring just five square miles, with a total population of less than 2,000, Saba is the smallest island in the Caribbean Netherlands. Most of its territory is dominated by the aptly-named Mount Scenery, a potentially active volcano that, at 2,910 feet, is the highest point in the Netherlands. The mountain is home to one of the island’s 11 impressive hiking trails, which range from moderate to extreme in terms of difficulty. Known as “The Unspoiled Queen” of the Caribbean, the island also boasts a National Marine Park whose pinnacles (underwater towers of volcanic rock) and diverse marine life attract divers from all around the world.
San Blas Archipelago, Panama
This group of 378 islands stretches for 200 miles along Panama’s Caribbean coast. These pristine islands are largely roadless and many are ringed with coral reef systems, making them increasingly popular as an ecotourism destination. The 49 inhabited islands are home to the Kuna Indians, a semiautonomous tribe that was driven from the mainland during the Spanish invasion. The Kuna still practice the ancient traditions of their ancestors, including the crafting of brightly colored, appliquéd fabrics known as molas. In addition to spending time with the Kuna and learning about their indigenous culture, other popular activities include sailing and snorkeling the calm waters of Cayos Limones and Cayos Holandeses.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.