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Five modern-day beauty spots with a very different past...

1. Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Quite how being sent to Fernando de Noronha, a tropical archipelago off the coast of Brazil blessed with a picturesque necklace of coves and white-sand beaches, was ever seen as a punishment is hard to imagine. The islands boast incredible marine life and some of the very best beaches in a country that is famously far from short of them, making this idyllic destination a favourite with honeymooners and Brazil's A-list set.

The first prisoners were sent to Fernando de Noronha in the late 18th century and it was only in the 50s that the penitentiary, by then primarily used to house political prisoners, closed its gates and the islands began to accommodate an altogether more fitting type of visitor in the form of tourists. These days, it's only the incredible beauty of the islands that is likely to hold you captive.

Fernando do Noronha

2. Isla de la Juventud, Cuba

After his failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, Fidel Castro was imprisoned in the now-defunct Presidio Modelo on the Isla de Juventud for 20 months. His next, successful attempt at revolution allowed him to turn the tables however, and Fidel proceeded to incarcerate counterrevolutionaries and other political enemies in his own former lockup.

Nowadays, the Caribbean island makes an adventurous holiday destination, reached either by hydrofoil or by air from Havana. Its unspoilt white- and black-sand beaches and scuba diving facilities are the main attraction, but the curious can also visit the old Presidio - now a museum.

Cuba beach

3. Ilha Grande, Brazil

Head southwest out of Rio along the exquisite winding coast road, with waves of steep mountains cloaked in dense mata Atlântica rainforest tumbling to tiny sandy bays. These harbour fishing p...

Lopes Mendes, Brazil

4. Isla Coiba, Panama

This former high-security prison facility was recently added to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites. In an echo of the Galápagos, Coiba's isolated flora and fauna diverged from their mainland counterparts over the millennia, and the island now teems with endemic species. Its seas are dotted with reefs, and huge swathes of untouched forest carpet the island's interior.

If this final prison-turned-paradise whets your appetite, then while in Panama you might also try Las Bóvedas, one of Panama City’s most fashionable restaurants. The former dungeon is built into a sea wall (once adorned with unfortunate - and wet - prisoners hanging from chains) in San Felipe, the city’s beautiful and atmospheric colonial district.

Tropical Beach, Panama

5. Isla Isabela, Galápagos

The largest of the Galápagos islands was once one of Ecuador’s highest security penal colonies. To this day you can visit the 'Wall of Tears' that was built by convicts, many of whom died under appalling conditions during its construction. Only when the prison closed in 1959 did the Galápagos first attain national park status, thus setting Darwin's 'enchanted isles' on a much happier course in their history.

Isabela is home to a flamingo lagoon and the most prolific population of giant tortoises on the whole archipelago, and is also the best spot for viewing whales and dolphins. Like its neighbouring isles, Isabela is a haven for endemic wildlife and offers a fascinating glimpse into the processes of natural selection that gave shape to life on earth.

Isabela Island

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