Aren’t Cuban rail­ways a bit of a joke? Not so. Ex­plore bits of the is­land that tourists rarely see by tak­ing the slow train from the north to the south. A good sense of hu­mour may be re­quired…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS CLAIRE BOOB­BYER

Some­times it pays to take it easy. Ride Cuba’s slow train from north to south and dis­cover the bits of the is­land no one sees

“You’re trav­el­ling by train?” the sta­tion­mas­ter at Cár­de­nas quizzed, eye­ing me sus­pi­ciously.

“Yes, I’d like to… if there are any,” I bum­bled. I was steered into a tiny of­fice through a dark­ened wait­ing room with a bench lit only by the light of a ra­di­ant half-moon stained glass win­dow. I was sure the Cár­de­nas wait­ing room hadn’t seen a pas­sen­ger since 1940. Pa­per timeta­bles were whisked out of a drawer, the sta­tion cus­to­dian was sum­moned, and it was agreed there was a de­par­ture at 6am the next morn­ing, tak­ing me from this for­mer sugar-boom-town stop on Cuba’s north­ern coast­line – just east of Havana – down to ru­ral Jovel­lanos, 30 kilo­me­tres south.

Telling Cubans I was tak­ing the train was al­ways met with a raised eye­brow fol­lowed by a joke. For the last 17 years that I’ve been trav­el­ling in Cuba, I had heard, with lit­tle vari­a­tion, that the train leav­ing Havana on a Mon­day ar­rived in Santiago de Cuba on a Wed­nes­day – a jour­ney sched­uled to take 16 hours. Mean­while, the guide­books give hys­ter­i­cal warn­ings about the trains, the toi­lets, the fic­tional timeta­bles. As such, the last time I had caught the main­line train in Cuba was the year 2000, for an un­com­fort­able ride with noth­ing to eat.

But while the Cuban net­work had puffed its way to a nearmyth­i­cal sta­tus of du­bi­ous op­er­a­tion, Cubans do still take the train, the Rus­sians are in­vest­ing, and Havana’s grand cen­tral sta­tion is get­ting a facelift. And so, 175 years since the first rail net­work was fin­ished in Cuba, I found my­self board­ing the train again, tak­ing me from Havana in the north-west all the way to Santiago de Cuba on the south-east coast. This main rail­way line passes di­rectly down the cen­tre of the is­land weav­ing through small towns and large cities, lay­ing a track that most vis­i­tors don’t ride. I would be vis­it­ing Cuba anew and would meet lo­cals who live far from those tourist hot spots. I was cer­tainly hop­ing it’d all take a lot longer than 16 hours.

Sugar is not al­ways sweet

I con­fess, the be­gin­ning of my jour­ney lived down to the rail­way’s rep­u­ta­tion. The Her­shey Elec­tric Rail­way, which jolts from Havana to the port city of Matan­zas, 90km east, wasn’t run­ning due to a bro­ken bridge. When run­ning, this tiny com­muter train tilts through farm­land, tree-shaded ham­lets, and makes 46 stops along Cuba’s north­ern coast in­clud­ing Her­shey, a town built by choco­late con­fec­tioner Mil­ton S Her­shey in 1916, be­fore crawl­ing on to Matan­zas in a four-hour trip. In­stead, I had to set­tle for a few crushed pub­lic bus rides and a taxi. The wave of tourism that’s loomed in the wake of the im­prove­ment in Cuban-amer­i­can re­la­tions – num­bers have jumped from three to four mil­lion – has not reached Matan­zas. This meant that I ex­plored the pills and bot­tles of the world’s only pre­served 19th­cen­tury French phar­macy all by my­self. From there, I ad­mired the del­i­cate hand­made books at the Edi­ciones Vigía pub­lish­ing house, the star­tling col­lec­tion of African masks in the Lolo Ga­le­ria-taller art mu­seum, the crum­pled sculp­tures of hu­man heads by artist Os­many Be­tan­court, and met the col­lec­tive El Al­macén, who are record­ing indy Afro-cuban folk mu­si­cians whose mu­sic is rarely heard.

In rust we trust… The lines lead­ing to rail­way sta­tion at Car­de­nas, in Matan­zas Prov­ince

Small pharma The old French colo­nial phar­macy was founded in 1882

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