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…
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.