When we arrived at the start of our month long travel adventure in Havana, Cuba, we started to research how we could travel between some of the towns and cities by train. We were keen to avoid travelling all the time on Viazul buses. They seemed to follow a standard tourist trail around the island.
As we began our research, our initial enthusiasm faded somewhat. It seemed that the railway network in Cuba has pretty much come to a standstill. Routes are often cancelled for months at a time. Sporadic timetables mean it’s difficult to plan a journey with any degree of certainty. The main station in Havana is closed for refurbishment and our host was less than encouraging.
She shook her head in disbelief that we would even consider taking a train. She affirmed how inefficient the routes were, and reiterated that bus travel (often on bumpy patched-up tarmac roads) was preferable, even to her as a local.
However, we had plenty of time and were not to be deterred. It became a challenge that we were keen to overcome. Central Cuban landscape is flat and fairly uninteresting until you get towards Vinales in the west, and the Sierra Maestro in the east. Surely the local trains, as they meandered through smaller towns and hamlets, would be more interesting riding the Viazul bus.
Introducing the Hershey Train
And so it was that we happened across the Hershey Train. It’s a two carriage electric train that runs on a single line track between Casablanca in Havana, and the provincial capital of Matanzas.
The Hershey trains were built in the 1940’s to service the now derelict, US operated Hershey chocolate factory at Camilo Cienfuegos. There are only three trains left running. Judging by the various stages of decay, these trains may not be around for many more years. Now is the time to take the slow, relaxing, three hour ride through the picturesque landscape.
There are three services a day from the tiny terminal in Casablanca. A small village that sits on the opposite side of the bay from the old city. There is an early morning route for workers at 4.45am. Another runs very precisely at 12.21pm, and the late afternoon train leaves at 16.45pm. We opted for midday tickets which gave us plenty of time to check out from our casa, and hop on the short cross-bay ferry.
As we had no planned itinerary or pre-booked travel tickets, it was easy to make our next stop at Matanzas for a few nights. We purchased one-way tickets.
Taking the ferry from Old Havana to Casablanca
The ferry leaves from the small jetty opposite the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Calle San Pedro in Habana Vieja. The fair is $0.10CUP, but as we hadn’t yet purchased any local currency, we paid $1 CUC each.
You can also reach the other side of the bay by car or taxi. But, we wanted to extend our adventure and travel with the locals! The ferry is standing only, but it’s a short journey across the bay.
As we stepped off the ferry we immediately caught sight of the small roadside station and ticket office to our left.
It was extremely quaint and we noticed that the Hershey train was already waiting. Rather worryingly we also observed a couple of “technicians” hammering away at the front wheels. However, with four hours until departure we went ahead and bought our $2.80 CUC tickets. We were confident repairs would be concluded before the scheduled leaving time.
But first, a detour
A benefit of buying a lunchtime ticket is that there’s time to explore this little visited area. It has quite spectacular views back across Havana.
El Cristo de La Habana
From Habana Vieja it’s impossible to look across the bay and NOT see this 17m-high Christ figure. It was commissioned by Marta Batista, wife of the Cuban dictator, and sculpted from Italian marble in 1958. It’s a short climb up through the village of Casablanca to the feet of Christ on the top of the hill.
There’s little else to do here other than visit Che’s former house, which is now a museum. We opted not to pay for the entrance, and instead just walked the perimeter.
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana
Heading back down the hill to Casablanca there’s a back entrance to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. This is a huge fort that extends 700m along the edge of the bay. The annual book fair was in full swing at the fort, and so we were only charged $3 CUC each instead of the normal $6 CUC (or $8 CUC after 6pm).
It was bustling with locals, and tourists were few and far between. It was wonderful to see families with kids, all keen to buy books of various types. Books that we suspect are often difficult to obtain in day to day life. We watched with amazement as young kids sat mesmerized by their purchases. Much in the same way we see kids today mesmerized by their smart phones and tablets!
Construction of this huge fortress was started in 1763, when the Spanish traded Havana back from the British. It was completed in 1774. We’d visited plenty of museums while in Havana and so opted instead to walk atop the extensive walls from one end to the other. There was no clear indication as to whether this was allowed, and we negotiated a number of potential hazards. However, we were waved on by a friendly police officer, so we continued our explorations unabated.
The views really are stunning, and this is an interesting historical site. You could easily spend half a day here if you also visit the castle and lighthouse a little further along towards the entrance of the bay.
Our first experience of using the local currency
Back down in the grounds of the fort we got the chance to buy CUP’s from a small “cadeca” kiosk, without queuing, and made our first peso purchase – a can of drink for less than 50 cents.
We had been told by our casa hosts that CUPs were “totally unnecessary”. That is really not the case. We experienced so many more local interactions through having CUPs available during our month long visit. We’ve sat with locals drinking coffee, eating ice-cream and, and bought essentials like water – all at local prices. We’ve been able to eat in Cuban restaurants with the Cuban people away from the tourist groups – practicing our Spanish.
Having local pesos has given us a more fulfilling experience.
So our advice is to stock up on CUPs and try mingling with the locals in bars, cafes and restaurants whenever you can.
For more information on using the local currency, see article: “Cracking the Cuban currency code”.
All aboard the Hershey Train!
Back at Casablanca’s train station, it seemed the mechanics had completed their work. The Hershey train was ready to leave. It was to be a slow interesting ride, as there are 20 or more small stations along the three hour journey to the end of the line at Matanzas.
The platforms are often little more than a couple of meters of concrete and we heard that athletic passengers would sometimes jump from the train in an attempt to disembark in time.
There are only two carriages and we opted to sit in the less crowded second carriage, where we waited expectantly for the train to depart. There was a ten minute or so “warm-up” period where the engine started up, ran for a few minutes and then spluttered to a halt.
Our guide book had assured us that this was one of the most reliable trains in Cuba, but now we were wondering how accurate this information was. On the 7th or 8th attempt we finally set off slowly, but with purpose, and it wasn’t long before the Hershey train was chugging through small hamlets and pretty open countryside.
Safety isn’t high on the agenda on the Hershey trains. In our carriage, one set of doors closed with lightening speed, guaranteed to guillotine any body parts not either fully in, or out, of the doorway. The other set of doors simply remained open, until at one point, when I ventured to look outside, they suddenly snapped shut without warning!
There were also a number of “soft spots” in the floor, where a curious look out of an open window might find you below, rather than in, the carriage!
And then the train breaks down!
Although the train has a sign announcing a maximum speed of 80 km per hour, it rarely approaches anything more than 40 km/hour.
Sometimes though, the Hershey train stops altogether!
Our first breakdown only lasted a short time and consisted simply of more wheel tapping. We pondered whether motion causes the ancient parts to loosen, at which time the mechanics are called on to knock everything back into place!
Our second breakdown however, took a little longer to resolve. The train was halted for around 45 minutes just outside Camilo Cienfuegos, formerly the town of Hershey itself. We stopped right among the decrepit remains of the huge chocolate factory.
All that is now left is an industrial wasteland of decaying equipment and redundant warehouses. It’s quite a sight to behold, offering some great photo opportunities as you pass through. Or… breakdown, as in our particular situation.
We watched with slight amusement as one of the mechanics meandered over to a fence. He looked exuberant upon extracting a piece of wire. This was to become key to our continued passage along the Hershey line. The conductor looked up at us as he passed our window. “Now we can use the brakes” he declared in Spanish, with a big smile on his face!
Almost there…. but ….
The countryside is pretty and the train was followed by a continuous escort of large birds of prey. The natural air conditioning keeps it cool and pleasant during the daytime hours. You might, however, need something warmer through the evening. Some windows are non-existent or don’t close. We wondered just how much protection there would be in a heavy downpour!
It was fun to see how the train would stop, sometimes on request, across a road. Locals would disembark and transfer to waiting horse-drawn carriages, which would take them to remote hamlets in the countryside.
Take your own food and drink as there is nothing along the way and I suspect that break downs are, in fact, regular. Our final stop was not because of a problem with the train, but with the overhead lines.
We experienced a long hour and a half wait as we butted up against a specialized piece of equipment on the tracks just 10 minutes from our destination. There would be no further movement forward until the overhead fix of the electric cables was completed.
A lesson in patience
This was a lesson in patience. We observed just how un-bothered the locals were about these delays. Instead they saw it as an opportunity to move about the carriages, chatting with other passengers in a happy and animated manner. I read that Cubans have turned queuing into an art form – here we were witnessing this in action.
The train finally trundled in to Matanzas five hours after our departure from Havana, just before dark and in time to find a comfortable roadside casa particlar. It wasn’t more than about five minutes before we found ourselves enjoying two beers and a plate of olives. And in a quiet courtyard away from the fume filled streets of this provincial town.
We really did enjoy the Hershey train journey on a route with very few other tourists. We became a little obsessed with discovering more local routes, and train related excursions!
To learn more about taking the train in Cuba, see:
Cuba 2017 – Stepping off the Viazul bus tourist trail