Last week, my partner-in-crime and I escaped to Cuba for a short vacation. Eschewing the all-inclusive resorts at Varadero, we decided to spend our time in Havana instead.
Havana is a fascinating place that’s worth exploring beyond the popular spots such as the picturesque Old City, Revolution Square, and the Cristóbal Colón Cemetery; like any great city, it is best explored by foot.
One of our highlights was getting an impromptu tour of the José Martí National Library of Cuba in Havana. The library, named for the Cuban national hero, is adjacent to Plaza de la Revolución. The Plaza also holds the seat of the Communist Government and is famous for the towering monument of Martí and the metal mural of Che Guevara.
We met a wonderful guide, who with great pride described the library’s programs, but also the effects of the 55-year American embargo on obtaining educational materials, up-to-date computers and access to the Internet and other digital resources. We were fortunate for experiences like that, where we met interesting people and learned a bit more about the country. These were experiences that tourists staying at beachside resorts, perhaps visiting Havana on a bus tour or to see a cabaret show, sadly miss.
But, being on vacation, we made sure to spend some time to relax and enjoy the hot — yet pleasantly non-humid — weather. So we decided to go to the beach for our last full day in Cuba. But instead of taking the tourist buses, we decided to hop on the Hershey Train, probably the last true interurban railway in the Americas.
Interurban railways once existed all over Canada and the United States. Electrically-powered trains linked towns and cities together, providing passenger and local freight services and filling a niche between urban streetcars and long-distance steam railways. Improved roads, and increased car and truck ownership resulted in the closure of just about every interurban railway in North America, the last to close in Canada was the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway in 1959. A few remnants of North America’s interurban lines survive as modernized commuter services, such as the South Shore Line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana. But Cuba’s Hershey Train still looks, and operates, like the electric railways that once crisscrossed much of southwestern Ontario and the eastern United States.
To get to the Hershey Train terminal at Casablanca, you must take a ferry across the harbour from Old Havana. The inconspicuous ferry terminal is across from a Russian Orthodox Church and the Havana Club Rum Museum.
The Casablanca ferry in Havana Harbour
The ferry ride, which takes only 10 minutes, requires a security check at the terminal. All passengers must pass through a metal detector and bags are searched, unusual for intra-city ferry operations. This is because, in 2003, a Casablanca ferry was hijacked; two armed men commandeered the small vessel and sailed it to Miami.
Casablanca Railway Station, with the Hershey Train waiting for the 12:21 departure.
At the other end of the short ferry ride is the Casablanca Station, a modest building with a mid-century slanted roof offering shelter from the elements. A ten-minute walk up the hill takes you to the Cristo de La Habana, a large statue of Jesus that overlooks the city. Commissioned by the government headed by dictatorial president Fulgencio Batista, it was opened on December 24, 1958, just fifteen days before Fidel Castro rode into the city and took power. The views at the top of the hill are spectacular.
The view of Havana from the base of the Cristo de La Habana statue.
When we took the Hershey train, on Thursday, April 21, it was operating only three times daily in both directions between Casablanca and Matanzas, taking just under four hours to complete the trip. Havana and Matanzas are about 100 kilometres apart from each other, but the Hershey Train winds its way through the countryside, serving small towns en route. Trains between Matanzas and Casablanca meet at Hershey.
The Hershey Train was built, like many other interurban railways, to link small towns and large cities together, but it centred on the American chocolate company’s sugar refinery operations, in a town named for the railway. By 1922, the railway was complete, with several spur lines to deliver workers to the industrial operations, and sugar to the harbour. More photos and historical notes can be found here.
Like all other railways in Cuba, the train service was nationalized after the Cuban Revolution. All of the the Hershey operations were taken over and the town was re-named Camilo Cienfuegos after an important hero of the Revolution. The railway is now operated by Ferrocarriles de Cuba, which operates all rail services in the island nation. In the 1990s, the original Brill-built equipment was retired and “new” second hand equipment from Barcelona, Spain was substituted. Those rail cars continue to run in 2016.
Schedule posted on a whiteboard at Casablanca Station
Seats on these trains are assigned when purchasing tickets; the short hour-long ride to Guanabo was only $0.75 CUCs each. Seats are hard, somewhat uncomfortable and laid out in quads, much like a GO train. There’s no air conditioning, but the windows open up, allowing a lot of air circulation while the train is moving.
Cab, Hershey Train
We rode only as far as Guanabo, the junction point with a 2-kilometre long spur to Playas del Este, our destination that day. The spur is served only during the summer season, so we walked. It wasn’t unpleasant.
Off the Hershey Train at Guanabo. The train will continue to Hershey and Matanzas.
Walking to the beach.
Less than 30 minutes later, we were on our own, on a very quiet, nearly secluded beach. It’s not as great as the beaches at Varadero, but the white sand and turquoise waters were ours. A short walk away was Guanabo’s town centre, with shops, restaurants and bars, and the relatively frequent (and very crowded) municipal bus, Route 400, brought us back to Havana’s city centre.
Making our own way out to Guanabo was an interesting and welcome break from being shuttled around in comfortable tourist buses (operated by Transtur, the government-owned agency that ferries foreigners between the airport, hotels, resorts and tourist sites). We met many friendly people that day, including several Cubans on the train, happy to provide advice and directions to us, and a very friendly police officer who checked in on us and others on the beach; making sure we kept watch over our stuff.
Cuba is a fascinating place to visit, once you get past the all-inclusive resorts and packaged bus tours. It’s worth meeting people, and appreciating a bit of everyday life in the embargoed nation. I came back with a greater appreciation for the country and the people who live there.