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A sugar of a journey

A sugar of a journey

Rail journeys hold a particular magic, none more so in Cuba than the “Hershey Train,” which runs lazily—too lazily at times—between Casablanca and Matanzas year-round, three times a day.

The train has its origins in a chocolate bar and was born when Cuba was on a sugar high.

Before the Revolution, the Hershey estates belonging to the Pennsylvania-based chocolate company occupied 69 square miles of lush cane-fields around a modern sugar-factory town, or batey, named Hershey, founded in 1918 with a sugar mill, baseball field, golf course, movie theater, a hotel, and an orphanage—an expression of one of the many good deeds of enlightened industrialist Milton Hershey. The mill closed in 2002 after 86 years in operation and Hershey is now a run-down shell, named since the Revolution for comandante Camilo Cienfuegos.

At its peak, the estate near Santa Cruz del Norte had 140 kilometers of rail network. Operating on coal and oil, the original steam locomotives were expensive and their sparks constituted a serious fire hazard. In 1921 they were replaced with seven 60-ton General Electric locomotives built especially for the Hershey-Cuban Railroad, which linked the estate to the port in Havana—the only electrified system ever built in Cuba. Milton Hershey also introduced a three-car Brill electric passenger train service between Havana and Matanzas, operating every hour, to serve his workers.

The vermilion Brill engine, which looked like it could have fallen from the pages of a story about Thomas, the little “live” engine, was retired in 1998 and replaced with eight antique two-tone-green Sarría electrified cars from 1944, donated by the city of Barcelona.

I recall my first journey with fondness. It was a sugar of a journey—a combination of the picturesque and the prosaic—despite the lack of steam rising sibilantly between giant piston rods. I began, as passengers still do, by hopping onto the funky ferry that chugs across Havana harbor to Casablanca from the Muelle de Luz wharf, opposite the Russian Orthodox church, on Avenida del Puerto.

“What time do we arrive Matanzas?” I asked, naively. The woman at the ticket counter merely shrugged her shoulders, then closed her eyes and gave me a sideways sour lemon look.

Arrival is never guaranteed. Nor is departure! Mechanical failure is common. Loose tracks. Pantographs that come unloose. Substation shorts. The mainline train is sometimes even rerouted to complete trips via branch lines that connect to Guanabo, Canasi, and Santa Cruz del Norte. Sometimes the breakdowns can last days or weeks, when “No train service until further notice” is scrawled onto ticket office chalk-boards.

The gold-leaf lettering on the two rusted carriages had long since faded, as had the exterior green-and-beige itself, and the hard wooden seats, many broken, were guaranteed to turn the most inured ass to stone.

The conductor tooted the horn two minutes before departure and a mad rush to board ensued. The train jolted to life. As we gathered speed slowly, stragglers jumped aboard, like hobos hopping freight. Some even jumped up into the operator’s cab.

Soon we were creaking along the harborfront with the pantographs singing merrily overhead and the rhythmic rattling of the rails beneath, interspersed with a frequent jolt that made the train shudder. Clickety clack, clickety clack, clickety clack… KLUNK!

The door remained open, providing plenty of breeze, as the locomotive wobbled drunkenly down the track past rusting refineries and factories and finally into the open countryside. Juan, the engineer, liked to let loose on the horn as we approached countless crossings where horse-drawn buggies, cowboys, and old Chevys idled. Always the Chevys! Guajiros—country folk—stopped their farm toil to watch us pass.

A young man, José, strummed guitar while his partner, a lovely 17-year-old girl named Annie, hummed honey-sweet melodies, sotto voce.

“Sing it!” chimed an old lady sitting opposite.

So she did. Belting out a love song—“De donde viene el amor”—that silenced the entire carriage until it erupted into applause.

A guajiro broke out a dirty bottle of aguardiente—cheap sugarcane liquor—and passed it around. Even a disconsolate looking policeman took a swig, while schoolkids too young to be flirting flirted.

Two hours into the journey, we arrived at the eggshell blue station still bearing the Hershey sign on the wall. We stopped just long enough to hop down and snap a few shots for posterity before the train groaned into action again.

The train wound in and out among palm-studded hills, sped along the coast within sight of the steel-blue Atlantic, then slipped past swathes of sugarcane as the magnificent Yumurí Valley heaved into view.

We journeyed the quintessential Cuban way, in stop-and-go staccato fashion. Journeying back in time, as it were. Pitching unnervingly at times, like a boat in a storm. Stopping at places whose names themselves appeared from a dream: Concuní, Corral Nuevo, Dos Mangos.

The conductor displayed a laid back approach to protocol or schedule. He stopped wherever and whenever passengers requested, just like an almendrón—the beat-up old classic taxis that jug along Havana’s streets. Passengers alight via a thin metal staircase directly onto the track. No need to mind the gap with a platform.

We juddered to a halt in the middle of nowhere in front of a simple thatch-and-adobe bohío framed by flame-red bougainvillea beneath a tousled Royal palm. I thought the train had broken down. Then a young woman stepped down from the train clutching a newborn child swaddled in blankets. A sun-baked guajiro in tattered straw hat and faded army fatigues pulled himself up from an Adirondack chair beneath the shady eave and emerged into the harsh Cuban sunlight. He strode forward unsteadily, beaming, his arms outspread as if to embrace all the world.

The whole train looked on as he leaned forward to kiss his granddaughter. She in turn reached down to kiss her young brother, who came hauling up the dusty lane as fast as his long flying legs could carry him. Then the old man reached out and tenderly took the cocooned baby in his rough laborer’s hands. Tears fell as he took his first look at his grandchild.

After a mesmerizing four-hour, 92-kilometer journey and scores of stops, you finally arrive at the Versalles station in Matanzas. If you’re lucky.

The train departs the Estación de Casablanca (Carretera de los Cocos, tel. 07/862-4888), on the north side of Havana harbor at 4:45 am, 12:21 pm, and 4:35 pm. Tickets (CUC1.40 to Hershey; CUC2.80 to Matanzas) go on sale one hour before departure.

The original 1927 General Electric trolley-train still runs on Sundays on half-day tourist excursions that include a rustic lunch at Hershey, a farm stop, and a live salsa band to kick you into party mode. Contact Cuba Real Tours, Edificio Bacardí #404, Monserrate #261, Habana Vieja, tel. 07/866-4251,

  Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO?S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
? Christopher P Baker
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert |

Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year  

  In 1996 Christopher shipped his BMW R100GS motorcycle to Cuba and rode 7,000 miles during a three-month journey to research the Moon handbook to Cuba. His award-winning literary travel book – Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba – describing the journey was published by National Geographic Adventure Press.

Travel Book of the Year
Lowell Thomas Awards
“This is a wonderful adventure book… a meditation on philoso-phy, politics, and the possibilities of physical love. It has the depth of a novel and the feeling of a great love story.”
Judges, Lowell Thomas Award
also NATJA Grand Priz  

Rave reviews…
“Mi Moto Fidel is a satisfying and complete portrait of Cuba It’s all here: money, sex, politics, geography, history, cigars, marlin, and, of course, Fidel. Serious travel writing is often intricate and complex. Bikers, it seems, do it better.”
Tim Cahill — Pass the Butterworms and Road Fever

“Baker’s kiss-and-tell account of his romps across Fidel’s island offers a bittersweet glimpse of life inside the last Marxist utopia.”
Jon Lee Anderson — Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

“Chris Baker’s chaotic pilgrimage–by turns sharp-eyed, lustful, poetic, feverish and joyful–brings a tropical nation of 10 million to vivid, pulsating life. The motorcycle proves itself, once again, a brilliant, ice-breaking instrument of true travel.”
Ted Simon — Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph           September 2013

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