Magazine article Newsweek International

Sauntering Down the Tracks

Magazine article Newsweek International

Sauntering Down the Tracks

Article excerpt

Byline: Aaron Lake Smith

Traversing Cuba by train may not be fast, but it is certainly scenic.

In the dawn hours, the La Coubre train station in Old Havana is packed with bleary-eyed Cubans waiting in a tangle of lines to buy tickets or board trains. Named for the French munitions freighter that mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor in 1960, La Coubre is a no-frills, open-air, concrete slab that serves Cubans. Foreigners are directed toward Central Train Station around the corner, where they pay in tourist currency for the more modern, air-conditioned express trains that speed across the country to the eastern coastal gem of Santiago de Cuba. On the dirt path between the two stations, stray dogs gnaw on chicken gizzards while a man sells graham crackers out of a plastic garbage bag.

I decide to forgo the fancier station and travel like a local. As the sun comes up, a faded relic of a passenger train chugs out of the mist and up to the platform, bound for the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos (a hundred fires). The people in front of me hand off their tickets and climb aboard. Like many things on the island, what you pay depends on whether or not you pass as Cuban; the 10-hour journey costs Cubans about 50 cents while foreigners pay about $15. By keeping my head down, I pass under the radar and pay in the national currency.

The trip to Cienfuegos is substantially faster by car, taking about four and a half hours. But for the adventurous traveler who wants to see the tropical countryside drift slowly by, the train can't be beat. The family I rented a room from in Havana scoffed at Cuba's trains, saying they were utilized by the lowest rungs of society. But most of the passengers on my half-empty train were respectable-looking elderly Cuban couples, who sat together watching the scenery pass.

Cuba is the only country in the Caribbean with a functional rail system. …

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