The 12:39 to Matanzas

A chocolate baron’s train shows tourists the real Cuba.

Photos by Landon Nordeman

The sugar train to Matanzas started with a trundle and a high moan from the horn, pulling away from the suburbs of Havana with stateliness rather than speed, pursued by stragglers who hopped aboard like hobos catching a freight. The cars had wooden seats and windows open to the tropical breeze. They rattled through the industrial outskirts of the capital, past refinery tanks and banana trees—and then, for no good reason, the train coasted to a stop. In this staccato fashion we rolled along the north coast of Cuba.

Edgar, a conductor who had the day off, sat across from me. He was headed to the coastal town of Matanzas to deliver money for his son. Matanzas was an old slave-and-pirate port, Cuba’s second harbor city, graced with Spanish colonial buildings around the square but very quiet. “Compared to Havana, it’s tranquil,” Edgar said.

Watch a narrated slideshow of Landon Nordeman’s journey on the sugar train

On the platform, he’d given me advice. After the 8:30 train arrived—three hours late—he explained that it would leave immediately, but headed for Canasí. “Don’t get on!” he said. The 12:39 to Matanzas was on its way.

But the 8:30 train didn’t go to Canasí. It pulled off a few yards, sat for maintenance, and pulled back into place an hour later. Suddenly it was the 12:39 to Matanzas. We were told to get on.

This ramshackle electric “Hershey train” is an anachronism, the sort of train you’re supposed to ride in Cuba only as a tourist or a local from one of the villages east of Havana. It’s the slowest machine-powered way to reach Matanzas and the best way to see the countryside. The sugar fields, the ocean, and the quiet hills of northern Havana province all heave into view from the railroad, looking largely unchanged from the turn of the 20th century. Revolution, it seems, also has the power to stop change.

Traveling in Cuba is still illegal for most Americans, but assuming relations thaw in the next handful of years, a ride on the Hershey train can serve as a reminder of how much the two countries have in common.

Milton Hershey built the line after he bought a sugar plantation in 1916 to sweeten his chocolate empire. It used to ferry his workers to the fields in brown cars labeled Hershey. Castro’s government kept the train line in place to serve this part of the country. In 1998 the government replaced the cars with green-and-white ’40s-era rolling stock from Spain.

A skinny white man came to lean against the seat and chat with Edgar. He wore blue overalls and said his name was Juan. “Good to meet you,” he said to me. “I’m the engineer today.”

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