A Train Trip in Cuba from Santiago to Havana
April 21, 2014
By Michael N. Landis
HAVANA TIMES — There once was a time—a time long since passed—when it
was possible to step aboard a Pullman car at New York City's Penn
Station at 4:00 p.m. and, thanks to Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast
Railway, not to disembark until arriving in Habana at 6:30 p.m., two
If you were wealthy enough to afford that journey, however, you would
likely have broken your trip by overnighting at one of Flagler's
flagship Florida hotels, such as the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, The
Breakers in West Palm Beach, or still, if you were in a hurry to get
down to Havana and chose to travel straight through, your train would
have gone to Key West, where your Pullman car would have been loaded
onto a ferry for crossing the Straits of Florida; six hours later, you
would arrive in Habana.
Florida East Coast's Havana Special ran from 1912 'til 1935, when the
powerful Labor Day Hurricane demolished much of the roadbed between Key
Largo and Key West, in the process sweeping away more than 400 W.P.A.
workers, when their evacuation train was swept off the tracks in Upper
Matacumbie Key. After that catastrophic hurricane, the railroad was
never rebuilt beyond the mainland; instead, the old F.E.C. road bed
became the foundation for the new U.S. Highway #1 from Homestead to Key
As a child, I loved travelling by train, whether the three-hour milk-run
from Bridgeville, Delaware, near my grandparents' farm on the Eastern
Shore of Maryland, to my home in Philadelphia, or a major journey, such
as that taken when I was 11, in 1954, from Denver, Colorado, after
visiting my aunt and uncle for the summer, back to Philadelphia on the
Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy's California Zepher to Chicago, and
onward, via the Pennsylvania Railroad, to Philadelphia. Since then, I've
crossed and re-crossed our great land on almost every one of Amtrak's
It was only natural then that I'd want to ride the Ferrocarilles de
Cuba's Tren Frances, from Habana to Santiago de Cuba. My first try was
in 2004, when I attempted to obtain round-trip tickets for myself, my
wife and two daughters. We couldn't quite work out the schedule, so
wound up taking the ViaAzul bus, instead. My next try was in 2006, from
Santiago to Habana; again there were problems with scheduling. Ditto in
2010, when I tried to obtain round-trip tickets from Habana to Bayamo.
On my fourth attempt, in October of 2012, I succeeded in booking a seat
on the Tren Frances (so called because the cars used on this run are old
carriages purchased by Cuba from the French National Railway) from
Santiago to Habana. (Fortunately, I was able to enjoy Santiago; several
weeks later Hurricane–"Super Storm"– Sandy swept through, causing major
damage to Santiago and surrounding areas, before heading north, where it
caused additional destruction to coastal New Jersey, New York and
I was told to report to the station by 6:00 p.m. for an expected
departure at 7:30 p.m. Arriving at the station, I was informed that the
departure had been pushed back to 9:00 p.m. Even at dusk, the interior
of the large, high-ceilinged, station, a curve-roofed gare of French
design, was like an oven; hence, I retreated to a bench in the
surrounding park. After reading for only a few minutes, however, I began
feeling sharp pricks on my ankles and legs; Cuban biting ants had
decided to torment me.
Abandoning my infested park bench, I ambled over to a nearby food stall
and ordered a croquette. It was inedible, so I gave it to a street dog.
Then, I remembered the special waiting room, in a diminutive white
building hard by the train station, where I had purchased my ticket in
divisa (hard currency) the day before. Retreating to this small waiting
room, I sat down on one of the hard plastic seats. Unfortunately, the
air conditioning was set at 62 deg. F. and after an hour I was
shivering. Next, I retreated back to the main station. Even though the
sun had set, the interior was still like an oven.
After "cooking" for an hour, I retreated again to one of the park
benches outside. This time I was not molested by the biting ants. After
another hour I heard muffled statements emanating from the station's
loudspeakers, so I re-entered the station. Asking another passenger
about that announcement, I discovered that the departure had been pushed
back once again, this time 'til 11:00 p.m. By now, the interior of the
gare had cooled down enough to be endurable. For the next couple of
hours I chatted with a Cuban family (also heading for Habana).
As 11:00 p.m. approached, however, yet another announcement informed us
that the train's departure had been moved back, this time to 3:00 a.m.!
By this time I was getting pretty drowsy, and regretted not retaining at
least some of my luggage—a small rolling suitcase, a ruck-sack and a
day-pack—to use as pillows, instead of earlier checking them all into
the station's baggage room. Exhausted, I lowered myself to the floor and
curled up on the station's hard, unforgiving, terrazzo floor for some
fitful snatches of sleep over the next few hours.
Sensing activity around 2:15 a.m., laboriously I hoisted myself up from
the terrazzo floor and reported to the baggage room, where, handing in
the claim forms, I retrieve my luggage, and headed out to the platform
to be near the head of the lines already forming. For the next hour we
observed the crew loading supplies and freight. So numerous did the crew
seem that I estimated there must be a conductor, and several stewards or
stewardesses, for each coach (an estimation which proved woefully off
Finally, the signal was given and everyone surged forward, onto the
platform. Do you recall that memorable scene from the film Dr. Zhivago,
where Yuri Zhivago, his wife and father-in-law board that train in
Moscow during that terrible winter of 1918-19 to travel to Yuriatin, in
the Urals, to find refuge at Borikino, the father-in-law's estate? Now
picture a tropical version of that scene. (I hyperbolize, of course, but
not by much!)
Once I reached my assigned carriage, the two GIANT steps up to the
carriage, especially with all my luggage, proved insurmountable. Where
now were the scores of train crew I had seen boarding previously?
Nowhere to be found! After a valiant attempt to climb up to the
carriage, fellow passengers already aboard took pity and lifted up my
rolling suitcase, while other sympathetic passengers, still beside me on
the platform, gave me a boost up.
Once aboard, the Lord of Chaos reigned supreme. Again, no crew in sight,
and the seat numbering system was ambiguous, resulting in a game of
"musical chairs" for the next quarter hour. In the absence of any crew,
we finally figured out the numbering system and settled in the correct
Brazenly violating the rule on not smoking, one passenger lit up.
Several other passengers informed him that this was forbidden, but he
ignored their remonstrations. A woman pleaded with him to extinguish his
butt, stating that she had asthma, and that his smoke would aggravate
her condition. Her appeal fell on deaf ears. Again, no evidence of the
crew. Finally, many of us in surrounding seats began cough, cough,
coughing, and as our chorus of coughs became ever louder and more
incessant the thoughtless offender relented, and stubbed out his cigarette.
Around 3:15 a.m., the train glided out of the station. Somewhere between
Santiago and Bayamo the conductress took my ticket, and then she spent
much of the next hour berating a family who had gotten on the wrong
train. Their tickets were for a local "milk-run," not the express Tren
Frances. Later, they were put off in Camaguey.
By the time the train pulled out of Santiago, I was drenched in sweat
from the struggle to board the train, put my luggage in the overhead
rack, find, and then switch x 2, my seat. Rather than a seat in one of
the air conditioned, first class, carriages, I had chosen to purchase a
cheaper, second-class, ticket. The breezes from my open window began
cooling me off. Within 15 minutes, however, I was shivering as the
chilly pre-dawn air rushed in. From the overhead, I pulled down my
rucksack and, rummaging through it, found my jacket at the very bottom,
since I had not intended to wear it again until returning North!
On the outskirts of either Cacocum or Bayamo we passed a striking scene:
hundreds of men warming themselves around flaming barrels in the
pre-dawn darkness. Whenever I hear the cliché: "They pretend to pay us
and we pretend to work," I remember these hard-working guajiros, in the
chilly pre-dawn darkness, preparing themselves for a day's labor in el
The interior of the carriage was clean, wide, and tall, with comfortable
reclining seats recently reupholstered in a bright, garish, red
leatherette or naugahyde. Bathrooms, however, were not up to even
one-star standards. In fact, they were in star-negative territory!
Fortunately, during the entire journey I only needed to pee; had I
needed to use the "throne," I would have stood over, and above, it. In
the second-class carriages there were no rolls of sanitary tissue, of
In contrast to the stream-lined, yet closed-in, feel of Amtrak coaches
(at least the ones on routes east of Chicago), those of the Tren Frances
were high and wide. There was enough room in the overhead rack for even
a steamer trunk (if one could have been hoisted it up). Unlike overhead
compartments on airliners, the overhead rack of the Tre Frances easily
held my rucksack, daypack and rolling suitcase.
Between Las Tunas and Camaguey appeared rosy-fingered Dawn, revealing a
vast plane of sugar-cane fields, pasturages–and lots of marabou! I love
train travel because I feel like I am passing through the back yards of
a nation. Even though the scenes may be fleeting (not as fleeting,
however, as those on Amtrak, since both track and equipment of
Ferrocarrilles de Cuba are more decrepit), I get to view scenes hidden
from the "windshield tourists" who drive the Interstates or Autopista
Nactional: desolate crossroads where I can imagine a Cuban Robert
Johnson meeting the Devil to exchange his soul for the gift of playing
his guitar with inspiration, or sleepy little bateys where piglets roam
the streets, guajiros trot along on horseback, elementary students, in
their red uniforms, joke with each other on their way to school, and
abuelas gossip over fences of living cacti.
Although there were other extranjeros up in the first-class, lux,
coaches, I was the only foreigner in my second-class carriage. Since I
was exhausted by my semi-sleepless night on park benches, plastic chairs
and terrazzo floors, I drifted in and out of sleep for much of the trip,
taking a less active role engaging fellow passengers in conversation.
Even at this reduced level, it was delightful experiencing the sights,
sounds and smells as we passed along the 900 km. from Santiago to Habana.
Dozens of vendors came aboard in Camaguey, hawking sandwiches,
cafecitos, soft-drinks, crackers, cakes and other sweets. These were far
better alternatives to the dry, Velvita-type cheese-product sandwiches
and orange drinks proffered by the train stewardess shortly after
leaving Santiago. Sanitary standards were somewhat lacking, however,
with the cafecita vendors reusing the same diminutive cups without
rewashing them; then again, my philosophy is: "Whatever doesn't kill me,
makes me stronger!"
I was a bit shocked when some of my fellow passengers, consuming their
snacks and drinks, blithely tossing both wrappers and empty soda bottles
out the windows. During the late morning and early afternoon we
continued travelling across the vast planes of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila
and Sancti Spiritus Provinces, sometimes glimpsing, from afar, the
Sierra de Escambray range on the West Southwest horizon. For the most
part we traversed vast planes, occasionally going around modest hills.
Since the Tren Frances is express, we bypassed many of the provincial
cities, such as Ciego de Avila and Sancti Spiritus, which I had visited
during my eastward journey down the island a month before. As we
progressed westward, cities and towns became more numerous, with folks
detraining and climbing aboard in Santa Clara and Matanzas. About a
half-hour after leaving Matanzas, the train sped by the abandoned and
forlorn station for Aguacate, where I had cut sugar cane for three
months, during the Zafra de Los Diez Millones, in 1969-70.
As we approached Havana, the excitement of my fellow passengers was
palpable: the buzz of conversation grew louder and the hubbub of folks
retrieving their suitcases and parcels from the overhead and making
ready for their departure became more frenetic, especially as the train
slowed to a crawl through the outlying industrial zones. This activity
culminated with our arrival at Havana's Estacion Central.
The train's aisles filled with folk waiting to descend to the platform,
and the platform itself became a scene of chaos: passengers reuniting
with their families and friends, then hurrying off in cars, taxis,
buses, and camiones (passenger trucks) to their final destinations.
Since I was burdened with a rucksack, daypack and small rolling
suitcase, after making my way out to the street I opted for a taxi to my
destination in a far western suburb of Habana, first, of course,
negotiating the price in advance. After checking into the Hotel
Mariposa, in La Lisa, I drew the curtains, flung off my clothes, turned
off the lights, dove into bed, and slept soundly for the next twelve hours!
Would I elect to make such a journey again? Probably. Taking the
Ferrocarrilles de Cuba is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with
low levels of tolerance. Also, I might have second thoughts had I
arrived 27 hours late, as did another extranjero some years back! Still,
if you are a lover of trains, someone who wants to experience Cuba more
authentically (without, of course, taking this authenticity to the
extreme by taking a series of trucks from Santiago to Habana), and
embraces the philosophy that "getting there is half the fun," then
Ferrocarilles de Cuba is your ticket to the stars!
Source: A Train Trip in Cuba from Santiago to Havana - Havana Times.org