The current Hershey train is a seventy-year-old electrically powered train that looks, acts and feels its age. Originally the rail line was constructed in 1921 by US chocolate baron, Milton S. Hershey as a means of transportation for labourers between Havana and the Hershey Chocolate factory in Mantanzas. Today, in theory at least, it runs daily between Casa Blanca, a sleepy ship maintenance town directly across The Havana harbour from Old Havana, and Mantanzas some 98 km to the east.
However, finding anyone in the country who knows anything more about this train, including its schedule, is next to impossible. Regardless, taking the Hershey train is an activity that does pop up in the most ardent of travel guides. Reading is one thing but to experience it, you must be determined and flexible.
To access the Hershey train you take a passenger ferry from the terminal located at the corner of San Pedro and Santa Clara. Any cab driver knows where this is if you ask for the ferry to Casa Blanca.
The ferry itself does not appear to run on any fixed schedule but seems to sail every twenty minutes or so. Since we were not able to get any definitive schedule info about the train we elected to cross the harbour over to the train station to see if we might get informed. This turned out to be a good plan.
The ferry to Casa Blanca is a pleasant boat ride through the harbour (make sure you get on the right one as there is a second ferry that goes to god knows where) and takes about fifteen minutes to cross. From the ferry you enjoy lovely views of Old Havana’s coastline and the ship activities of an active port.
Directly outside of the Casa Blanca ferry terminal to your left is the Hershey train “station”. On its permanently closed wicket window a handwritten poster with cryptic train arrival and departure times has replaced the ticket seller. We could see that there was a regular train at 12:21 and there seemed to be another later in the day. Fortuitously we had arrived around 12:20 but the train was nowhere to be seen. Sure enough it pulled in about 10 minutes later (“on time” by Cuban standards).
We boarded the train with the anticipation that we could buy tickets aboard (that turned out to be the case with a conductor coming through the two-car train at some point collecting fares and dispensing tickets). The cost of the tickets seemed to be unclear but we cleaned out any pocket coin change we had and that seems to be sufficient for two tickets to somewhere. (Travel tip: have a handful of coins in your pocket to cover the ferry crossing, about 1 CUC for two- the train- approximately 3 CUCs for two and the city bus when you get off later, also about 1 CUC each. Do not expect anyone to have any change!)
Our plan is to ride the train a few stops to get the flavour of the experience and to bail well before Mantazas as that could be a four-hour undertaking. Plus the reliability of the train successfully making the entire journey was the subject of much discussion amongst the locals when we discussed our potential undertaking.
Today the Hershey train serves as a vital commuter service for people who live near the tracks. Every ten minutes or so the train stops at a station to pick up a handful of passengers transporting a variety of items from one stop to another.
For us it was a lovely drive through the countryside. (Survival tip: don’t stand too close to the windows or you may lose an eye, as I nearly did, since the train ploughs through trees growing close to the tracks. And stay away from the doors! They tend to shoot open (to allow in a breeze) completely unannounced.
Fortunately we meet an individual on the train who speaks English and provides a bit of history regarding the train (there were three functioning trains and now all there is left is this one which was built in 1944 in France) and who makes a suggestion where we might be able to get off and still find our way back to civilization. We hop off at the Guanabo station in the Playa del Este region and are told to just go to the road and a city bus would be along soon to take us into the town. Ya, right! It appears to be an unpopulated rural road, but, sure enough, within five minutes we are boarding a modern city bus that seems to be headed in the right direction (for more coins into the collection box.)
Soon enough we find ourselves in the beach town of Guanabo, bustling with cafes and restaurants. After a quick lunch we negotiate a cab fare back into Havana (about 10 CUCS). Alternatively, we could have hung out at the beach, which was just over yonder.
In the end, we are pretty darn proud of ourselves. We have cracked the Hershey train code and survived riding the rails, to exploreanother day.
Words and photos by A.J. Twist , a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer.