In the cold Pennsylvanian winter of 1916, chocolate baron Milton S. Hershey turned his sights to Cuba with the idea of expanding his growing sugar empire. He toured the island, liked the feel of the soil, the smell of potential sugar harvests, the cigars, the intense coffee, the glittering Havana casinos, and the people. He began to set up his second sugar outpost and figured that the best way to transport the harvest to local ports was by train: the Hershey electric train – the first in Cuba – would transport sugar from the Hershey mill west to Havana and east to Matanzas, along 52 miles of track.
I had wanted to take the Hershey train on a budget adventure travelling from Havana all the way to colonial Matanzas on the 100th anniversary of Milton Hershey's visit to Cuba.
I set off from my Centro Havana B&B on foot but hitched a ride with a horse and carriage when I realised I wasn't going fast enough with my back pack to get me to the Casablanca-bound ferry.
The ferry is a skeletal iron bulk that chugs between Old Havana and Casablanca on the other side of the bay. The views of Old Havana from the boat are exquisite – like an oil painting with the rich ripple of water and the golden orbs of the Russian Orthodox church seemingly bobbing on the fringes of Old Havana. The British are to blame for this short ferry ride (CUP0.20/less than 1 pence one way): in the early 20th century the Brits owned all the railway tracks in Havana and they resisted the competition from Hershey. They couldn't stop Hershey opening a line but they sure as sugar were not going to make it easy for him, and prevented his lines from reaching Havana proper.
Casablanca station was full of locals and backpackers awaiting the most sensible of the departure times – the 1221 to Matanzas. I had local pesos (moneda nacional) in my pocket and bought my ticket for CUP1.40 (4 pence) to Hershey town. I sat next to some Cubans heading to Jibacoa to sell crafts on the beach, a young Cuban who was about to study tourism and gastronomy in Havana, and American tourists keen to see Hershey's legacy.
The green, rickety, bare-bones carriage (dating from 1940s Catalunya) with its black seats and stiff wooden arm rests, jolted, creaked and whined as it curved out of Casablanca and around the bay pushing past thwacking branches, and fruit trees. It juddered through farmland, sugar cane, and tiny communities, with regular views of elegant plumes of Cuba's very regal Royal Palms. The ride is slow; the Hershey train, which started chugging along the tracks in 1922, only reaches a maximum 25mph but that's a good thing as there are pigs and cows constantly on the line unaware of the thrice daily schedule in both directions.
There was plenty of time to talk to fellow travellers and wander about the carriages - infused with the aroma of Cuba's cheap Populares cigarettes. A couple of Americans were train drivers themselves from Alaska; a German train fanatic simply had to take the train. Cubans were transporting trussed up pigs, and birds in cages.
For locals and tourists, it has to be the cheapest long-distance transport on the island. The entire 52-mile journey costs just 2.80CUP (8.5 pence). The entertainment was cheap too: the conductor kicked off a mock argument with a regular traveller who demanded the conductor return some change: it was all an act that entertained all the Cubans on board, leaving the foreign travellers bemused by all the shouting!
There are 46 platforms and stations along the Hershey route to Matanzas. Many of them are concrete steps or sheltered platforms – seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but if we peered beyond the untamed bushes and plants, we could see farm buildings and small clusters of homes. Some of these remote platforms were stopping off points for beaches such as Guanabo, a major beach resort for Havana residents.
We pulled into Hershey, 40 miles east of Havana, at 1.52pm-ish. Apart from the end destination of Matanzas, it's the busiest station on the line and guava pastry and sandwich sellers were out in force selling to hungry travellers. The Hershey signage is still displayed and the original platforms are all still there but Hershey Town has been renamed "Camilo Cienfuegos" after one of the original leaders of the 1959 Revolution.
Unfortunately, the 2pm return train to Havana leaves day trippers no time to explore Hershey town in the 8-minute pause, but I had planned to stay on and explore the community, a few minutes' walk south from the station, and the nearby coast.
Milton Hershey bought several sugar mills in the region and built a model town based on his utopian Pennsylvanian community. The Hershey company rode the sugar boom that resulted in the loss of the sugar beet fields in Europe to battle during World War I. At the height of the boom in May 1920, the global price of sugar had soared to almost 12 times its 1914 value.
Central Hershey, Cuba, originally consisted of 180 homes which, today, sit handsomely on wide tree-lined streets. To the east of town is the huge hulk of the sugar factory (closed in 2002 and currently being dismantled). A few streets west is the main road where the ice-making plant stood, and the grocery store, which hands out food rations to Cubans, remains open. Its super-long counter is fronted by a dazzling frieze of Moorish tiles. The original pharmacy building is next door, and open for business, too. Hershey also built a golf course, sports field, hotel, and an orphans' school. The sports field is still used by the community; there is talk of resurrecting the hotel.
One of the greatest attractions for the community, and still in use today, is the Hershey Gardens (9.30am-7pm daily). This fertile oasis flourishes around pools of trickling water just one kilometre north of the town. In summer, it's full of bathers who swim in the cooling ponds overlooked by rampant tropical plants, trees and flowers. The gardens are so beautifully curated that they look like a scene from a Tomas Sanchez painting. Sanchez is considered one of Cuba's most outstanding landscape painters; his works are intense with the lush nature that sprouts on the Caribbean island. I could have stayed for hours – helped by the scattering of cafes and restaurants in the gardens.
But I was heading on north to the coast and then east to the beaches of Jibacoa. I walked north to Santa Cruz del Norte, HQ of Cuba's famous Havana Club rum. No one is allowed to tour the factory, unfortunately, but the smell of molasses was so overpowering, I am not sure I could have withstood a tour anyhow.
Walking east along the coast road, I arrived at the small community of Penon de Fraile, famous for its pina colada stand; it also has a new private restaurant, Los Marinos. After refuelling on dorado fish, and a much needed blast of cola, I headed to drink one of the famous pina coladas. It tasted divine after my long walk. I then headed down to the village, staying at Pedro's B&B.
Penon de Fraile does not have a pretty beach itself as it sits right on a sharp limestone ledge, but it's close to the outstanding Playa del Camping (Villa Loma), a rough-hewn cove of soft, biscuit-coloured sand, fringed by tousled trees and bushes, facing the myriad blues of the Atlantic. East of here is a series of coves which unfurl east to Jibacoa proper where there is the low-key Memories Jibacoa Resort, a couple of basic Cuban resorts, and one B&B. I climbed the mountain ridge behind the resort to get a better view. At the end of a long ridge-top path was a mirador. The panorama was breathtaking. I could see paragliders swooping about over the teal green waters, and the snaking coral reef – a snorkelling hotspot – was clearly visible further out.
After a night in Jibacoa, I walked the three miles to Boca de Canasi. This small fishing community is found down a potholed road, one kilometre north from the main highway and the small town of Arcos de Canasi. Just south of the cove at Boca de Canasi, super friendly Havana resident Natacha Fabregas has opened a small bungalow – Cabana MontECOrales – with two rooms in a garden sewn with a variety of fruit trees. It's a pretty spot and the perfect countryside escape from Havana. Natacha is an excellent cook so freshly grilled fish, avocado salads, plump rice dishes, and freshly made pina coladas mixed with coconut from the gardens seemed to always be on tap.
From the bungalow we walked down to the river, crossing the river mouth on foot with our backpacks on our head. A jungle trail leads along the coast through forest of guano palm. Eventually we reached a cove called "La Cazuela". The sea here was of the most divine turquoise blue and we passed the time jumping off a ledge into the water below. Snorkelling about we saw colourful tang and barracuda. Back at base at MontECOrales Natacha prepared saoco (Cuban rum and coconut water) before moving on to her stronger special pina coladas which went down a treat.
After a few nights in Boca de Canasi, I walked back up the road, over the highway and into the small town of Canasi, to wait for the afternoon Hershey train to Matanzas. The local commuters hauled watermelon, a cake, and a pig in a bucket on to the train. On leaving Canasi, the train quickly picked up speed, passing cactus fences, banana plantations, and groves of Royal Palms which sparkled under the cobalt blue sky. Closer to Matanzas we picked up locals carrying root vegetables, a black bird in a cage, and bags of pumpkins bursting out of their jute carriers.
I arrived at Matanzas and was met by my B&B owner who whisked me to the 18th-century Castillo de San Severino and its slave history exhibits, the fascinating 19th-century French pharmacy museum, and Ediciones Vigia, a small publishing house that crafts hand-made illustrated books.
I caught the 1209 back to Havana from Matanzas with my 2.80CUP ticket for the 3 hour 20 minute journey. Along the way a couple of goats got on with their minders, as well as some pigeons in a cage. At Hershey, a pregnant woman got off to buy a guava pastry triangle, clutching it between her inch-long red nails. As we settled down to continue the journey, an elderly man with a sun-crinkled face combed his hair before opening the sparse pages of the Communist party newspaper, Granma.
Not too far from Havana, the train broke down, something it's prone to do on regular occasions. I calculated that if we had to we could walk to the coastal road and hitch a ride back to the city. All the Cubans looked resigned to this fate – one even asking me to pray – but the train driver sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with "I love Jesus" and his assistant were confident.
They clambered out of the train and up on to the roof to fix the electric overhang. Miraculously, they sorted the problem, and we jolted our way back into Casablanca with distant glimpses of the Capitol building, Habana Libre Hotel, and enormous Focsa building coming into view. The ferry was kind enough to wait for all the disembarking train passengers to board before journeying back across the harbour to Old Havana.
Taking the Hershey train to the beaches, the Hershey town, or all the way to Matanzas is an unmissable Cuban adventure. I loved taking the train and definitely plan hopping on board again!