Don Townshend peers into Cuba’s prosperous past on a trip through the country’s agricultural heartland.
Sydney Morning Herald
We mill impatiently outside the railway station in Trinidad, central Cuba, glancing at our watches and peering towards the train shed. The train is already 20 minutes late and nowhere in sight. “Some days,” remarked a Cuban tour guide to his group, “the train it cannot come because it is very old.”
Fortunately it isn’t one of those days. Ten minutes later, preceded by cantankerous snorting and a pall of black smoke, veteran locomotive 1432 shuffles out of the train shed like an arthritic old stallion.
As it wheezes towards the rustic station, two middle-aged male passengers suddenly sprawl beside the railway tracks. For a moment it looks like suicide. But no, they just peer up into the locomotive’s steamy entrails as it rolls past. They are, I discover, “puffer-nutters” - railway enthusiasts who scour the world to seek and ride old trains. “Hey,” one yells excitedly in a British accent, “this is an early 1900s Baldwin from Philadelphia. Wow.”
Up close it appeared the old boy needed some serious TLC. Steam hissed from yawning cracks, metal plates and pipes were rusted and nuts and bolts were absent. Worse, it sounded positively unwilling to haul its two old carriages into the once-prosperous Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills).
Nevertheless, about 15 minutes later the ageing loco groaned out of Trinidad with a cargo comprising two carriages, diverse tourists, a local guitarist and three train staff. Listed as a World Heritage site in 1983, Trinidad dates back to 1514 when it was settled by Spaniard Diego Velasquez de Cuellar. Notorious in the 1600s as a rowdy piracy and slave-trading hub, it later became a booming sugar centre. Fronted by the Caribbean and fine beaches, with the Sierra del Escambray mountains as a backdrop, Trinidad’s colourful, narrow cobbled streets, centuries-old buildings, charming courtyards and museums ensure it is one of Cuba’s most visited destinations.
Snail rail ... an old bridge on the picturesque line to Manaca Iznaga.
Photo: Don Townshend