Cuba 2012: Riding a Steam Train to a Sugar Estate and a Block Party
By Dorothy Conlon
I’ve ridden trains in Thailand, India and elsewhere. But nothing like the steam train I rode recently in the Valley of the Sugar Mills in Cuba.
About halfway through our 10-day People to People tour of Cuba, we reach the colonial city of Trinidad de Cuba, in the south of the island. This morning we’re scheduled for a steam train ride, but the train departure is iffy. Apparently it often breaks down, so there’s a certain element of suspense as we wait with another tour group or two on a small platform.
The rusty brown, open-air train, built in 1907, finally chugs in and we squeeze aboard, quickly looking for seats in the three cars. We get herded back and forth until I ‘m able to settle, perched on a wobbly round stool at the bar, which I hold on to for dear life as we lurch along.
Riding the train
It’s 10 a.m.—only an hour late—when we finally leave the station for this ride to a defunct sugar estate. At this hour in the morning, the bartender has few customers, even for the green coconuts placed invitingly on the bar, their tops slashed off, ready to provide a refreshing drink sipped through a straw.
Several of our group must stand during the whole rather rough trip, which turns out to take over an hour, including several unexplained stops, once for refilling our water tanks. It’s a noisy ride, what with the sound of the engine and the turning wheels and the belching black steam, plus the occasional toot of the whistle.
We’re heading east today from Trinidad through varied landscape toward the wooded hills in the distance, the Sierra del Escambray. Some land is agricultural, some scrub, but much of it is jungly and undeveloped, broken by an occasional rocky stream of clear flowing water. I’m surprised to learn afterward that we’ve gone only a few miles out of the city to this connected series of three valleys, designated a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site.
Sugar once provided the main source of Cuba’s wealth, with 60 sugar mills manned by slaves in this 100 square-mile area known as the Valley of the Sugar Mills. Cuba was the foremost producer of sugar in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our People to People tour group is going to visit one of the 13 sugar estates which has survived hurricanes and other destruction—Hacienda Manaca Iznaga.
The sugar plantation
What catches the eye first is a tall stone tower, almost 150 feet high, built as a lookout to monitor the field hands. At one time the tallest structure in
Cuba, its only use now is as a way for visitors to view the whole valley. I climb up only the first 30 steep narrow stairs, but even so, I get a great feel for the vast spaces that were once sugar cane fields, stretching out toward the mountains in the distance.
A cluster of shabby small houses surrounds the imposing yellow stucco estate house. We have free time to wander among these houses, some hardly more than shacks, others slightly more substantial, made of cinder blocks with tile roofs. The villagers rush up to us, their hands out to receive the small gifts of toiletries that we have brought, as suggested by our tour company.
“Hola,” we’re greeted by a group of three people, one of them a transvestite, much to my surprise. They clean me out of my gift items; I’m sorry not to have nail polish or lipstick, which is what they ask for. These people have obviously seen generous tourists like us before.
They are descendants of the 30,000 slaves imported from Africa who worked the sugar fields back then, we gather from their skin tone. They are dressed poorly but in the bright colors we’ve observed elsewhere in Cuba.
The dirt road is lined with small-time vendors, mostly women selling hand-embroidered linens. We’re disappointed that we won’t be viewing the mill itself where the sugar was processed. From the top of the tower, it was visible in the distance.
Finally we gather at the beautifully restored arcaded hacienda itself, which contains a few souvenir sellers, a cheerful guitarist, and a restaurant. Our leisurely lunch on the back verandah consists of the typical bland rice and beans, with a delicious crispy salad of tomatoes and cucumbers.
We’re served beer, instead of the usual rum-based mint-flavored Mojitos. As always, we are serenaded by a musician singing Besame Mucho and other catchy tunes. Live music accompanies almost every meal we’ve had in this vibrant island nation.
Back to Trinidad
If I had had a vote, I would have loved to make the return trip to Trinidad on that same steam train, but instead, our bus with friendly driver Ernesto, awaits us. Back in that well-preserved colonial city, we have plenty of time to wander the cobblestone streets and plazas and observe city life.
The end of the evening finds us at an informal nightly block party at the Spanish Steps, where an enthusiastic crowd of Cubans is enjoying live music and dancing under a full moon. I see no other tourists.
People spontaneously dance here, no matter how cramped the space. Jammed in among these fun-loving residents in such a lively event, not one planned just for our pleasure, we feel as though we are truly experiencing a People to People view of Cuba.
Dorothy Conlon has written many travel articles as well as three books: At Home in the World, Born with Wings and Care, Share, Dare–the World through a Volunteer’s Eyes.She lives in Sarasota, Florida, and can be found giving talks on travel and volunteering. Visit her website
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