Cuba has one of the oldest railroads in Latin America

Cuba has one of the oldest railroads in Latin America

Located on the Atlantic Ocean, Cuba has long been isolated from the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Cuba was the first country in Latin America – and one of the first in the world – to build a rail network.

The construction of the railway was initiated by sugar producers who wanted to create an efficient transport system to transport sugarcane from the plantations to the factories. Roads in the country were in poor condition, due to flooding during the rainy season. A rail link could provide a solution.

Railroads for chocolate

In 1837, the first Cuban train was operated. At that time, only six other countries had a railway system. The network expanded rapidly, and in the twentieth century, when chocolate manufacturer Hershey Chocolate Corporation (now known as Hershey’s) came on the scene, electric railroads were built.

Today, trains in Cuba mainly help people get from A to B. The country has eight thousand kilometers of railways, covering 97 percent of Cuba. Although trains provide an affordable way to travel around the island, they are not always efficient and reliable. Colombian photographer Eliana Aponte captures what daily life is like on a train.

The slow rhythm of the train

Aponte quickly had to accept that train travel can sometimes be an effort. When I decided to take the train to Santiago de Cuba, everyone said: ‘Are you crazy? It takes you three days to get there,” Aponte recalled. “But I didn’t care, I just wanted to enjoy it.”

The train left Havana two hours late and was so late that Aponte took a total of 24 hours to complete the journey that would normally take fifteen hours. Still, according to Aponte, the trip was worth it. Along the way she was treated to beautiful sunset views and pictures of passengers trying to make the trip better. One passenger even brought a mattress to lie on in the aisle. While his fellow passengers rocked uncomfortably in their seats, he slept relatively comfortably.

Modernization of Railways

With funding from abroad, Cuba hopes to modernize its railway system in the near future. The new law will allow foreign companies to operate Cuba’s railways for the first time in sixty years. Russia and France have now pledged to invest in the system – making Cuba’s railways even more future-proof.

Here’s a look at what a typical day looks like on a Cuban railway.

Passengers by train in Cuba

Headshot of Esmee van Dijk

Esme van Dijk is an editor for National Geographic magazine, Historia, and Traveler. Because of her love for history and culture, she likes to travel the world both physically and mentally. On her wish list is a tour of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, where she hopes to finally see her favorite artists in real life.

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