In 1916 Milton Hershey, founder of US chocolate manufacturer Hersheys, established a sugar mill halfway between Matanzas and Havana. Built to process sugar cane for the company’s chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, the renowned businessman and philanthropist also commissioned 135km of railway line to transport workers and goods to and from the mill and the workers’ village he erected around it. Today the Hershey train line transports the only electric trains left in Cuba, which pass through the Yumurí valley and within sight of the Atlantic coastline on their three-hour journey between the two terminals, Casablanca in Havana and the Matanzas station in Versalles.
Calling at dozens of stations along the way, including the one in Camilo Cienfuegos (the post-1959 name for the tiny town of Hershey), a ride on the Hershey train is to experience Cuban public transport at its most idiosyncratic. Services are scheduled to leave three times a day, but there is never any guarantee of this, with reasons for delays and cancellations ranging from power failures to cattle on the line.
The current tram-like interurban train cars were imported from Spain in the 1990s, though they date back to the 1940s. Rarely exceeding speeds of 40km/hr, the journey unfolds at the perfect speed for taking in the marvellous landscapes along the way, the best of them in the Yumurí valley with its mosaic of cultivated fields, open countryside, patchwork forests and snaking rivers. Stations are more like bus stops, and some platforms are little more than a metre or two long, leaving some passengers having to literally jump off the train. To buy a ticket for one of the three daily services to Havana, arrive at the station in Versalles, Matanzas, an hour before the scheduled departure time.