About 50 miles outside of Havana is a town that was once entirely owned and run by the Hershey corporation under its founder and namesake, the legendary industrialist Milton S. Hershey. Built from scratch and completed in 1918, it functioned for decades as a privatized company town, and as one of the key elements in the Hershey’s chocolate production empire, with a massive mill at the nexus of a private rail system that gathered up and processed Cuban sugarcane from throughout the region to then be shipped throughout the world from nearby ports.
The town, segregated by race and socially stratified by position within the company, was overwhelmingly made up of Cubans except for a handful of U.S. transplants in the upper echelons of the operation, and included several office buildings, a social club, credit store, movie theatre, golf course, and, of course, a baseball field. A massive power plant (built by Hershey) supplied the mill and the railroad with enough electricity to keep production running day in and day out to meet global demand for the crystalline sweetener.
With the drastic changes that came after the Revolution in 1959, and subsequent developments over the next several decades, the sugar mill was used less and less until it finally went dormant in 2002. By then, most of the train rail lines along Hershey’s network had already fallen into disrepair, but the main commuter line running from Havana to Hershey and on to the city of Matanzas, remained in operation as a commuter train for locals traveling from small towns to the two cities.
The original cars had been replaced by train cars from Barcelona circa 1940, and the number of working cars has since slowly dwindled to just a few. Track closings are not uncommon, delays as well, but the train still operates for the most part day in and day out, transporting Cubans to and from the two port cities at either end. When the train is functioning as it should, the Havana to Hershey leg takes about 90 minutes, or about half the time in a car, but traveling to Hershey by car is missing much of the adventure. The train ride is a revealing and one-of-a-kind experience.
The train leaves from a small station that sits across the narrow mouth of the bay from Old Havana, in a neighborhood called Casablanca. The easiest way to get to Casablanca is a quick boat ride across the bay from the newly renovated ferry landing along the south side of the port in Old Havana (where Calle Luz and Calle Oficios meet). Ferries leave for Casablanca and nearby Regla every 20 minutes or so, and the price — designed to be affordable for the average Cuban commuter making somewhere on the order of 20 CUC per month — is ten cents in Cuba’s national currency, or the equivalent of about one half of one cent in CUC. Trains typically leave three times a day: early (around 4:30 am), midday (around 12:15) and afternoon (around four o’clock). A ticket is priced at three CUC for foreigners, which will get you all the way to Matanzas, or from Havana to Hershey and then back on a later train.
On a recent trip, I decided to aim for a midday departure (and recommend you do too). I was traveling with a fellow (U.S.) American in tow, as well as my curious Cuban friend Javier, who himself had never made the trip out to Hershey. Though we were already late when we arrived at the ferry landing in Old Havana, a cardinal sin when you’ve planned a blog post around successfully catching the Hershey train, and although we ended up getting to the train about 5 minutes late, Javier was able to call ahead to the station (+53 77938888) and convince them to delay the departure a few minutes util we arrived, and all was well. Normally, I would try to aim to get to Casablanca 20 minutes early, and I would recommend calling ahead on the day you’re planning on going, or asking your host to call, to get the latest updates.
As we departed Havana, the train was quite crowded — it was however, only one car, and so had more of a trolley feeling–like a moderately busy subway commute in New York. The conductor sat in a dilapidated driver’s seat in a cabin at the front of the car, door wide open for people to come say hi, shoot the breeze, or watch and take pictures (as did the one or two tourists in the mix). We passed some makeshift housing and the industrial expanses of the southern end of the port of Havana and then slowly pushed further into the dry green hills and pastures that surround the city inland to the east.The smell of country air with the occasional brush fire replaced the synthetic perfumes and diesel exhaust of the city.
For the next hour and a half, the train made frequent stops, some at designated stations consisting of simple cement platforms and others at seemingly random places: at a dirt road or the pathway from the backyard of a home. At one point the conductor stopped the car, left the train and walked over to a nearby house to deliver a bag of goods and pay a five minute visit. Many of the passengers that day seemed to be regular riders of the train — they shook hands and kissed cheeks in greeting, helped load and unload heavy items, and many paid friendly visits to the conductor’s cabin. As we got further and further from Havana, the crowed dwindled and the train car felt more like late night on a subway car: a young couple getting on for only a few stops before heading off down the dirt roads of a nearby rural neighborhood. The names of the stops are a mixture of indigenous and Spanish: Bacuranao, Tarará, La Lima, Guanabo, Corona, La Sierra.
Then finally, the train arrives in Hershey, now officially referred to as Camilo Cienfuegos. Still, the Hershey sign remains at the station, and an original train car sits on display on a nearby unused track. Hoping to find a local who could orient us a bit, we were directed to speak to Pedro, a man selling soda and hamburgers at the station. He offerred to give us a tour around town, and we accepted. He said he often picked up guiding gigs this way, on days when tour buses visited the town, but since tourists were still pretty scarce in Hershey, he earned his main living selling soda and sandwiches.
Pedro, who had lived in Hershey for decades but was not born there, walked us from one area to the next, describing the town’s history and detailing previous occupants and uses of buildings. The company had once employed 4,000 people, he said, almost all Cuban, even within the upper tier of engineers and office staff. At what had been the racial dividing line of the town there stood the an impressive church. The social club had long been abandoned, but the former credit store now housed several state run commercial enterprises.
Sidewalks were almost entirely covered in a mossy, golf course-like green.
“There are two antique projectors in there,” he noted non-chalantly when we walked by the company-era cinema.
Always looming on the horizon were the smokestacks of the power plant and the crumbling central, where decades of sugar production had taken place.
Toward the end of the tour we came upon a pristine baseball diamond with a goat grazing in the outfield and a skinny horse hitched to the bleachers behind home plate.
We watched a ten year old boy fly a homemade kite, his two friends shouting critiques from the stands. We were hungry for a meal, and Pedro was kind enough to offer to whip us up a quick bite to eat at his house, and after attempting to decline the offer several times, we finally acquiesced after realizing this wasn’t the type of town that had restaurants. Our meal was simple, but the gesture of hospitality, something that one finds in few other places besides Cuba, was nice, and we did our best to compensate him fairly for his time.
We finally made our way to the station, and after thanking Pedro and exchanging emails, we hopped on the last train of the day toward Matanzas. With the sun setting and cool air filling the car, the train ride was quiet, with fewer passengers, and no lights in the passenger cabin. In the increasing darkness, I contemplated this small slice of American history in the middle of nowhere in Cuba. We arrived in Matanzas around 7:30, ready for a meal, a Cristal, and comfortable bed.