Cuba & Costa Rica Blog
About this blog
Written by Cuba and Costa Rica expert Christopher P. Baker, this blog will update readers on life in these two diverse and exciting countries.
- Last blog post on Costa Rica and Cuba
- First-ever group motorcycle tours of Cuba successful
- Cuba’s Mariel port readying for Panama Canal expansion
- Musings on wildlife encounters on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula
- Cuba’s Steam Trains puffing their last gasp
- My top five thrilling activities in Costa Rica
- Cuba’s fun February festivals include Harleys, Books, Cigars
- Five top volcano viewing experiences in Costa Rica
- New road along Costa Rica / Nicaraguan border mired
- Cuba’s Hotel Campoamor at Cojímar to be restored?
- Cuban revolutionary Celia Sánchez honored in new book
- Christmas challenge for Costa Rica’s sexually abused girls
- Costa Rica opens Chinatown in downtown San José
- David Soul films Hemingway’s car restoration in Cuba
- National Geographic Expeditions receives license for Cuba tours
Cuba’s Steam Trains puffing their last gasp
In 1996 while motorcycling through Cuba, I encountered three English train-spotters in pursuit of the sensual hiss of steam.
Back then it wasn’t hard to chance upon an antique tren to vapor in Cuba, its steam billowing sibilantly between giant piston rods.
In fact, in 1999 I rented a 1920 Baldwin—yes, an entire train, complete with crew—and careened ahead of it in my rental car to photograph it as it thundered, puffing mightily, down the narrow tracks, hauling carriages laden with fresh-cut sugarcane.
Until a few years ago, Cuba maintained about 200 operating steam trains, projecting a surreal image of an island lost in time—what railroad expert Adolf Hungry Wolfe called a “twilight zone in the world of railroading.” Most are of U.S. progeny and date from the 1920s (the first Cuban railway, however, was built by the British in 1837).
A few are kept going because the sugar mills operate only four to five months a year, providing plenty of time to overhaul the engines and keep them in working order so as to extract a few more thousand miles of hard labor.
However, the drastic closures of sugar mills initiated in 2002 delivered many clunky old engines to the grave.
But not all…
Some have been spruced up for tourist consumption as museum pieces. A few even take passengers for rides.
Here are the five primo spots for spotting steam trains in Cuba:
• Parque de los Agrimensores, Havana
This small park, on the north side of Havana’s Venetian-style Estación Central de Ferrocarril—the central train station (at Egido & Arsenal streets)—is an outdoor museum populated by several Baldwin steam trains dating back to 1878.
• Feria Artesanal de Paula, Havana
The main artisans’ market (at Avenida de Paula & Calle Leonor Pérez> might seem an unlikely venue for the half-a-dozen steam trains that now stand on railway tracks outside this former dockside warehouse. But there they are for your viewing pleasure. Eusebio Leal, the genial Official Historian of the City in charge of Habana Vieja’s (Old Havana’s) restoration, even has plans to resurrect service along the waterfront, offering tourists a fun means of getting to and from the market.
• Museo de Ferrocarril, Havana
The Railway Museum (at Manglar & Pedro Varela), housed in the former Estación Cristina might thrill serious railway buffs with its motley miscellany of railroad memorabilia. Here, too, is La Junta
• Museo de Agroindustria Azucarera, Remedios
The derelict Central Marcelo Salado sugar-processing factory is today the Sugar Industry Museum—a fitting venue for a fistful of old steam trains (the oldest dates from 1904). You can even hop aboard a Baldwin for an excursion.
• Museo de Locomotora de Vapor, Rafael Freyre
Visitors to Holguín province might detour to the still-active Central Rafael Freyre, 20 miles (35 km) north of Holguín city, which at my last visit had six engines. The museum, as such, still hasn’t materialized, and you’ll have to ask permission to view the trains. Alternately, you can book an excursion called “Choo Choo Train” with any of the local tour agencies in the nearby beach resort of Guardalavaca.
For complete information about the above venues, and for complete information on Cuba, buy Moon Handbook Cuba
For further information on Havana, buy Moon Spotlight Havana.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker.
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker