We headed in two directions today.  Celi is always up for a swim and some time at the beach and boarded the Cubatur bus which conveniently left one block from our casa, taking tourists to the Playa Ancon, a peninsular East of Trinidad, considered the best beach of the South Coast.  It is really the North that is famous for unsurpassed  beach resorts but Playa Ancon is as good as it gets around here.

I opted for a tour to the Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills).  It is a UNESCO protected valley which still has some of the remains of the once 43 sugar mills that dotted the landscape, and that is the reason for the wealth of Trinidad.  You can get to the valley by bus or a horse ride, but best of it all — once every day it is possible to reach the valley via a 1907 train with a steam engine!  I find that fascinating enough, but I especially am thinking today of my brother Christoph, whose fascination with trains led to a life-long career; and of my grandsons Arthur and Tillman, both fans of trains who already have memorized the entire Thomas Train clan!

Trains used to be major means of transport in Cuba in the days gone by.  Somewhere I read that until a few years ago, there were still over 200 steam engines in operation on the passenger train routes through Cuba.  If that is not a hangover from the 19th Century, more even than the American Oldies!  Much of the train infrastructure has been lost for various reasons and many steam locomotives are now out of service, rusting away somewhere.  A few passenger lines are still in operation and notorious for their unreliability.  Every guide book warns you — stay away from the trains in Cuba!  Some fellow tourists told us that it took them 6 hours for a stretch of 180 km.  That would take you by car 3-4 hours on a mediocre road, 1.5 hours on the German Autobahn, or 50 minutes on a Japanese Shinkansen train.  Just to put this into perspective.  And since we did not want to be stranded somewhere, we are not planning to use the train as a serious means of getting around.

Trains must at one point have crisscrossed this valley, transporting sugar from the mills to town.  One small stretch still operates and is maintained as a tourist attraction.   It starts at a small blue platform near the once glorious, yellow colonial train station in Trinidad, and ends at Feneta with an hour stopover and on the way back stops again for an hour at Iznaga for sightseeing. It is meant to be taken as a round trip and takes about 5 hours in total.

Given the throngs of tourists in Trinidad, I should have known that this train, just like the ferry the other day, would be completely overloaded.  Even though I was 20 minutes early, I was too late for a seat but early enough to snatch a spot between cars with a wooden post for my back to lean against, rather than being crammed into an aisle.

Near the ticket counter a chalk board provided some information of the program.  If you overlooked that or forgot to take notice, or you can’t speak Spanish to clarify anything later, you were probably among the 1/3 of the passengers who accidentally got out at the wrong stop: Iznaga on the way out, rather than on the way back.  That means, you would have missed what I considered the highlight of the trip:  The ruins of one of the most important and biggest sugar mills of the entire valley at Feneta.

Picture once colorfully painted pipes that go nowhere, gears without motors to belong to, huge metal tanks, flat-beds, and tubes set into a landscape dominated by two gigantic chimney stacks and flanked by a humungous building that in miniature would resemble a multi-drawer curiosity cabinet with some unhinged doors, serpentine parts and gaping holes.  It was fascinatingly surreal.  Now you charge 1 CUC and call it a museum.  That is what the mill at Feneta was like. 

Somebody had dug up a 1517 steam locomotive and decided that it should be fired up when the train stuffed with tourists arrives, blowing black wads of stinky smoke into the air; very impressive.  It rounded out the “museum”.   I had a field day, photographing. 

Iznaga is a small village once ruled by one of the most powerful sugar barons of the valley.  To showcase his wealth and to exercise his might, he had built a 7-tiered tower from where he could overlook the valley, and observe, control, and sum his slaves.  His mansion now is a restaurant into which the crowd of the train flocked for lunch.  Villagers set up tables selling traditional, hand-made linen cloths that are laced or embroidered.  I made a stroll through the village.  Some of the wooden homes even now are no larger than the slave quarters at Monticello.  The village clearly is poor.

On the way home I was able to get a prime spot at the very end of the train looking out on the tracks and the landscape.  15 km takes the train nearly 1 hour.  You can calculate the speed.  Nobody seemed to worry about safety.  You are on your own.  People sat on the iron steps of the wagons; one lucky person had their feet dangling down the spot of last wagon used to hinge the next car to.  And I can picture the daredevils who in days gone by would have jumped on and off the cars while the train was moving.  One bridge, one little tunnel, a few screechy turns and lots of loud, loud whistles later, we returned back home to Trinidad.  This was fun even if a bit contrived.

But the real fun was yet to come.  One of Celi’s new beach friends works at “The House of Beer” in Trinidad and she wanted to check it out.  It was right down our street.  We had passed this intriguing shell of a ruined theater before.  It had been converted into a beer garden/dance club with a bar, wooden tables, and flashing disco lights; all under the dark, starry, full-mooned night sky.  Loud and lively, filled with mainly young people, this kind of a hangout could have been anywhere in Berlin or New York.  The racially mixed crowd of youngsters was enthusiastically singing along, drinking loads of beer, and dancing the way only Cubans can dance:  evocatively swinging their curvy bodies of all sizes and shapes.  Some people danced regardless of their surroundings, others have their bodies pressed tightly on somebody else’s and live in a world of their own.  And there are those already so hammered, they don’t know where they are any more and it is up to you to keep them at bay and from falling right into your lap.  There is a lot of groping going on but nobody cares. 

The two of us already raised the age average by a substantial margin but there was “the Buddha Lady”.  I will just call her that, as she sat with her spindly legs crossed in the middle of the dance floor where she had positioned a wooden bench just for herself and her stuff.  She seemed to preside over the crowd even though she was the tiniest, most emaciated creature you could imagine.  She commanded a presence.  Once in a while she got up, a cigarette dangling in her mouth, grabbing one of the full bodied guys to dance with, stroking their big beer bellies.  They all humored her for a while and eventually led her back to her throne.  She was a fixture and somewhere “out there”.  Was she 60, 70, 80?  It was hard to tell.

For an hour I almost forgot where we were.  This was Cuba?  Well, it was.  Along with all the dimly lit, half-empty government stores, the colonial mansions, the sugar plantations, and the American Oldies.

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. This sounds like a fun day filled with so much variety. Our brother in law is into trains and would have loved to have joined you for the ride. Am glad there are no safety restrictions to shut it down.

  2. If the train takes one hour to go 15 kilometers, according to my higher mathematics calculations, it is going at the speed of about 15 kilometers per hour.