Cuba is so big, with so much to see, that sooner or later visitors need to get from one end of the country to the other. The most rewarding method of travel is the train – and the Tren Frances is FC’s (Ferrocarriles de Cuba) flagship service. On odd days (1st, 3rd, 5th of the month, etc) it leaves Havana for Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago; and on even days (2nd, 4th, 6th, etc) it makes the return journey. It’s a stately schedule befitting the air-conditioned, stainless steel rolling stock acquired from France in 2001 after its retirement as a workhorse of the Trans-Europe Express between Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. With reclining seats, carpets and cafeteria service, the Tren Frances still offers two classes: basic leatherette especial (2 + 2 seats across) and primera especial, with fabric seats spaciously arranged 2 + 1 across the aisle. It’s comfortable, fast and (despite frequent moans from downright ■unlucky passengers) relatively reliable. It has to be: if it’s more than an hour late, you get the fare refunded in full.
But watching the backyard of Cuba’s glorious countryside unfurl, punctuated by visions of its colonialist past and the grinding demands of its agro-industrial economic present, you realize quite how extraordinary this train really is in its Cuban context. It’s a statement about the country’s determined ambition to make do, mend and better itself on its own terms. The Tren Frances really is the best way to see the ‘real’ Cuba – and the daily evidence is the other passengers. Most are Cuban, keen to Hk and share, and (in marked Ipnirast to the grumpy clientele on Ik tourist-only’ bus network) (kroughly cheerful about life and k Ticissitudes.
WHEN TO GO:
TIME IT TAKES:
Over 12 hours for the one-way journey of 861 km (533 mi)
The powerful air-conditioning.
Breaking the ice with fellow- passengers.
In Santiago, the station is opposite the Caney rum factory.
Sub-tropical dusk and dawn.
The sense of intimacy with Cuba you retain, even long after stepping off the train in either Havana or Santiago.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
1. Foreign visitors pay more than Cubans for rail travel; and they pay neither in pesos nor dollars, but in Cuban Convertible dollars (CUC$).
2. It’s best to reserve your seat at least 24 hours in advance, and at both Havana and Santiago stations you do so at a special booth (NOT the normal Booking office). You may be asked to show your passport, and/or to confirm your ticket one hour before scheduled departure, at the same place.