Posted by: Alex MacGregor | August 31, 2012

Back to Havana

Like most island countries, Cuba has only one real gateway to the outside world: the capital, Havana. So Havana is not only most travelers’ first stop in Cuba, but also their last.

One intriguing option the government leaves open for you to travel from Santa Clara back to Havana is the train. We’ve had train adventures in places ranging from Mozambique and South Africa to France and Switzerland. Why not add Cuba to the list? After all, it’s one of only a few Latin American countries that still has a functioning inter-city train system.

Santa Clara’s train station is a stark place. Getting a ticket here had a lot of the same frustrations involved in getting a Viazul bus ticket in Sancti Spiritus.

We were actually getting down the Cuba ticket procedure. You have to wait uncomfortably long before anyone is willing to do anything to help you. Of course, the strategy is to annoy the workers so much that they have an interest in getting you off of their backs.

Hopefully, you are eventually given an absurdly detailed document that will serve as your ticket (passport number, nationality, birthday–all of this information and more could be necessary to secure passage on the train). Typically, you have the ticket for a grand total of about five minutes before someone collects the ticket, leaving you with no proof you bought the ticket in the first place.

Our tickets even had assigned seats (surprisingly), but the seats were taken due to some sort of booking error (unsurprisingly). So Caroline and I were separate for about half of the trip. Seated in the midst of a large Cuban family from Santiago visiting relatives in Havana, this gave me a chance to have some of the only normal interaction with Cubans not in the tourist trade on the whole trip. The best was a 14 year-old girl who wanted to practice her English, who asked me, “Do you like Michael Jackson, King of Pop?”

Eventually Caroline and I were reunited, and we spent much of the journey studying the guidebook map in disbelief at how long the trip was taking. The decrepit state of so many towns we passed through was remarkable. No tourism to keep the economy going meant house after house was just falling apart–whole blocks of them. This is the Cuba you’re not supposed to see.

By the time we arrived at the station in Havana, even I wondered if it had been worth it to take the train. The train was hot, slow (5.5 hours to go 150 miles), and not particularly cheap, at $10 each. For the Google Search crowd, I regret to say Viazul is probably your better option for getting from Santa Clara to Havana, at just a few dollars more.

Back in Havana, we quickly took to wandering around and soaking up the architecture. If Cuba has one remarkable thing about it, clearly it is Havana. The central city is a seemingly endless expanse of old buildings; possibly the best in the world outside of Europe.

If/when the embargo against Cuba ends, I would definitely recommend a trip to Havana just to check it all out. No other place within a couple hours flight of the US can come close. Mexico City can compete in terms of colonial architecture, but it’s the endless array of early 20th century buildings that makes Havana special.

Speaking of the embargo…

Unlike the state-approved art in Santa Clara, these murals are a lot more subtle in meaning.

The Museo de la Revolucion was the main activity for our second trip to Havana.

Honestly, the revolutionary history aspect of the trip had gotten a bit overwhelming at this point. Between the revolutionary museum in Trinidad and the armored train museum and Che pilgrimage site in Santa Clara, I had kind of had my fill.

Not only that, but the place was uncomfortably crowded with foreigners as well (even though locals can get at 1/25th the price!). The stamina of your typical tourist to study these barely-comprehensible displays regarding military details of the revolution was remarkable; but alas, I could only last about 15 minutes until I gave up.

More interesting to me was the fact that the museum is housed in President Batista’s old palace.

Bullet holes remain from fighting related to a 1957 assassination attempt.

The building is supremely opulent and an incredible place to stroll around. Apparently the rest of the tourists must have slipped into a black hole at some point, because when you’re wandering around these incredible rooms, you’ve got the place almost to yourself.

The Hall of Mirrors, modeled after that in Versailles. Incredible.

Frescoed ceiling.

For an extra CUC, you can check out the president’s offices.

The president’s conference room, where, in the early years of the revolutionary government, the Castro brothers and Che would gather to discuss public policy.

I actually preferred the exhibits about life after the revolution over the ones about the revolution itself. Lots of interesting artifacts and vignettes about how awesome life suddenly was–all the new teachers, hospitals, food, and so on. Some might call this propaganda; others, putting your best foot forward.

The other tourists didn’t seem to find this part of the museum quite as enthralling as the military history portion. Different strokes, I guess: it’s tough to compete with military history.

And, who can forget, the most colorful part of the museum: the “Cretin Corner”.

No ambiguity about the message here!

Our last meal in Cuba was in Havana’s Chinatown. Like the Chinese food we had in Malawi, when you have Chinese food in a place like Havana you’re really just trying to stave off a craving, rather than have a satisfying meal. But by this time the next day we were planning to be in rural Nicaragua, so we had to jump on the amenity while it was available.

Goodbye Cuba!

I’m definitely glad we made the journey to Cuba, but, considering the time, cost, and hassle associated with it, I’m not planning to return until the embargo is lifted. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later.


  1. […] Long time readers of this blog know Caroline and I love Chinatowns, having visited them in the Domincan Republic and Cuba. […]

  2. […] shown plenty of train station pictures on this blog. But none anywhere near as impressive as Shanghai’s brand-new Hongqiao Railway […]

  3. […] just a couple blocks away, I checked out DF’s Chinatown. Recalling Havana and Santo Domingo, I knew Latin American Chinatowns have a tendency to underwhelm, and are mainly […]

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