See Life Aboard Cuba's Aging Trains

This rail system was the first in Latin America and among the oldest in the world.

Located at the intersection of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean, the island nation of Cuba has long been isolated by the seas. So it may come as a surprise that it was the first country in Latin America—and one of the first in the world—to develop a rail system.

Sugar producers spurred construction of the railways for an efficient mass transport system to move sugar cane from the fields to the mills. Companies found their operations hampered by the poor state of the country’s roads and the flooding that frequently washed them out during the rainy season—the train was their solution.

So Cuba’s first rail line was opened in 1837, at a time when only six other countries in the world had railways. The network quickly expanded, and by the early 20th century, Hershey Chocolate Corporation entered the market, building its own set of electric rail lines in Cuba.

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A train rolls through the countryside on the route from Havana to San Antonio de los Baños.

Historically built to suit the needs of the sugar barons of the 19th century, Cuba’s railroads today primarily serve the country’s rural population. The country boasts around 5,000 miles of railway, providing access to 97 percent of Cubans. The trains provide an affordable—but not always efficient or reliable—means of traveling across the island.

While some tourists ride the Hershey route from Havana to Matanzas, the rest of the country’s rail network is largely utilized by locals who use the trains to get to work, visit friends and family, and conduct errands. The journeys take patience, as the train operates on its own schedule, which rarely corresponds with posted times.

When Havana-based Colombian photographer Eliana Aponte decided to pursue a project photographing the trains, she resigned herself to the slow rhythm of the journey.

"When I decided to go to Santiago de Cuba by train, everyone said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to spend three days to get there,’" Aponte recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t care, I want to do it.’"

Indeed, the train started from Havana two hours late and its progress was slow during what ended up being a 24-hour journey. But Aponte says she was rewarded with a sunset vista of the countryside viewed from the train’s windows, and scenes of daily life as passengers made their best of the journey. One rider even brought a mattress to lay on the floor in the aisle. As others dozed uncomfortably in their seats, he slept in relative comfort.

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School children gaze out the windows at the San Antonio de los Baños train station.

Aponte saw in the anecdote an emblem of the long-suffering spirit of Cuba’s rural people, encapsulated in the expression "no cojas lucha," meaning roughly, "Don’t fight it."

"It’s like, move forward in life," she says.

With international funding, the country hopes to modernize its rail system by 2030. Newly-passed legislation will allow Cuban railways to be operated by foreign companies for the first time since the system was nationalized 60 years ago, and Russia and France have both committed to investing in the system—a move that will bring Cuba's railways into the future.

Abby Sewell is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. She covers travel, politics, and culture with a focus on the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @sewella.