Only one country in the Caribbean has a real railway

A train in Cuba

The only Caribbean country with an active railway is Cuba.

Used for both freight and passengers, The Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Cuba, or National Railway Company of Cuba, operates a network of 4,226 kilometres across the island. The longest stretch connects the 835 kilometers between the capital, Havana, to Santiago de Cuba in the east.

Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, trains would actually connect to Miami in the United States by ferry.

The only other Caribbean nation with a train is St. Kitts with a 29-kilometre scenic railway that takes tourists along the island coast to enjoy the view.

48 Hours in happy Havana

For many visitors to Havana, the city may seem frozen in time, but if you look beyond the fading facades of its elegant past, the Cuban capital is changing rapidly as a young generation of Habaneros pulls it toward the future.

Everywhere you turn, colonial-era buildings that had fallen into disrepair are being transformed into hotels, restaurants, and galleries as the Caribbean nation uses tourism to transform its economy in the post-Castro era.

Havana’s residents have always found ways to enjoy life despite their hardships, so the optimistic energy and can-do spirit that pervades it during the city’s transformation will only add to a visitor’s experience. To help you tap into that energy, here are five ways to enjoy your time on shore in Havana.

Havana For Foodies
Visitors to Cuba have complained for years about the poor quality and lack of variety of food served in the country’s dreary, state-run restaurants, but that is changing as more liberal business laws have given rise to a wave of privately owned eateries. Known locally as paladares, these establishments run the gamut from informal holes in the wall to upscale dining establishments.

Try San Cristóbal (Calle San Rafael No 469) for its delicious Cuban-creole menu and memorable setting of a former mansion that is decorated in an eclectic style of antiques, offbeat religious artifacts, and whimsical bric-a-brac.

Other paladares to sample include the trendy O’Reilly 304 (the name is also the address), which is famous for its seafood and extensive cocktail list, as well as Café Laurent (Calle M No 257, between Calles 19 and 21 in Vedado), an upscale restaurant that feels like you’ve stepped back into time to the 1950s.

If you’re pinching pennies, there are numerous roadside stands in Havana that serve up delicious and cheap street food. A popular choice are the pork burgers that locals like to top with cream cheese, strawberry jam, and pineapple, all washed down with a nice glass of watermelon juice.

For View Seekers
To enjoy unparalleled views of Havana, start with a trip to the top of one of the city’s tallest structures, the towering José Martí monument that soars 358 feet over the Plaza de la Revolución. As an added bonus, the plaza is one of the best spots in the city to find the vintage cars for which Havana is famous.

One of the finest views of Old Havana is from one of its newest hotels, the five-star Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski. Enjoy a drink in their El Surtidor Pool Terrace and Bar while taking in an amazing view of the old city that includes the graceful dome of El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building.

When you visit the historic El Morro Castle, which just about every visitor to Havana does at some point, travel the short distance to the Cristo de la Habana statue. It’s a massive ….

This is just an excerpt of a story that appears in the February 2019 issue of Porthole Magazine.

Cuba Libre: Cuba Beyond the Beach

With deliberate care, Ramon Guilarte places a half-empty bottle of Paticruzado rum on our table,alongside a battered tin coffee pot and some cups made from old soup cans. He sits down, lights a cigar, smiles through a billowing wreath of smoke and proudly proclaims: “Rum, coffee and cigars are the best things produced in Cuba and you have to enjoy them together!”

Guilarte is our host at La Fondita de Compay Ramon, a private restaurant he runs with his family in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city after Havana. Privately operated restaurants like his, known as paladares, cater to tourists and locals alike—and they’re popping up all over the country.

In a country where virtually every business is state-owned and salaries are low, the opportunity to cash in on the tourism boom is a big deal for many families. The restaurants are also great places for visitors to interact with ordinary Cubans.

Guilarte grew up on a farm in the neighbouring Sierra Maestra Mountains, and artifacts from his youth adorn the walls of his eatery. While he leaves the cooking to his wife Mayra and daughter Viviana, Guilarte serves us a buffet of traditional Cuban fare: pork, chicken, fish, rice, beans and plantain. Everyone’s favourite dish is picadillo—ground beef with green peppers, onion and tomato sauce.

After the meal, Viviana describes the satisfaction of preparing food for guests. Her father echoes the sentiment. “The greatest pleasure for me is to see visitors enjoying our food,” Guilarte says, “I really want them to feel like they are in my home; to see them come in as tourists, but leave as members of our family.”

That dinner in Santiago is just one of many highlights of an eight-day road trip that takes us more than 750 kilometres along highways and back roads, through beautiful colonial cities and dusty farm towns. The journey brings us face-to-face with regular Cubans leading ordinary lives, far from the postcard-perfect beaches for which the country is justifiably famous.

Read the rest of the story in CAA Manitoba magazine at

Internet connectivity is getting easier for visitors to Cuba

I’m not sure how I feel about the announcement from the Cuba Tourist Board about improved internet coverage in the Caribbean island.

The initiative was first presented at FIT Cuba, one of the country’s largest international tourism fairs, hosted in the Villa Clara Keys in May.  Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz said in his opening address that wifi coverage would be extended to 287 additional hotels by the end of 2018 with full coverage of every hotel on the island scheduled for 2019.

Part of the island’s charm is the fact that it’s so hard to go online. If you weren’t staying at a hotel with wifi, which were rare, you’d have to buy cards that got you one-hour of connection time at wifi hotspots that were mostly located in the parks and plazas of cities across Cuba. Not only would you have to type in a confusing string of numbers and letters from the scratch-off card for your username and password, there was no guarantee that you’d actually connect if too many people were logged on at once.

Cruz has also announced that Cuba will begin offering visitors preferential rates for roaming service so you can be connected outside of your hotel via your mobile phone as you explore the country. Now that 3G and 4G networks are available in popular destinations like Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Largo visitors will be able to Snapchat and Facebook their vacations like never before.

I suppose there’s no stopping progress and Cuba’s economic outlook depends enough on tourism that it’s necessary to build up their infrastructure to make it more attractive to visitors.

Photos: Eight days in Cuba

I was lucky to be invited back to Cuba by the Cuban Tourism Board to explore the country’s authentic culture in some of its eastern cities. We spent time in Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba and Holguin, and many spots in between.

We listened to a lot of music, ate a lot of food, tried a bit of dancing and generally were swept up the joie de vivre that is enjoyed by the Cuban people. It’s great to get away from winter by spending time on the beach, but you really can’t say you’ve visited Cuba until you take the time to see other parts of the country.