Cuba's trains and tracks star on Channel 5's latest episode of Extreme Railway Journeys

Posted: 23-Oct-15 10:57

Watch in fascination as Cuba's extensive railroad system unfolds before your eyes on an exciting episode of Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railway Journeys series, which aired last night at 9 p.m. on Channel 5. You can watch it again on BBC's iPlayer and enjoy Mr Tarrant's gripping and moving journey along Cuba, travelling in its old trains and being perfectly unprepared for the unexpected as he becomes the first British TV celebrity to fully explore the island's long (and slow) railway system which stretches from Havana to Guantanamo Bay.

Cuba's trains and tracks star on Channel 5's latest episode of Extreme Railway Journeys

Cuba is known for many things; most notably its music, its cigars, its classic cars, its incredibly preserved colonial heritage, and, of course, its legendary revolution with leading inspiring figures like Che, as well as its decades of Castro-led communist stronghold. But there is one other unique aspect to this nation that not many know about: Cuba boasts the most extensive railway network in the Caribbean (the only one of its kind in the region actually) and in fact became the first in Latin America to have a railroad system in place and the sixth in the world to do so.

This is why it comes as no surprise to see it included in Channel 5 newest documentary – Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railway Journeys. On Series 2, Episode 4 which was broadcast yesterday at 9 p.m. Chris Tarrant takes on one of his biggest and most rewarding challenges yet: traversing Cuba’s long railway system which spans the island’s full length from east to west.

Introducing the audience to Cuba and what’s to come on this episode, Tarrant excitedly exclaims in the show’s opening shots:

"Welcome to Cuba, the biggest island in the Caribbean and one of the liveliest places on earth! Cuba has so much going for it; it’s proudly communist, it has great music, great beaches…but also something rather unexpected: over 4000 kilometres of railway track! It’s a railway lover’s paradise."

Opened in 1837 Cuba’s National Railway Company (Ferrocariles de Cuba) kicked off with an initial 17-mile-long train route that quickly extended to cover a total of 2,600 miles, with a starting point in Havana and going all the way to Santiago de Cuba on its easternmost side.

It has earned a reputation for being the cheapest but also the slowest, most chaotic and troublesome way to travel the country from end to end, but also the most adventurous and excitement for fearless travellers in search of unique, raw experiences with none of the modern customs most in the western world are used to.

A Slow Train to Guantanamo Bay

Along his journey on Cuba’s tricky railways Tarrant faced many a setbacks, from last-minute cancellations to frequent train break-downs.

"They’ve got trains from all over the world and from every historical era..."

With just seven days to complete his journey, it’s quite exhilarating and griping to follow Chris Tarrant’s on his long and winding expedition and observe his fascination (and sometimes downright frustration) as he struggles to reach his final destination in time.

His adventure begins in Havana and as he himself explains there’s just enough time for him to quickly peruse the city. He gives a brief background of the city’s history, its American mafia past and its revolutionary present and communist stance, which has prevailed for nearly 60 years and has resulted in a timewarp of more than five decades.

After getting on his first train he jokes about it being “a little basic” and how the upholstery on the seat is non-existent but at least he should be comfortable enough to make it to his next destination.

His first stop is a small town called Camilo Cienfuegos (not to be confused with the southern province of Cienfuegos), renamed after a revolutionary hero whose plane fatally crashed in its shores. But most locals still refer to their town using its original pre-revolution name of Hershey, named after an American sugar-producing company and factory that dominated the town.

From there he moves on to Bay of Pigs where he plans to further explore the location’s links with a historical revolutionary victory against a CIA-backed U.S. invasion. After that he heads to Santa Clara from where he catches the next train Moron (Cuba’s most important railway town) before moving on to Camaguey to catch the last train for the last leg of his rail journey which will take him to Guantanamo.

Describing his final destination he says:

“... a place everyone’s heard off but few would choose to visit.”

He finally reaches Caimanera – the most easterly point in Cuba’s railway system, where his train journey officially ends. It’s also the nearest point to Guantanamo Bay which means that no foreigners are normally allowed to get on this last train route, but Chris Tarrant having been granted official permission by the government proceeds to present the signed document to officers at the entrance of the train station.

On this last journey he is most uneasy and as he thinks he might get arrested at any point. His humorous remarks won’t fail to make you chuckle.

"There’s a lot of quicker ways to get to Guantanamo Bay than this. But you can’t get back…and you wear an orange suit."

As he jumps on the train he exclaims:

"Guantamo Bay please, I’d never thought I’d say that. Is this wise? Will I ever be seen again?"

Surrounded by Cuban train passengers headed towards a socks factory where they work, he highlights the fact that no Cuban or foreigner is actually allowed into Guantanamo Bay which is U.S. territory.

After getting off he visits a ghost hotel that barely still exists as quite understandably this is not a place no one would choose to stay. Looking from the hotel’s balcony he takes his binoculars to inspect the American military base from afar he says:

“ …satellite dishes, watch towers everywhere. Lots of activity over there. It’s a very strange setup. The U.S. has rented it from Cuba since 1903 paying rent, but since 1959 Fidel Castro, and now his brother, have refused to accept the American cheques so the drawer in Castro’s office is getting higher and higher and higher, with checks with American rent and they won’t cash them. It is a weird scenario. God knows what happens over there.”

He finalises by pointing toward the military base. As he reflects on the ups and down of his journey and the things he’s encountered along the way travelling around Cuba, Chris Tarrant concludes:

"What is extraordinary though; Cuban people must be so resourceful! They have had no goods allowed in from America since the early 60s, since the embargo. So it’s amazing really that anything works at all."


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