Don Townshend peers into Cuba's prosperous past on a trip through the country's agricultural heartland.
We mill impatiently outside the railway station in Trinidad, central Cuba, glancing at our watches and peering towards the train shed. The train is already 20 minutes late and nowhere in sight. "Some days," remarked a Cuban tour guide to his group, "the train it cannot come because it is very old."
Fortunately it isn't one of those days. Ten minutes later, preceded by cantankerous snorting and a pall of black smoke, veteran locomotive 1432 shuffles out of the train shed like an arthritic old stallion.
As it wheezes towards the rustic station, two middle-aged male passengers suddenly sprawl beside the railway tracks. For a moment it looks like suicide. But no, they just peer up into the locomotive's steamy entrails as it rolls past. They are, I discover, "puffer-nutters" - railway enthusiasts who scour the world to seek and ride old trains. "Hey," one yells excitedly in a British accent, "this is an early 1900s Baldwin from Philadelphia. Wow."
Up close it appeared the old boy needed some serious TLC. Steam hissed from yawning cracks, metal plates and pipes were rusted and nuts and bolts were absent. Worse, it sounded positively unwilling to haul its two old carriages into the once-prosperous Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills).
Nevertheless, about 15 minutes later the ageing loco groaned out of Trinidad with a cargo comprising two carriages, diverse tourists, a local guitarist and three train staff. Listed as a World Heritage site in 1983, Trinidad dates back to 1514 when it was settled by Spaniard Diego Velasquez de Cuellar. Notorious in the 1600s as a rowdy piracy and slave-trading hub, it later became a booming sugar centre. Fronted by the Caribbean and fine beaches, with the Sierra del Escambray mountains as a backdrop, Trinidad's colourful, narrow cobbled streets, centuries-old buildings, charming courtyards and museums ensure it is one of Cuba's most visited destinations.
As the town faded we steamed slowly into the lush valley hemmed in by distant, undulating hills. Fresh air gushed through the sides of the open carriage and the valley's vistas opened unimpeded. We could even observe the railway tracks through rust holes in the metal floor.
Suddenly, after toiling up an incline, our breathless loco refused to proceed without a long drink of water. Then, while it was watered, the talented guitarist serenaded us while the train driver and his offsiders wander through the carriages and meet the passengers - particularly unattached girls. One of the staff also tried to flog boxes of Cuban cigars to augment his monthly wage of $US15 ($16.50).
After half an hour we continued, steaming into the lush, widening valley towards the former sugar estate of Manaca Iznaga, one of the valley's key attractions. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, this picturesque valley - or rather three interconnecting valleys - rustled with canefields and ranked as one of the world's major producers of sugar.
However, the vast trading wealth that flowed into Trinidad, making estate owner Pedro Iznaga the richest man in Cuba, was founded on the sweat of thousands of African slaves. Astonishingly, when slavery ended in Cuba in the 1880s, the island supported an estimated 400,000 slaves.
For the Valle de los Ingenios and Manaca Iznaga in particular, a series of slave rebellions plus Cuba's devastating wars of independence in the late 1800s heralded the end of this bitter-sweet era.
Following widespread damage to the canefields, destruction of mills, the liberation of slaves and development of plantations elsewhere in Cuba, the valley fell into decline.
Today, from the train, you see vestiges of derelict mills silhouetted against the mountains. Puffing through the valley we crossed bridges, passed small farms, waved to Cuban cowboys and dropped locals off at tiny stations. Later, when we huffed into the small station at Manaca Iznaga, a large posse of female vendors selling hand-embroidered cotton goods eagerly awaited our 45-minute stopover.
We took the short walk to the canary-coloured plantation house from which slaver Iznaga ruled his empire. Now renovated as a tourism centre and bar-restaurant, the house also has a superb exhibition of paintings depicting the brutalities of plantation life in the days of slavery.
When the 1432 tooted us back on board we left some passengers behind and picked up others for the ride to Guachinango, a former hacienda-cum-station and our final destination.
The railway line, incidentally, continues on through the valley.
It wasn't far to little Guachinango where a few horsemen and three riderless, saddled steeds watched our arrival. Suddenly three Japanese leaped off the train, communicated with the cowboys in sign language and then hopped into the empty saddles. As they cantered off towards the undulating mountains someone on the train yelled "Sayonara". We never saw them again.
The restored hacienda of Guachinango is set in leafy grounds about 100-metres from the tiny station and dates back to the late 1700s. It was acquired by the state in the 1980s in a quest to boost tourism into the valley. Apart from serving excellent fried chicken to railway day-trippers it's also a base for horseriding tours.
After a long lunch I was about to get back on board when the driver sidled up and suggested I might like to ride in the locomotive. I figured this would surely entail a small donation to his super fund. "Un peso?" I said. He smiled. "Gracias senor."
But when I climbed the ladder into the 1432's fiery cabin I wasn't alone. The two "puffer-nutters" had preceded me. One was sitting on a seat with a huge grin on his face and his hand on a rusty lever. The other was gripping a soiled chain with obvious delight. They looked like two little kids who'd just been introduced to Thomas the Tank Engine.
"OK", the driver called to the buffs. "Ahora! (now)." One buff pulled the lever while the other jerked the cord. There was a loud toot and then, obediently, poor old 1432 puffed slowly out of Guachinango and headed back through the Valle de los Ingenios towards Trinidad.
I wanted to ask the train buffs their impressions of the trip but words were clearly redundant. They were in heaven.
Getting there: Air-conditioned first class buses depart daily for Trinidad from Habana City. The trip takes about five hours and costs $31. The train to Valle de los Ingenios departs 9.30am daily (unless ailing). It returns at about 3pm. The cost is $13. Buy tickets at the station.
Staying there: There are many good casa particulars (family-run B&Bs) around the bus station. Of excellent value is Casa Fernandez, Simon Bolivar 113, Phone: + 537 993 226. From $32 for a double with ensuite bathroom.
Excursions: Trinidad's Caribbean beach resort Playa Ancon is a 10-minute cab ride away. It has a fine beach, hotels, fishing, sailing and diving. Also horse riding and mountain walking tours. Contact Cubanacan tour agencies in Trinidad. For more information, see http://www.netssa.com