Cárdenas is 18 km southeast of Varadero on the Bahía de Cárdenas. The town's architecture is attractive, in the traditional 19th-century Spanish colonial style of houses with tall windows, intricate lattices, high ceilings inside, ceramic tiled floors and interior gardens. However, its glory days are over and it's a good place to come to see a working Cuban town. It is trapped in a time warp, empty of tourists, friendly and a good place to meet Cubans. There is none of the aggressive hustling found in hotel districts or more tourist-oriented cities and no police harassment of Cubans associating with foreigners. However, the flip side of this relaxed attitude is that romantic liaisons, which once took place in Varadero, are being squeezed out to Cárdenas.

Ins and outs

Getting there

Most long-distance transport is via Varadero where you will find the nearest airport. The railway is for local services only and there is not much in the way of long-distance bus transport, although there are Astro services from Havana, Matanzas and Varadero, and Víazul stops here on its way between Varadero and Trinidad.

Getting around

Cárdenas is a slow city, with traffic moving at the pace of the horse. Transport is limited to coches, bicycles and pedestrians. The city is set out in very regular grid form, with Calles running parallel to the sea in consecutive numbers and Avenidas crossing them. The main street is Avenida Céspedes and Avenidas are numbered from here, with those running northwest starting from Avenida 1 oeste in odd numbers, and those running southeast starting from Avenida 2 este in even numbers. However, as in many places, people refer to old names rather than the numbers. Use the TV tower as a landmark. The tower is on Avenida Céspedes y Calle 11, called Coronel Verdugo. The three main museums are around Plaza Echeverría, just two blocks from Avenida Céspedes. 

Best time to visit

Like Varadero, hurricane season can be wet and stormy although there are plenty of fine, bright days. Between December and April is the driest time.


Cárdenas was founded in 1828. It was once one of the most important cities in Cuba with its wealth built on sugar. It had the first alcohol refinery, the first electricity plant and the first gynaecoIogical hospital in Cuba; and its Plaza de Mercado is unique in Latin America. Its main claim to fame is that the Cuban flag was first raised here in 1850 by the revolutionary General Narciso López, a Venezuelan who tried unsuccessfully to invade Cuba by landing at Cárdenas with an army of 600 men (only six of whom were Cuban), who had sailed from New Orleans. Cárdenas was also thrust onto the world stage in 1999-2000 after the Miami boat boy Elián González was finally returned to his home town after a geopolitical wrangle involving the USA, Cuba, the families and the law. His story is commemorated in a new museum.

Cárdenas is a city with a sense of humour: it commemorates the mundane with bizarre memorials. On Calle 13 there is a coche statue, equipped with a white, stone horse. Behind the Fuerte Roja a bicycle that stands high on a thin metal plinth as if it was balancing on the gymnastics beam. Outside the hospital a large, fibreglass nose provides a bus shelter: its giant nostrils the gaping way in to the waiting area and at the entrance to the city a giant crab welcomes visitors.

Where Avenida Céspedes ends at the sea, there is the
Monumento a la Bandera
with a huge flagpole commemorating the flag-raising event on 19 May. There is also a plaque at the
Hotel Dominica
, which Narciso López occupied with his men and is now a National Monument. Unfortunately, the General's attempts to free Cuba from colonial rule were unsuccessful, as he failed to get local support. One of the town's other claims to fame is that it contains the oldest
statue of Christopher Columbus
in the Western Hemisphere, now in front of the cathedral in Parque Colón on Avenida Céspedes, five blocks from the flagpole. It was the work of a Spanish sculptor, Piquier, in 1862.
Plaza Malacoff
is worth a visit to see the decaying, iron market building, put up in the 19th century on Avenida 3 oeste and Calle 12. It was built in the shape of a cross and the two-storey building is surmounted by a 15-m dome made in the USA. The market is a great public gathering place for gossip and beer-drinking. On Calle 2, overlooking the water, is the
Fábrica de Ron Arrechabala
, which makes both the
label rums. The site has been a rum factory since 1878, when the
Havana Club
company was founded here.

One of Cárdenas' most celebrated residents is the boy, Elián González, who hit the headlines in 1999 (aged six) when he was shipwrecked off the Miami coast. His father, who works locally in the tourism industry, was finally able to take him home from the US after seven months of legal wrangling, and Elián resumed near-normal life in school. In July 2001, Fidel Castro opened the
Museo a la Batalla de Ideas
. This small museum, housed in the 1873 fire station, is a veritable shrine to Elián. Everything Elián and his family said or did is featured here. The display includes the T-shirt worn by the fisherman, Sam Ciancio, who hauled Elián out of the sea. There are also letters from the likes of Guatemalan Nobel Prize-winning author Rigoberta Menchú and the Uruguayan exiled writer, the late Mario Benedetti saying that Elián must be reunited with his father. There is a
(model) of the Tribuna Antiimperialista José Martí, a demonstration ground built in front of the US Interests section in Havana during the whole saga. The large bronze statue of José Martí in the museum foyer was the original statue on the parade ground during the demonstrations against his staying in Florida. The one in Havana is a replacement statue. There is also a large display about the Miami Five.

Museo Municipal Oscar María de Rojas
exhibits art,
geology specimens and local and natural history. A local, 20th-century hero is remembered in his birthplace, now a museum.
Museo Casa Natal José Echeverría
, dates from 1703, but Echeverría was born here in 1932. He was a student leader killed by Batista's troops in 1957. Exhibits are scarce but those on show relate to 19th-century independence struggles downstairs and the 20th-century Revolution upstairs. Of note are a giant doll used to hide clandestine objects and a photo of the man himself, blood-drenched in the street after being mown down. The park outside is named after Echeverría and there is a monument to him in the park. The
Salón Massaguner art gallery
, has high-quality works from Matanzas province artists. There is the
art naif
of Olga Vallejo and political works of Francisco Rivero, among others, including sculptures.

Around Cárdenas

About 10 km from town is the museum sugar mill Central Azucarero José Smith Comás, where an 1888 steam engine is still used for tourist trips. Take the road to Santa Clara, turn right at the fork by an old paper mill. Some 24 km south of Cárdenas is Jovellanos, a large town with a pleasant colonial centre, Parque Central and church. It is a junction of the roads from Varadero to the Zapata peninsula and from Matanzas to Santa Clara. It is of no particular interest to travellers except that as a result of slavery and enforced migrations, the Arara people of Benin came here via Haiti and brought the sort of music with them that is normally only heard around Santiago de Cuba.

The main road from Matanzas runs east from here to
, on the main railway line from Havana. This is another 19th-century town with abundant neoclassical architecture and faded grandeur. For adventurous independent travellers exploring rural Matanzas, you will be well off the tourist trail; you can spend pesos cubanos in restaurants and on transport. Carnival is 15-17 October.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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