Ten kilometres southeast of Varadero and home to much of the peninsula’s workforce, CÁRDENAS offers a taste of Cuban life away from the tourist spotlight, with a much stronger sense of history and a town centre dotted with crumbling colonial and neo-colonial buildings. Though it’s on the coast, Cárdenas doesn’t feel like a seaside town since most of its shoreline, hugging the Bay of Cárdenas, is an industrial zone. Few visitors are tempted to spend more than a day here, and the town is quite run down, its battered roads full of potholes, but the one or two excellent casas particulares are enough in themselves to merit an overnight stay. The Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción is Cárdenas’ most distinguished historic building; its creditable museums, including the Museo a la Batalla de Ideas, with its fantastic views of the town, are on or right next to the Parque José Antonio Echeverría, the most inviting square in the city, though far less lively than Plaza Malacoff, the bustling market square.
Founded in 1828 and known as the Ciudad Bandera (Flag City), it was here in 1850 that what became the national flag was first raised by the Venezuelan General Narcisco López and his troops, who had disembarked at Cárdenas in a US-backed attempt to spark a revolt against Spanish rule and clear the way for annexation. The attempt failed, but the flag’s design was later adopted by the independence movement. The town’s more recent claim to fame is as the birthplace of Elian González, the young boy who came to symbolize the ideological conflict between the US and Cuba during a 1999 custody battle of unusual geopolitical significance. The government wasted no time in setting up a museum here to commemorate their perceived triumph when Elian was returned to his home town.Read More
Parque José Antonio Echeverría
Parque José Antonio Echeverría
Two blocks from Avenida Céspedes, southeast along Calle 12, is plain but tranquil Parque José Antonio Echeverría, the archetypal town square that Parque Colón fails to be, dotted with trees and benches and enclosed by buildings on all sides. The real reason to visit, though, is for the three surrounding museums.
Founded in 1900 and one of the oldest museums in the country, the Museo Oscar María de Rojas, occupying the entire southwestern side of Parque José Antonio Echeverría, brings together a jamboree of coins, medals, bugs, butterflies and weapons along with other seemingly random collections across its thirteen rooms. By far the most engaging and substantial sections are the two rooms of pre-Columbian Cuban and Latin American artefacts. Among the archeological finds displayed are human skeletal remains found on the island, dating back almost 5800 years, a bizarre shrunken head from southern Ecuador, examples of Mayan art and some stone idols from Mexico.
On the northwestern side of Parque José Antonio Echeverría is the relatively illuminating Museo José Antonio Echeverría, set in the birthplace of the 1950s anti-Batista student leader and activist, a statue of whom stands casually, hand in pocket, in the square outside. Considered one of the martyrs of the Revolution, Echeverría and several of his comrades were shot and killed by Batista’s police during an attack on the Presidential Palace in Havana on March 13, 1957. The museum charts his life growing up in Cárdenas and his protest years in Havana, as well as examining the wider role of the Federation of University Students (FEU) in Cuba, of which Echeverría became president in 1954. You can see his parents’ pink 1954 Chrysler Windsor Deluxe parked in the courtyard.
Since its foundation in 1859, curious-looking Plaza Malacoff has hosted the stalls and booths that make up the city’s main food market. The centre of this old market square is occupied by a 15m-high, cross-shaped building consisting of four two-storey hallways and a large iron-and-zinc dome in the centre, which gives it the appearance of a run-down Islamic temple. While the square has seen better days, it is still full of life and perhaps the best place in Cárdenas to find some genuine local flavour.