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 there are one or two excellent casas particulares that help to make an overnight stay a little more worthwhile. 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.
In 1878 José Arechabala, an immigrant from the Basque Country who’d moved to Cárdenas from Havana, founded what was then known as La Vizcaya, a rum distillery. It was at this distillery that Havana Club, Cuba’s most famous rum, was born, distilled for the first time in 1934. The factory, located in the portside industrial zone, still exists to this day; nationalized after the Revolution, it’s now known as the José Antonio Echeverría Distillery.
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.