A Side Trip to Cardenas
Located 18km (11 miles) southeast of Varadero, Cárdenas is a small, quiet city with beautiful colonial-era architecture and a timeless quality. Horse-drawn carriages and bicycles far outnumber cars on the streets here. Cárdenas is known as Cuba's "Ciudad Bandera" (Flag City), as it was here, in 1850, that the national flag was first flown. Because it's so close to Varadero, Cárdenas is popular -- we'd say almost overrun -- with day tours.
The city center is quite compact, and you can easily see most of the sights in a couple of hours while strolling around. There are several small squares and parks in Cárdenas. The diminutive Parque Colón, Avenida Céspedes, between Calles 8 and 9, has an important statue of Christopher Columbus dating from 1862. Fronting it is the beautiful Catedral de la Concepción Inmaculada, which is famous for its stained glass. In another main park, Parque Echeverría, sits the Museo Casa Natal José Antonio Echeverría, Calle Jenes 560, between Calzada and Coronel Verdugo (tel. 45/52-4145; Tues-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 9am-1pm; admission CUC$1. This beautiful old home features tributes to various independence fighters and revolutionary heroes, including the museum's namesake, a murdered revolutionary student hero who was born here in 1932. The town's main market, Plaza Molokoff, Calle 12 and Avenida 3, is housed in an interesting two-story, L-shaped iron building, topped with a large dome. Out by the water's edge is the Arrechabala Rum Factory, where the brand Havana Club was born and where present-day Varadero and Buccanero rums are made. Tours of the factory are given daily between 9am and 4pm; admission is CUC$2.
Cárdenas is the birthplace and home of Elián Gonzalez, the little boy who became the center of an international custody dispute in late 1999 when he washed up on the shores of Miami after his mother died at sea. While you're unlikely to see Elián, almost anyone in town will point out his humble home. There's always at least one guard out front. The Museo Batalla de Ideas (Museum of the Ideological Battle), Calle Vives 523 at the corner of Coronel Verdugo (tel. 45/52-3990), is housed in a beautifully restored old building, and features exhibits honoring the child celebrity, alongside numerous other displays documenting Cuba's revolutionary battles. The centerpiece here is a statue of a young Cuban boy, dressed in the uniform of the Young Pioneers, tossing away a Superman doll. The museum is housed in a beautifully restored old firehouse. Admission is CUC$1, and a guided tour is CUC$2. It will cost you an additional CUC$5 to take photos and CUC$15 to take videos. Open Monday to Saturday, from 9am to 6pm and Sunday 9am to 1pm.
Very few travelers stay in Cárdenas, and there are currently no hotels or official casas particulares accepting foreign tourists in the city, although that may change. There's regular public bus service between Varadero and Cárdenas, but it's geared primarily to commuting Cuban workers. A taxi from Varadero to Cárdenas costs around CUC$15-CUC$20.