Cardenas, which is just a 10-minute drive from Varadero, was the spearhead of technological progress and one of Cuba's most economically dynamic regions during the 19th century. Having given birth to the famous Havana Club rum, it is a peaceful, friendly, history-rich city.
By visiting it you'll get to know a bit about how life in the island was at that time, and see the significant cultural and economic influence the U.S. had on Cuba, even prior to their intervention in the Spanish-Cuban war. Despite the fact that Cardenas' current economic activity is mostly based around servicing the hotels in Varadero, here you will get to meet authentic people who, unlike many others in the island, truly represent the real Cuban character in its most genuine version.
Among other things, here you'll come across two of the city's most eye-catching features: the traditional horse-drawn carriages and the many bicycles, both of which constitute the main mode of transport for its inhabitants.
I would like to warmly invite you to my hometown. I'm recommending you visit it not just because it's the place that I come from and hence it's close to my heart but because I truly believe you shouldn't miss out on experiencing a town that, although small in size, is big on cultural, historical and heritage riches.
From Varadero it's really easy to reach Cardenas. You can get there by taxi for 60 CUC or by privately-owned almendrones (old classic cars) for around 40 CUC. Alternatively, you can also hire a motorbike from your hotel and make your own way there. Ask to be dropped off on the corner of Avenida de Cespedes and la Calzada de O'Donell, which is the city's most centric point. Most Varadero hotels also offer guided excursions to Cardenas, which you can easily book from the tour desk.
A little bit of background history
By the middle of the 19th century, Cardenas produced more than 50% of all the sugar made in the island and had the country's greatest concentration of sugar mills. Its port, currently inactive; was at that time one of Cuba's main portals for foreign trade. The city also proudly boasted Cuba's second rail-road and one of the first in Latin America. The perfect trinomial of sugar, rail-road and port, enabled landowners in Cardenas to amass a significant amount of capital, a sizeable share of which they devoted to the city's social, architectural, and cultural development.
Living proof of the great American influence on the city during the 19th century are its straight streets and immaculate urban layout, shaped like a chess board. These earned Cardenas the nicknames of Ciudad Americana (American City) and Chicago de America (America's Chicago).
Cardenas preserves its extraordinary neo-classic and eclectic architectural heritage. Citizens from different countries and cultures were among the city's founders and partook in its development, giving it its cosmopolitan feature. The foreign visitor, regardless of his country of origin or nationality, will always find in Cardenas a substantial or spiritual memory related to his roots.
This city is often called Flagship City, The City of Firsts and Pearl of the North, due to the fact that more than 80 events of national or international relevance took place for the first time here. Thus, you shouldn't be surprised if a local resident tells you that Cardenas was the first city in Cuba to enjoy public electricity (1889), or that it was home to the island's first Museum of Natural History (1846).
He could also tell you that Cardenas was the Cuban city in which three different flags flew for the first time; the Cuban in 1850, the American in 1898 and the former Soviet flag in 1925.
Touring Cardenas from a horse-drawn carriage
For a complete overview of the city and in order to discover its treasures and admire its beauty, I recommend you hire a horse-drawn carriage for 5 CUC. These coaches which regularly move around Cardenas' streets along with hundreds of bicycles, provide an ideal way to move around the city and embark on either of the two tours I have planned for you.
For the first one, ask the coach driver to drive you around Calzada de O'Donell, from the Monumento al Cangrejo (Crab Monument); which welcomes visitors as the city's symbol, to the former Plaza de Espriu (Espriu Plaza), currently Parque "Jose Antonio Echeverria" (Jose Antonio Echeverria park). This journey will take you to see the city's second most important plaza as well as its museums.
During this tour make sure not to overlook Oscar M. de Rojas Museum, the second to be built in the island. Having first opened on 19th March 1900 the museum boasts many exclusive collections. These include more than 7000 original pieces on display ranging in a variety of categories, from numismatics to art, archaeology, natural sciences, weapons and history to minerals; all of which come from different Cuban regions and parts of the world. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. the entry price for foreign visitors is 5 CUC.
For the second journey, you should ask your coach driver to take you for a complete tour of Avenida de Cespedes, the city's main urban artery. You will take in the bay area, the place where the city was founded, an important section of its "Centro Historico Urbano" (historic urban centre) and the city's most modern zones.
As part of this tour, it's crucial you make an obligatory stop at La Plaza de Colon (Columbus' square), the place where the city was founded on 8th March 1828. This square was declared a local monument in 1991. The surrounding area is dotted by several monuments as well as religious, civil, and domestic constructions dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries.
Among these are the first publicly and solemnly unveiled statue of Admiral Christopher Columbus in Latin America, the Iglesia Parroquial de la Purisima Concepcion (parochial church of the purisima concepcion), and the building that is now home to the Hotel Restaurant La Dominica. On 19th May, 1850, the Cuban flag was raised at this very spot for the first time, hence why it was declared a National Monument on its 150th anniversary in 2000. By touring these sites you'll feel that much closer to Cuban history (and with not a tourist in sight).
For something to eat or drink I recommend:
Ideal for unwinding in the evenings, Estudio 55 Bar and Cafe is perfectly located and ambienced with recorded music and most songs played in English. Select from quality cocktails and snacks with prices ranging between 1 and 5 CUC. The staff is extremely courteous and you'll find it on Coronel Verdugo St. between Jenez and Vives streets.
Another good option is Don Ramon Restaurant. Recently opened and owned by three brothers, all of whom brought their valuable catering experience from having worked in Varadero's best hotels, this eatery is all about comfort and elegance. Don Ramon offers a variety of cocktails, refreshments, natural juices, Cuban and imported beers; as the perfect accompaniments to delicious Cuban and international food. This is the place I bring my family and friends to when I want to treat them to something special. My favourite dishes are a bistec uruguayo or a lasagna, but there's a variety of options for all tastes.
Escape Varadero and visit Cardenas
The city of San Juan de Dios de Cardenas (Cardenas) has all these attractions and many more in store for whoever decides to leisurely tour its plazas and streets. A visit here will make your stay in Varadero, more than just a sand-and-sea holiday. It will give you the opportunity to tour museums and see monuments and constructions representing more than 180 years of history...and the best bit...without another tourist in sight! This well-kept secret won't stay so secret for long so go see it now before hordes of tourist crowds find it.