This once-elegant town, modeled after Charleston, SC, was founded in 1828 as a sugar-exporting port with a neat grid of streets lined with Neoclassical facades. The streets remain but, apart from some restored churches and public buildings, the state of dilapidation is sobering. Ironically, this is where many hotel workers from the glitzy Varadero hotels live. Anyone who wants to experience "the real Cuba" can take a town tour in a traditional horse-drawn caleta (cart) for less than CUC$10. The city's historical fame rests on being the first town in Cuba to raise the national flag in 1850. A mercenary force of Kentuckians and Mississippians led by a Venezuelan named Narciso López briefly captured Cárdenas from the Spanish, hoping to provoke a national uprising that failed to materialize. More recently, Cárdenas became famous as the original home of Elián González, the boy who became enmeshed in a tug-of-war in 2000 between his Cuban father and his anti-Castro relatives in Miami, after his mother died during a furtive boat escape to the United States from Cuba.
A gigantic stone crab, commemorating the city's history as a crab fishery, marks the town line as you approach from Varadero; sculptures of a bicycle and a fittingly broken-down caleta mark the other end of town. With barely a car in the streets, there's a dramatic simplicity and some charm to what lies in between. The main attraction here is the fascinating Museo Oscar María de Rojas and an excellent new restaurant.