What is it that attracts people to Little Havana in downtown Miami. Perhaps it is the lure of the forbidden; Cuba is still a prohibited land for Americans so many make do with the trip to Miami. Or perhaps it is the rhythm of the Latin music and permeates in most cafes. Calle Ocho, which means street number eight in Spanish, has an attractable charm. If a Latin country visit is not foreseeable future then just come to the tip of the US, Miami. A foreign like land filled with wonderful music, food and dance.
There are signs that read, “English Spoken Here.” The neighborhood has a pleasing appeal with cafes where people meet and everyone seems to know everyone. Miami is a relatively new city but on Calle Ocho you feel the old word where everyone knows your name, people have time to spare and it is not a sin to just sit and watch the world go by.
It is not your typical tourist destination. Shops and attractions are not everywhere you turn as in Chinatown of San Francisco or Little Italy of New York City. Set off on foot and you will find plenty of gems that will keep you coming back for more.
In Maximo Gomez Park, also called Dominoe Park, people, mostly retired Cuban men get together to play various games such as chess, cards the local favorite, dominoes. The players are competitive and play not just to pass the time but to win. Many are supporters and on lookers that like to just be around the action or to wait their turn as there is rarely an empty seat at the game tables.
Coffee and Cigars
Around the corner there are several small cafés where Cuban coffee is served in small espresso cups. The size of the cups should not fool you, the coffee is extremely strong, no milk but lots of sugar. Not used to having such a little quantity of coffee, a double is usually necessary for me, although locals ensure one shot will do the job of the needed caffeine high. Café con leche is the same strong coffee mixed with steaming milk.
My photographer positions the coffee on the table to take a photo and an elderly gentleman who has just finished a round of Dominoes at the park places a stack of cigars near the coffee cup. He says in Spanish, “cigars are special here, remember to take photos of them.”
Cuban cigars are renowned world over. In Little Havana they are part of the staple diet. Men mostly, light up for a smoke in the cafes and of course during their dominoe game. There are at least 4 cigar shops on Calle Ocho alone. Similar to wine, one can learn to smell, taste and feel the tobacco before it is delicately rolled into its smoking form. Authentic cigar boxes, humidors, are available in various sizes and ensure the proper storing of these perishable products.
The street offers Cuban fare for all tastes and budgets. For the first time visitor to the area the Versailles, located near 35th Avenue is a must. Genuine, a tasty sampler plate to get a trial of Cuban food is perfect. Croquettes, roast pork and sweet plantains are part of the sampler.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available at Los Pinarenos. A casual diner with little ambience but much to offer in terms of great food and drink. You can also cool yourself off with the various fruterias or juices offered such as a “guarapo” or sugar cane juice, pineapple, guava and many, many more. This establishment has been here since 1967 when the first wave of Cuban immigrants came to shore and is located very close to the Bay of Pigs monument. Los Piñarenos is value for money and as a delicious lunch is only a few dollars..
The famed Cuban sandwich is a must have when in Little Havana. Traditionally, the sandwich is made up with slow roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese and pickles. The key to making a great sandwich is in the grilling. A sandwich press, called a plancha is used until the ham, pork, and pickles have warmed in their own steam (the steady application of heat and weight fuse the meat, cheese, and bread into a delectable and compact treat). One of the greatest errors in Cuban sandwich preparation is too light a press. A heavy hand on the press pushes all the juices and flavors together while still achieving the desired crunch crust. These sandwiches use no mayonnaise, lettuce, onions, peppers, or tomatoes; butter and mustard are optional. Cuban bread too is a key component to the sandwich. It is moist on the inside and not chewy. The use of lard in the bread makes it soft and tender, however it must be eaten fresh on the same day.
Due to the influx of other Latin American immigrants there are Peruvian, Columbain, Nicaraguan and more in Little Havana. The meats, rice and beans all are similar but each country has its unique flavors, herbs and cooking methods.
Latin music automatically makes your body move and crave for a night out in this city that does not sleep. All types of dancers from novices to pros can be seen on the dance floors of some of the hottest dance bars in the city. Hip-hop, reggae and rock are also popular. Caribe Night Club, Hoy Como Ayer and Casa Juancho are no-frills places for Latin music and dance located right on eighth street.
Santeria is a religion that combines elements of African and Catholic beliefs. Brought with slaves from the West Coast of Africa, this belief system is still widely practiced in Cuba and among select groups in Miami.
Believers of Santería place their faith in the orishas which are the ashe, the spiritual energy that makes up the entire universe, all life and all things material. The orishas are the spirits or gods that interact with humans by controlling nature and attending to the daily needs of the religion’s followers. They are approachable and can be counted on to come to the aid of followers by guiding them to a better life, materially as well as spiritually.
A visit to the Botanica, shops catering to a variety of individuals who practice this traditional religion. Candles, books, oils, incense and statues of saints are a few items that can be found.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to time your trip in February and March then you can enjoy the Carnaval Miami, when Calle Ocho turns into a 23-block street fair, attracting more than 1.5 million people. The Miami carnival is the largest Hispanic festival in the USA. Carnival participants listen to Latin music, dance behind a parade of floats, shop for arts and crafts and enjoy Latin food and drink. Visitors enjoy Cuban foods like medianoche (ham and cheese) sandwiches, lechón asado (spit-roasted pork) and the black beans and white rice dish that Cubans call “Moors and Christians.”
For 10 days, Carnaval Miami is a lively tribute to the Cuban heritage that flavors the melting pot of cultures in Miami.