A Walking Tour of Little Havana,
Miami's Enclave of Cuban Culture
By Luisa Esquiroz Arellano
In the past 40 years Little Havana in Miami's Latin Quarter has developed a life of its own. Today, it straddles the threshold between Havana, Cuba and old-time Miami. It's a barrio (neighborhood) draped in nostalgia, color and fun. Most of all, it makes a rewarding walking tour for those interested in Cuban culture and heritage.
Calle Ocho is a colorful hub of Cuban-American social life in Little Havana, Miami, FL.*
Cubans began emigrating to the 25-block area around Miami's S.W. 8th Street -- called Calle Ocho -- after the Castro revolution in 1959. From a depressed area during the 1980s, it is now prosperous and vibrant.
A Delightful Barrio
What will visitors find? The district is a center of small shops, restaurants, theaters, art galleries, businesses, cigar factories and restaurants.
Small stucco houses are surrounded by gardens and iron-grilled fences. And "botanicas" offer an assortment of Afro-Cuban Santeria items such as love potions and healing herbs.
Travelers on a walking tour of Little Havana will view Afro-Cuban Santeria items such as love potions and healing herbs; see photo at left*
“The Cuban-exile culture, history and folklore has left an imprint in South Florida—a fusion between Cuba and Miami,” says Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, owner of Miami-Cuba, U.S.A, which operates walking and trolley tours around Hispanic Miami landmarks (877-723-8846 or www.miamicubausa.com), “It’s a very similar concept to that of New Orleans and its French Quarter.”
Kevin Doran, who operates private tours around Miami (305-342-7609 or www.twofoottours.com), says many non-Latin Miamians are now adopting some Cuban customs, such as going to Cuban restaurants, drinking cafecitos, smoking cigars and wearing guayaberas (a men's Cuban shirt).
Cigars, Costumes and History
Visitors who want to immerse themselves in the early exile culture of Miami should start on Calle Ocho (S.W. Eighth Street), between 10th and 17th avenues, the cultural core of the Latin Quarter.
First stop on this route should be at El Credito Cigar (305-858-4162 or www.cigarworld.com), 1106 S.W. 8th St., This attractive cigar factory with its polished wooden floors offers attractive humidors -- basically large boxes to store cigars so they remain in humidity. It also has high quality cigars in smaller cedar boxes for sale.
The art of making Cuban cigars has been lovingly maintained by Cuban-Americans in Little Havana.*
About 30 master tobacco rollers sit at their tables picking just the right leaves to create fine cigars from scratch. The owners, the Perez Carrillo family, started the business in Havana in 1907.
As you keep walking on the left side of Calle Ocho towards 17th Avenue make a left on 13th Avenue for a brief detour along the Cuban Memorial Boulevard.. Several monuments in this short route illustrate heroic highlights in Cuban history.
The Cuban Political Prisoner Hall at 1136 S.W. 13th Ave. has a museum that displays memorabilia and photos of Cuban freedom fighters serving prison terms in Cuba, killed in action or executed by firing squad. It's generally open daily.
If you want to play a trick on a friend, just cross the street to La Casa de los Trucos, meaning House of Tricks (305-859-5029 or www.crazyforcostumes.com or www.thehouseofcostumes.com), 1343 S.W. 8th St. It sells the most complete collection of scary tricks such as jumping rubber snakes, tarantulas, and more. You can also chose from all kind of costumes, including ghosts and witches garments, perfect for Halloween.
Guayaberas to Go
Back on the left side of Calle Ocho, stop at Little Havana To Go (305-857-9720), 1442 S.W. 8th St. This shop offers an eclectic collection of articles including guayaberas, the popular Cuban-styled shirts. It also sells Cuban arts and crafts, DVDs, books, musical instruments, clothing accessories, espresso coffee makers, domino games and fine cigars, among a potpourri of items.
A few steps down the road, you'll discover the fenced-in Domino Park, 1444 SW 8th St, a public park shaded by big leafy trees that are home to myriad birds. This is the regular meeting place for a crowd of elderly men and some women as well who come to play dominos, smoke cigars and exchange gossip.
A game of dominos is a popular social activity for some residents of Little Havana.*
A large mural depicting the heads of states that attended the 1993 Summit of the Americas in Miami, covers the park’s eastern wall. The park's west end is across the street from the Tower Theater (305-642-1264) on the corner of 8th St. and 16th Ave. This art deco relic faces Southwest 15th Avenue at the intersection with Calle Ocho.
This stretch of street has been converted into a small pedestrian plaza partly flanked by low curved walls of multicolored tiles. Two giant papier-mache roosters stand by the sidewalk adjacent to the park.
The Tower Theater is a Calle Ocho icon. Built in 1916, it was later redesigned into an art deco structure topped by a distinct spire. In the 1960s, the theater was a popular movie house for Cubans who came to watch American films with Spanish subtitles. Today, this beautifully restored theater is a venue for art exhibitions and film and dance presentations.
Latin Walk of Fame
The Latin stars “Walk of Fame” begins in front of the Tower Theater and extends west for several blocks. Just as in Hollywood, a series of bronze stars line the sidewalk, each celebrating a prominent performer. Among those honored are Andy Garcia; Emilio and Gloria Stefan; and Celia Cruz, the late “Queen of Salsa.”
Hungry yet? El Exquisito Restaurant (305-643-0227), 1510 S.W. 8th St. is one lunch option. Daily specials include such dishes as "bacalao a la vizcaina," which is salted cod fish in tomato sauce.
Just up the street is the Marta and Ismael Art Gallery, 1516 S.W. 8th St. This was the former Santos Gallery until it changed owners about three months ago. The gallery is a delightful enclave that opens to a small deck patio with a fountain where two pigeons come like clockwork every afternoon to drink and socialize with other birds.
Nearby is another spot for dining, El Pub, (305-642-9942 or www.elpubrestaurant.com), 1549 S.W. 8th St., one of Miami's oldest Cuban restaurants. The menu is varied, but features popular dishes from Cuba and Spain. Beyond the restaurant, you might take a gander at several other art galleries within the next block.
The last Friday of every month from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., the area between 14th and 17th avenues becomes a street party. Expect open-air markets, music, dancing, food, art for sale and street theater.
Looking for art? You'll it everywhere in Little Havana. Many colorful wall murals like these are in public view. Some feature religious themes, others political messages. It's all fun to view.*
Shops stay open later than usual for sales of assortment of gifts and memorabilia, including Guayabera shirts for men and ladies, and domino game sets. You might also purchase souvenirs including Cuban art and fine cigars, as well as original fashion jewelry and other accessories.
Dining and Entertainment
Don’t miss Casa Panza (305-643-5343) at 1620 S.W. 8th St. This Spanish tavern serves up exquisite paella and other Spanish delicacies. It opens for lunch and dinner with a happy hour from 5 to 8 p.m. Dinner is from 8 p.m. to midnight.
The restaurant also offers a separate room with a “tablao” (a small stage) where Spanish dancers start clicking their castanets at 8 p.m. accompanied by guitar music and occasionally by soulful gypsy-style singing.
Little Havana has a wealth of restaurants. Prices are reasonable and the menus are varied, offering palomilla steak, arroz con frijoles (rice and beans), meat balls in a delicious sauce, shrimp bathed in garlic sauce and to-die-for deserts.
For dessert, try the Flan (custard bathed in burnt sugar caramel), the Natilla (soft custard with meringue on top) or the Tres Leches (wet cake in three milks) all laden with calories but sinfully delicious.
Most Calle Ocho restaurants have service windows that open to the street. You might walk up for a Cuban cafecito, cooling fruit shakes, pastelitos, or sandwiches. The service window at Versailles Restaurant (306-444-02403), 555 S.W. 8th Street, is famous around the world. This is where major television networks send their reporters to get consumer comments when an important event happens on either side of the Florida Straits.
Freelance writer Luisa Esquiroz Arellano has contributed to such publications as Cruise & Vacation Agent, Travel Agent, Luxury Travel Advisor and Travel Agent Custom Publishing. A Cuban-American who immigrated with her family to the United States in 1962, she is extremely proud of both her Cuban heritage and her American citizenship.
*All photos on this page are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of Miami-Cuba, USA. All rights reserved. Please do not link to these photos nor copy. Thank you.