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LITTLE HAVANA MIAMI

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Located halfway between Art Deco South Beach and elegant Coral Gables, Little Havana feels like neither. The pulse of this Miami Florida community is definitively Cuban and Calle Ocho (SW Eighth Street) carries it like an artery through its heart.

Woman makes cigars from tobacco leaves in El Credito Cigar Factory.
Woman makes cigars from tobacco leaves
in El Credito Cigar Factory.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cubans, who fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, settled in this neighborhood. The second exodus arrived in 1980, when Castro allowed 125,000 Cubans to immigrate to the U.S. on the "Freedom Flotilla" boatlift. Like their predecessors, the exiles brought their culture and food, which nowadays lure visitors to Little Havana.

Fine cigars

The aroma in El Credito Cigar Factory, at 1100 SW Calle Ocho, is distinctively Cuban, although the tobacco comes from Honduras, Mexico, Ecuador and Connecticut. El Credito, which is owned by the Pérez-Carrillo family, originated in Havana in 1907, just five years after Cuba gained independence from Spain.

We watched Eneida Quintana deftly roll a stack of leaves into fat Coronas. She spoke no English, but a customer translated for us. "We make 750,000 cigars here every year, cut into 35 lengths and widths," she explained.

Cuban cafe

On Calle Ocho, English is a second language after Spanish. Red tile roofed homes, painted in lime, peach, coconut and grapefruit pink colors, line avenues which cross the street.

Couple drink Cuban coffee from take-out window at Versailles Restaurant.
Couple drink Cuban coffee from take-out window at Versailles Restaurant.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Families shop in supermercados and farmacias. Children line up for exotic mamey (sapote) and guanabana (soursop) fruit ice cream. At takeout stands, seniors buy cafecitos, small cups of rich coffee, to sip out front while socializing.

Cuban food

At Versailles Restaurant, we sat at arborite tables illuminated by crystal chandeliers. We feasted on reasonably priced Cuban dishes like black bean soup, picadillo (braised ground beef with onions, peppers, raisins and olives in tomato sauce), fried sweet plantains (a banana-like vegetable) and flan.

Our waiter brought us bowls of steaming hot milk and thimble-size cups of potent brewed coffee. We mixed the two together for a superb café con leche that was worth the insomnia it later produced.

Men play dominoes at table in Maximo Gomez Park.
Men play dominoes at table in Maximo Gomez Park.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Dominoes

The clickity-clack shuffling of dominoes greeted us in nearby Máximo Gómez Park, also called Domino Park. Immigrant Cuban men sat around a dozen wooden tables playing dominoes, chess and cards.

The neighborhood patriarchs were so engrossed in their domino game, that they were as oblivious to us snapping photos as they were to the "No Smoking" signs above their puffing stogies.

Tarot readings

Botanica Mistica shop
Botanica Mistica shop
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shops along Calle Ocho sell fresh mangos, piñatas (paper-mâché figures filled with treats), guayaberas (gauzy men's shirts), handmade guitars and tapes of sensuous salsa and merengue music. A botánica caught our interest.

Spanish signs advertised spiritual consultations, tarot readings, amulets and religious articles. (Many Little Havana residents practice santeria, a Cuban folk religion that mixes Roman Catholicism with African rites brought by slaves.)

Inside the botánica, a mother and daughter bought holy water "for good luck" and leafy branches "for cleansing." We perused bottles of rainbow-colored potions, promising everything from love to success, and admired the polished amulet stones presented by the shopkeeper. Although we didn't buy anything, she bid us a cheerful Buenos días as we left.

Mother and daughter buy branches for cleansing and holy water for good luck in Botanica Mistica.
Mother and daughter buy branches for cleansing and holy water for good luck in Botanica Mistica.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cultural Fridays

Viernes Culturales are held in Little Havana on the last Friday every month. From 6:30 pm to 11 pm, visitors enjoy Latin music, Latino singers, art exhibits and free walking tours.

The Tower Theatre, at SW 8th Street and 15th Avenue, showcases cultural performances and Hispanic artists. Souvenir stands sell T-shirts reading "Made in the USA with Cuban parts."

Miami Carnival

We resolved to return to Little Havana in February and March for 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 paseo of floats, shop for arts and crafts and watch a domino tournament. 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.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.MiamiandBeaches.com

More things to see and do in the Miami area:

South Beach Miami Art Deco Hotels and Restaurants

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Miami Tours

Everglades National Park Hiking, Canoeing and Bird Watching

Moving to Miami to Live, Work, Play

Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook