It is impossible to walk down Eighth Street – Calle Ocho – in Miami’s Little Havana and not have Miami Sound Machine playing on your internal sound track. “It’s the rhythm of the island / And like sugar cane so sweet / If you want to do the conga / You’ve got to listen to the beat.” Yes, it helps that music emerges from the shops and restaurants lining this central area of the neighborhood, but even if that weren’t present, the bright colors of Little Havana and the smells of Cuban food and high-quality cigars – not to mention the effects of the strong Cuban coffee – would have you hearing the beat anyway.
I am here in Miami on a 22-hour layover on my return trip from Curacao to Los Angeles. After a restful night at an airport hotel, I have most of a day to explore. Little Havana makes a perfect several hour destination, close enough to the airport that you are less subject to the terrible traffic getting on and off Miami Beach. Plus, it is authentically and uniquely Miami, an experience found nowhere else in the United States, and probably nowhere else in the world outside of Cuba itself. With good food, colorful street art, history, and culture, it is exactly the sort of place I love to explore, and a perfect use of my long layover.
My day starts with Cuban coffee, and I choose La Colada Gourmet. Cuban coffee is strong and it is sweet, a base of sweetened condensed milk topped with coffee and – in my case – whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Mix it thoroughly before drinking, else you’ll have a coffee flavored condensed milk chaser at the bottom, which is tasty but a bit much even for me. My buzz is pretty immediate, and will last hours.
Walking down Calle Ocho is a worthwhile experience irregardless of making any stops for food or beverages. Everywhere you look, there are amazing touches. The street art is superb, with even a McDonald’s dressed up in Cuban colors that make me stop to take pictures. Stars on the ground mimic the Hollywood Walk of Fame, dedicated to Cuban Americans. (The one for Miami Sound Machine and Gloria Estefan is on the south side of the street west of La Colada.)
I stop for a few minutes in Maximo Gomez Park, known as Domino Park, to watch the games in progress. Playing is only for members, who must be of retirement age and agree to a strict code of conduct – I witness someone being reprimanded for breaking the “no yelling” rule, but anyone can watch at a distance. It is a unique and soothing experience to listen to the clicking of the tiles and the Spanish conversation.
As the Miami heat and humidity build, a cold juice is in order. Los Pinarenos offers more than a dozen fresh fruit juices and smoothies that can be ordered in combination. I opt for mango-pineapple, and it helps offset my coffee buzz, which is still going strong. (Note: Los Pinarenos is cash-only.)
13th Avenue intersects Calle Ocho at Los Pinarenos, and it is a must to walk down the park in the middle of this street. This is Cuban Memorial Boulevard Park, and contains a multitude of monuments ranging from a Bay of Pigs Memorial to plaques dedicated to victims of the Cuban regime. It is also beautifully landscaped with some truly stunning trees – and a ton of wild chickens. I walk about four blocks down and back up, stopping to read the inscriptions and to show solidarity with the Cuban American community.
With only coffee and juice in my stomach, it is time for a snack, and it is a must when visiting Little Havana to have a Cuban pastry. I stop into Karmen to pick up my favorite, made of guava and cheese. Warm and gooey, it is perfect, and I regret only that I didn’t get two. (Guava and cheese might sound weird, but trust me on this, you want one or three.)
Cuban cigars are still illegal in the US, but here in Little Havana there is an end-around. Cuban tobacco has been cultivated in Nicaragua (I went to a cigar factory in that country) and is flown here, where just on Calle Ocho there are at least half a dozen small cigar factories. Even if you don’t smoke (I don’t), it is worthwhile to watch as cigars are rolled by hand. Note: if you don’t purchase a cigar, most of the factories ask for a small tip for their workers in exchange for taking photos, which seems fair.
It is now time for lunch, and I am craving a Cubano sandwich, a pressed sandwich of ham, cheese, and pickle. There is a myriad of options, but I choose Sanguich de Miami, a bit west of the main portion of Calle Ocho. Here, they make everything – I mean everything – in house. They bake their own bread, cure their own meat, pickle their own vegetables. It is absolutely to die for.
The heat is beginning to get to me, so another cold treat is in order. Azucar Ice Cream makes a bunch of frozen treats, but their signature is one that tastes exactly of my earlier guava and cheese pastry. I’m not even hungry, but I polish off a cup in no time, watching the street – now much busier than it was in the morning – and the people go by.
The exigencies of air travel sometimes can mean oddly long layovers. However, if you have the time, a visit to Little Havana can make your long Miami layover a blessing. Or, just add this awesome neighborhood to your next south Florida getaway.
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