Friday, October 28, 2016

Explore Miami's "Little Havana" Neighborhood


Miami, Florida is geographically very close to Cuba. So naturally, the city of Miami has a strong Cuban community and culture. Wet met a ton of people from Cuba or with strong Cuban heritage: my Uber driver, my hotel waiter, and the server at Subway were all from Cuba and proud of it.

Although Cuban culture is intertwined throughout the entire city of Miami, it is the neighbourhood of "Little Havana" where you can see it freely displayed out in the open in vibrant and fun fashion. Just a small neighbourhood, ranging from South Miami Avenue to South West 107th Avenue, Little Havana offers a multitude of choices for Cuban restaurants, bars, music, art, and plenty of cigars! To find all the action, focus on South West 8th Street, affectionately known as "Calle Ocho". I headed down there last Monday with my husband and a group of four other people from his work. (We are in Miami for my husband's company's AGM this week.)

Most buildings in Little Havana have amazing artwork on the walls

Once you hit the Little Havana area, you will know it. The streets become a little more vibrant with colour, sound, and the smells of delicious cooking. For me, the street art and decor was my first give-away that I had reached Little Havana (other than our taxi driver saying, "Here you are in Little Havana." That may have actually been my first give-away!)

Gorgeous graffiti in Little Havana

I loved how even the simplest of things, like the garbage cans on the sidewalk, were painted with bright colours and designs in an effort to make the neighbourhood stand out from the rest of modern Miami. Graffiti art, REAL graffiti art and not tagging, adorned the walls of restaurants and shops, making the alleys and dead spots seem inviting and exciting. Shops had fun themes and colourful signs welcoming patrons inside with promises of authentic Cuban wares beyond their doors.

The planters and garbage cans in Little Havana even have flair

One of my favourite 'decor' items in Little Havana were the gigantic painted roosters, installed by artist Pedro Damian beginning in 2002 and onwards. Damian was a Cuban-born artist who moved to Florida in the 1980s. Inspired by the distinctive flamingo installations in the Coral Gables district of Miami, Damian wanted to have art pieces within the city limits that represented his Cubanidad culture. Roosters are a symbol of good luck, a new day, and new beginnings for the Latino and Caribbean cultures, and so installing them in Little Havana was a perfect fit.

A beautiful lucky rooster in Little Havana

We found several in the Little Havana area, and I thought they were excellent. Their bright colours, the  funky patterns, and just the sheer size of them made for fantastic photo opportunities, and they livened up the street corners with their happy sight.

I always try to get a photo with local law enforcement when I travel!

And there's not just art outside on the streets, although the plethora of professionally graffitied walls would make a fascinating art walk. There are also tons of Cuban-inspired art galleries within the neighbourhood. We ventured into one, which is where I learned all about Pedro Damian and his good luck roosters. Everyone seemed so talented down there; if I were a wealthy person I'd for sure go purchase some art from Little Havana for my home.

Amazing and vibrant art in Little Havana

If there are plenty of art galleries in Little Havana, then you have to multiply that number by 10 to have a ballpark number of just how many cigar stores there were. Every second shop, it seemed, was a cigar store. Only a few that we saw make and roll their own cigars, but most that we peered into were well-stocked with rows upon rows of cigars of every shape, size, and flavour. Most cigar shops had plush leather couches and shiny mahogany coffee tables reserved just for those who wanted to sink into the cushions for a relaxing smoke.

Cigar shops abound in Little Havana
A lovely place to sit and smoke cigars

We don't smoke cigars, although I do admit that I like the smell of an unlit stogie. It seems like it could really grow into an expensive habit, as my husband spied a single cigar that was selling for $500!

Rows upon rows of cigars in Little Havana

On we wandered down Calle Ocho until we found Domino Park, which was something I had wanted to encounter. The Domino Park is apparently a hub of activity for locals, particularly those of Cuban heritage, as they congregate there to play dominos, talk of politics, and meet old friends for a few hours in the day.

Domino art in domino park - how fitting!

Some players were incredibly focused on the game, slamming their dominos down on the table with a loud 'clack', and a few arguments broke out here and there. Local security patrolled the small domino area, reminding players that they were there as friends and dousing the fires. It was interesting to say the least, but everyone seemed to be having a good time despite the occasional rumblings.

Some serious gaming happening here in Domino Park

After doing all of this lovely sightseeing, soaking in some of exciting Cuban culture, we were a hungry lot. I ran into a shop to buy a fedora, feeling fashion-inspired by the people of Little Havana, and the shopkeeper recommended the restaurant next door for an authentic Cuban meal. Trusting the locals, we headed there.

A sample of our restaurant menu in Little Havana

The food was indeed delicious! Some of us ordered Cuban sandwiches, made of slow-roasted pulled pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, layered on a special type of Cuban bread. I asked what made this bread 'Cuban', and was told that Cuban bread is made with a lot of butter and is incredibly fluffy. Just before the sandwich is served, the bread is then pressed flat. Because of the amount of air within the bread, it has to be made fresh each day or it goes stale quite quickly. I had a Cuban sandwich on a different day, and can attest to how delicious it was!

That day in Little Havana, my husband and I ordered pulled, crispy chicken on black bean rice with sweet plantains and avocado salad. It was amazing and I am getting hungry just writing about it. We also had an appetizer of croquettes, which were made of mashed potatoes and finely ground ham and beef, wrapped in a breadcrumbed, fried roll. They were tasty, but the consistency of the blended meat and potatoes inside was a little mushy for my liking. My husband and I topped it all off with a cortadito, or Cuban coffee, which is like an espresso only it is made with a touch of brown sugar. It was strong and just what I needed after walking around the neighbourhood all afternoon.

A Cuban 'cortadito' coffee. Image via

After our satisfying lunch, we continued exploring Little Havana. It was almost time for us to catch our ride back to our hotel, so we stopped in a little pub called the Ball and Chain for a quick drink as a group. Why did we choose the ol' Ball and Chain? Because a fun live band was playing out front, a suave dancer shaking his maracas and his bon-bon with gusto and talent. He had to have been in his 60s, and was an excellent dancer. So inside we went.

Having some maraca fun in the Ball and Chain in Little Havana

We were ushered into the back courtyard of the Ball and Chain, which featured a large stage in the shape of a pineapple. I assume there are some pretty fun bands and parties in the Ball and Chain courtyard in the evenings. For that afternoon, the stage was empty and the courtyard quiet. My group and I enjoyed some mojitos, then headed back to Miami Beach for our evening dinner with my husband's company.

The pineapple stage

Little Havana should not be missed if you are in Miami. The atmosphere, the food, and the people are all fantastic, and it will be an experience you won't soon forget!

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