Posted October 1, 2015
By JOHN RIOUX
MIAMI — With the tumultuous relationship between the United States and Cuba nearing its conclusion, a trip to the island could soon become as accessible as one to the Bahamas.
However, until travel bans and other logistics have been settled by the two governments, those yearning for a chance to immerse themselves in Cuban culture should look no further than Miami’s own Little Havana.
Beginning with the rise of Fidel Castro in the late 1950s and the movement toward a communist society, many Cuban refugees began to settle in the area today known as Little Havana.
In following years, the Hispanic population continued to grow stemming from an influx of Central and South Americans. Cubans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans and those of many other nationalities have developed a multi-ethnic community containing authentic art, cuisine, music and products from these numerous different countries.
In the heart of it all Calle Ocho, officially SW 8th Street, has become the capital of this multi-ethnic community. Lined with restaurants, cigar shops, art galleries, barbershops and much more, this strip is a unique cultural destination for tourists looking to assimilate with everyday life in Cuba and Latin America.
Highlighting the early history of refugee settlers, the Cuban Memorial Plaza is a good place to start your trip down Calle Ocho. This tiny park is dedicated to the remembrance of monumental events that have occurred in Cuban history. An eternal burning torch honors those involved in the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 along with a monument of Antonio Maceo, exhibited for the role he played in the wars of independence during the 1800s.
As you make your way down Calle Ocho you will pass a multitude of restaurants featuring walk-up windows (ventanitas) where one may stop to enjoy a Cuban sandwich (ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard pressed on a Cuban roll) along with a Cuban espresso (cafecito). This sufficient meal will cost you little more than $5 and can be found along most any street along Calle Ocho.
The multi-cultural community is immediately apparent when walking down the strip with the abundance of art throughout Calle Ochco. Murals, flags, graffiti and other forms of street art plaster the walls of most buildings along the strip.
Arguably the most famous landmark in Little Havana, Maximo Gomez Park is the main social gathering place in the area. Also known as Domino Park, old men habitually “come play dominoes while others talk politics or [sport]. When you are here, everything you see is part of Cuban culture,” Cuban-American José Rodríguez puts it.
The small park is surrounded with benches for tourists to take a rest and watch the action take place. As seriously as some men take the games, others gather here daily simply to socialize with other retirees.
Directly next to the park stands one of Miami’s oldest cultural landmarks, the Tower Theater. Opening in 1926, the theater was developed in an art deco style and was said to be the finest theater in the south. The once attractive exterior sadly has the decrepit look of an almost 100-year-old building.
Despite its run-down exterior, Tower Theater is still in use today. Hispanic and international film festivals often display their work here, as residents of the community enjoy culturally specific films and performances.
Across the street, the Azucar Ice Cream Parlor is a must stop if you find yourself hankering for sweets. Founded in 2011, the numerous unique flavors such as Mantecado, Café con Leche and Platano Maduro, make the parlor one of the most popular tourist attractions along Calle Ocho.
Keeping with the authenticity of the strip, walk next door from Azucar and step into the Little Havana Cigar Factory where one is immediately hit with the aroma of tobacco. Patrons who frequently visit cigar shops barely recognize those walking in as they enjoy hand-rolled cigars along with their personal political discussions.
If staying in the area for dinner, one will have a variety of different restaurants to choose from. The Ball and Chain bar and lounge was one of the first establishments developed in the area. Prior to the influx of Cubans in the early 1960s, Ball and Chain opened as a saloon in 1935. The bar has now become one of the most popular in all of Little Havana, featuring traditional Latin American and Caribbean cuisine and drinks.
The completely open entrance to the street allows those passing by to enjoy the live music provided by the bar. “Coming in this afternoon was like a small party” tourist Mark Martin said. “It was different to see people walking down the street just stopping to dance for a moment. Most bars want you to come in and buy something for that”. Unique drinks such as the Bananita Daiquiri and the Calle Ocho Old Fashioned are a nice way to end your trip into Miami’s own Little Havana.
Although diplomatic relations are improving with Cuba, nobody knows when thing will start to normalize between the two countries. For the time being, Little Havana is the closest thing to an authentic look at Cuba as one can really get.
If You Go
- The predominant language spoken along Calle Ocho is Spanish but enough English to get by.
- Meter parking is generally available along the streets in Little Havana.
- Stop by the Little Havana Welcome Center to gather whatever information/maps you need.
Cuban Memorial Plaza
SW 13th Ave. and SW 8th St.
Maximo Gomez Park
801 SW 15th Ave.
Open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Only 60+ years of age can play
1508 SW 8th St.
$11.50- general admission
$9- Seniors (65+), Students (ID required)
Azucar Ice Cream
1503 SW 8th St.
Monday – Wednesday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Thursday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Little Havana Cigar Factory
1501 SW 8th St.
Open daily 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Ball and Chain
1513 SW 8th St.
Monday – Wednesday 12 p.m. – 12 a.m.
Thursday – Saturday 12 p.m. – 3 a.m.
Sunday 2 p.m. – 10 p.m.