Running from South Miami Avenue to S.W. 107th Avenue (near Florida International University), Calle Ocho (Southwest 8th Street) is the lively main thoroughfare in Little Havana, the best known neighborhood for Cuban exiles in the world. The area today is home to Cubans, Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and other immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America; the demographics have changed so much since the 1960s that the eastern portion of Little Havana is now referred to as Little Managua. It's a five-minute drive west of downtown Miami and 15 minutes from South Beach. (You'll know you're there when all the signs are in Spanish.)
The repetitive, rump-shaking beats of salsa and merengue pour out of storefronts and restaurants, sometimes joined by the staccato crowing of a rooster in a neighboring backyard. The street is lined with coffee counters, beauty salons and barber shops, little food markets, art galleries, dollar stores, botanicas filled with candles and statues that are part of the Santeria Afro-Caribbean religion, cafes, Cuban nostalgia shops, and bakeries offering racks of crusty Cuban bread and guava pastries. But the tour begins on a serious note.
Start at (1) Cuban Memorial Plaza at Southwest 13th Avenue and Southwest 8th Street. The pain of exiles is palatable on this landscaped street median in the center of what is called Cuban Memorial Boulevard. A string of small monuments commemorates the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by the 2506 Brigade and the Cuban wars of independence in the 1800s. The seven monuments include the bust of Cuban independence fighter Antonio Maceo, statues of the Virgin Mary, and anti-communist crusader Tony Izquierdo (once a suspect in the John F. Kennedy assassination), and a 16-foot-long raised map of the island of Cuba. The map bears a weathered inscription by Cuban poet and patriot Jose Marti: "La patria es agonia y deber." ("The homeland is agony and duty.")
Colonial and masonry vernacular houses from the 1920s line the boulevard, which is still used for political gatherings, parades, and demonstrations. Every January, uniformed schoolchildren line up here to march in a birthday tribute to Marti. Exiles leave flowers or touch the statue of Mary for good luck as they walk by.
Walk west along Calle Ocho, which is a one-way street that carries traffic east into downtown Miami. There's an open-air coffee counter on practically every corner in Little Havana, but one of the oldest and best is 41-year-old (2) Los Pinarenos Fruteria on the block just west of Cuban Memorial Plaza. Sit at one of the stools on the sidewalk and enjoy a dark cafecito as sweet as candy. Order a steaming Cuban-style tamale with spicy, fresh tomato-cilantro salsa, and coco frio (coconut water), served straight out of a chilled coconut with a straw sticking out of the top. Rebuilt by the Hernandez family after a fire in the 1990s, the place doubles as an open-air fruit market, where you can find boxes of mangoes, papaya, coconuts, bananas, and sugarcane.
Across the street is (3) La Casa De Los Trucos (The House of Costumes), where locals go for elaborate Halloween costumes and rubber masks.
Look down as you keep walking west. You'll see blocks with stars bearing the names of famous artists and Latin personalities engraved in the sidewalk. This (4) "Walkway of the Stars" along Calle Ocho includes tributes to Sammy Sosa, Maria Conchita Alonso, Thalia, Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, and Gloria Estefan, among others.
A block down at 1419 Southwest 8th Street is (5) Lily's Records (www.realpagessites.com/lilirecords), which has a huge selection of Latin music representing Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Bachata, Latin rock, salsa, etc.
Keep heading west and check out the (6) wall mural outside of Cafeteria Guardabarranco, which pays tribute to Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and Selena, as well as Latin and American heroes such as Abraham Lincoln, Jose Mari, George Washington, and Ruben Dario.
On the next block, you'll find (7) Little Havana To Go, an upscale souvenir store that sells Cuban flags, paintings, music, guayaberas, hats, folksy dolls, cigars, Cuban coffee cups, T-shirts, key chains, and even domino tables.
Follow the sound of clattering dominoes and chatter to neighboring (8) Maximo Gomez Park, at Southwest 8th Street and 15th Avenue, where Cuban old-timers still gather to play serious games of dominoes in what locals call Domino Park. On the wall is a mural of Central, South American, and Caribbean presidents, painted when Miami hosted the Summit of The Americas in 1994.
Next to the park is the historic (9) Tower Theater at 1508 SW 8th St. Built in 1926, the masonry vernacular building, which had art deco touches added later, was the first theater in Miami-Dade County to offer titles in Spanish. It's back in use today, hosting Hispanic and international film festivals.
Across the street is the (10) Latin Quarter Cultural Center, a private, nonprofit group that helped save the theater from the wrecking ball and hosts concerts, exhibits, talks, and other gatherings. The group organizes "Cultural Fridays" on the last Friday of each month, when art galleries along Calle Ocho between 14th and 17th avenues throw open their doors and live music fills the street.
Back on the south side of Calle Ocho is Ismail Fine Art Gallery, where you can purchase tiles painted with colourful Cuban and tropical themes, paintings, and note cards. Next door is the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co., one of the oldest cigar stores and lounges in Miami. You can watch cigars being rolled by hand at the inside wooden table.
In the same block is (11) Alfaro's Boutique, which sells casual and dressy linen guayaberas for men and guayabera-style dresses, pants suits, and skirt-and-top sets for women. There are also guayabera shirts and dresses for children. A seamstress at the sewing machine in the back of the store will custom fit one for you. Alfaro's also has an adjoining restaurant, which features live music Wednesday through Saturday nights.
Refuel by stopping for a creamy café con leche at the (12) El Pub outdoor coffee counter at 1548 SW 8th St. The dining room here is a favorite meeting place for Miami's business and political elite. On the corner in front of the restaurant, you'll find two six-foot (two-meter) rooster statues, a tribute to the crowing birds that still roam this and other immigrant neighborhoods throughout Miami.
More souvenir hunting is on hand at the I Love Calle Ocho Café and Shop and the Maxoly Cuban Cigar Gallery and Gift Shop. End your walk just in time for lunch or dinner at (13) Casa Panza, site of mesmerizing flamenco shows (beginning at 8 p.m.) and candlelight sing-alongs of a prayer to the Virgin of the Dew. There's paella, a large selection of tapas, Spanish wine, and delicious pitchers of sangria. Owner Jesus Lopez, an exuberant Spaniard from Madrid, circulates among it all, determined that everybody has a good time.
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