Calle Ocho is the center of Cuban exile life in Miami. One could argue it is the center of Cuban exile in the world as well. Nowhere in the world can you find more Cubans (other than Cuba itself) or the lifestyle that they love. Cubans are, by and large, an accommodating and welcoming people. They love to entertain and be entertained. The shops and sites of Little Havana and Calle Ocho all reflect “La Vida Dolce” – the sweet life.
We arrived about noon on Calle Ocho for a scheduled meeting with one of the brand owners that has a shop in Little Havana. G.R. Tabacaleros is a fine shop and we had a great time there talking and visiting with the company owner, George. Our next stop was a meeting with Arby Sosa of Sosa Family Cigars. Now I mention these meetings because we kind of messed up. We spent so much time talking with George & Arby that we didn’t have time to see all the sites before the sun went down. Usually with Latin culture that would not present a problem, since Latinos love to party late into the evening. What we didn’t count on was that Calle Ocho isn’t the party place. It’s the commercial center & hub of the daytime. At night, you can just roll up the street. Everything closes (with a few exceptions), including the parks and public areas.
So we started our evening by getting something to eat. We arrived at the restaurant at about 5:30 to enjoy “la comida typico de los cubanos”. The restaurant was recommended to us by Arby Sosa. He told us that it was the best Cuban meal in town. He wasn’t wrong. The restaurant was called El Cristo and is located at 1543 SW 8th St, across the street from the theatre. It had the usual look of a family owned restaurant: nothing fancy, just really good food. The waitress spoke a little broken English, but I am fluent in Spanish, so that wasn’t a problem. They had a nice indoor seating area, as well as a nice patio off the side of the restaurant for quick lunches. I can imagine that they do a lot of lunch business, but when we were there in the early evening, we were the only patrons in the place. After a delicious meal, we finished up with a dulce – desert! The waitress highly recommended the Tres Leches, so we had it. It was sweet, creamy and custardy good.
After our great meal, we decided to walk the avenue. It was at this point that we realized that Cuban nightlife takes place someplace else! Most all the shops were closed, including many of the cigar shops. The few that were open late didn’t offer anything spectacular. They had mostly inferior house brands at around the $4 to $5 price range. Jimmie smoked one or two and wasn’t very impressed by them. In both shops we went into, the cigars sat open on shelves. The front door of the shop is wide open to invite visitors in, but unfortunately, people aren’t the only things that walk into the shop. Upon inspecting a cigar or two at the one place, we found bugs in the cigars. We smiled nicely at the girl there, thanked her for her time & left.
As we continued down Calle Ocho, we saw a great big mural on the side of one of the buildings. It was painted on the side of the Little Havana Cigar Factory store (which was closed). This is pretty typical for Spanish culture. They celebrate art, music & leisure. It’s a culture about people, and sitting and relaxing while doing your business. You can see how the cigar fits into that culture. Across the street from this mural were more murals. The building, although fairly new, had a painting or drawing done on each column. The paintings celebrated famous musicians of either Latin culture, or pop culture. There was a caricature of Pitbull. There was a drawing of Los Famosos Soneros – Famous Singers and there was a drawing of the Beatles walking over the dominos set into the pavement at Domino Park (which is directly across the street). There are also reverent drawings of political figures such as Jose Marti. It was interesting to see all these drawings, and they continued down the walkway in front of all the businesses in this building. Towards the end, the artwork became more stylized and impressionistic. Piano keys morphed into the island of Cuba, a flower that looked more like female anatomy and a nude woman sitting on a stool that was a part of her legs.
We continued walking down the street, and decided to cross the street to see “El Camino de los Estrellos” – the Walkway of the Stars. Here, like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, stars are set into the pavement with the names of Los Famosos – the glitterati of Latin entertainment. There is a star for Cristina Seralegui, Maria Conchita Alonso and Thalia – a famous talk show host (Cristina), Hollywood actress (Maria Conchita) and Mexican telenovela star & singer (Thalia). There were many others as well. It is as much as an honor for a Latin star to have their name added here as it is for a star to have their name added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
El Camino is in front of and around Domino Park. Domino Park has this name because it is where all the men go to play dominos. We arrived too late to actually get into the park, and the gates were closed & locked tight. We peered in, and saw all the tables set up, ready for the game. Much like parks in New York have chess tables set up ready for play, Domino Park has their tables set & ready for the lively games that take place here. We do plan to get there on time real soon to be able to witness this for ourselves.
As I was walking around the outside of the park taking pictures, a man on a bench called out & said “Take my picture”. He was in his 30’s and seated next to an older gentleman who appeared to be in his 70’s. As I raised my camera, the old man said in Spanish “no me toma” – don’t take me. He raised his newspaper over his face. The younger man explained that he was “wanted” and that he didn’t want an evidence of where he was. Now, where he is wanted, I do not know. I didn’t ask any questions. I just thanked them & moved on
We came upon the Tower Theatre next. This beautiful example of Art Deco architecture & movie palace was a site to behold. The neon sign was lit up, and it still had the small ticket booth at the front where patrons were to purchase their tickets. The booth was shiny chrome & stainless steel, with beautiful curvilinear lines. It sits on a gorgeous terrazzo floor. The theatre serves as a place to show Spanish language movies, but also as a civic center and art center. The day we were there, they were showing “Corazon de Leon” and “The Dark Valley”. I wish we had gone in, but it was getting late & we missed the last show. Across the street was the famous Azucar ice cream shop. We were not too late to enjoy an refreshing helado (Spanish for ice cream) there. They have a great assortment of flavors from the mundane to the exotic. Definitely stop by & have a treat!
Other sites not to be missed on Calle Ocho include the Ball and Chain Lounge & Bar, the Cuban Memorial Plaza and of course the rooster. The 6 foot tall rooster is painted in the colors of Cuba, which incidentally, are also the colors of America – red, white & blue with stars. This statue is famous & worth going to so that you can take your picture with it. I’m sure that there’s an Instagram hashtag for it too!
So, there is our version of a walking tour of Calle Ocho. We will be back, next time in the day, so we can talk more about all the great things that there are to see & do on this most famous street in Miami.