The Thursday sun shines bright on the designer handbags, gorgeous palm trees, and easy living of South Beach.
But a Lyft ride away and a world apart lies a min replica of beautiful Cuba. “It’s a different world here,” our Lyft driver Claudio smiles, his dark pony tail brushing past his shoulders, as the car reaches the outskirts of smaller, modest houses and chicken coups. A native of Argentina and Cirque de Soleil dancer for years, he is now the proud owner of a dance studio hosting explosive Argentine Tango nights.
The streets are narrower, the houses close together, in an area entirely preserved by people longing for their home country. A vibrant heartbeat of Cuba, with a touch of Latin influence from other South American natives, Little Havana is home to Cuban immigrants, as well as many other expats from Central and South America. The influx began with Castro’s 1959 coup--present day Little Havana is now home to over 55,000 residents.
Little Havana, named by its larger predecessors after the capital city of Cuba, may be smaller in size but not in soul. The rhythm of drums and piano keys roll through the streets as smooth and sexy as my first taste of a Cuban Colada from El Pub Restaurant, a jolt to the heart, body and spirit. One tiny shot glass equivalent to three cups of American coffee, my cousin Kat and I laugh as its bitterly sweet aroma slides past our lips. The perfect “dessert” to the empanada de carne I had just swallowed whole (oops). Its spicy beef filling flavored with cinnamon, cumin, crushed garlic, onions, Empanadas originated in Spain, but have been adapted a staple in most Latin American countries. The name comes from the verb empanar, meaning to wrap or coat in bread (read: heaven). El Pub, a local favorite since the 1960’s, boasts a diner atmosphere. With windows facing the sidewalk to easily service customers, grabbing coladas on the way to work for coworkers and families has never been easier.
Beginning our day on Calle Ocho, Claudio drops us off in front of an eclectic art gallery and hands us his card as we promise to visit his studio. The quaint Agustin Gainza Arts & Tavern houses owner Agustín Gaínza's hand-painted ceramics and paintings. Gaínza tried three times to enter the U.S. before successfully passing its borders into a new life. Continuing to make our way down Calle Ocho, we try Cubano sandwiches at Little Havana Restaurant. Infamous only in Little Havana are the proud display of potato sticks sprinkled atop each sweet, bulky roll. Waiters and patrons yell a buzz of warm, Spanish greetings as they juggle dishes and pass menus, and if one closes their eyes, they are suddenly transported to the seaside of 1960’s Cuba. Nearby, Domino park houses the over sixty crowd, with cigar-smokers yelling at their domino rivals. I'm so excited that I can't decide which photo to take first, and end up a sweaty but happy mess, running to every street corners and bus stop.
Down the street at Yisell Bakery, we inhale Pastelitos, a baked puff pastry filled with a sweet or savory filling. This time they are filled with Guava, a favorite in Cuban cuisine, with a flavoring similar to strawberry or rhubarb jam. Before the afternoon ends, we head to Los Pinarenos Fruteria, part fruit market, part juice bar, famous for its guarapo juice. A local favorite, the pure sugarcane juice is made by crushing several sugar cane sticks and reaping the benefits of its sweet tanginess. Made with love by co-owner Guillermina Hernandes, her silver hair is no match for her quick hands, as she huddles behind the juice bar, her petite frame hidden by the giant antique blenders. The humble shop is filled with family photos, crowding the corners between bins of giant mangos and coconuts.
Across Calle Ocho and a few blocks over lies the Cuban Tobacco Cigar Co. owned by the Bello family for over 100 years. The store breathes the traditional ambiance of a 1950's Havana Cigar shop, with workers making only 100 cigars a day for quality. Their weathered hands expertly fly across giant tobacco leaves, rolling them with care, as authenticity and tradition meld together. In the U.S. shop lined with photos of famous salsa crooners, its walls stacked high with cigars, and patrons donning fedoras while drinking Cuban coffee on swiveling barstools, one may have to double check their current GPS location.
As late afternoon hours set in, we saunter down to Ball & Chain lounge, a contemporary 1940's Cuban club, the rain clouds unleashing their fury on the earth below. The sidewalk crowds are unaffected, entranced by a salsa band with fedora-clad men in their 60’s. Swaying to the music, their joy and passion infectious, I study one man as his eyes close and his head rolls back to the heavens. The musicians' souls are engulfed by the notes, second nature to their souls. Each melody more unique than the last, the unique percussion and vocals make up a roaring compilation of passion. I'm awestruck by the realness of these people, the cuisine and the music they love so deeply. The heart and soul of Miami, miles from the Lamborghinis and stilettos of ocean drive. Two worlds separated by a bridge 20 minutes and a hemisphere. To uncover the soul, one most carefully peel back its layers.