A walking tour of Miami’s Little Havana and Calle Ocho is like stepping into Cuba’s capital city. Dominoes, cigars, and mojitos are some of the experiences to savor during a visit to Little Havana. Either explore on your own, hire a guide, or join a group walking tour and let the rhythm move you.
Operation Peter Pan
Carmen Torres was 16 years old when she arrived in Miami. She and her seven siblings were some of the 14,000 children evacuated from Cuba to the United States between 1960 and 1962 under Operation Pedro Pan, or, Operation Peter Pan.
Because of the growing tensions in Cuba, parents feared a Marxist-Leninist indoctrination by the Fidel Castro-led Cuban government of their children. To protect them, they sent their children to the U.S. not knowing if or when they would see them again.
Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, considered the Father of the Exodus, spearheaded efforts by the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami. The U.S. State Department waived visas for children beginning in 1961. Eventually, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized funds to care for the children who were dispersed in more than 100 cities in 35 states. The Cuban Missile Crisis in Oct. 1962 shut down commercial flights from the U.S. into Cuba and Operation Peter Pan ended. The operation was kept from the Cuban government and known minimally in the United States, until recent years.
New Beginnings in Miami
Ms. Torres and her siblings reunited with their parents two years after arriving in the United States. As of May 2019, she and her son, Jorge, run Miami’s oldest costume shop, La Casa de Los Trucos (The House of Costumes) on Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
She is one of several Calle Ocho business owners who are also “Peter Pans” and she is one you may meet during a walking tour of Little Havana. Or, you may meet her son, like I did.
Walking Tour of Miami’s Little Havana
The last time I remember visiting Little Havana was April 22, 2000. That’s the day Elian Gonzalez was removed from his relative’s home by the U.S. government. I was picking up my then husband from Miami International Airport, which is relatively nearby, and decided to swing by. What I witnessed was chaos, anger, and sadness. Dumpsters burned, office building windows were destroyed, and police were dressed in riot gear.
Things were much different during a May 2019 mid-day visit and walking tour. Samba and other Latin-fused music drifted out of restaurants and onto the sidewalks. Brightly colored wall art and mosaics are found up and down Calle Ocho. Colorful rooster statues serve as opportune selfie stations. Many men walked down the sidewalk or sat at open-aired bars with cigar in hand. And, people looked happy.
Several tour operators offer guided walking tours of Little Havana, specifically the Calle Ocho area, and I took one booked through Airbnb Experiences and with Urban Adventures, which offers tours by locals in more than 150 cities around the globe. My guide was Cuban-native Ms. Zarelys Diaz. She sought political asylum in the United States a few years ago and still has family on the Caribbean island. She is part of the younger generation of Cubans who go back to visit family while the ones who fled to the U.S. in the 1960s and later, will probably never return because of what they lost.
Cuban Flavors in Miami’s Little Havana
The two-hour Little Havana walking tour is packed with things to see, experience, and learn. Highlights include learning and watching the cigar-making process. Cuban cigars are illegal in the U.S. due to the trade embargo. Cuban tobacco plant seeds are sent to other countries, like Nicaragua, where they are planted, and grow into tobacco. The leaves are harvested and sent to the U.S. where they are rolled into cigars. Indirectly, they are legal Cuban cigars.
I watched Ms. Guillermina Hernandez press papaya and watermelon to create a refreshing juice at Los Pinarenos Fruteri. She, her husband, and brother, purchased the open-air fruit stand in 1968. Today, her son Pedro “Pete” Hernandez is involved in the operation. Other flavors enjoyed during the trip include a cup of café Cubano, an empanada, guava and cheese pastelito, and a mojito at the famous Ball & Chain Bar & Lounge where Count Basie, Chet Baker, and Billie Holiday performed back in the day when Little Havana was Miami’s Jewish community.
Tribute to Heroes
The walking tour combines history and culture and included a stop to learn a bit about some of Cuba’s Freedom Fighters. A memorial honors them at the intersection of Southwest 8th Street and Southwest 13th Avenue. An eternal flame burns atop the 2506th Brigade Memorial, also known as the Bay of Pigs Monument, which pays tribute to the fallen from the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Listen to the Clacking at Little Havana’s Domino Park
One of the most fascinating stops was Maximo Gomez Park, aka, Domino Park. Only members can play dominoes or chess and they must follow the rules. These include no drinking, smoking, or shouting. Doing so will result in a suspension of 2 – 4 weeks. Visitors can watch. When you visit, listen to the clacking of shuffling dominoes. The City of Miami park is open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Miami’s Calle Ocho and Little Havana Are Worth the Trip
If you cannot get to Cuba soon, Miami’s Little Havana, specifically Calle Ocho, is a good substitute. Whether you book a tour or visit on your own, bring an inquisitive and open mind and enrich your visit by speaking with the locals. And, bring dancing shoes in case the rhythm gets’cha.
Nuts & Bolts About Taking a Walking Tour in Little Havana
Little Havana with Native Latin Expert – Zarelys
Advance reservations required. If you book a tour, you will easily find a restaurant or two to enjoy lunch or dinner.
Where to Eat
Old’s Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina
1446 SW 8th St.
Miami, Fla 33135
Tel: (786) 518-2196
Sunday – Thursday: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: 11 a.m. – Midnight
Where to Sip a Mojito
Ball & Chain Miami
1513 SW 8th St.
Miami, Fla. 33135
Tel: (305) 643-7820
Monday – Thursday: 11 a.m. – Midnight
Friday & Saturday: 11 a.m. – 3 a.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. – 1 a.m.
Learn more about Operation Pedro Pan www.pedropan.org
Learn more about Little Havana
Tip: Parking in most of Miami is challenging. Around the Calle Ocho area, most of the parking is Pay by Phone or Pay by App.
Additional Photos of Miami’s Little Havana on Flickr
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