Miami’s proximity to Cuba has long had an influence on the city’s soul, its food, and, more recently, its politics, thanks to the Elián Gonzáles controversy, which made a visit to this much-talked-about neighborhood a priority for me on this trip.
Thank God we went by car: it’s not easy to get to via local transportaion, and, after putzing around for an hour or so, we were happy to get moving. Which isn’t to say that the neighborhood isn’t worth visiting--quite the opposite--but rather, that you needn’t budget much time unless there’s a special event going on.
The main draws can be seen in less than 15 minutes, but are definitely worth sussing out, at least for the novelty of seeing two American flags flying alongside two Cuban ones. That’s right--head to Cuban Memorial Boulevard, at SW 13 Street, between Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street) and SW 12th Street, and you’ll see four flagpoles hung with patriotic emblems from both countries guarding an underwhelming memorial to two heroes of the Cuban War of Indepedence (Jose Martí and Antonio Maceo). A sweeter moment of Cuban pride is actually behind this officious-looking site, where a statue of the Virgin Mary stands before a massive kapok tree with roots that spread above the sidewalk--the tree has an important role in the santeria religion practiced by many Cubans, who tend to leave offerings at its--and Mary’s--base. Take a few steps behind the tree, and you’ll come up to a huge wall overlaid with a map of Cuba, which is, unfortunately, good for refreshing your geography, but little else.
Interestingly (or sadly), the main reason to visit Little Havana may be the abundance of 99¢ stores that line the main drag, Calle Ocho. I had a great time browsing through a seemingly endless supply of religious paraphernalia--holy water; 3-D and holographic images of Christ; and baseball hats emblazoned with his name--alongside more mundane items like cheapie beach towels and tupperware.
Perhaps it’s telling that, when we asked one store clerk what we should see around there, she said, "South Beach."