Updated: Jul 10, 2022
The time had come to leave my little Blue Strawberry Haven and head into the city.
Before I dive into Little Havana though, I have to mention the freeway to get there. It's terrifying, to say the least. I took the #95 all the way from Lauderdale By The Sea into Downtown Miami, and there was no room for failure in regards to the speed limit.
It was 70mph...but most people did 170... and I'm not even kidding.
I was right in the thick of it, and had I attempted... or even had the slight inclination, to pull over, slow down, change lanes or come to an abrupt stop, I would have died.
There were mere mili-split seconds granted in order to change lanes... all of which I missed, of course, forcing me out of my way... all the while, completely confused, pissed off... and still going much faster than I was comfortable with.
Yes... I made it.
I didn't make in record time, mind you...
Regardless of my record Mac-2 hair on fire speed, I had to keep detouring around the streets of Miami, in search of north, left, over the bridge, right, forward, back... it was a nightmare.
BUT... I made it.
And where I made it to, was Little Havana.
I admit that I had heard so much about this charismatic little neighbourhood, that I was not fully prepared for what I encountered upon arrival.
My hostel, although lovely, was surrounded by not-so-lovely. I was too early for check in, so I parked my car and decided to walk into the centre of Little Havana, where I was to be starting a food tour at 3pm.
I am not usually frightened waking around by myself, but something had triggered me and I felt more than overly cautious making my way through the streets. I was not completely at ease until I was right in the centre, on Calle Ocho.
Nothing happened to me, of course... but as I walked along the streets, I was struck by the amount of garbage and evident neglect. There was no denying the exceptionally high poverty rate in the district. Abandoned shopping buggies, people sleeping on benches, tipped over trash cans... and as a destination tourist, it was a lot to take in. I had read that Little Havana was far less dangerous today that in its past, but I was still very aware of my surroundings and I made my way downtown.
Little Havana is Miami's vibrant Cuban heart and this Latin American neighbourhood is filled with art galleries, busy restaurants, cafes, Cuban cigars, empanadas… and cafecito! Calle Ocho was full of energy and there was live music, dancing, bright colours, laughter... and cigar smoke on every corner.
While I waited for 3pm to inch closer... I found my way into a couple local pubs and made myself comfortable up at the bar, watching the bartenders in action. They made mojitos like we made Caesars in Canada... and more! The mojitos were continuously lined up at the bar and one, right after another, was grabbed and taken out to a thirsty patron.
My tour started at 3pm on the dot... and it was very well done.
The girl was wonderful... inquisitive, kind, knowledgable and she even managed to get some of the people on the tour to try new things. Guava pastries, chicken plantain cups, flan ice cream, empanadas, guarapo juice, Cuban coffee... Our guide gave us a fascinating cultural narrative behind each food we tried. Seriously... there were people on our tour that didn't want gluten, or were on a diet, or didn't like coffee... WHY take the tour???
We explored the ins and outs of the Cuban district and learnt about its fascinating history and culture. Such shocking and horrific Cuban history. I was surprised to find that Cuban expats don't encourage people to vacation in Cuba because they are contributing to the economy there, but not benefiting any of the people. They say if you go- stay and eat ONLY local. There were quite a few stops at some of the best family-owned and operated restaurants in the area.
We all had a mojito, listened to some live traditional music, wandered through some art galleries and the Maximo Gomez Dominos park and even watched a real skilled Cuban cigar roller in action.
I did not buy any Cuban cigars.
Actually... they aren't even Cuban. I think they were Nicaraguan.
I did not buy any Nicaraguan cigars.
After the tour, I would have stayed a bit longer and explored more of the Little Havana nightlife... like the Ball & Chain Club, but I will admit, I was a little bit hesitant to walk back to my hotel after dark. It was a full half hour+ walk too. The sun was already going down and I could feel a bit of anxiety creeping in.
Don't wander in the neighbourhoods late at night, was ringing in my ears.
I listened to the voices and headed back to my hotel to check in.
While I was checking in, the young guy informed me;
The pool was closed. Shitty. I had planned to have a nice dip.
The restaurant was closed and only open Thursday-Sunday. Shit. Today was Monday. His suggestion? Go back into town. Ha!
Then... "Do you have a lot of stuff?"
"Ok. Good, because there are a lot of stairs up to your room and it's steep and narrow. I would suggest leaving your belongings in the car if you can."
That was not the greeting I was expecting at my slum oasis... not at all.
I chose to ignore it though, and rather than haul my dead-body bag up some random steep, long & narrow staircase, I decided to explore the room first, empty handed.
Fair enough - it was Flowers in the Attic, but... I guess it would have to do for the evening. I'd been in worse... and comparatively speaking, it wasn't THAT bad. I plugged in my phone immediately and set about exploring my tiny abode, all the while wondering how the hell I was going to get all my crap upstairs.
After my vehicle burglary, I was a lot more hesitant to leave things unattended. Especially all my dirty, stinky clothes!
Then I realized there was no WIFI. Nothing was coming through at all.
If I was going to be cooped up in Tower Bridge for the night without wine or foot, I was going to need access to the internet.
Back down to reception I went.
At first he made a bunch of excuses how... 1. It was working up there earlier... 2. It must be a connection problem and 3. If I ventured down 2 flights of stairs and hung out by the balcony, it usually worked there.
No dice, buddy.
I was done. It was almost an excuse to just get out and I took it. I handed back the keys, got him to open the front gate.. and I drove out, without a destination or another booking. I was thinking I might venture towards Miami Beach, but I wasn't sure...
Then my phone rang.
He was calling to apologize for all the inconveniences and they just happened to have ONE more room, and were going to upgrade me for the evening.
I came back.
It was fabulous. And a significant upgrade from the attic hovel they originally put me in… and well worth my tantrum.