Cuba’s history has been intertwined with that of Florida for centuries. The Seminole Indians used to sail the 90-some miles to Cuba to trade with the islanders. In 1763, the English handed Cuba to Spain in exchange for Florida, but 20 years later Spain gave it back. The year 1868 saw the beginnings of a revolution on the island, bringing the first wave of Cubans to Florida. Castro’s revolution in 1959 saw yet more Cubans escaping to the USA, with Cuban communities setting up in several places.
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Miami’s Little Havana is one of those places. Here the Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) Festival, held in March, draws 1 million visitors and culminates in a massive block party featuring 30 music stages. There’s a mini Calle Ocho on the last Friday of each month, when the Viernes Culturales street party offers music, dancing, and street performers.
Ybor City in Tampa is another thriving Cuban community. Founded by a wealthy Cuban tobacco merchant, the tradition of Cuban cigar-making thrives, and you can see demonstrations in the original 1886 cigar factory, now called the Centro Ybor. Around here there are several highly rated Cuban restaurants too.
There’s even a Cuban involvement in Tampa’s love of baseball. Spring training began here in 1913 when, after a disappointing season, Chicago Cubs player-manager Johnny Evers brought the team to Tampa for extra training and three games against the Havana Athletics. Despite the presence of thousands of cigar-factory workers, who were let off work early to watch the games, the Cubs won the series 3-0 and Tampa has loved baseball ever since.
A taste of the island
Traditional dishes include ropa vieja (literally, old clothes), a long-simmered stew of shredded beef; the slow-roasted pork called lechon; plantains fried in butter until they caramelize; and picadillo, a mélange of ground meat and potatoes seasoned with onions, tomatoes, pimientos, green olives, and capers.
Here are three Cuban restaurants in Florida to try:
Columbia Restaurant, 2117 E. 7th Ave, Ybor City, Columbiarestaurant.com
This old-fashioned restaurant, founded in 1905 and still going strong, serves arguably the best Cuban restaurant in Florida.
El Siboney Restaurant, 900 Catherine St, Key West, Esiboneyrestaurant.com
Come to this informal family-friendly place for a taste of Cuba. Try the masas de puerco fritas (fried pork chunks), served with rice, black beans, sweet plantains and Cuban bread.
Bongos Cuban Café, Westside, Downtown Disney, Orlando, Bongoscubancafe.com
Even Uncle Walt has his Cuban restaurant, with this branch of a small chain which was the brainchild of the Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio. It features great music and a great atmosphere, with branches also in Miami and South Beach.
For more advice on travel to Cuba, visit www.insightguides.com.