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Latin culture is alive in Miami's Little Havana

Image: Sandy Cobas
Owner Sandy Cobas in her store, the El Titan de Bronze Cigars in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. Almost any type of cigar is for sale, ranging from about $4.65 to $13 for the longest.Wilfredo Lee / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the gateway to the Americas, Miami is home to restaurants, shops and streets that feel as though you've stepped off one continent and onto another. Shots of Cuban coffee are available almost anywhere in Miami's Little Havana, including convenience stores. In certain areas, everyone greets customers with "hola," never "hello."

Tourists might not be able to navigate Latin Miami successfully using only English, so brush up on basic Spanish before going, or take a Spanish-speaking friend. Regardless, a trip to Miami is incomplete without a nod to its Latin flavor.

Here are some essential stops in and around Little Havana:

Casa Unidos De Elian
It's the house where Elian Gonzalez stayed when the then 5-year-old Cuban boy was at the center of an international custody battle. The standoff ended when U.S. agents raided the home and seized him in 2000 and sent him back to Cuba with his father. The home has been renovated by his uncle, turned into a combination shrine and museum. Toys, photos and drawings are lined up in glass display cases.

Elian's clothes still hang in the closet, and the holes where agents kicked in the door haven't been repaired. The inner tube he came to Miami in hangs on the wall, accompanied by a sign in English and Spanish: "This is the tragedy of a nation that wants to live in freedom ... Whose fault? A tyrant." The house (2319 N.W. Second St.) is open whenever someone is home, so it's hit-or-miss since there's no public phone number. Admission is free; donations are accepted.

Domino Park
At Domino Park (S.W. Eighth Street and 15th Avenue), signs warn players not to drink, smoke or bet. The domino tables have drink-holders anyway, to make them look like the domino parks in Cuba, but they're empty.

** TO GO WITH MIAMI LATINO ** This Aug. 5, 2009 photo shows a domino player preparing to play a tile at Maximo Gomez Park, also known as Domino Park,in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)Wilfredo Lee / AP

Dozens of old men wearing sunglasses and caps speak Spanish as they play under tents, interrupted by the sounds of clattering domino pieces. Watch and enjoy — but don't interrupt a game to ask questions, or you risk irritating the players.

El Titan de Bronze Cigars
Named after a Cuban general, this family-owned cigar company has been in business since 1995. At the store, almost any type of cigar is for sale, ranging from about $4.65 to $13 for the longest. Employees roll cigars in the middle of the shop (1071 S.W. Eighth St., 305-860-1412) using hand cream to soften the wrapper, and some even smoke as they roll.

El Palacio De Los Jugos
One employee said El Palacio De Los Jugos (The Juice Palace) is what a Cuban market was like during the island's golden days. Always chaotic, the market (5721 W. Flagler St., 305-264-4557) sells almost any type of Cuban food, drink or produce imaginable.

This Aug. 5, 2009 photo shows bundles of cigars being aged in a climate controlled room at El Titan de Bronze Cigar Mfg. in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)Wilfredo Lee / AP

At the front counter, blocks of cheese and guava sit in a glass case. Someone chops pork rinds with a machete. A machine spits slices of plantains into a vat of oil. Juices, the main attraction, are $2 per cup and $7 for half a gallon. The mamey juice is the most popular, a thick juice that tastes a little like papaya or guava. But papaya and guava juices are also available, as well as pineapple, carrot, beet, and other combinations.

La Moon
This Venezuelan restaurant is popular with the post-clubbing crowd: Thursday through Saturday, it's open from 8 a.m. to 6 a.m. and until at least midnight every day except Sunday. Have an arepa con queso — cheese between two corn pancakes — or a Supermoon Perro, a hot dog with cheese, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, potato chip slivers, sausage, bacon and a quail egg. It can take 15 minutes during slow times just to get takeout, so beware the long wait during busy times at the restaurant (144 S.W. Eighth St., 305-860-6209).

La Carreta
Whether La Carreta has the best Cuban food in Miami is debatable. It's a citywide casual-dining chain, like the Red Lobster of Cuban food in Miami. But for cheap prices — most entrees are about $7 — La Carreta (3632 S.W. Eighth St., 305-444-7501) serves big portions of authentic food in an equally authentic atmosphere, much like the Versailles across the street, aptly described in one travel guide as offering "mucho helpings of Cuban kitsch." Brave the lunchtime crowds to watch the old-school Cuban crowd eat lunch and have cafecitos (Cuban coffees), surrounded by a loud buzz of Spanish.