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    My 2023 Manic Travels in Review, Part Four

    By John Chen–

    (Editor’s Note: San Francisco Bay Times sports columnist John Chen is an avid traveler. This year he has been looking back on some of the places he visited in 2023. See the February 8, February 22, and April 4 issues of the Bay Times for parts 1–3. Here is the fourth and final installment.)

    Little Havana, Miami, Florida

    According to the website Miami and Beaches, “Little Havana—the heart of Miami’s Cuban diaspora—is centered around Calle Ocho (Southwest Eighth Street), a vibrant thoroughfare lined with Latin-inspired restaurants, bakeries, fruit stands, cigar shops, rum bars, art galleries and music venues. It’s also where you’ll find the famed Máximo Gómez Park (known as Domino Park). The street is lined with murals and other artwork, from the mosaic tiles near Domino Park depicting classic symbols of Cuban heritage.”

    I lived in South Florida for two years in the mid-2000s and have visited the area numerous times since then. However, it wasn’t until last fall that I finally ventured into the most iconic and historic neighborhood in Miami, Little Havana. It’s like growing up in Los Angeles and never dipping my toes into the Pacific Ocean.

    John Chen in front of Little Havana’s Calle Ocho McDonald’s, where
    the artwork reflects the region’s culture

    Entering Little Havana, one can immediately see large, colorful rooster sculptures on various street corners. One was even erected in front of Starbucks painted in the same green we’ve come to associate with the coffee chain. I learned this was affectionately named the Rooster Walk. Roosters symbolize “strength and power” in the Cuban culture and the sculptures represent the spirit of Cuba.

    Strolling down Calle Ocho, one couldn’t also help to notice the abundance of beautiful murals showcasing Cuban history, culture, and pride with some created using only colorful tiles. Even the exterior walls of McDonald’s were beautifully wrapped in Cuban inspired art, reflecting the identity of the community.

    Calle Ocho Rooster Walk, Little Havana

    Next, we couldn’t help but waltz into one of several Cuban cigar shops and observe cigar making firsthand. We then made a beeline towards the oldest Little Havana restaurant and ordered a plethora of delicious authentic Cuban cuisine to sample. Finally, we stopped at the Little Havana Experience, a local art museum that specializes in the famous Cuban collared shirt, the guayabera.

    Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

    Guarding the scenic northern Caribbean entrance into Puerto Plata, typical of most former imperial colonies, stands a defensive fort called Forteleza de San Felipe. While most people head straight to the beach when visiting one of the many Caribbean Island nations, as they should, we prefer to immerse ourselves into the local people, culture, and way of life. Upon landing, we headed inland to see sugarcane fields, dragon fruit farms, and papaya groves, and finally to a small village, Saballo, away from the touristy areas to learn more about the natives and their land.

    Fortaleza de San Felipe at the entrance of Puerto Plata

    Our tour group was invited into the countryside brick, sod, and straw house of Doña Catalina, who with her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren live off the land with little modern conveniences and technologies. We got a first-hand look at how the men make a few of their daily essential tools, how the women sew household goods, and how the entire family helps to cultivate the land. The men also explained how the main house is strong enough to survive a lower category hurricane, but the surrounding adjunct, less essential structures must be rebuilt after every major storm.

    The highlight of our visit was learning how the family makes from scratch a large pot of sancocho, a traditional stew and a favorite of the Dominicans as well as other Caribbean Island peoples. The common ingredients for sancocho are meat, local vegetables, and starch, with seasonings consisting of fresh cilantro, garlic, onions, and thyme. Our pot included pork, chicken, yucca root, green plantain, pumpkin, sweet potato, carrots, and corn. And it was delicious.

    Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

    Old San Juan, also nicknamed “la ciudad amurallada” (the walled city), is the cultural, historical and proud center of Puerto Rico, and one of our top bucket list destinations. In fact, old San Juan is not only the oldest city in the United States, but also the only one that preserved its fortification and walls. Standing guard on the western end of the walled city is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, constructed to protect San Juan from sea attacks and pirates. Castillo San Cristóbal on the eastern end overlooks the inlet and was designed to ward off any land invasion. Along with the preserved colonial city, Old San Juan has been tabbed a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

    Colonial architecture and cobblestone street, Old San Juan

    Fun fact: did you know Puerto Rico was the original name of San Juan and San Juan was the original name for Puerto Rico? When Christopher Columbus arrived on the Caribbean island in the late 1400s, he named it San Juan Bautista. In the early 1500s, the Spanish settlement moved from its more inland location to a more sea-going and trade friendly port named Puerto Rico or “the rich port,” enabling Old San Juan to thrive economically, politically and culturally.

    On our visit, we found Old San Juan to be vibrant, lively, charming, and energetic. We walked along the boardwalk where street vendors sell various locally sourced goods and popular cuisine such as alcapurrias, bacalaitos, empanadillas, papas rellenas, pinchos, piononos, and fresh coconuts. We then strolled the walkway directly below the towering wall guarding Old San Juan until we reached a historical pier and “door,” Puerta de San Juan, the gate to la ciudad amurallada where dignitaries and the rich once landed and entered the city.

    Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan

    Entering the walled city through Puerta de San Juan was like a nostalgic walk down history as we immersed ourselves into the colorful 17th and 18th century colonial architecture. Shops, museums, churches, tree-lined plazas, live performances, and local flavors were everywhere. There was so much to do, see, hear, feel, taste and experience. As the city’s official tourist guide holds, “Old San Juan is special in every way, known for its Old-World elegance, rich history, vibrant culture, five-century old forts, romantic ambience, exquisite food, and festive atmosphere.”

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball, and football teams.

    Published on April 18, 2024