Salsa in the Streets: If It’s March, It’s Time For Miami’s Calle Ocho Festival
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
With a world record-setting conga line and more croquetas than you can possibly eat, the annual Calle Ocho Festival in early March is the ultimate Miami experience.
The free block party, which stretches 19 blocks and draws up to 1 million people to the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, is the largest Hispanic festival in the nation.
It was started more than 40 years ago by a group of young Cuban-Americans in a gesture of good will as waves of immigrants fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist regime washed a seismic cultural shift over Miami, transforming it from a small southern enclave of retirees to an international Alpha city with a decidedly Latin flair. Money raised by the event supports student scholarships and other Kiwanis Club of Little Havana activities (so you’re partying for a good cause).
Today, the city cooperates by blocking off traffic on Southwest 8th Street (Miami’s iconic “Calle Ocho”) and opening the street up to the people, from Southwest 8th to Southwest 27th avenues.
As the culminating event of Carnaval Miami, the action-filled day in one of Miami’s hottest cultural ’hoods celebrates all things Latin. In addition to Florida’s Cuban culture, festival goers will encounter music, food and crafts representing Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Venezuelans, Peruvians, Argentineans, Ecuardorians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans who call Miami home, accounting for 70 percent of metro area’s population.
“It brings together all these communities,” Kiwanis Club of Little Havana Board Member Jesus Lebeña said. “All these countries come together for one day to try different food and celebrate Hispanic culture.”
Every Spanish-speaking country is represented by food, flags and live music, with radio stations, record labels and tourism boards sponsoring a dozen concert stages and their acts, ranging from marquee names like Daddy Yankee and Pitbull to telenovela stars and protégés on the cusp of delivering the next big sound. Winding through the pulsing crowds, you’ll hear reggaeton, salsa, bachata, merengue, EDM, hip hop, rock and pop music.
Feel free to bust a move. Nobody judges here – unless you’re a contestant in the Miss Carnaval beauty pageant or in the running to be named King or Queen of Carnaval Miami. For that crown, there is fierce competition, with Latin legends such as Thalia, Willy Chirino, Maria Conchita Alonso, Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcia, Elvis Crespo, Celia Cruz and Desi Arnaz winning the annual honor since 1982.
Jump into the throngs. The entire historic neighborhood – one of six iconic Florida ethnic enclaves – is filled with wandering street musicians, folkloric dancers and flag wavers. Latin street vendors sell everything from cigars and coffee to clothing and natural remedies.
It wouldn’t be a street fair without good street grub, and one of the main attractions of Calle Ocho Festival is the food. Bite into home-cooked Latin American and Caribbean culture at the hundreds of food booths and sampling stations serving everything from meat-stuffed empanadas to cheese-filled arepas, with shots of super-sweet, hot Cuban coffee in between.
Watch “El Croquetazo,” the World Championship Croqueta Eating Contest, where 30 amateur, celebrity and professional eating champs compete for cash prizes and the answer to the question, “How many crispy, fried croquetas can a human being possibly consume in eight minutes?”
The reigning response, sanctioned by Major League Eating: 158!
Calle Ocho festival is the official host of the Cuban Sandwich Smackdown competition, where rivals from Miami and Tampa battle for “The Best Cuban Sandwich.” VIP ticket holders have access to a private tasting area where they can see for themselves who has the best pork-and-cheese sandwiches and schmooze with professional chefs and the judges representing the best of the Florida Cuban Heritage Trail.
The festival is family-friendly, with a four-block area designed for children. Kids can meet athletes from the Marlins, Miami Heat and other sports teams, and enjoy watching magicians and clowns. There also are hands-on activities, such as coloring flags and making maracas.
There is always a big, crazy competition going on. Calle Ocho festival has set multiple Guinness World Records, including the world’s longest conga line (119,986 people), the largest piñata (10,000 pounds) and the largest flag image (422 flags from around the world folded into one 250-by-36-foot banner. The “One World” flag was marched down the street by over 100 volunteers.
Most people think of the Calle Ocho Festival as a one-day affair, but it’s actually the culmination of Carnaval Miami, a 10-day series of cultural events held throughout South Florida that include fishing and soccer tournaments, a golf classic, a cooking contest, a 10K run, the Miss Carnaval beauty pageant and a very serious domino competition.
Little Havana’s legendary Domino Park, aka Maximo Gomez Park at 801 SW 15th Ave., is a longtime hangout for Cuban veterans and elders who gather at the small, urban spot daily for cigar smoking, political discussions and intense domino and chess playing. (Gomez was a Cuban hero who fought in the revolution against the Spanish that led to the island nation’s independence.) During Carnaval Miami, more than 200 contestants compete in an all-day tournament, with top players receiving cash prizes.
Recently, a day-long craft beer festival in Wynwood called “Tap That Craft” and a two-day wine and food festival in Coral Gables called “Cork & Fork” have been added to the Carnaval Miami mix. The beer event features samplings from Florida craft breweries, live music, games and real-time paintings by local graffiti artists. The wine and food festival showcases some of the Miami’s most talented chefs and dozens of restaurants, with culinary tastings, cooking demonstrations and mixology experiences.
Treat yourself to a stress-free experience during Carnaval Miami and splurge on a $100 VIP ticket that includes reserved parking and access to VIP lounges, backstage experiences and private bashes, including a rooftop champagne lounge overlooking the Calle Ocho Festival.
For a tamer experience, try Calle Ocho’s sister festival, Carnaval on the Mile, in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. The free, two-day street party, also hosted in March by Kiwanis of Little Havana, focuses on Latin Jazz and features live performances, tastings and art.