My first experience with South Florida came in 2012 while I was on my way to Peru. I had always wanted to see what Miami was like, so I booked a long layover and stayed in a hostel on South Beach. I will never forget it, because unknown to me at the time, my credit card information was stolen upon check in. Naturally, I wouldn’t find out until much later while I was in a very rural part of Peru, when I had no cash left, and the bank had locked down my card for fraud. Thanks, Miami!
My second experience would come via a music cruise leaving out of the Port of Miami. You know, one of those ones where they herd you in like cattle, and feed you the most delectable seafaring sodium logged blocks of food. Moooo-ve! There is something resembling a cheesecake to be had!
I thought it was high time to give this area a redemption visit. I hate writing off entire geographic regions based off of one or two shoddy experiences. I was in Orlando for work, so I decided to get a rental car and make the trek southward. I made a rough sketch of possible destinations (thank you, friends!) and off I went.
What is this place?
I didn’t know what to expect, prior to arriving in Miami. It’s one thing to spend time online researching a destination, it’s another thing entirely to be on the ground experiencing things first hand. As with many locations, my only frame of reference has been what I’ve seen on television and in movies. In my mind I was arriving to one giant yacht party, Tony Montana, and a plethora of guayabera shirts.
I ended up staying in the Little Haiti neighborhood, and it proved to be a great jumping off point for exploring the rest of town. Since I had a rental vehicle on this trip, I decided to drive around for the sake of driving around, in an effort to orient myself and get a feel for the neighborhoods. Little Haiti, Wynwood, Little Havana, Downtown Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Key Biscayne. Each one had such a unique feel, and I barely scratched the surface. The confluence of cultures is quite remarkable here, and each imparts its own particular flavor to the area. Miami felt both accessible and exclusive all at the same time.
Outside of the Perez Museum of Art.
I’ve never been attracted to the guise of opulence, but there is something so appealing about the way Miami does it.
Exhibit inside the Perez.
Eating in Little Havana
Pinolandia was bumping with locals, and it was expected that you order in Spanish. I was sweating in line, because my Spanish isn’t all that great, and I was trying to remember how to say certain words. The ol’ grunt and point trick works, but c’mon, ya know? After I ordered, a gentleman next to me offered his approval of my efforts. The food was already good, but it made things taste a bit sweeter. Carne Asada, Queso Frito, Maduros, and Gallo Pinto! Mmmmm.
A few nights later, I tried Yambo, which isn’t all that far from Pinolandia. Both are in the Little Havana Neighborhood. I imagine many a late night conversation has turned into a contentious battle of allegiance to a certain Fritanga.
Also located in the Little Havana neighborhood is the Cuban restaurant Versailles. Initially I was turned off because of the line out the door, and marquee which read The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant. Good food is good food though, and this place most certainly hit it out of the park.
Traveling Along the Tamiami Trail
I would have made a huge error had I not decided to drive out along Highway 41. I had an interest in the Everglades, but I wasn’t really sure where to begin. My friend Amanda suggested Shark Valley, located about an hour west of Miami. Good call! I rented a bicycle and hopped on the paved 15 mile loop that is shared by trams, walkers, other bikers, and alligators.
It is recommended to arrive early as to ensure you have a bicycle to rent, avoid the noon time sun, and get your day started in general. I adhered to absolutely none of that advice! I still had a great time, got a bit sun kissed, and was able to see a large variety of wildlife.
On the back half of the Shark Valley Trail. Not long after this, I was greeted by a gator in the middle of the road.
After bike riding for a good amount of time, I hopped back in the car and continued westward along 41. Watching the subtle changes in flora and fauna was quite exciting. I ended up driving around an unpaved loop road that is within Big Cypress National Preserve. Very remote, and it gives you access to areas that I don’t think a lot of people take the time to see.
Another one of those weird dogs.
I was hopeful to see a Florida Panther while I was here, but alas, no panthers were seen. However, later that night I did have a very vivid dream about this road in particular. A panther emerged, staring me down in the middle of the road. I remember yelling in my dream, “PANTERA!” I was doubly excited, because upon waking, I realized that this was the first time I had ever had a dream in Spanish. It’s all happening!
Bless you, Joanie’s Blue Crab Cafe. After a day spent mucking around in the Glades, what a great way to kick back for a bit and enjoy some cold beer and frog legs. Kudos to the waitress who was in possession of a vibe that can only be acquired from spending a substantial amount of time in the swamp. If you want fast food, Naples is that way, and Miami is that way. Relax, go slow, enjoy.
Corral Castle and Robert Is Here
Lately, I’ve become interested in visiting large scale, outdoor environments that have been created by lone, eccentric individuals. Seeing their compulsions manifest in these self made environments is absolutely fascinating. Each one is unique, and I’ve been attempting to discern if there is a common bond between their creators. What makes them tick exactly? This one is Coral Castle, located in Homestead, FL. It was constructed over many years by one man as a result of his unrequited love.
Robert is Here Fruit Stand is most definitely worth a stop! So many varieties of tropical fruit grown on site that I had never even heard of.
Oh, you sweet Mamey Sapote. It has the texture of cheesecake and it taste like Flan. Good job, evolution. Check out this tropical fruit guide.
The Florida Keys
I have wanted to make the drive down Highway 1 to Key West, FL for a while now. The drive from Miami took about three hours, and it definitely lived up to the hype. Watching the water hues change from dark blue, to green, to crystal clear was quite remarkable. There is something exciting about driving down a road that doesn’t seem like it should even be there in the first place.
Now, as with any place, there are elements that are appealing and others that are not so much. If I’m totally honest, I had a tough time connecting with Key West. This was a combination of factors: where I was staying, the expense of being here, and the fact that I was traveling by myself. There was a glut of spring breakers during my visit, the normal run of the mill old wealthy couples clogging the streets, and the fact I ended up being devoured by bed bugs at the hostel I stayed at.
I would have enjoyed my time here moreso had I given myself ample time to relax, and partake in more of the outdoor based activities that the Keys have to offer. I didn’t have a bad time by any means, but I can’t say I exactly ever felt plugged in. Hindsight 20/20, forevermore. With that being said, you should still check it out if given the opportunity.
You know, a reasonably sized crustacean in front of a store front.
Nearly 75,000 call Key West Cemetery their final resting place.
Well, how about that. He wasn’t fibbing after all.
Obligatory slice of key lime pie, while in Key West.
Watching people queue up during the day time to take their Southernmost photo inspired me to visit during the cover of night. I had the whole place to myself! Due to my travel plans leading into this trip, I ended up with some seasonally inappropriate gear. Why not make the most of it, ya know?
Arguably the most bizarre sunset I have ever experienced. Gathered on the western edge of Key West in Mallory Square, a couple hundred people raise their phones to the sky in what felt like a modern day solar ritual. As hard as they tried to capture the sun, it retreated beyond the horizon. Upon this moment, the crowd burst into cheers and applause. I stood there befuddled, unsure of how to react. Humans, man.
Ernest Hemingway’s Home
Prior to visiting, I did not know much about Ernest Hemingway. I had somewhat recently read The Old Man and The Sea, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I knew Hemingway was well known, but I don’t think I realized how prolific he actually was. Truly, a larger than life character.
Would I recommend a visit?
The short answer is most assuredly, YES! I never thought I’d hear myself say that. Florida has never been a place that I felt overwhelmingly attracted to, but it’s funny how experience changes an opinion. Miami and the Everglades in particular now have my attention. It is not if I will return, but when.
**For what it’s worth, I don’t really intend for these photos or words to be a guide, moreso a brief sampling of the things I encountered. There is a vast array of resources available online that go into greater depth. Use this as a jumping off point. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading!