Tampa Bay's relationship with Cuba goes back to the 1880s, when cigar magnate Don Vicente Martinez Ybor built his massive cigar factory east of downtown in what would become known as Ybor City. As the cigar industry took off over the next few years, Tampa Bay quickly became a magnet for Cuban immigrants seeking their fortunes as well-paid, highly respect rollers. In a few years, they turned Tampa Bay in the Cigar Capital of the World and Cuba became Tampa Bay's strongest trading partner. Cuban-inflected Spanish is still the region's unofficial second language.
Tampa Bay's 130-plus-year relationship with the Cuban people took a hit in 1962 when the Cuban Embargo was imposed. But things began to change in 2015 as the U.S. re-established diplomatic ties with the island. Today, Tampa Bay is your best location for launching a day trip to Havana, hopping a cruise to Cuba or even discovering Cuba without a passport. Here's how:
You don't have to look far to find Cuban culture in Tampa Bay:
- Our Latin Quarter, Ybor City, was founded by Cuban exile Vicente Martinez Ybor, who moved his cigar business there in the 1880s. In the following decades, Tampa Bay became a magnet for Cubans, building strong social and commercial connections between the two communities. Today's brick streets, iron balconies and strong cafe con leche hark back to those earlier days.
- Cuban torcedores still roll hand-made cigars along Seventh Avenue (La Séptima) as they did when Tampa Bay produced millions of cigars using tobacco leaf grown in Cuba, making us the Cigar Capital of the World. Florida's first commercial brewery opened in Ybor City in 1897, shipping much of what it produced to thirsty Cubanos.
- The world famous Cuban sandwich has developed many permutations over more than a century. But the original was invented here at Ybor City's El Pasaje building to feed all those Cuban cigar workers. Vicente Martinez Ybor himself approved the final recipe.
- For 53 years, the only piece of Cuban-owned US soil stood in a quiet corner of Ybor City. Jose Marti Park -- still officially international soil -- commemorates the connection between Marti and Tampa Bay. The Cuban poet and freedom fighter found support for his revolution against the Spanish Empire among Ybor City's thousands of cigar workers. Marti survived an assassination attempt in Ybor City and recovered with the help of local supporters.
- Striking silver minarets making downtown's former Tampa Bay Hotel a local icon. Now part of the University of Tampa, the historic moorish-inspired building was the headquarters for the US military in the run-up to the Spanish-American War, which ultimately freed Cuba from Spanish rule. The invasion of Cuba launched from the Port of Tampa. Then-Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders left an indelible impression on Tampa Bay.
So before travel to La Habana, give yourself some time to sample Cuba right here in the US of A -- in Tampa Bay.