Coffee lesson from Cartago #2: The party scene is with coffee

On a Friday night, there are a thousand people gathered in a shadowy park dominated by huge rain trees. Every single person is holding a drink. It’s only eight o’clock, and they will stay there until one or two o’clock. It’s not any weekend of partying in a Latin American city.

Who said that the rumba is in the dance clubs? There is nothing better than enjoying a healthy environment, where the only cover is that provided by the leafy treetops, with a drink that does not cause brawls but guffaws.

In Cartago, the wholesome way to party is with coffee.

The park used to be just a pasture, where during the day the children swung from the branches of the gigantic rain trees. At night, the youth continued to celebrate a soccer match with afterparties in the park. They parked their cars with the doors open and the music at full blast, annoying all the neighbors.

With the intervention of the mayor, the drugs disappeared and the party scene changed. An outdoor gym was installed, promoting healthy exercise. Then the healthy rumba arrived. All four blocks of the linear park were filled with coffee vendors. Every three meters you can find someone selling iced coffee and cold cappuccino to beat the heat.

The heat of Cartago doesn’t begin to diminish until the sun sets around six o’clock. People venture out at eight to start a night of drinking coffee, and that’s enough to have a good time. With all of that caffeine in their system, it’s a very late-night culture.

We had insomnia in Cartago, but not because of the deafening music from nightclubs. Our partying was simple and quiet: chatting respectfully and sipping one black coffee after another.

*Translation by Carrie Cifuentes of “Lección de café de Cartago #2: Rumbear con café“.

Lección de café de Cartago #2: Rumbear con café

Un viernes en la noche, hay unos mil personas reunidas en un parque lleno de sombras de los samanes. Todos, sin falta, tienen un trago en la mano. Apenas son las ocho, y allí se quedarán hasta la una o dos de la madrugada. No es cualquier fin de semana de rumba en una ciudad latinoamericana.

¿Quién dijo que la rumba es en las discotecas? No hay nada mejor que disfrutar un ambiente sano, donde el único cover es la misma copa refrescante de los árboles, con una bebida que no produce riñas sino risas.

En Cartago, “la ciudad del sol más alegre de Colombia”, la rumba sana es con el café.

Antes, el parque era apenas un potrero, donde en el día los niños columpiaban desde las ramas gigantescas de los samanes. De noche, los jóvenes remataban sus fiestas en el coliseo. Estacionaban los carros con las puertas abiertas y el equipo a todo taco, molestando a los vecinos.

Con la intervención de la alcaldía, el vicio desvaneció y el ambiente transformó. Instaló un gimnasio al aire libre, promoviendo el deporte saludable. Y llegó la rumba sana. Los cuatro cuadras del parque lineal se llenaron de vendedores de tinto. Cada tres metros hay un puesto ambulante ofreciendo granizado de café y cappuccino frío para calmar el calor.

No es hasta las seis de la tarde, cuando oculta el sol, que empieza a mermar el calor de Cartago. La gente sale a las ocho a empezar a tomar café, y basta con eso para pasar un buen rato. Con todo esa cafeína, es una cultura bastante trasnochadora.

Tuvimos insomnio en Cartago, pero no por una rumba ensordecedora de las fondas y discotecas. La rumba fue sencilla y callada: conversar respetuosamente y sorber un tinto tras otro.

Coffee lesson from Cartago #1: Summer beverages are backwards

A steaming cup of coffee wouldn’t be very pleasant to drink in a sauna. It’s fortunate that Colombian coffee grows well at high altitudes, and you can enjoy a hot brew on cool mountain mornings at origin.

Most of the coffee-growing triangle has mild weather, pleasant enough to wear pants and a short-sleeved shirt, cool enough to appreciate a toasty mug of coffee at any time of the day.

Just outside the triangle tip is Cartago, a low-lying city in the Valle de Cauca. The department capital is Cali, which I interpret as an abbreviation of “caliente”, or hot. Cartago isn’t as deep in the valley heat, but still marks a summery 30-40 degrees and 80% dryness. Crank up the thermostat any more and we’ll be roasting the beans on the sidewalk.

I was expecting to eat a lot of icecream and stay in the swimming pool (never actually calculated how many laps I’d have to make to offset the calories) on a trip to Cartago last week.

Instead, I sipped on piping hot espresso shots all night, didn’t sleep a wink, and got up to start all over again in the morning. It’s taken me a week to recover and write this post.

Cartago has an intense coffee-drinking scene! Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned from Cartagueños:

Lesson #1: Hot coffee quenches thirst better than icy drinks.

I endured the 6-hour sunny drive to Cartago by fantasizing about ice-cold coconut lemonade, and when we got to the roadside restaurant that specializes in it, La Estación Típica, they didn’t have any coconut. Not a single nut out of the whole stretch of palm trees lining the riverbank? What a disappointment to learn that they get a flavor mix trucked in from the city. That didn’t quench the craving, though.

coconut lemonade cartagena
Coconut lemonade from Cartagena (close, but not Cartago). Photo credit:

Once we arrived I faced plenty of temptation to eat icecream or sip on frosty lemonades in yummy tropical flavors. Cool treats to beat the heat, right? I worked at Dairy Queen, I know this stuff.

We sought out shade under the leafy parks and were amazed to see the walkways full of coffee vendors. Not just an occasional cart with some thermoses, but entire machines rigged up, boiling the water on spot and handing out scorching tintos. Business was flowing and the competition was…err…hot.

The vendors offered all of their beverages either hot or cold. Granizado de café (shaved ice coffee) and milo frío (cold hot chocolate–it just sounds weird!) were two popular chilled options. You could even order a cold cappuccino, something I’d never heard of before.

I figured I’d stumbled across a tropical coffee lover’s paradise. All it needed was some coconut infusions.

Carlos Alberto, a silver-haired worker I caught hand-grinding beans with sinewy arms at Café Al Parque, let me in on a secret.

Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

“The mystery,” he said, “is that cold beverages don’t calm your thirst. Now then, if you drink a tinto…” He dramatically paused for the weight of this advice to sink in, “hopefully without any sugar and very hot–that’s the key–you won’t be thirsty any more.”

I’m used to American-style ice water, with mini icebergs peeping out the top of a glass as tall as my forearm. And that’s in Minnesotan restaurants!

So this advice goes against my upbringing, but I’m going to let it continue seeping in.

I got good and sweaty writing this. Shall I fix myself a hot cup of coffee?

Stay tuned for the next lessons…