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…

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