My name is Chris, and I drink. Coffee. Quite a lot of coffee in fact. A friend of mine just opened up a lovely little restaurant and coffee bar in La Candelaria (Papaya Gourmet, since you ask), and according to him I’m just about the only person who’ll come in, sit down, and proceed to order 3 or 4 coffees over the next hour or two. I’m not some sort of twitchy coffee addict, but when I drink coffee I enjoy it to the point of obsession. I live in a good country to feed that obsession.
One of my great joys about living in Colombia has been watching the culture of specialty and third-wave coffee grow from a handful of excellent independent coffee shops to a movement which is growing at a rate of knots, particularly in Colombia’s capital. A couple of years ago we wrote about the top 5 indie coffee shops in Bogota; I’m now planning a follow up, but I might have to make it 10/20 just to fit in all the diverse and excellent coffee options in the city.
As a coffee-lover I’ve also been privileged to spend a great deal of time exploring Colombia’s coffee regions, the most famous of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I have picked ripe berries from coffee trees, shed them of their red skins in hand-operated machines, and seen them drying in the warm sun of the Colombian Andes. I have then been able to do the thing I really came for (drink the coffee!) in the knowledge that I am currently drinking just about the freshest coffee I will ever drink.
But coffee cultivation in Colombia is not just limited to handful of departments in the middle of the Andes; the Quindio’s and Antioquia’s of this world. Sure, coffee from Huila and Tolima might be world-famous, but you can find coffee growing in Putumayo and Caqueta. Those delicious little berries ripen in the Guajira and the llanos the same as the Coffee Triangle. With that in mind I’d like to tell you about the best cup of coffee in Colombia (NB: your experience may differ from mine!)…
The best cup of coffee in Colombia was served to me on Christmas Eve 2015. I was spending Christmas deep in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the Arhuaco indigenous spiritual capital of Nabusimake. I have already written in depth about how my time in “the land where the sun is born” was some of the most special and unique in my life. You can read all about that elsewhere on this blog (here, specifically). I’m talking coffee here!
So, back to Christmas Eve, and the coffee. I was invited to accompany a Colombian lady who had worked as a teacher in Nabusimake years earlier on a visit to her friend’s house up in the valley. I agreed, and we strolled along past the walled village that forms the heart of the community, before turning off the main path up a hill towards a little house overlooking the woods below. She entered first, and when invited in, I followed. I was offered coffee and, for all the reasons you’ve already read, I naturally accepted.
Coffee is everywhere in Nabusimake. The higher altitude and milder temperature belies our proximity to the baking Caribbean coast and make growing excellent coffee much easier. Cultivating coffee is now a major source of income for many Arhuaco people (as in much of Colombia, sadly, their best product is not destined for their own cups). However, every little homestead still has it’s own glade of coffee trees and produces their own personal supply of the good stuff. I could see coffee growing in the small garden behind the house, along with the pigs, sheep and cows, so I had good reason to believe that what I was about to drink was fresh.
The lady of the house, wearing a long white dress, her neck adorned with colorful bead necklaces, walked over to the stove and ladled the coffee into a large gourd which she then handed to me. The coffee warmed my hands through the thin shell of the gourd. I brought it up to my lips, somewhat carefully in the half-darkness of the house, and sipped on the liquid contained within. It was hot and sweet, flavored with the delicious panela cane sugar which the Arhuaco people also make. The taste of the coffee mingled in my mouth and throat with the soft scent of wood-smoke that enveloped the house and I began to look around.
I was sitting on the stump of a tree. To my left, on the floor leaning against the wall, sat another woman, quietly sewing a traditional mochila (the creation for which the Indigenous peoples of the Sierra are most well known). A little boy sat next to her, occasionally glancing up at me with curiosity. The house was almost a perfect square. We sat in the ‘common’ area in front of the door, and a wall created a division from the kitchen area. I peered around the wall: the pot of coffee was still quietly bubbling on the fire, and a large skinned animal was hanging from a metal hook in the wall. Dinner for the night. I asked what it was and was given a name I’d never heard before in reply. It looked like a giant rat.
I drank two more gourds of the hot sweet coffee whilst the ladies caught up and chatted. I just sat there enjoying a privileged moment of interaction with a culture that is extremely divided from outsiders, both spatially and culturally. The Arhuaco people are rightly mistrustful of outsiders, and to be invited into a person’s home in Nabusimake felt like a unique moment to me. I wanted to savor it like I was savoring the delicious coffee.
I have drunk coffee prepared by Colombia’s National Barista Champion; award-winning Huila reserve coffee; ice coffee slow brewed through a dripper in one of London’s best cafes. There is undoubtedly good and bad coffee. And to the experts the cup I drank on Christmas Eve may well have been a bad one. But this panela-infused gourd of fresh coffee in a smoky house in the high Sierra Nevada will always be the best cup of coffee in Colombia to me. That’s the magic of Colombia: sharing a moment with kind people and a hot cup of coffee trumps any Lost City or unending jungle, and I won’t be forgetting my coffee experience in Nabusimake anytime soon.