Drink your way around Colombia

By | Category: Travel destinations
a Caribbean sunset from the Cafe del Mar

a Caribbean sunset from the Cafe del Mar

Faced with the challenge of sampling drinks throughout Colombia, I manfully rose to the occasion and made it my mission to try out local tipples wherever I went. The country is an interesting place, particularly for spirits, since local laws are so strict and protectionism so strong, that it’s near enough impossible to find e.g. a Medellín-distilled rum in Bogotá or vice versa. In other words, for the most part each region, or departamento, has its own drinks’ culture and this made my merry pursuit even more interesting.

I confess I’m an avid tea-drinker, but starting my journey in the so-called Zona Cafetera, famed for its delicious coffees, there was little point in seeking out a strong cuppa. Basing myself in the small, but exceedingly pretty, town of Salento, in the department of Quindío, one of the three main coffee-growing departments in the centre of Colombia, I soon realised there would be no avoiding that ever-so-popular black liquid, so what better place to find out all about it. Salento is great for the visiting coffee enthusiast – small enough to be easily explored and home to some great coffee shops, one of which is Café Jesús Martín, run by Jesús Bedoya (the website is only in Spanish), a man whose interest in coffee is bordering on the evangelical. Given my dubious, or at the very least, ambivalent, feelings about this humble beverage, Jesús had quite an uphill struggle to convert me, as it were, but he set about doing so with the utmost patience and zeal. Not only does he have his own café, Jesús also has his own coffee finca, makes his own coffee, conducts coffee tours and lectures on the subject. Clearly I had come to the right place. An entire day spent exploring the ins and outs of coffee growing, harvesting, roasting and grinding, before sitting down to a cappuccino that was positively a work of art, finally proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that coffee is a pretty decent brew, even if it isn’t tea.

a perfect cappucino from Salento

a perfect cappucino from Salento

The Zona Cafetera lies comparatively high up in the Andes and the temperature can drop quite considerably at night and at height. Coffee will keep you warm, for sure, but it won’t do much for you at high altitudes. The region is home to a number of towering volcanoes and several national parks well worth a visit. I opted for a day in Los Nevados national park, home to no less than three volcanoes, for the most part gently slumbering, but check volcanic activity before attempting any peeks down the craters, as there has been quite a lot of recent activity. It’s possible to drive all the way up to 4,800 metres to view Nevado del Ruiz, the highest and most active of the three. This is when you will need a good dose of agua de panela, a hot drink made from water and unrefined sugar, to counteract the effects of the altitude. The sweet drink is enjoyed throughout the Colombian Andean region to keep warm and alert. A similar drink, enjoyed in bars of the region, is canelazo, also served hot, but in addition to sugar, it includes a hefty splash of rum, some lime and also cinnamon, the latter giving the drink its name. The rum in this part of the world is from the nearby department of Caldas and known as Ron Viejo de Caldas (old rum from Caldas).

La Hechicerarum

La Hechicera rum

Having spent some quality time in the coffee region, enjoying the various warming drinks, it was time to actually head somewhere warmer altogether, to continue the research. To be absolutely thorough I thought it would be wise to check out cooling drinks as well and where better than the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The country has an incredible variety of tropical fruits, perhaps best enjoyed fresh, but also excellent and exceedingly tasty as fruit juices. Settling down to breakfast on the rooftop terrace of my hotel I was introduced to the sweet, bright-red mora juice (something of a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry), the slightly tangy lulo and several other thirst-quenchers. Needless to say tropical fruits all go nicely with rums and the coastal region is home to one of the best, La Hechicera. Interestingly it’s an historic brand that’s only just launched in Colombia itself, previously being sold abroad. Not that I’m advocating rum for breakfast – coffee and fruit juice were quite enough to accompany my rooftop view of Cartagena old town.

The city, dating back to the early 16th century, is best experienced on foot, although a horse-drawn carriage is another popular option. This I found a bit too touristy, I must admit, and settled for ambling, taking in the old buildings, from gently crumbling to recently spruced up, while glugging more interesting juices along the way – mango, soursop, tamarillo – to keep hydrated in the pleasantly sweat-inducing Caribbean sun.

Ron Viejo de Caldas Colombian rum

Ron Viejo de Caldas Colombian rum

Had I been a beer drinker, there were plenty of Colombian lagers to choose from, but I was saving myself for a sundowner. Cartagena is replete with watering holes from the break-the-bank posh to bordering on the scruffy. If, like me, you tend to be a bit scruffy, you may wish to be brave and try the aguardiente, the sugarcane firewater, rather like an eau de vie or grappa, but rougher. This adding-hairs-to-chest beverage is usually drunk neat and aniseed is often added to enhance the flavour. Aniseed notwithstanding it’s a rather vicious brew and probably best avoided unless you’re prepared to drink copious amounts of strong coffee the following morning – not really an option in Colombia where the coffees tend to be mild and smooth. Spurning scruffy for posh, I instead ended the day with a rum sundowner by the sea, all further research momentarily postponed to watch the Caribbean sunset.

For further information about Colombia, click here.

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