Juan Valdez in Santa Marta city center near the main port
Cafe Bonsai in Taganga (little bay fishing town slightly east of Santa Marta)
JUAN VALDEZ – Santa Marta
In my relatively limited experience, providing high quality coffee in terribly hot and humid conditions is usually an EPIC FAIL based on my experience with several of the coffee barons in Managua, Nicaragua.
That said, Juan Valdez has managed to keep its product consistently above average (though not excellent) everywhere that I have tried it. This includes the city center in Santa Marta, Colombia. They also provide paying customers with 30 minutes of free wifi (if requested) and have a variety of tasty baked treats to go along with their splendid coffees. They probably do better business with their cold drinks here in Santa Marta, but also do a decent job of selling and preparing their hot ‘pod’ drinks and single and double shot espresso drinks. My girlfriend thoroughly enjoyed their Cheese/Bread Stick (Palito de Queso) and also the Almojabana (which reminded her of the delicious Brazilian treat Pao de Queijo).
The seating at a Juan Valdez is always comfortable and intelligently situated to provide for the right combination of privacy and social interaction – a key element of Colombian culture.
The Juan Valdez in Santa Marta attracts the local color – musicians and other interesting characters – who come to entertain the heavily foreign (read: German) tourists who setup camp here to practice their Spanish and regroup after excursions in and around the Department of Magdalena. Overall Juan Valdez rarely fails to deliver on the customer expectation for a special and above average experience with above average coffee. Oma cannot compete with Juan Valdez on a national level and this fact is only cemented by positive experiences like the ones I had at the Juan Valdez in Santa Marta. I hope they keep up the good work – and continue to send good merchandise to the DC shops so I can continue to buy their shirts and travel mugs when visiting the Organization of American States!
CAFE BONSAI – Taganga
One such tourist destination in Magdalena is the small fishing town east of Santa Marta by the name of Taganga. Taganga is most known for offering affordable and decent quality scuba diving lessons/certification classes to tourists traveling through this tropical outpost in Colombia.
In Taganga, my friend and I happened upon the self-proclaimed “Nicest Little Coffee Shop in the Southern Hemisphere” – which I had to put to the test. We meandered in, after being followed all the way to the door by a local stray dog looking for some air condition and table scraps. The atmosphere was definitely cool, bohemian, and welcoming to the backpacking tourist hailing from Europe (judging by our company inside). The Left-leaning Aterciopelados blared on the radio and our bohemian waitress/barista took our order after we evaluated their very lengthy menu on the wall for several minutes.
My first inclination was to request the gold standard for a coffee shop – espresso please.
But, I hinted to my friend that the machine was not running (likely to save electricity) and that if they were to pull my shot immediately after turning on the machine, it would be of the worst quality with no crema whatsoever. My prediction was 100% correct – despite the coffee being from a local cooperative of indigenous growers who sell their coffee through designated ‘Casa Indigena’ – indigenous cooperative trade associations (such as this one http://intermundos.org/sierra_nevada1.htm). I suspect that the coffee quality is better than my espresso reflected, so I encourage additional research.
On a side note, the iced tea that my friend ordered was also surprisingly unpleasant. Sadly, it appears that the biggest sell here was that they have English speaking staff, English marketing materials, free wi-fi (that cuts out a lot), and a HUGE menu. Quantity, not quality. Also of note, the prices were expensive even relative to coffee shops in DC and California. Positively, the cozy bohemian feel becomes quite endearing and familiar as an ex-pat in Colombia.
Next time I visit Taganga, I will probably stick with the fresh fish and fresh juices consumed under a straw hut overlooking the bay. Santa Marta and the surrounding areas are quaint, safe and beautiful. I highly suggest visiting!
Another interesting side note – much of this little town’s wealth came from ‘seed money’ in the 70s as a result of the lucrative illicit marijuana trade to the US. Local traquetos laundered the money by investing in real estate, agro-industry, and boosting the local tourism industry. The U.S. market has long since moved to closer producers (British Columbia, Mexico, California) to meet domestic demand and Taganga appears to rely mostly on tourism as its lifeblood. Cheers.