Coffee Nooks in Mexico City

After almost five years living here, Mexico City both vexes and fascinates me still. A feeling that undulates between being where things happen and being overwhelmed by its many buildings, streets, cars, planes and general buzz. Somewhere amidst the chaos, however, I have found little havens where to stay sound, let down my guard and write, read or just be. Many of these places happen to coffee shops, who would have thought. These are the coffee shops I’ll miss the most now I’m moving:

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Almanegra Café, Roma

If you’re looking for a cup of coffee to come back to life after a night out or, say, an allnighter of thesis writing, this is the place. This coffee shop offers so many brewing methods and everything between a cold brew and a cappuccino. The main appeal of this place is the coffee. It is a great place for a conversation, but not so much for reading— it is not that cozy or comfy.

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Biscottino, Polanco

This is a cosy litte coffee shop in Polanquito, a few steps away from Lincoln park. After a stroll and some bird watching in the area, this is the place to go for a cup. There are many spots for coffee in this area, but Biscottino is by far one of the best for coffee and matcha lattes. It’s usually quiet, so it’s the perfect spot for reading or sketching.

Hermann Thomas, Coyoacán

This is one of the best specialty coffee places in Mexico City. Just like Almanegra, the best thing about it the quality of its coffee, as well as the variety of brewing methods they offer. Hermann Thomas is also one of the pretties coffee shops out there: its comfy couches and privacy make it one of the best places for a date or some alone time.
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Café Negro, Coyoacán

This place is right next to Coyoacán’s main square and it’s usually very busy (weekends are impossible). They offer really good coffee and a large variety of drinks, but it is not an ideal place to go with company, it’s more of a work space with shared large tables and high chairs. It’s the perfect place to get some writing done.
Café Joselo, Polanco

Tierra Garat

This is a chain, but nevertheess one of the best places for hot chocolate lovers. The best thing about Tierra Garat is their spiced coffee. They have three mixes of coffee and chocolate with spices and they’re all amazing. It’s a nice place for a chat but usually not quiet enough for reading or working. There are several locations, my favourites are the ones on Avenida Eugenia, Colonia del Valle, and Jalapa, Colonia Roma. On the downside, they only serve in disposable cups.

Blend Station, Condesa

This place is the perfect combination between a workspace and a specialty coffee shop. The coffee here is next level, but the atmosphere (lofi music, appropiate lightning, large tables) make it the best for writing or working. They also have really good food and amazing lattes.
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Pretending to study @ Blend Station

Cartagena de Indias

I arrived in Cartagena with a small group of friends one afternoon in July. The weather was incredibly hot and incredibly humid. As our uber approached the AirBnB, the first look we had of the city pretty much summarized our later experience: Cartagena is a coloful, lively town filled with music, delicious food and kind people.

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A typical street in Cartagena

The Walled City

The wall that used to enclose the city during the colonial period now surrounds the historic part of the city, the neighbourhood of San Diego. Here are the oldest buildings and most famous landmarks, and the wall itself is a useful thing to be guided by. On our first day we did some walking around the wall and some exploring of the main square. You’ll find that any place you’d like to see in Cartagena can be walked to, which is amazing. At night, the best places to go to in San Diego are around the Clock Tower, an unmissable yellow building in Plaza de la Paz.

 

Still in the old town, to the north, there’s Gabriel García Márquez’s house, which is a museum now, and a bit further is the Plaza de las Bóvedas, where you can find a lot of colombian handicrafts and souvenirs, as well as the famous, colorful coffee carts that go around the city. In San Diego you’ll also see many horse-driven carriages, which I found really heartbreaking. The weather in Cartagena was around 35ºC, and to see these horses take groups of as much as six people along the winding streets, trying to avoid traffic, was just too much. Considering they’re only used by tourists, I think it’s fair to say that it’s visitors responsibility to stop this kind of abuse.

Anyway, the houses in San Diego are something to see, too. They combine some colonial architecture with the bright colours of the Colombian flag. Most balconies are filled with colorful flowers and the paint of most buildings is bright and lively. If you want to listen to some traditional music, you should go to Plaza Bolívar during the weekend, and take a look at a real “chumpeta” band. If you’re into it you could even dance, many people do. As our AirBnB was in San Diego, we pretty much walked anywhere inside the walls and to Getsemaní. No matter the hour, there was always music playing somewhere (mostly reggaetón) and some laughter can be heard in the distance.

 

 

The walled city is also where all the restaurants and shops are. On our last day we had an amazing breakfast at Mila Vargas, which is a bit expensive but delicious (Mila Vargas is, I understand, some sort of Colombian Martha Stewart, so no matter the hour, try the cakes!). Another food place I recommend is called Laguna Azul; it is not fancy at all and it’s not really in San Diego but in La Matuna. However, it has the best seafood I had in Cartagena and they fetch you any beer you want from the store next door. Try ceviche de camarón. If you’re into seafood (which I wasn’t much before going to Cartagena), you can also visit La Mulata, a very centric spot with very good food. Bear in mind though that most things are a bit expensive in the centre, as it is the most touristic area. Another thing everybody told us to do was to watch the sunset from Café del Mar (it’s not café, it’s a bar), which has tables with view to the sea. Unfortunately, July is the rainiest month there and the clouds would barely let us see the sun. It is a nice place though.

 

 

Getsemaní

Although San Diego is the “historic” neighbourhood of Cartagena (see, for example, the castle of San Felipe de Barajas which we never went to, but looks nice), the neighbourhood of Getsemaní was my favourite part of Cartagena.

 

Apparently, Getsemaní used to be one of the most dangerous areas in Cartagena. Now it is denfinitely the most popular one. If you want to take a tour with a local, be at Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad at 4.00 pm. The plaza is in front of a nice 17th century church with a bright yellow facade. Not very far from there, on Calle de San Juan, is Café del Mural, one of my favourite places in the city. If you sit outside you can have a look of the street, which is one of the most beautiful in Getsemaní. The walls are covered in steet art and there’s an art gallery nearby which hangs its paintings outside.

 

In general, Getsemaní is a wonderful place to be. You can just walk down the streets and there’s something to see, from quirky statues to majestic art on the walls, almost everywhere. It is a pretty safe neighbourhood too, and you’ll notice many people just go on about their business leaving their front doors open.

 

Playa Blanca

Although Cartagena is in the Caribbean, I was a bit disappointed to see that its beaches are not very pretty. In fact, not many people go there. The most beauiful beaches are not in the city but down south a bit, in a little peninsula that belongs to the National Park Corales del Rosario. Playa Blanca is there, but getting there was quite stressful. If I had to name the thing that I liked less about Colombia, it would be the peddlers. They’re everywhere and they insist a lot for tourist to buy their handicrafts, boat trips or whateever they’re selling.

If you approach the Muelle de los Pegasos, the port from which most small ships sail, you will be quickly surrounded by five people trying to sell you a boat trip to Islas del Rosario, a tour of the city, a ride to Playa Blanca and pretty much anything. Dealing with these people can be quite hard as they can even fight among themselves for a client. When we were there, out initial plan was to visit Islas del Rosario, but the trips offered seemed so overpriced and the people were so pushy that we called it quits.

So we decided to go to Playa Blanca instead. Taxis wanted to charge us 50 dollars, and an uber was only about 30. So we took an Uber. After all, it was just a one-hour ride. So far so good, we were all happy that our day trip wasn’t ruined. Until our Uber driver got lost. We ended up who knows where and the car could barely make it on the unpaved streets. At one point we had to get off the car for it to get out of a hole in the road. To this day I’m thankful our driver didn’t lose and just left us there.

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Cartagena to Playa Blanca, ideally

After two very stressful hours we finally made it to Playa Blanca. If the peddlers in Cartagena were extra, the ones in Playa Blanca were scary. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car when a group of five or six young men started trying to rent us hammocks, chairs, offering us lunch, drinks. The followed us for about a kilometer along the beach, which is really beautiful but filled with restaurants and a bit crowded. Finally we gave in  and rented some chairs at one of the places they offered us, we left our stuff and swam a bit and everything was okay again.

Being in the ocean was better too because peddlers could not reach you there. As soon as we were sitting, people started coming to offer us massages (which I paid for), coconuts (which I bought) and jewelry (I resisted). Soon, however, it got late and we ordered lunch. This was, no kidding, the best food I had in Colombia (probably one of the best in my life too). We had a huge, fried sierra fish for three of us, as well as patacón (some kind of small cake made out of fried banana) and coconut rice with Águila beer. It was truly amazing. Most places in the coast serve this fish-patacón-rice dish, but this was by far the best. After this we just chilled and later it started raining. We swam in the rain and left Playa Blanca at around six pm, only to find Ubers did not come this far and most people were already gone. Also, we did not have towels. It was a funny day.

 

Playa Blanca is, in short, a great place if you got some willpower against peddlers and if you have some fresh fish for lunch. It was a very exciting day and, even if this was for the wrong reasons some of the time, one of the best of our Colombia trip. The beach there is a typical Caribbean beach: clear blue waters, palm trees and white sand. And in the end we did go to Rosario Islands, just for half a day to a place called Isla del Sol. Apparently most of the islands belong to private owners and you buy some sort of all-inclusive package for a day (transport, food, hotel facilities). I prefered Playa Blanca.

 

Have you been to Cartagena?

Were It Not For Coffee…

“Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”
—Honoré de Balzac
“Coffee gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.”
—Gertrude Stein

For me, it is impossible to imagine a world without coffee. It is better to believe that humanity has always counted with its help to get through everyday life, through mornings, through sleepless nights. Nevertheless, the history of the dark, hot beverage we worship today is relatively recent. The use of the coffee tree can be traced far back, to texts like the Odyssey, the Bible or the Quran. In ancient Ethiopia, coffee beans were mixed with other fruits to create a fermented beverage. In other regions of Africa, coffee was used because of its medicinal properties and later it came to the Middle East, where it was known for its stimulant effects. Time after, around the 14th century, it became popular in Rome, not without some discussion against its “demoniac” effects. As to America, coffee arrived during the Conquest and its use dispersed quickly.

The coffee plant, a slender tree with cherry-looking red fruits, does not bear much resemblance to the toasted, aromatic beans we buy in coffee shops these days. We owe this presentation of coffee to 18th century Europe, where coffee was reserved for royalty and aristocracy. The beverage we now know counts Louis XV of France and Rousseau among its first adepts, also Voltaire, who it is said used to drink around 40 cups of coffee mixed with chocolate a day.

It makes sense that a beverage capable of dispelling sleep and improving attention became more and more popular as the world entered the Industrial Age. It also became available not only for the rich, but also for the middle classes and the intellectual circles. Coffee’s popularity caused the emergence of places specialized in its preparation and distribution, cafés. Today we can find many kinds of cafés, but despite their inoffensive image, their history is related to political meetings, literary debates and revolutionary gatherings.

 

Cafés oscillate between the private and the public, between the intimate and the social. The place cafés occupy in history has been crucial for the development of philosophy, politics and literature; hundreds of artists and thinkers have met there to discuss and share ideas. Even when it is a public space, it is also intimate to the extent that many private conversations happen at the same time and voices fade in the general murmur.

Also, cafés are surrounded with an intellectual aura, they used to represent the vie bohème and, even now, poetry readings and exhibitions take place in chic cafés. The characters from Cortázar’s Rayuela, listening to jazz and wandering around Paris’ cafés, the characters from Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes drinking cup after cup and gathering in ramshakled coffee shops in Mexico City, Franz Kafka reading his writings to his friends in a small café in Prague, are just some examples of the close relationship between artists and intellectuals, specifically writers, and cafés.

Even when cafés offer many commodities for groups, but they also have their charms for the lone visitor. Some of the most important literary works have been written in cafés. Hemingway speaks of his writing experiences in cafés in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter in Paris. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot also wrote in cafés, J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a small café in the heart of Edinburgh, The Elephant House, McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café takes place in, well, a sad café.

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Apart from encouraging writing, cafés offer a discreet window to the outside world, an opportunity of solitary observation fuelled by caffeine consumption. Cafés open up a space and time where one can just be, where one can just look around or think with the excuse of drinking a cup of coffee. The action of drinking coffee is really just that, an excuse for being late, an alibi, a justification for taking time for one’s self. To drink coffee is to postpone: postpone sleep but also defer physical activity, put off the everyday routine and privilege, instead, intellectual activity, reading, conversation, thought.

Coffee is a place and an activity. The beverage in itself, the extract from coffee beans, is also linked to intellectual life and literary work. Technically, coffee is stimulant because it contains caffeine, a chemical compound that affects the central nervous system directly. Its effect is not that different from that of cocaine, but in a minor degree: it affects behaviour, mood and the answer to external stimuli.

Even when it would be necessary to consume more than 100 cups of coffee to die from it, just a couple of them can dispel sleep and improve our attention capacity. Balzac used to drink more than 50 cups a day when he was working on La Comédie humaine, and he thanked the magic elixir for his writing abilities; he wrote day and night, just taking some naps.

The work of the sleepless writer involves the voluntary deferring of sleep to satisfy a much more urgent need: writing. No matter how relieving sleep might be, night-time seems to be the favourite moment of the day for writers. It is at least the only moment they really own, that moment in which they don’t have to work, perhaps the only time they can dedicate to their personal projects, those which the course of everyday life makes them postpone indefinitely. Night-time also offers silence and a new chance for astonishment, because thins are different in darkness, when it is certain that everybody else sleeps. But night-time could be the theme of another essay; the truth is, coffee allows one to rebel against one’s own body clock, a chance to appropriate the time that shouldn’t belong to consciousness; coffee is a tool in the exploration of night-time.

If Balzac represents sleepless, coffee-addict writers, it is important to speak of the other type of sleepless, coffee addicts, the ones that defer sleep in the pursue of another necessity: reading. Maybe they have to read, maybe they want to read, but in any case, caffeine-fueled reading is a different kind of reading. The effects of coffee, agility and even nervousness, make of it an altered reading that may have some incidence in dreams, that might result in misinterpretation or overinterpretation (the best kinds of reading).

And for the sleepless writer/reader, coffee is an ally in the mornings too. This time is also about postponing, about delaying the start of the day. The morning cup represents a brief time in which we can collect strength to take us through the day. Morning coffee is an intimate moment, a chance to really wake up, with every sense, a personal time in which we may read a book or the newspaper to find out the kind of world we woke up in that day, or simply look at the coffee cup until sleepiness is finally gone.

In the end, to drink coffee is an act of faith, a possibility to be more, to write more and to read more (activities that might be the same), a door into the world. Just like ink and paper, coffee is necessary to literary life. I’m not saying other professions don’t count on coffee, but maybe those who haven’t felt the frenzy of drinking coffee after midnight just to be able to keep reading or writing, don’t feel shivers down their spines when they think that, were it not for coffee, many masterpieces would have never been written.