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Coffee, the traveller’s treat: Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica & Colombia

Having made it from one end of Central America to the other, we are, by now, fairly used to travelling by bus.  In Mexico we started slowly, opting for plush coaches to tackle day-long journeys. In Guatemala and Nicaragua we favoured the chicken bus, where more people than you can possibly imagine are pushed on, usually to the soundtrack of loud reggaeton and the competing yells of people selling food, drinks or disposable razors while miraculously squeezing between hot and grumpy human sardines. Costa Rica and Panama opt more for the wide-bottomed single decker, where most get a seat and fewer people share the aisle. Generally, the speed is somewhat reduced here too, though bus drivers in almost every country seem to take an indifferent approach to traffic lanes, other vehicles or slow-moving pedestrians.

Despite the occasional sharp intake of breath when a chicken bus plays chicken with another chicken bus, there’s lots to be said for this mode of transport: you’re in amongst the locals, and will often be engaged in conversation or a friendly staring contest with a tiny child; hilarity levels rise as the number of passengers reaches ridiculous proportions, and it is almost always unbelievably cheap. We’ve travelled hundreds of miles for tiny amounts, even with the occasional ‘tourist tax’ added on. It’s so cheap, in fact, that we can find ourselves spending far more on the coffee we reward ourselves with on arriving than the entire journey itself. (Bus station coffee is scalding hot, readily available and cheap, but, coffee snobs that we are, generally ear-marked for emergencies only.)

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Cafe Loco, Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Having hiked our way to Lago Atitlan and settled ourselves in hilly Santa Cruz, it would be a short and soggy boat ride to the villages dotted around the lake. Panajachel is best known for its thoroughfare of stalls, selling all manner of tourist tat and offering fried chicken every hundred metres. We didn’t hold much hope for breakfast, but, in coffee at least, we would be very pleasantly surprised. Hidden amongst the hammocks and ‘authentic’ Guatemalan outifts, Cafe Loco is easy to miss – but this would be a terrible shame. Framed barista awards from around the world nod to the skill within these walls; the giant, gleaming coffee machine and its industrial-sized water filter are the well-tended tools of the trade. The menu is a coffee lovers dream, with every combination conceivable. We opted for a simple latte – blended to perfection – and something more akin to a fine cognac than a cortado: a deep, dark shot of espresso, topped with an exact measurement of foam, served in a glass tumbler and pronounced the Egg Poacher’s Best Coffee, ever. The owners left Korea and learnt their skills in New York, Barcelona and London. Luckily for Guatemalans, they seem set to stay.

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Serious beans need serious machines #coffeeporn

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Espressonista, Granada, Nicaragua

Having woken at dawn and taken three buses that screamed through countryside and crawled through busy towns, we arrived, hot and dusty, in Granada. Our hostel was close to the ubiquitous Parque Central, and we were soon following our noses in search of caffiene. Espressonista came up with the goods. Inside the high ceilings, potted plants and interior courtyard gave an airy, tropical feel, while calming electro, striking modern art and beautiful staff added a trace of hipster. As well as complicated salads and an expensive wine list, there were freshly whipped cakes and a host of European coffees on offer. Soon the early start and strains from a bumpy ride had dissolved. Despite the price – more than three times what we’d paid to travel for four hours, though still only amounting to about $12 – we didn’t begrude the expense, chalking this one up as a well-earned (and very well-made) treat.

Como en mi Casa, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

We didn’t plan on being in Puerto Viejo for long, using it as an overnight stop before crossing the border into Panama. Having stayed – and quickly left – our first hostel (home to giant cockroaches and run by highly-strung travellers who forgot to leave) we looked forward to moving on; but not, of course, without breakfast first. Como en mi Casa fits with the town’s hippy theme nicely, run by friendly vegetarians with a penchant for tattoos and comfortable sandals. There are all manner of soya, raw and vegan options, as well as real milk for those less averse to all things bovine. The coffee here is strong and flavourful, and our cakes so well-intentioned (raw strawberry muffin and gluten- and dairy-free pancakes) we might have even lost weight eating them. Or there’s the hope.

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All you need is love. And pancakes. #puertoviejo

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Museo de Antiquoia, Medellin, Colombia

We set down in Colombia late at night, so only had the sea of lights to guide our impression of the very sizeable Medellin. By morning the unique landscape was revealed – great swathes of high rises that cover the hills all around, with an equally built up and bustling centre. Despite the fact that everything is industrial-sized, the city is not without its charms: a shiny, new Metro whisks people across the city, allowing us to sample the noisy centre dotted with old churches and galleries, or the far lusher and calmer Botanical Gardens in the university district. On our first morning we opted to head straight into the city’s heart to take in the wonderfully rotund sculptures of Fernando Botero, a man with great fondness for boobs and bums (and not necessarily only on the ladies). There’s a gallery dedicated to him, too, and though the attached cafe might not have had the best coffee in the world, the setting – overlooking the square, aforementioned bums in view – is hard to beat.

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Coffee with a Cause, Guatemala & Honduras

As long term tourists we do our best to travel in a considerate way. It seems obvious that being polite, having a go at the local lingo and leaving a place as you find it are basically good ideas. Sadly it seems more travellers than ever have packed one more bottle of tanning oil in favour of their manners.

Take, for example, the tightly Speedo’d gent in Caye Cualker who considered it acceptable to get a nurse shark in a choke hold for the purposes of his GoPro album (presumably entitled ‘Proof I Wasn’t Brought Up Correctly, 2015’); how about the personification of a hangover in Antigua who left a trail of cigarette butts in his path while watching the cleaners trying to get her job done? There are the ubiquitous ‘shout-louder-and-they’ll-understand-mes’, always, unfailingly baffled when their approach is met with a blank look, as well as those with personalities set to ‘Arse’ when it comes to dealing with anyone unfortunate enough to have to serve said numpty in a country they’re not familiar with.

Of course, not all tourists forget to be human beings, just as not everyone will treat tourists with respect. It can be a minefield – a combination of traveller’s guilt, cash-poor countries and an amorphous tourist ‘industry’ often leaves those looking to have a positive impact – or at the very least, not leave a negative one – somewhat lost. So it’s lucky that there are people out there ready to show us one very small step in the right direction, and in one of our favourite ways – with a cup of coffee.

Cafe Armonia, Xela, Guatemala

Guatemala is famous for its coffee, and rightly so: with 8 regions to pick from, there’s a blend to suit every taste. Xela is a mid-sized town somewhere near the middle, a few hours from the better known Lake Atitlan. It wasn’t to be our favourite place (though this was no doubt tainted by the disappearance of my mobile on the infamous chicken bus), but we did find some very excellent coffee at Cafe Armonia, a Mayan-owned and run place with its own on-site coffee roaster.

It’s a popular spot for Spanish students and freelancers, playing surprisingly excellent electro and offering the ever-obligatory Wi-Fi. Best of all, the cafe only works with local smallholders, ensuring the profits go back into the mountain communities that painstakingly grew the coffee in the first place.

CECAP, Santa Cruz, Guatemala

Santa Cruz must surely be the town with the most defined calf muscles, perched as it is on the side of one of the steep volcanoes around Lake Atitlan. Having heaved ourselves uphill, we headed straight for CECAP, a training kitchen and carpentry workshop built for the local adolescents to hone their skills for working life; off-site, there were also courses in sexual health and childcare and a nursery, tackling head-on the challenges of unemployment and teenage pregnancies that are prevalent in the area.

Back at CECAP, chefs in crisp white aprons bustled to and from the kitchen, serving simple coffees, fresh juices and excellent lunches. Lucky diners were left to take in the views and stretch weary legs, before tackling the descent home.

Tazazul Coffee, La Ceiba, Honduras

After a long journey across the border we found ourselves in Honduras as the sun was setting. Things didn’t start well – the ATMs refused to hand over any cash so our taxi driver tried to charge us double to take us to one that did; when we arrived at our hostel, the setting was somewhat depressing (broken doors, stained walls, ripped bedsheets), though the decor was to become a moot point as the power went off. We managed to find some food then set about sweating quietly into the night – at least until the power came back on at 3am, switching on lights, air-conditioning, radios and fast-flowing showers all at the same time.

The next morning we debated our way via another taxi to the ferry dock in La Ceiba and were ready for an uninspiring wait for the boat that would take us to Utila (famous for its excellent scuba diving and generous tourist-to-local ratio). We didn’t hold much hope for our breakfast options, with only a handful of stalls selling Cokes and SIM cards in sight. And then, from nowhere – Tazazul. A small coffee caravan with its own pine-covered deck, it boasts excellent espresso, cakes and, incongruously, WiFi, all part of a not-for-profit scheme to bring funds to schools in the local area. The staff are friendly and keen to share tips on the surrounding islands – things were starting to look up.

Rio Coco Cafe, Utila, Honduras

Utila is probably the least Honduran place in Honduras, full as it is with salty-haired, tattoo’d tourists looking to learn, or teach, scuba diving. Like Caye Caulker in Belize, golf carts are the transport of choice, and there’s a laid back air to almost everything.

The slow pace also envelops Rio Coco Cafe, only open Mondays to Fridays between 7am and 12pm – but you forgive their langurous attitude when the coffee’s as good as this. There are smoothies, bagels and muffins on offer and they have their own private pier for a dip in the crisp Caribbean seas. And, to reduce the guilt of doing nothing but navel gaze all morning, the profits go towards two major education projects in Honduras and Nicaragua.

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