How to find good coffee while traveling.
Finding good coffee is one of life’s great joys. At home we have all the right equipment to make best brew. We also know quite clearly who makes the best cup locally and where to find it. But on the road, especially in a foreign country, finding a fix of beloved caffeine is often a difficult proposition. Here are a few tips I have found useful for finding and enjoying a perfect cup.
The evolution of a coffee snob
We lived for many years in Portland, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Portland is a coffee town – even more than Seattle in my mind.
Shortly after moving there, we went on a trip to the coast for the weekend with friends. Upon arrival, our friends started unpacking and pulled out not only their own coffee, but their own grinder, their own coffee maker and their own bottled water. Jo Ann and I just rolled our eyes and thought our friends a bit nuts.
Now, twenty plus years later, we are exactly the same. We spend at least as much time discussing the coffee options for upcoming travel as we do any other aspect of the trip.
It's about the experience
One of my favorite experiences while traveling is finding great coffee. But the idea of great coffee is not just about the coffee itself but more about the whole experience. I truly enjoy being able to sit and savor the atmosphere as well as the coffee and know that I am traveling the world and not stuck behind a desk. If all you need is a kick start then many sources of hot black caffeine will work. For me, the total experience is much more important.
And the experience can take many forms. When you find the perfect spot and enjoy the perfect cup, that’s great. But we all know that life isn’t always like that. Maybe the chairs are uncomfortable, maybe the barista is a little gruff, but that’s OK. An experience doesn’t have to be pure bliss to be enjoyable and worthwhile. The more you can step back from desires and dislikes about a given situation, the more likely you will be able to enjoy the moment for what it is – just because you get to experience it.
So the next time you’re a tired, thirsty traveler jonesing for a good cuppa joe, think first about what kind of experience you want.
Then find it and enjoy it.
I tend toward places with an authentic feel run by a local vendor. A place with some patina, some feeling of history. I try to engage the owner, to find out where they are from, how they wound up with a coffee shop, who they are. Along with good coffee, this is the experience I want.
Perhaps for you, slick design and hipster beards are you more your cup of tea, er, coffee. Great! You will probably find some amazing cups. Or maybe you’re feeling a bit homesick and a starry corporate experience will make you feel safe and secure. You’re probably not going to get the best coffee, but there are other needs at work. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
And of course, even though it is by now a cliche, it is still true – put your phone away, close your laptop and enjoy your experience for what it is, right now, in this moment.
Finding your experience
So how do you find these places? Technology is your friend. But maybe not your best friend. Like the guy you met at your sister’s wedding, phone apps may seem like your friend, only to turn out to be simply trying to sell you something.
Technology has its place, so by all means use it when you can. But go high AND low – digital and analog. On the digital side, google coffee shops, read reviews on Yelp, and try apps specifically for coffee hunters such as Cups, Find Me Coffee, Cuppings, 360 Coffee Shop, Kovi, Closest Cup bean, etc… if you are digitally inclined. I tend to not use apps like these as I don’t find I need them. But if it works – go for it.
But don’t forget to embrace low technology as well. In other words, talk to the locals. Be brave, ask the natives. And learn about where you are. After all, isn’t that the point of traveling?
One strategy to keep in mind is to look for coffee roasters not just coffee shops. If someone is roasting their own coffee, it’s a good bet that they are serious about providing a good cup instead of just caffeine.
And who can resist the smell of roasting coffee? The aroma of coffee being roasted right there in the cafe adds to the to the overall experience. Often the person doing the roasting is there and happy to talk about techniques. What could be better than learning more about your favorite addiction while making a new friend?
I love things mechanical as well. So a beautiful roasting machine to me is a piece of sculpture. They are amazing machines built for a very specific purpose and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
It all adds to the experience.
Finding good coffee in South America
One of the interesting (and frustrating for those of us from the US) things about finding coffee in South America is that it comes in only two forms: espresso and instant. Nothing wrong with a good espresso, but the fact that French Press, Drip, Pour-over, etc are practically unknown methods is surprising. We found the same situation in Australia while traveling there in 2005. I suspect there are more options in Oz now. But at home in South America, most people drink instant. And while that works if you are only in it for the caffeine, I wouldn’t say it is a great experience.
It is also sometimes hard to find good coffee beans in South America. This doesn’t seem to make sense as many of the world’s great coffee beans come from South America. The problem is, while much coffee is grown there, almost all of the best product gets exported to places like the USA. Something to keep in mind when you are enjoying a great South American coffee at home.
Jo Ann and I lived in Santiago, Chile all of 2017. So of course we had to find good coffee. My favorite spot was Original Green Roasters just south of Plaza Italia, in the heart of the city. Daniel owns and runs the place and is deeply focused on roasting the perfect bean. He is happy to talk and share his impressions of coffee roasting in English or Spanish. He also runs a great kitchen with lots of goodies. If you’re in Santiago, go by, have a great coffee and tell him I said hello.
Cafe con piernas
Another interesting twist on the coffee culture of Santiago that I must mention is Cafe con piernas – coffee with legs. In the busy downtown areas there are several coffee shops that, from the outside, look like a normal cafe. Lots of businessmen having a mid-day espresso before returning to their desks. But upon closer inspection, you will notice that ALL of the customers are men and ALL of the wait staff are women. The women all wear short skirts and stockings and are, just possibly, hired more for their figures than for their table waiting prowess. It’s a Santiago institution and a curious aspect of an otherwise fairly somber city. The espresso is not bad, just be forewarned, it may not be the experience you are expecting.
For a different experience, another favorite place of ours in Chile is Valparaíso, on the coast. “Valpo” is an amazingly bohemian city an hour and a half from Santiago. It is one of the oldest seaports on the west coast of the Americas and is built on many different hills with street art everywhere. The ascensors (funiculars) take you from the lower city where the harbor lies, to the residential hills above. This brief trip gives you ample time to ponder the long history of Valparaíso and the difficulties the modern city faces on a daily basis.
Think San Francisco south of the equator.
In Valpo we found Puro Café. Unlike Original Green Roasters, Puro Café has been around for years. The company is Colombian and focused on high quality beans that they also roast on site. It has a different, very local, very comfortable feel. A great place to sit and watch the world go by as you enjoy a good coffee.
Puro Café is one of my favorite kind of places. It has a completely local feel and seems oblivious to the trends of the day swirling around it. They serve good coffee and attract locals and visitors alike. A real place, a real experience.
Across the street from Plaza Simón Bolívar, it is in the heart of the vibrant, crowded and rather chaotic central business district. The term Bohemian, which many Chileans apply to Valpo is a little darker than what we think of in the US. It is an artful and eclectic city, but it can be a bit rough. Have fun, but be sure not to look too much like an ATM machine on your search for the perfect cup.
Do it yourself
Finally, should you just carry your own equipment to make sure a great cup is always available? Some coffee purists push for exactly this. They believe it is safer and easier than finding good coffee on the road. For some people – you know who you are – and for some trips, this is definitely a good idea.
Since shortly after our coast experience in Oregon we at least consider carrying our coffee with us – especially on road trips in the US. We have long had a rugged travel french press – JavaPress – made by GSI Outdoors and it has served us well. GSI Outdoors is a great company out of Spokane, Washington. They are a family owned and only about 30 employees. When, after many years of abuse, the screened plunger on our JavaPress broke, it only took one email to get a replacement – absolutely free. I love doing business with companies like GSI Outdoors.
And, of course, we have bought and carried several classic stove top espresso makers similar to this Bialetti. Sometimes a simple, old school solution is all you need. In Chile, our stove top maker was a lifesaver – indestructible and hard working.
One of the gadgets my friends swear by is the Aeropress which can provide great coffee on the go. I have had coffee from them but have yet to purchase one. I suspect this may happen sooner rather than later.
Do-it-yourself has it’s place especially when you are in the rough – I certainly wouldn’t take a road trip without my own “fixin’s”. But still, it’s about more than just good coffee. We only have a limited time on this planet. If we spend every moment planning for the future or rehashing the past, we will never truly enjoy the present. And when the present includes a perfect cup of good coffee, well, that’s pretty hard to beat.
What's been your experience?
Have you found the perfect experience? The perfect cup? Or even an absolute (seeming) disaster – that later turned out to be the best story of the trip? Join SilverTrekkers below and share your experience.
You’re old enough to know better!