A long wall of graffiti art on the side of a brick building in upscale Provenza reminds passersby that coffee is better than war.
It wasn’t always.
A decade ago Medellin, Colombia was fuelled by heroin and cocaine; murder, kidnapping, and endless turf wars.
At the height of its production, cocaine was a $4 billion dollar industry and the Medellín Drug Cartel supplied 80% of the global cocaine market. Drug lords, corrupt politicians and rivalling gangs had a strong hold on the entire country.
Now, a new generation of young people are choosing to make something better than coke. Coffee – and it’s breathing new life into a city once steeped in gruesome violence. They are made up of farmers, roasters and baristas brewing really good coffee – but also economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, sustainability, and community. Post-drug economy, coffee is how Colombia is now rebuilding and retransforming itself.
Here is my ultimate guide to the best coffee and specialty cafés in Medellin that are a world away from Colombia’s dark past and narco tourism.
Probably one of the most important cafés to visit is Rituales in the Laureles neighbourhood. It’s among the original third wave speciality cafés in Medellin focusing on craft coffee at every stage. They source their beans directly from farmers they develop personal relationships with. Their backroom coffee lab is more like a science lab with an in-house roastery. It won them the National Roasting Championship which means every bean is carefully monitored.
But what makes Rituales really special is the story behind each bean. Every cup of coffee is brewed using beans grown from the hillsides of La Sierra in Comuna 8, one of the poorest communities in Medellin.
La Sierra suffered decades of violence, drug trade, and extortion. Armed rebels occupied the area until 2013. Locals lost ownership over their land. Many farmers were displaced, others were forced to use their land to grow coca (the plant used to make cocaine) for the drug economy. All this conflict led to abandonment from the government and still, today, some parts lack access to basic supplies like energy. The area is beginning to change with Colombia’s 2016 peace treaty, and the local economy is improving with new partnerships that have a social mission like Rituales. Farmers are now being payed fairly for their coffee and quality of life is improving. Things are not perfect. Many farmers still struggle to transition back to harvesting legal crops – the temptation to continue growing coca to support their families makes it hard to give up such a lucrative business.
By buying a cup of coffee at Rituales you’re helping formerly displaced farmers and coca producers in La Sierra make the transition back to better farming practises – helping them to find new opportunity in their land in the form of coffee (instead of coca).
Hanging along the white walls of their café are photos of some of the coffee farmers they directly support, who were once victims of the conflict.
Where: Circular 74a # 39b-22, Laureles
What to Try: V60 manual brew or tonic iced coffee.
Café Revolución is one of the original independent cafés in Laureles, started by two Hungarians and a Canadian. The name is fitting because only a decade ago, Colombians feared leaving their homes, and even meeting in cafés was dangerous. It’s hard to imagine because today the cafés are filled. We saw open-aired patios at every block and locals gathering freely.
Café Revolución specializes in medium roast espresso beans from Tolima, another important coffee region.
Tolima was one of the last places for violence to cease. The area was controlled by armed guerrilla military FARC until the recent peace agreement. Farmers have recently started to take back their land, grow coffee again, and sell their production to local businesses. One of them is Café Revolución.
Besides supporting local coffee farms and farmers, the café also helps local artists by selling their artwork in their café. Each painting sold comes with a personal letter from the artist.
Buy 8 coffees and get the 9th one free with their loyalty card.
Where: In front of Primer Parque. Carrera 73 #4-10, Laureles
What to Try: Espresso-based drinks. They roast to medium and extract their shots to resemble the same quality you get from coffee in Italy. It’s pleasantly nutty and creamy.
Formerly Panorama, Encuadrarte is a café inspired by art and one of the best places in the city for high quality artisanal coffee. Mauricio, the barista is passionate about the craft of brewing, especially filter methods like V60, Chemex, or Aeropress. Unlike other cafés, this one isn’t loyal to just one kind of bean or style. They focus on coffee varieties while also encouraging art not war – its atelier atmosphere is a creative space for artists and entrepreneurs to collaborate, offer art workshops and coffee lessons.
Where: at the corner of Carerra 72 and Circular 1, Laureles
What to Try: Floral Geisha or coffee-nutella flavoured Castillo
Café Aroma de Barrio
Of all the cafés Dan and I visited, Café Aroma has to be our favourite. It’s a cute little community café in Comuna 13 with an initiative to bring people together freely and openly in, what used to be, forbidden territory.
Less than a decade ago Comuna 13 was the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world, riddled by violence, murder and poverty; overtaken by gangs and civil war. No tourist ever dared to go here. Even the government didn’t enter. The community was left to fend for themselves and their only viable economy was drugs. It is now going through a complete transformation. Locals are starting their own businesses, making something of their community, and overcoming adversity. Rather than holding grudges, they are creating unity and inclusivity.
Inside, neighbourhood kids paint the colourful chairs and local artists help design the funky, artsy vibe using salvaged wood and recycled spray paint cans. It’s the kind of place where youth behind the counter break out into impromptu rap and beat box. I chatted with Stefan, one of the baristas behind the counter. He says their goal is to make the neighbourhood and café a second home to the world. “My home is your home” he tells me.
In just over a year the café has already seen thousands of different cultures, colours, religions, and people from around the world come together in this cozy space (even Bill Clinton was here).
The café has a killer view overlooking the red comuna rooftops and they serve excellent Colombian coffee using locally-sourced beans from Retiro south of Medellin. You won’t find overpriced coffee here – the focus is on peace and love. Café Aroma is truly a coffee experience with a beautiful purpose. It’s hard to visit this place and not feel inspired.
Where: Take the famous escalators to Tramo 3.
What to Try: Cappuccino or their heavenly frappé.
Pergamino Café is the pioneer in speciality coffee and probably the best example of sustainable, farm-to-cup and 0km coffee. It is a family-owned business – the father is the coffee farmer and the son owns the café which brews beans from their working family farm.
Pergamino (which means “parchment”, the thin outer layer of the green bean) only opened in 2014 but the farm has been in the family for nearly four decades.
It serves single-origin estate coffee. Every characteristic, every process, every detail about the bean can be traced back to their finca (farm) in Santa Barbara, about an hour and a half from their El Poblado café. If you’re lucky to not find a line up, you can ask the barista and they will tell you (exactly) what’s in your cup.
If you’re a coffee lover, Pergamino is arguably the best place to appreciate craft coffee in every sense. Get a loyalty card and your tenth coffee is on la casa.
For 20,000 Colombian peso (about $8) I picked up a pack of their Lomaverde whole bean to take home. My grinder thanked me for it.
Where: Carrera 37 No. 8A – 37, El Poblado
What to try: Lomaverde roast, which is sweet and chocolatey. It’s their signature coffee and the name of their finca.
While I love Pergamino for the authentic farm-to-cup coffee experience, I spent a lot of my time at Al Alma. It was stumbling distance from my morning yoga sessions at Casa Kiwi and our house sit just down the street. Their coffee is just as great, locally sourced and one of the few cafés that roast their beans on-site.
Just as local beans are important, Al Alma supports local farmers with their menu as well. Their brunch is absolutely fantastic like farmers’ eggs and fresh avocado.
I found Al Alma quieter and more inviting than Pergamino. You can pull out a good book on a cozy, cushiony bench or people-watch from the open-air storefront.
Where: Calle 8 #35-37, El Poblado
What to try: Medium roast; farmers’ eggs and fresh avocado
Urbania is another independent micro-roaster and café partnering with micro lots to make a social impact and benefit communities from seed right to cup.
They offer two sustainable coffees – Calima, which comes from an eco-farm that uses minerals from volcanic ash to cultivate some of the most nutrient-rich soil without the use of chemicals. The second is their Paz coffee produced by farmers living in a region where rebels once took over the highway to Bogota and surrounding area. Farmers lost their land and were forced to move into the city. Today, they harvest and hand-pick high quality 80-point specialty coffee to sell to the café – which helps improve their quality of life and pays them a better price for their labour.
Urbania offers an amazing Airbnb Experience of their lovely coffee farm in Sabaneta, just 30 minutes south of Medellin where you can see coffee production step-by-step, hand-pick the coffee fruit, and even roast the beans. Book directly to help them avoid the service fees.
Where: Calle 8 #43b, El Poblado
What to try: Espresso-based coffee like cappuccino
Desarolladores de Café
Desarolladores de café, which means coffee developers, is a micro roaster and one of those “no frills” neighbourhood cafés, a little rough around the edges outside but serves up damn good coffee inside. Tucked away inside a garage-like space, it’s easy to miss and it doesn’t seem to get a ton of foot traffic. I prefer it that way because the baristas have time to talk to you and are happy to explain everything you want to know about their locally-sourced coffee.
Rather than offering a rotating bean of choice, here you get to pick the bean you want – locally-sourced, roasted on-site in small-batches and placed right on the counter, so you can actually see and smell each bean. If you feel overwhelmed by the options, just tell the barista what your palettes are in for and they’ll help you pick the right bean.
Of all the coffee I experienced, Desarolladores is my favourite – not only for the taste, but because it’s more personal.
If you want to learn how coffee is produced you can visit their coffee farm on a guided half-day trip.
Where: Carrera 35 #7-60, El Poblado
What to try: Colombian beans from Antioquia, Tolima or Cauca.
Tucked away in the Barrio Manila, Hija Mia (which means my daughter) is a different kind of café owned by a Colombian-Aussie couple. It’s inspired by the coffee scene in Australia and could be credited with bringing the flat white to Colombia but what I love about Hija Mia is their aim to deliver good Colombian coffee to Colombians at home. This used to be a challenge (and still is), since the best Colombian coffee has always been exported for profit instead of local consumption. Hija Mia has been able to source high-quality green beans from micro lots near Medellin before they get exported. They also roast in-house so you know you’re getting the freshest cup.
Where: Calle 11a #43b, Barrio Manila
What to try: Flat white
One of the best things about my stay at Selina Hostel is rolling out of bed to their tiny café serving up delicious coffee. While they don’t roast in-house, all of their beans are locally-sourced from Colombian farmers. This café ambiance is my favourite. It doesn’t get any cuter than this.
Selina also has great options for day trips you can take from the hostel, even if you’re not staying there.
Where: Carrera #32d, El Poblado
What to try: Anything espresso-based
Other cafés serving third wave specialty coffee in Medellin that we haven’t tried yet but are on our list:
- Café Velvet
- El Café de Otraparte
- Cocolatte Café
- Café Ondas
- Café Zeppelin
I hope you have a chance to check out these inspiring cafés when you visit Medellin, taste the best Colombian beans, but most of all, see how something as simple as buying a cup of coffee is helping an entire country heal from its past.
A lot of caffeine went into creating this Ultimate Guide to Coffee in Medellin so I would love it if you can share it on social, or leave a comment below! Don’t forget to print off this guide for your next trip to Medellin.