I came to Colombia thinking that I knew how to order coffee in Spanish, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was dead wrong.
I came to this realization on my first morning in Medellín, when I woke up early and decided to head out to get coffee for me and my roommates. I set off walking down the street towards the local park, thinking that surely if I didn’t see a coffee shop on the way I would find one in the streets surrounding the park. Yet I got to the park, walked all around it, and continued walking…and walking…without passing a single coffee shop or sign that said “café“.
How can there possibly be no coffee in Colombia?! I fumed to myself, my caffeine withdrawal growing more severe by the minute. I stopped at a few bakeries, but they all said they couldn’t sell me coffee to-go. I eventually resorted to going to a grocery store and grudgingly buying some instant coffee to make at home.
It wasn’t until I talked to some people who have lived here for a while that I learned the secret: coffee in Colombia, except at very upscale establishments, is not called café, but tinto. While I’d been busy looking for coffee shops I’d probably walked past fifteen different tinto vendors.
All over Medellín you will find little carts selling tinto, usually along with gum, cigarettes, snacks, and pre-paid cellphone minutes. Here’s one in Parque Belén:
The tinto is usually served from metal carafes or plastic thermoses like these:
There are a few “coffee shops” similar to what you’d find in the U.S., of both the independent and chain varieties, but they are few and far between, and by Colombian standards they are expensive!
Tinto carts, on the other hand, are ubiquitous and the coffee they sell is cheap.
I eventually befriended my local tinto vendor (I say ‘befriended’ – to him I was probably that crazy gringa who wouldn’t leave him alone) and questioned him until I understood the various types of drinks commonly sold from carts like his.
Here is the low-down:
Tinto, by far the most popular type of coffee here, is plain black coffee. It is served in TINY cups with optional sugar. A tinto usually costs about 500 pesos (about 16 US cents). It is sold in restaurants, bakeries, and street carts practically everywhere.
You want more than two sips of coffee, you say? Well, tough luck, you’ll have to finish your tiny cup and come back or hit up another tinto stand, because tinto comes in one size and one size only. None of that venti/grande/tall crap over here, thank you very much!
Perico is a tinto in which half the coffee has been replaced with warm milk. It usually costs about 600 pesos (19 US cents). If you want to play with the milk-to-coffee ratio, you can order a perico oscuro (mostly coffee, a little milk) or a perico claro (mostly milk, a little coffee). Like tinto, it is served in tiny cups only with optional sugar.
Perico oscuro is my drink of choice over here, though being a coffee addict I usually end up cursing the tinyness of the cup.
Café con Leche
Café con leche is basically what in the U.S. we would call a latte: a shot of strong coffee or espresso poured into a cup of milk. A café con leche is generally bigger, more milky, and more expensive than a perico.
If you order a café con leche from a tinto vendor they will give you a perico, but at more upscale shops or restaurants there will be a difference between the two.
Aromática is herbal tea, another popular drink here. It is usually sold in the same places that sell tinto and perico.
And there you have it! If you find yourself in Colombia and looking for a caffeine fix, keep your eyes out for a sign saying tinto and you will be enjoying a tiny but delicious cup of coffee in no time, and feeling like a true Colombian.