Updated December 7th, 2020.
Coffee is one of South America’s most famous exports and the continent produces the majority of coffee consumed globally. The history and production of coffee in Latin America is hugely interesting, especially given that many of these countries export, rather than drink, the vast majority of what they produce.
South America Coffee Production
With its mix of high mountains and humid rainforests, South America has the perfect climate for growing coffee beans. There are two different types of coffee beans that grow in South America and both flourish in different conditions.
- Arabica beans which are the most widely consumed, grow best in humid climates between 1200-1800 metres above sea level.
- Robusta beans flourish at sea level and up to 750 m high.
As much of South America is at higher altitudes, it tends to be the Arabica beans which are grown most often across the continent.
Those interested in learning more about South America’s coffee scene during their travels should not miss the following countries from their route plans!
Coffee in Brazil
Of course, when you think of coffee in South America, the first country that is likely to spring to mind is Brazil. This enormous country is the world’s largest coffee producer and coffee plantations cover around 27,000 square kilometres of the country.
The majority of these plantations are located in the areas of Sao Paulo, Parana and Minas Gerais which have the perfect climate for growing the product. Unlike many other countries which produce coffee, Brazil uses the dry method, which involves drying the coffee cherries in the sun instead of washing.
It is worth noting that although Brazil produces the majority of the world’s coffee, they still have a lot of work to do to ensure the fair trade of this product. This article acknowledges that in both Brazil and Colombia, many farmers are forced to sell their coffee for less than cost price.
Best Coffee Brands in Brazil:
- Café Pilao
- Brazil Santos Coffee
- Cafe Melitta
Coffee in Colombia
Colombia exported 11,900,000 60kg sacks of coffee in the year 2013/14 which goes to show that it is a big player in the international coffee market! As the third biggest coffee producer in the world, it is argued that Colombia accounts for somewhere between 6-12% of the world’s consumption.
Colombian coffee is said to be full-bodied and flavoursome. It is easy to get a taste of the country’s coffee at one of the many cafes or on a coffee tasting tour that are widely offered.
A huge number of individuals living in Colombia rely on the coffee industry for their livelihoods. It has been estimated that as many as 2 million Colombians work in this industry.
Best Coffee Brands in Colombia:
- Águila Roja
- Quindío Coffee
- Juan Valdez
Coffee in Ecuador
Although Ecuador only comes in at 20th place on the top coffee producing countries list, this industry is ever-growing within the country. Somewhat surprisingly, Ecuador actually imports more coffee than it grows or sells, though, in recent years, there has been a push to market Ecuadorian coffee more on an international scale.
Perhaps most famously, Ecuador makes some of the best instant coffee, a staple in many Ecuadorian homes. Unlike Colombia and Brazil, Ecuador doesn’t tend to use large plantations for growing and instead opt for smaller, family-run farms.
Despite Ecuador being a coffee producing nation, it is not always cheap to buy there. Galapagos coffee comes with a particularly high price tag. Owing to farming limitations only a certain amount can be grown each year, which makes it much more exclusive than coffee grown on the mainland.
Best Coffee Brands in Ecuador:
- Cafe Cubanito
- Galapagos Coffee
Coffee in Peru
According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), Peruvian coffee has been selected as some of the best in the world. Although it might not be the first country to jump to mind for coffee production, Peru actually produces the second-largest amount of fair-trade coffee in the world after Mexico.
Peruvian coffee has a medium body and has an aromatic, slightly acidic taste. It is grown in the Cajamarca region of Peru in the north, Chanchamayo, Cusco and St Ignacio. The coffee grown in Peru is mostly exported, ending up in the US and Europe.
Best Coffee Brands in Peru:
- Cafe Tunki
- Cafe Quechua
- Sol & Cafe
Coffee in Venezuela
At one point, Venezuela rivalled Colombia in terms of its coffee production. However, those days are long gone and now the country produces less than 1% of the world’s coffee (since 2001). Although some Venezuelan coffee is exported, the vast majority is consumed by the Venezuelans themselves.
Venezuela’s most renowned coffees are known as Maracaibos. They are named after the port through which they are shipped, close to Colombia. The coffee grown in the eastern mountains is called Caracas, named after the country’s capital.
Best Coffee Brands in Venezuela:
- Café Imperial
Drinking Coffee in South America
We now know that South America is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, however, surprisingly, it can still be hard to find a decent cup to drink there!
This is usually blamed on the fact that South America’s coffee producers export most of their A-grade coffee overseas. However, this is not cause enough to assume that you’ll never find great coffee.
Most of the cities I’ve traveled in (Bogota, Medellin, Quito, Lima, Arequipa, and La Paz) have delivered when it comes to speciality coffee houses, and even have roasteries called tostadurías. In fact, I had some of the best coffee of my life in Arequipa.
Is Coffee Cheap in South America?
Not really. A cappuccino is often the same price as a local 2-course lunch (menu del día). The raw product is cheap, but you’ll be paying a similar price to drink a speciality coffee as you would in the United States or Australia which can really break the backpacker budget.
This is precisely why I’ve compiled this comprehensive guide of coffee travel hacks for South America. May you learn from my mistakes and improvisations, and may a dreaded cup of instant coffee never pass your lips again!
How to Make a Great Cup of Coffee in South America
1. Pack a Travel Coffee Maker (that can withstand backpack travel)
I packed a portable coffee maker – the only trouble was, it wasn’t travel-proof. It had a fine, gold-mesh filter which didn’t appreciate being squished into a backpack and thrown into a bus underneath stacks of other luggage. Just two months in, I had to part ways with it. Sigh.
However, there are some excellent portable coffee makers on the market. The most tried-and-tested travel coffee maker is the Aeropress, which can make a single mug (or two small cups) of filter brew at a time.
The only downside is that you’ll need to pack a large stack of its single-use filter papers if you’re traveling long-term. Alternatively, you can buy a reusable metal filter for Aeropress. You just have to be extra careful not to toss it in the bin! (like you do with the paper filters after each use).
Another alternative is a French press travel mug. I haven’t tried this myself, but I met a fellow coffee-mad backpacker in Colombia who swore by his. There are many models out there that look sturdy and well-suited to backpacking.
HOT TIP: Watch an online tutorial for your chosen coffee maker, and you’ll be a pro in no time. You don’t have to be a barista to learn a few skills for filter brewing!
When it comes down to it, you only need clean boiled water and some half-decent coffee to make something better than what they’re serving at your hostel! Rummage through kitchens and you’ll always find a kettle, saucepan, or something else fun to brew in.
Colombia, Ecuador & Venezuela:
The coffee maker of choice in these countries is a cotton sock attached to a simple metal handle that you submerge in freshly boiled water. Many kitchens will have one, but I bought my own in Ecuador for 2 USD at a homewares store. They come in all different sizes, and most kitchens I encountered in hostels and Airbnbs had a tall metal jug with a spout to use specifically for coffee.
Step-by-step to make coffee in a ‘coffee sock’:
- Boil only the amount of water you need in the metal jug with a spout for a few minutes (use bottled water if you’re unsure about using the tap water)
- Take it off the heat once boiled, as you want to add the coffee when it’s a little under boiling temperature (around 95 degrees celsius)
- Keeping the sock dry, add a heaped tablespoon (per cup) of coarse-ground coffee into it
- Hold the metal handle, submerge the sock into the hot water and let it brew for 3-5 minutes
- Remove the sock and voila, you have a jug of fresh-brewed coffee
HOT TIP: Don’t forget to wash the sock out and let it dry after each use. You want to avoid packing it in your backpack wet for too long, as it will get mouldy. AND don’t do what I did and leave it behind in a hostel kitchen!
Peru & Bolivia:
I came across small metal teapots in communal kitchens throughout Peru and Bolivia, so I improvised with these, or just used a stovetop kettle.
Step-by-step to make coffee in a teapot or stovetop kettle:
- Boil only the amount of water you need for a few minutes (use bottled water if you’re unsure about using the tap water)
- Take it off the heat once boiled, as you want to add the coffee when it’s a little under boiling temperature (around 95 degrees celsius)
- Add 1 heaped tablespoon per cup of coffee you’re making (either directly into the kettle, or into a teapot if there is one).
- Stir the coffee gently 2-4 times until you see it start to react and foam a little
- Put the lid back on your kettle or teapot to keep it warm and let it brew for 5 minutes
- Pour gently into cups with the spout in an upright position
HOT TIP: To avoid making Indonesian style coffee with grounds through it, you need to brew the coffee and let it sit for 5 minutes – long enough for the coffee grains to sink to the bottom. If your kettle doesn’t have a filter, no problem. Just pour slowly keeping the spout lifted so that most of the grains stay put.
3. Know What to Look for When Buying Locally Roasted Coffee
I’m always in search of the best coffees, but instead of paying top dollar in every cafe, I’m in search of roasted coffee beans. After all, I’m an ex-barista, a confessed coffee snob, and I want to save money. I find bags of local coffee in cafes, roasteries, local markets, and even supermarkets. A 250-gram bag of decent ground coffee has, on average, cost me $5USD.
Here’s what to look for:
- Colour of the roast
Some bags of coffee in South America will tell you what style of roast they are:
Suave – this means ‘smooth’ and indicates a lighter roast
Medio – means ‘medium’, so somewhere between light and dark
Fuerte – means ‘strong’, so you can count on this being a dark roast.
If there is no indication, look at the beans or coffee grounds themselves – are they as black as night, or a rich caramel or chocolate color? If they’re too dark, then the beans have probably been over-roasted and you’ll get a burnt tasting coffee.
- The type of bag it’s stored in
In Australia, I’d say speciality coffee is at its prime between 1-3 weeks after the roast date. It’s important to let roasted beans ‘rest’ for one week before grinding, so they can expel excess gases. If you use coffee that’s too fresh, it will taste acidic and have very little body.
When considering coffee in South America, I had to loosen up these standards a tad. At the very least, you want to know what date a bag of coffee was roasted on. If it’s one month old, that’s still going to be OK to drink. If it doesn’t have a date at all, then it could be a year old, for all you know.
As I mentioned above, roasted coffee continues to release gases. A good roastery will store their roasted beans in ziplock bags with a one-way valve. This means that gases can escape from inside the bag, but oxygen can’t get in. Oxygen and too much heat or light are the enemies of ground coffee and make it stale. Fresh ground is best, so I try to buy from cafes that will grind it then and there.
Sometimes the smell of ground coffee is enough to tell you whether it’s fresh or stale. If it’s in a ziplock bag with a valve, squeeze the bag gently and smell the air coming out of the valve. Is there a pungent smell that makes you feel alive? Or is there barely any smell at all? If in doubt, follow your nose.
A high price doesn’t always mean high quality. If you’re looking for some special beans to take home to family, don’t be fooled by gimmicks like Coati coffee, which I saw for sale in Cusco.
Similar to Civet Coffee from Southeast Asia, Coati coffee has been selected by this animal for the best cherries, eaten, and then harvested from its dung. Gross, I know. If you look into this industry more online (trigger warning for disturbing images), you’ll realize that it’s not usually humane. The high price tag is all about exclusivity, not necessarily taste.
I try to buy coffee that is honest about where it has come from. You’ll generally get this at a roastery or speciality cafe. If you buy single-origin, for example, there is only one variety of bean in there from one coffee finca (farm).
If you buy from the supermarket and it says ‘100% Boliviano’, it’s likely that a number of different beans from all over have been used, and who knows under what conditions. If you want to buy ethical coffee, there is a lot of debate between Fair Trade vs Direct Trade coffee. My belief is, the more directly you can trace the origin, the easier it is to investigate how ethical it is.
The Verdict on South American Coffee
Is there a better continent to make magical cups of caffeine than in South America? The raw product is practically everywhere, just waiting for you to start brewing. With a little know-how, you can use the above South America coffee hacks to save some coin and enjoy some of the world’s best coffee at the source. Enjoy!