Where To Get The Best Coffee In Cartagena

Cartagena's mad scientist roasts coffee with a popcorn machine

Despite the country's reputation for fantastic coffee, it's nearly impossible to get a good cup of joe in Colombia. The second largest coffee exporter on earth sent $2.6 billion worth of beans to other countries around the world last year, forcing locals in most Colombian cities to brew imported beans from far-off places like Vietnam.

But one man is not only bringing Colombian coffee back to Colombia—he's elevating coffee culture throughout the entire world. With rare devices and odd gadgets (hello, popcorn machine and blowtorch), David Arzayus roasts, grinds and brews dozens of varieties of local and international beans at Café del Mural, opened early last year on a little-traversed Cartagena side street. Using historical, traditional and experimental techniques in a makeshift laboratory, he offers customers multi-course tastings that run the gamut from the conventional to the bizarre.

Photo: Enya Mommsen

Arzayus, an engineer and industrial designer, had been overseeing the repair of industrial coffee machines for two years when he realized he was unfulfilled by his corporate-controlled life. Inspired by Kevin Spacey's character in the film American Beauty, he decided to abandon materialism and start from scratch. "My last life was built around [attaining] perfection," he explains. "But one day I discovered that people that try only to have perfection can be boring, because they don't accept any kind of risk. For me, risk is the possibility to feel alive."

Arzayus took that risk in coffee, which is in his blood: His grandfather had grown beans, and his father worked with the National Federation of Coffee Growers for over 40 years, so Arzayus was well aware that good coffee was particularly hard to come by in Cartagena. "Cartagena has a big problem with temperature and humidity," Arzayus explains. "[It's impossible] to get the same coffee all the time." But whereas most Colombians simply settle for the freeze-dried instant stuff, Arzayus saw an opportunity to offer customers a unique experience every time they enter his shop by improvising with some of the most esoteric roasting and brewing methods in the world.

Though most aficionados would only use arabica (the softer, sweeter, more acidic—and only—variety grown in Colombia), Arzayus also brews with robusta, a less elegant, but stronger bean with more caffeine. But to clarify, Arzayus purchases only Colombian coffee for his shop. "The coffee from other places is because people come with [gifts]," he explains. "When people use coffee as an excuse to bridge cultures, I love it."

The tradition started when a Mexican family visited his shop and returned two months later with coffee from their home country. After exchanging it for some of Arzayus's Colombian beans, one family member left a review on TripAdvisor describing the exchange, and word began to spread. "Now I have Tim Hortons coffee from Canada, Starbucks from New York, Hawaiian Kona, some coffee from Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Panama," Arzayus says. He accepts liquor, spices and other goods, too. "The other day, some girl came here with some gin bottles."

Arzayus roasts these beans with four different methods that range from a rustic hand pot to a popcorn machine. "I discovered that people in Mexico put corn with the coffee, and when the corn explodes, the coffee is ready," he explains.

Photo: Enya Mommsen

In addition to uncovering roasting and nearly 20 brewing methods via the internet and foreign visitors, Arzayus finds inspiration in his own backyard. For example, he extinguishes a burning stick of wood in a traditional Colombian coffee called café cerrero, resulting in an incredibly unique and smoky flavor. He also combines brewing methods, further increasing the range of his output. Once, when a German guest requested the "blackest coffee possible," he custom-blended Turkish coffee with Italian ristretto to great success.

And he doesn't limit his ingredients to water and coffee. In addition to cardamom, Arzayus employs other Indian spices such as cloves, cinnamon, anise or black pepper. He uses cumin and Turkish saffron; he makes his own chocolate and caramel; and he works with tomate de árbol, orange, lime and lemon. His fruit infusions are particularly spectacular, such as his café de maracuyá, a tangy beverage made with passion fruit, Jamaican sweet pepper and sugar, blended with Cuban rum and heated with a blowtorch in a chemistry beaker.

Because of his ever-evolving recipes, a frustrated employee recently convinced him to streamline his manic methodology into a flowchart so orders can be placed more efficiently. But amidst all of this chaos, Arzayus has finally found a sense of peace. "For me, the most important thing in life is surprise," he explains. He lives to explore, and share his discoveries with his guests. "When I remember my last life, I was working because I needed things 'now.' I didn't have patience with anybody. Now, I don't use a clock. When you don't need too many things, the little things that come to you can be your life's best."