A walk through the iconic cafes of Latin America

For the first time in over a century and a half, the tables at El Café Tortoni are empty. Neither the yellow fever that ended the lives of thousands in 1871, nor the serious disturbances in front of the establishment in the 2001 crisis could cope with it. Neither do dictatorships. It has been the coronavirus that has imposed silence in your living room, as in other iconic coffee shops in Latin America, settings and witnesses of history.

In the heat and life of El Tortoni, inaugurated in 1858, Jorge Luis Borges, Alfonsina Storni and Federico García Lorca were not lacking. Also Benito Quinquela Martí or Carlos Gardel. Maximiliano Zacca, one of his current waiters, wonders if in these two months of emptiness, since the arrival of the pandemic, their spirits took care of the place that they once considered theirs. "I hope - he says - that they are hanging around, and that they give us a hand."

As in El Tortoni in Buenos Aires, necessity has forced the shutter to other emblematic bars throughout the continent; Café Lamas in Rio de Janeiro, El Brasilero in Montevideo or El Floridita in the Cuban capital. The Salón Málaga in Medellín or El Café La Habana, in Mexico City.


Argentina faced El Tortoni, only 42 years older than coffee.

"People have died here on the corner," says Zecca about the most tense days of the 2001 crisis, when El Tortoni had to close due to the strong riots between protesters and police on Avenida de Mayo. That December 20 shooting, many customers and employees stayed inside the premises amidst the storm of violence, but the next day they reopened as usual.

It has been the coronavirus that has ended a streak of 162 years, that's why, on the day they decided to temporarily close, the employees were shocked and felt, Zecca says, that they were experiencing something "historic".

As soon as the Argentine Government allowed the reopening of a pick-up or delivery service, El Tortoni decided that no more time could be wasted in Argentine history, even if the customer's experience is limited to seeing his art-nouveau salon from the sidewalk.

"That the 162 years last 162 years more, and for that reason we are all putting the breast to this situation: it is pure history El Tortoni", insists the waiter, who already prepares the room for the long-awaited reopening, even if it reduces its capacity. From 300 clients they will pass to 70, two meters of distance between table and table by means of.


In its 146 years of existence, the Café Lamas only closed its doors twice: during the vaccine revolution (1904) and after the suicide of President Getulio Vargas -in August 1954-, one of its most loyal customers. It survived the ravages caused by the Spanish flu in 1918, the dictatorship, the hyperinflation of the 1990s and the deep economic recession of 2015 and 2016 from which Brazil was just beginning to rise when the new coronavirus appeared.

Always sober and discreet, the Lamas began operating on April 4, 1874 in the Largo do Machado square, the limit of the Flamengo and Larangeiras neighborhoods, in the southern area of ​​Rio de Janeiro. There, the Portuguese Manuel Thomé dos Santos Lamas sold coffee and bread in a space where you could also play billiards, and although then luxuries did not prevail, a kind of camaraderie that made him famous among the jet set of The time. Today it is still considered as a kind of "sect" to which one must belong.

It was always frequented by artists, politicians, soccer players, television actors and there was practically no difference when we moved (location, more than 40 years ago) and his clientele came all the way here, "explains Milton Brito, a partner in the establishment from more than three decades ago.

Although bohemia and entertainment have been assiduous clients of the place, and personalities such as the architect Oscar Niemeyer, the artist Cándido Portinari or the writer Machado de Assis were frequent visitors, the Lamas has always been closely linked to politics.

Presidents Eurico Gaspar Dutra (1946-1951), Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira (1956-1961) and Itamar Franco (1992-1995), walked among their tables, but Getulio Vargas (1930-1945 - 1951-1954) was one of your most loyal customers.

"The Lamas was in Largo do Machado and the palace was - and still is - about 500 meters from there, and Getulio came for the procession and stopped for a while at the Lamas to have tea at about 4 or 5 in the afternoon He had that tea with the toast and then went to the palace, he didn't do it every day, but he did it often, "says Brito.

Although Brito does not know with certainty what kind of political strategies came to be hatched at the Lamas tables, under his roof everything from political parties to well-known soccer clubs has been born.

"Several political parties were founded between beer and beer and the Flamengo Fútbol Club, for example, was founded in the Lamas on December 15 or November 1895," he relates.

For this partner of the most traditional coffee of the "wonderful city", the pandemic fell like a "bucket of cold water" and although he is aware that the life of any human being "comes first" he recognizes that the matter is "complicated , but we must move forward".


Unlike other emblematic bars where the ghost of closure lurks, El Floridita, the most emblematic bar in Havana, does not see Damocles' sword hanging on its bar and stools as it does in other iconic places in the region.

Cradle of the famous daiquiri and favorite parish of the writer Ernest Hemingway during the years he lived in Cuba, this establishment is one of the many restaurants and entertainment venues that the State manages in the only communist country in America.

And that peculiar circumstance is what will foreseeably save the Floridita bicentennial: as it is state-owned and a mandatory stop for tourists in Havana, and therefore a safe source of foreign currency collection, the chances of it closing are almost nil, especially because the island is going through a serious economic crisis and needs this hard currency more than ever, which will return at the cocktail shaker rate.

The venue receives some 250,000 customers each year, and although the author of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is the most famous, the list of illustrious visitors does not end with the US Nobel Prize: other writers such as Tennessee Williams or Graham have passed by Greene, former US President Barack Obama; Celluloid stars like Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich, footballers and baseball stars.

But in these days of pandemic Hemingway -in his bronze statue version- is more alone than usual, leaning as always in a corner of the long bar after which the Catalan Constantino Ribailagua, "Constant", devised the famous cocktail based of sugar, lemon juice, rum, ice ice and a few drops of maraschino.

Like the rest of the bars and restaurants in the country, El Floridita has closed its doors until the COVID-19 pandemic passes. In the living room, the playful notes of the Cuban son do not resound, and the mixers do not buzz frantically, mixing daiquiris for tourists who arrive thirsty, to whom Cuba closed the entrance in late March.

Although the survival of Floridita seems assured, for the moment the Cuban authorities have not explained whether they will limit the capacity or what measures they will apply to guarantee the distance between a clientele eager to let themselves be carried away by the Cuban rhythm in the mecca of one of the most popular cocktails. world famous.


Without soul and infused with nostalgia have been the last days of the Salón Málaga, a traditional Medellin café that due to the pandemic had to silence the tangos and boleros that have fueled in that city the old bohemia and gatherings for more than half a century.

Tucked away between downtown shops and with a retro aesthetic, the most famous bar in Medellín, the city where Carlos Gardel died in 1935, "resists" before a closure that has put pressure on his finances and has melancholic customers.

"Today, Malaga would be full and with a live group," says César Arteaga, administrator of this café-bar, considered a historical heritage of the city and a must for lovers of ancient music. "We are enduring, enduring."

Founded in 1957 by his father, Gustavo Arteaga, Málaga has been a meeting point for music lovers, musicians, teachers, journalists and writers for six decades. The painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, the former president Belisario Betancur or the filmmaker Víctor Gaviria were some of his most illustrious clients, at Gardel's feet.

However, Málaga has experience in dealing with turbulence and hopes to also overcome the ravages of the pandemic. Four years ago, a fire almost made them lose their award-winning music collection, made up of more than 7,000 acetates, and the construction of the famous Medellín metro also put them in check, says Arteaga, who nonetheless acknowledges that nothing was as hard as the difficult years of "the mafia war" in the late 1980s, "when they started dropping bombs all over the city".

Now, his concerns are different: not having anything to pay his 14 workers or the situation of the twenty artists who attracted more than a thousand people with entire days of tangos and boleros.

"Whatever happens, Malaga cannot be closed, even if it has to do whatever it is. This is a very great legacy; not only does the Arteaga family lose, but all of Medellín."


Number 62, Calle Morelos, corner with Bucareli. Today, heavy old metal curtains cover the huge windows of the famous Café La Habana in Mexico City, open since 1952, a hotbed of journalists and a meeting place for Fidel Castro and "Che" Guevara.

The coronavirus pandemic, which is experiencing its most critical stage in the country these days, has caused an unusual silence and the partial closure of the famous place that, for now, only offers the take-away service: coffee in glass or in beans.

Legend has it that under the intense aroma of coffee that the old mill lets out and the now-old but functional coffee machines Castro and Guevara planned the Cuban Revolution.

"Here they were, they were sitting entering to the right," says Benito Arce, an assiduous visitor to the café, in an interview with Efe, so much so that even at these low hours he approached their doors.

With 88 years in tow, he looks tired, but is lucid when remembering dates and significant characters who attended the place.

"We can say that I have been here since its foundation," he assures, recalling also that numerous journalists attended due to the closeness of the newsrooms and magazines; writers, intellectuals and artists such as the comedians Adalberto Martínez "Resortes" and Jesús Martínez "Palillo", popularly known in Mexico.

It is also said that the place gained another great part of its fame for having been the meeting point, for some time, of two nobles, the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez and the Mexican Octavio Paz.

Its corners were immortalized by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño in his novels "The Wild Detectives" (1998) and "Amuleto" (1999), and there, along with other Chilean and Mexican poets, gave life to the "infra-realist" movement.

"It was almost for intellectuals and artists," says Arce, although he reveals that before the establishment was established, the premises were not intended for such high activities, but rather for an agricultural machinery store.

In those almost 70 years of history, Havana has endured two major earthquakes, the one in 1985 and the one in 2017, and has had at least a dozen administrations. , says Arce. If you survived earthquakes, why not a pandemic?


Located in the old town, the Old City, the walls of the Café Brasilero have witnessed the growth of the Uruguayan capital. Today, hit by the coronavirus crisis, the establishment is going through one of its hardest moments. Although it remains open, it lost 50% of its clients who were tourists - since Uruguay now has closed borders - and, of the remaining 50%, few Montevideo residents approach it.

Founded in 1877, this narrow corner, whose old-fashioned scent wanders among the old tables, the glazed façade and dim lighting, has come to appear in recent years in travel guides as one of the best cafes in the world and, among its walls hide great literary stories.

When talking about the Brazilian Café, it is impossible not to refer to the writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano, who considered it his refuge, his second home, and sat at the table by the window to reflect, see people walk and be inspired by writing. .

"Until the last thing Galeano came and was always looking out the window, he wrote, he had a coffee, he was always thinking, it was a place of relaxation, of planning. The cafe gave him the possibility of planning his writing," remembers its owner, Santiago Gómez, who has been at the forefront for 11 years.

The tranquility, its limited audience capacity or perhaps the fact that it is a site with more than 140 years of history were a claim for other great writers to appropriate coffee. Among them Mario Benedetti. On the cover of his anthology of short stories "In Image and Likeness" the author can be seen sitting precisely at the "Galeano table" and looking towards the street.

This image and the cover of the book are framed on one of the walls of the Brazilian Cafe, together with a signature by Galeano with the dedication: "Welcome to coffee, Mario. Your coffee, our coffee. We will never let you go again."

Galeano's identification with coffee was such that in the rental agreement of the property one of the points clarified that he was entitled to free coffee daily.

One of the anecdotes that Gomez remembers with more nostalgia occurred one summer when they closed for a week and Galeano wanted to go but found that the place was not open.

"He told us 'please don't close - he says with a laugh - and if they are going to close they have to tell me'".


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