The perfect cup of coffee
On an island in Nicaragua, a rocky incline stands between Steve Hely and the Holy Grail of caffeine

On the island of Ometepe, at Ojo de Agua, I sat half in the sun and half in the shade, my feet splashing in volcanic water. Eye of water? Something like that. This place is a natural pool. A spring, cool and clear. There’s something special or healing about its waters. They bubble up from the volcano, the ancient peoples worshipped here – something like that, who cares. You can’t learn the story of everything.

A crazily pleasant, wonderful place. I mean it. Just in terms of pure good, relaxed feeling washing over me, Ojo de Agua might’ve been the best place in Central America. You swam if you wanted, sat there if you wanted, dangled your feet. There was a girl who would chop a straw into a coconut for you, if you felt like drinking a coconut, which I did. There were birds and you felt like you were in the jungle but only in the best ways. Everybody I talked to seemed nice, but maybe their best quality was how little they cared about talking to me. Just: Lemme know if you need a coconut, until then let’s both relax.

Near me were four Americans, three girls and a guy. Average age maybe thirty, from North Carolina. The guy was shirtless, obviously. It was unclear his relationship to these women. My guess, later confirmed, was that these were women who were up for an awful lot. They took pride in being wild.

“I just don’t give off that vibe, you know? To girls? That I’m threatening,” said the guy. “Even though I am very sexual, you know?”

This is terrific, I thought as I leaned back in comfort. Now on top of everything, I have entertainment.

What I had been doing was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. You can’t really show your face in Colombia if you haven’t read this book, and Colombia was coming up, and it’s not a short book. Marquez tells the story of a village over the course of a hundred years. You follow a family, there are revolutions, the railroad. Magical realism is a term to describe the genre of which it is the most famed example. Surreal and beautifully strange things happen to the people in the book, time bends and repeats. Their world perplexes and folds in on our world, and thus reminds us of the true weirdness and cruelty and wonder of our world that so often gets left out of descriptions of reality. Only by getting a bit magical, you might say, can you truly evoke the strangeness of reality.

Look, man, it’s a great book, but just at this minute? At Ojo de Agua as I drank my coconut, dried off from a swim, and cooled my feet? Listening to my countrymen chat was more compelling.

Of course, it’s not right to eavesdrop on your fellow Americans. That’s an obvious truth, and it’s rude of our federal government to keep forgetting it. Though I guess I had, too. The truth was I liked these people. Maybe I’d meet up with them down the road. I dried off my feet and went back to my motorbike.

Ometepe is in the middle of the lake. It’s made out of two volcanoes, it’s about twenty miles across, and there’s really only one road to speak of that goes around the whole place. Perfect place for a motorbike.

Before leaving California, I got my motorcycle license. It wasn’t easy. I failed the test the first time, which should’ve told me something. It should’ve told me that if you’re nervous on a motorcycle, which of course you should be, you will die. To ride a motorcycle well, you need to be both focused and brave. While I’ve been both, I’m neither consistently.

In this way riding a motorcycle is not unlike surfing, I guess. Except instead of waves, you’ll land on skull-smashing pavement. To be effective, you must be fearless when you should be fearful. This is the lesson I was trying to teach myself by riding around Ometepe.

Great place to learn. Get five hundred meters out of the town and you’re on a country road, with big wide vistas up to the volcano, and you’re the only thing in sight. Maybe a cow or something. You can cut loose and it feels amazing and thrilling.

Tiring maybe, whipping around those curves with the waves of the lake crashing below you. But a good kind of tiring. Maybe that’s why at Ojo de Agua I felt so great. I’d ridden a while, but I still had a while to go, to a coffee plantation, the Finca Magdalena.

My mission was to have the world’s best cup of coffee.

Before I left Los Angeles I did some investigating into coffee. Research. Believe me, if you start trying to learn about coffee – its geography, its nature – you will never run out of passionate opinions. Many people have gone far deep into the world of coffee.

Look, I barely peered in. It was too dangerous. You can get lost in learning about coffee.

The best idea I learned is the theory that caffeine developed because it killed insects. That it was like an evolutionary pesticide that grew within coffee plants. Beyond that, I learned some basics and some place names.

In El Salvador at the bar of Tortuga Verde, I shared what I’d read with Miah, who’d worked on a coffee plantation for three months and was able to correct me on some practicalities and offer things he’d learned. Like that anywhere there’s shade on a volcano, there grows good coffee.

With this knowledge I studied my maps, read what scraps I could on precious minutes of WiFi, and determined:

The best coffee in the world will be at Finca Magdalena, Ometepe.

About four in the afternoon I got to the trail. It was at the far end of the island, the south end, on the slope of Volcán Maderas. Road, trail: It wasn’t good anyway. There were huge rocks sticking out of it as it ran steep uphill. There were logs and stuff along the way, holes dug by what must’ve been frequent floods.

Well, there was nothing to do but rev my motorbike and attack it.

An hour later, maybe a third of the way up, half a kilometer at most, I had to give up.

When I was a boy, I’d read somewhere that a well-executed retreat is the most difficult of military maneuvers to perform. I’ve taken a lot of comfort in that quote, though I forget who said it. Whenever I’ve had to retreat, which is often, I’ve taken comfort in the idea that what I was doing was deciding to accept a serious challenge rather than quitting. It helps.

My retreat was imperfect but honorable. I just shut the bike off, put it in neutral, and rode down, bumping my ass off along the way. Bruised but unharmed, I shook it off. Finca Magdalena is best visited in the morning, after all, I declared to myself. Bravely I resolved to come back in the morning, when the coffee would be all the more delicious.

As I mounted my bike to find a place to sleep, a whizzing sound came upon me. It was a middle-aged man, I’m guessing French, with a slender woman of about the same age gripping him tight from behind as he blasted, with sureness and confidence, up over the rocks and around the logs, steady up the road I’d just quit on.

Sir, I salute you, I said, again to myself, and off I went.

With night ready to come in, the wind picking up on the lake, I went back along the coast road. Those Americans I’d seen earlier – well, maybe we’d end up at the same place and drink beers together, and then they wouldn’t mind me writing up the funny things they said, because we’d all be friends. There was a place I’d passed, a rickety painted hotel right on the water, where I guessed they’d be. That’s where I went.

The other Americans didn’t turn up before the sun went down, and they didn’t come after. Alone in the restaurant, I drank bottles of beer and ate spaghetti. I ate spaghetti a lot in Central America because it’s hard to screw up. Anytime I was in a place that looked like it screwed everything up, that’s what I ordered.

This place looked like it screwed things up. There were both too many people working there and not enough. Two employees, men, smoked and whispered in a dark corner of the place. A fat, gloomy teenager was at the desk, unhelpful, distant. A storm was brewing on the lake. Not a serious storm, but gray and windy. A lot windier than I like it on a tropical isle. Spooky wind, eerie wind. It rattled the shutters. I left half the spaghetti and asked if I could take some beers back to my room.

My room was across the road, now pitch-dark. You couldn’t see the lake. Why had they put me back here? Was this worse? I tried to read One Hundred Years of Solitude but couldn’t concentrate. A fan rattled away, co-echoing with the clattering from the wind. Guatemala Pam had told me that you have to watch out on Ometepe, that thieves swim over from the shore in the night and rob tourists. That seemed crazy to me. The swim must be five miles at the narrowest. But who knew out here? I was alone in the cabin, behind me was forest, across the road the black lake. When I fell asleep, I don’t know.

In the morning it was the most perfect day ever.

So: I hopped on my motorbike and went back down the road around the south volcano to the trail to Finca Magdalena.

This time I walked up it, and I gotta say it wasn’t even easy to walk with all the rocks and stuff. I don’t know how the other motorbike got up it. Maybe halfway up the one-and-a-half-kilometer trail, the trees sprouted pink and red and orange cherries, in narrow bunches. Coffee cherries. Like you could pop them in your mouth and they’d have delicious coffee juice inside.

The trail bent, chickens squawked and hopped across the path, and there was the big house of the Finca Magdalena. An old wooden house, wide porch all around it, aged and falling apart in just the charming ways. On the porch at a table a black-haired girl who looked intensely hippie’d out read a hippie’d-out tract of some kind. Two Danish (maybe?) women ate French toast in silence. Below me the slope of the volcano rolled down, a clearing first and then thick with green trees, down to the road and the shore of the lake beyond.

At an open window to the kitchen, a girl asked me what I wanted.

Café, por favor. I ambled to an old wooden chair at an old wooden table to await the best coffee in the world.

Ten minutes later it came. It was okay.


This is an extract from Steve Hely’s latest book, The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World, published by Black Inc.

Steve Hely is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival 2016 and will be appearing at sessions on 2 and 4 September.

Steve Hely

Steve Hely was a writer for 30 Rock, Late Show with David Letterman, The Office and the acclaimed animated comedy American Dad!. He also wrote the Thurber-winning novel How I Became a Famous Novelist, and co-authored the comic travelogue The Ridiculous Race.

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