I have always been a fan of lemonade – it brings back memories of hot summer picnics, July 4 barbeques, and glossy pictures from my mom’s “Southern Living” magazines. But since arriving in Colombia, lemonade has become dead to me. Now, I have found something even better – even more refreshing, even icier! If you have not yet experienced Colombia’s guarapo, then now’s the time.

Guarapo, sugar cane juice, is served throughout Colombia and in different varieties throughout Central and South America. It’s a traditional drink that wound its way from Spain to the rural and indigenous communities of Latin America. Colombian guarapo consists of pressed sugar cane juice mixed with lots of ice and lots of limes. It can also be made into an alcoholic beverage. It is sweet, but not too sweet, has that fresh lime taste without the puckering sourness, always deliciously cold, and mystifyingly quenching.
Making guarapo Making guarapo Making guarapo Making guarapo

In Medellin, when walking through the city center, you see young men carrying trays stacked full with sweating glasses, held high above the heads of the crowd, shouting, “Guarapo, guarapo.” They barely pause when handing buyers a glass before continuing through the busy streets. In parks and plazas it is more common to find vendors with a sugar cane press making the guarapo throughout the day to meet the demands of long lines of customers. Next to these shiny metal presses are usually several white buckets full of halved strips of sugar cane. Often one man serves the juice while another feeds the cane into the press and discards the used pieces. The juice feeds into a bucket below the press where it is sieved and served.

It was at one such stand in Sabaneta, a small town in Antioquia, that I met the Palomino brothers, Mario and Hernando. They have operated their business, Guarapo of Sabaneta, for over a decade. The stand is open every Saturday, Sunday and on holidays. Hernando testifies that this is because of the drink’s popularity, “Children, teenagers, adults – everyone likes it because it is natural. People enjoy it because it lowers depression; it’s good for your digestive system. Calcium, magnesium, potassium… it has all the components.”

Mario and Hernando both vividly remember the first time they tasted guarapo. “I was five years old,” remembers Mario “Very little. We were in the east on a sugar cane farm.”

Hernando shares a similar memory, “It was 35 years ago. We lived in the country on a farm. We decided we would come to the city and the idea was that we would start a business selling the guarapo made from sugar cane. We did it and it has been about 12 years that we have been in business. “

After watching Mario cut the sugar cane with his machete and ladle out a glass for me, I took a sip, and had to agree with Hernando’s assessment when he said, “The guarapo here in Sabaneta is some of the best in Antioquia.”

Guarapo Recipe

• If you don’t happen to grow your own sugar cane, try mixing evaporated cane juice or cane sugar, which can be found in many supermarkets, with water.

• Guarapo is served as a thick drink, so don’t make it too watery.

• Then add to taste with lots of limes (for a bucket Mario recommends 30 limes!) and ice.