There they were, grown men, construction workers, carrying four-ounce pink plastic cups up the hill. Whiffs of steam emerged from their hands wrapped around the container. As I approached closer to the intersection with the avenue I saw it; new tinto sales. Two woman and three large Thermoses sat on the waist high wall near the corner.
Ok, let me explain about tinto sales. Tinto is the name for black coffee in Colombia. The pronunciation is slightly different than what most might think. It is teen-toe. Throughout the city enterprising people will make thermoses of the brew and sell the beverage to people on their way to work. Since the strength is greater than American coffee, but weaker than Turkish coffee it is served in small cups that are almost always plastic because of cost and ease of transportation. Usually you have your choice between “con azucar,” or “sin azucar” (with or without sugar). In most areas a small cup sells for 600 to 1,000 pesos or about thirty to fifty cents.
More established tinto salesmen offer additional items for sale including chips, candies, individual cigarettes and phone calls on a cell phone. For this traveling store they frequently have a cart to transport all their merchandise. I have seen everything from baby strollers to fancy homemade carts that have battery powered wheels.
I have never seen anyone displaying a permit or even heard of them getting one. However, a daughter of a tinto salesman explained to me that a sort of feudal system exists at better locations in the city. According to her, a wealthy man whose family has been in the city for a long time may own the sales rights to the corner. Nothing official mind you, but it just has been that way for many years. Anyone selling anything in that location has to pay the man either a commission or rental fee. He in turn pays off the police.
In other areas you are pretty well open to set up shop. That is until it looks like you might be doing a good business, then protection money may be demanded. Competition is tough. Different vendors may only be a half block from each other. They do not compete on price which is already so low that $20 a day net profit could be considered good. Instead they compete by trying to have to the best tasting coffee. Their secret blends may include cinnamon, cloves, lime juice or panella.
Another way for selling coffee throughout the city is the walking tinto salesman. On his back he carries a large container filled with coffee. A hose ending with a nozzle comes from the bottom of the tanks. The man holds plastic cups in his one hand and manages the nozzle with the other. He walks either the streets or at a convention place yelling like three short bursts from a gun, “Tinto, tinto, tinto,”
I give these vendors much credit. They are out there working despite everything being against them. Police could shut them down at anytime, a local thug group could demand protection money or someone could claim to have rights to the location. That is all in addition to the normal business risks. They get up early sometimes traveling for an hour to get to their sales locations. In a country with a minimum wage of $300 an month for a 48 hours work week and 49% of the population earning less than that – well, I walked up the mountain with a pink cup in my hand.