All prices are given in Colombian Pesos (COP). 1 USD = 2.900 COP approx.
Empanadas, carimañolas, arepas, pandebonos, tamales, patacones, aborrajado, sancocho, lulada… my brain works at full throttle when I think of Colombian food. It will be hard to settle which to recommend, so I’ll try to keep it short and sweet -no pun intended-. Before getting into it, you should know the reason why it is not possible to talk about food without mentioning the regions: every region in Colombia is very different in regards of the music, food, accent and overall culture. The reason? the Andes split into 3 when entering Colombia in the south, leaving us with massive chains of mountains crossing the country and a tough to navigate geography, even more so without the road infrastructure that came with automobiles only 80 years ago. So for this entry I’ll be writing about traditional and street food from Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena.
First things first, street food. Why? It is ever present. You’ll find yourself crashing into small cars, kiosks, and corner stores filled with local appetizers and snacks. No need to give you directions. It’s actually the other way around: you’ll have a hard time trying to avoid them. Enough said, let’s dive into it.
Arguably the most representative street food in Colombia. Arepas can come in many sizes, shapes and flavors. There is no such a thing as an ‘Arepa’, no generic version of it, every region in the country has its own interpretation of what an ‘Arepa’ is, thus the term is always accompanied by the variety (e.g. Arepa de Chócolo, Arepa Boyacense, Arepa con Queso, Arepa de Maíz Peto, etc.). So for example when in Medellín if you ask for an ‘Arepa’ they’ll bring you an ‘Arepa Paisa’. Probably the simplest of them all. People in other regions would say it is ‘tasteless’ out of pure envy. Truth is, it is meant to be served with toppings and few things beat it when you put some Hogao (homemade tomato-based seasoning sauce) or shredded cheese and butter on top. The best place to get them are ‘Fondas Paisas’ where you can also taste Bandeja Paisa -more on that coming-.
In Bogotá, try ‘Arepa con Queso’ (filled with cheese). These will cost between COP 2.000 and 3.000 and are not hard to find. Here are the tips to pick a good one: the cheesier the merrier, so look for a thick one. Dough is traditionally white, but when buying one, look for the yellowish traces of butter and brown/dark patches made by the griddle. Not perfectly round? Take it! Most likely that one is made from Maiz Peto, a rebel corn difficult to shape but tastier than other varieties. If you’re not in the mood for scouting Arepas, I recommend going to Cl 72 #14-25. The place has no sign or name, but you’ll see the arepas right away in the entrance. Best thing is that not only you’ll be able to try Arepa con Queso, but also Arepa Boyacense.
Arepas are not hard to get. You’ll have trouble finding a town who doesn’t sell any. In Barichara you can either go and learn from a chef how to make a perfect arepa or try an< Arepa Santandereana. For the latter, we recommend Terranato (Cl 6 #7-71) where you can either order just the arepa or have it Napolitana (cheese, tomato and oregano on top) or Barichara (loin, mushrooms in sauce and parmesan on top). In Cartagena don’t miss ‘Arepa’e Huevo’ (deep fried with an egg on the inside), my absolute favourite and also many woman’s craving when they’re pregnant. My mouth is watering already. Find yours by Plaza San Diego in the historic city centre or in Sierva María (Cra. 7 #34-34).
I don’t know if you’ll ever get enough of them, but as the wise man once said “For man shall not live by Arepas alone”. At some point you will go into a restaurant and order a proper meal either to lunch or dine. In Bogotá, the most traditional dish is Ajiaco, a thick and tasty soup made out of three different types of potatoes, chicken, corn, and some local herbs. Served with rice and a slice of avocado. It is very balanced and almost rhymes with the cold breeze and the mountains in the city, its a must. Go to ‘La Puerta Falsa’, half a block from ‘Plaza de Bolivar’ (Bogota’s main square). You’ll be paying around COP 25.000 for a very generous portion of one of the best Ajiacos in town. The catch? Restaurant is very small so try and get there either early or past lunch time.
Head up north to Medellin and order a Bandeja Paisa: Rice, beans, ground beef, fried eggs, chorizo, chicharrón (pork rind), avocado, sweet plantain, morcilla and arepa all served in big plate. I dare you to try and repeat by memory all the items that make up this delicious dish. I myself had to read them three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something. Please do yourself a favor and google ‘Bandeja Paisa images’, its glorious. Feeling hungry yet? The backstory is that ‘Paisas’ (people from Antioquia and adjacent departments) are very hard workers and back in the day that meant going out to the mountains for long hours to take care of the coffee and fruit crops. The only way to withstand this kind of work was having a serious hypercaloric meal in the middle of the day. So make sure you have plans to use that energy, and don’t ever consider it for dinner. Hato Viejo (CL 16 #28-60) is a good traditional restaurant serving it for around COP 25.000.
Hormigas Culonas are nothing more than a type of leafcutter ants. The literal translation though would be “big-assed ant”. The tradition was inherited from the Guanes, the indigenous pre-Columbian culture living in the region. They attributed aphrodisiac, analgesic and longevity properties to the insect when eaten alive, but nowadays we cut their head and flies off and eat them roasted. The most common thing you’ll hear about them is that they taste like roasted peanuts, but bear in mind that the texture is nothing like peanuts. This delicacy doesn’t come cheap, as small bags can sell for about the price of a full meal (10.000-20.000COP). The reason is that they are only harvested in April and May (rainy season) when they come out of their nests by the thousands after a couple of wet cold days to get warm and gather leafs, and the peasants get bitten multiple times by the strong skin-cutting mandibles of the ants in the harvesting process. You can find them in the market in Carrera 5 between Calles 8 & 9.
Cooking with coca leafs
So… Coca leafs have been widely used in the andes since the pre-inca period. Rich in essential minerals such as calcium, potassium and phosphorus, vitamins (B1, B2, C, and E), nutrients such as protein and fiber, and used to overcome altitude sickness, fatigue, hunger and thirst, coca leafs should never be mistaken with cocaine. And thus, if you happen to go to Cartagena, don’t miss the dishes prepared with the plant. Tea is the most common, but there are also cookies and lasagna made with the plant, the latter served in Restaurante Guatila (Bocagrande – Kr 3 #7-49).
Coffee! Thought we would forget? One of the most popular drinks on earth happens to be produced with excellent quality in Colombia. The climate and ground conditions make this the perfect land to grow different varieties that are sold all around the world. We even have a ‘Coffee region’ where most of the coffee comes from. You should not leave the country without visiting a traditional ‘finca’ to witness the entire process from harvesting to the table. The coffee region is shared by the departments Quindío, Armenia & Risaralda and the options to experience it are countless.
Taking by storm the world in 2015, colombian rum ‘Parce’ received six top honors at the San Francisco world’s spirit competition including best rum, best aged rum and best of show, so we couldn’t leave this one behind. If the massive castle built to protect Cartagena from enemies and the tales of multiple assaults get your pirate spirit going, make sure you top it with a rum tasting experience in the walled city. Lobo de Mar restaurant in Calle Del Santisimo 8-15, is a good option.
After you’re done with lunch/dinner, try a random fruit you’ve never heard of before. They are all worth trying: feijoa, granadilla, lulo, maracuya and uchuva are some examples. In the city markets there’s even the option to have a fruit tour. They’ll give you a spoon and take you to different posts to try them all. In Medellin these are easy to find for around COP 55.000 and take 2.5 to 3 hours to complete, tasting many fruits and getting a fresh juice at the end.
Is that it? Not even close! But I hate when the over excitement turns into an overwhelming wave of recommendations. Take the ones I’ve mentioned as the things you can’t miss. These will also serve as an entry door to Colombian cuisine. Once you’ve tried a few of them, you’ll start to be more adventurous and continue to discover new things by yourself. What’s the trick? Ask people. If you go to a restaurant ask for the speciality, whenever you speak with locals or guides ask them for the traditional dish and snack of their region and you’ll be on the right track.