Prior to visiting the amazing country, we knew next to nothing about the cuisine in Colombia. It’s not often spoken of back home; even in the culinary world we’re used to. We assumed authentic Colombian dishes would be much the same as what we experienced throughout Central America. Which, to be honest, fell a little flat after we left Mexico. Yet, many delicious treats surprised us on the other side of the Darien Gap. While this often deep-fried, meat and starch-loaded cuisine is not for those watching their waistline; the flavour far outweighs (pun intended) the gains.
Here are 17 must-try Colombian dishes to experience while visiting:
Colombian Snacks and Street Food
Also called tostones, these starchy snacks are twice-fried green plantains. Patacones are another food common to cuisines across Latin America and the Caribbean. Generally, they’re fairly small, fitting in the palm of your hand. And while crunchy on the outside, the middle was still soft and dense.
The ones we encountered often in Colombia, however, were huge, wafer-thin and very crispy. The only difference here is how flat the plantain is pounded before its second frying, but the results are considerable.
Find it: The small, thicker variety are found in carts and restaurants, often served on their own with dips. The large, thinner style are typically found as a side to a main, such as the fried trout in Jardin and Salento.
Regañonas de Maiz con Queso
These corn fritters are the first street snack we stumbled upon when arriving in Colombia. It was on our first day in Santa Marta. The hot, crispy outside breaks open to reveal a soft, almost creamy inside. Place a cooling wedge of queso fresco in the steaming crack and top with fiery salsa.
The only important thing with these is finding them fresh. Often they’ll be cooked in batches and left sitting in the sun, destroying the crisp outer layer. Also, they’re not always served with cheese, which in my opinion is a critical mistake!
Find it: Street carts all over the country. The best we tried were from a street cart right around this pin. Good luck!
In Japan they’re gyoza, the Polish call them peirog. Ravioli is one of several versions the Italians have of this international favourite. In Colombia, the humble dumpling comes in the form of an empanada.
Stripped down to their basic form, empanadas are no more than a filling wrapped in dough and deep fried. Fillings range from spicy, shredded chicken, to pork rib and rice, to an almost samosa-like vegetarian version with potatoes and vegetables.
Find it: These tasty morsels are found everywhere in Colombia. If you can’t find an empanada, you’re doing it wrong.
In their simplest form, salchipapas are French fries topped with chopped hot dogs. Quality varies significantly, with most falling in the “questionable” and “only when drunk” range. There are, however, some places taking this classic South American street food to new levels.
The fries are always there, as is a meat of some sort. Though the generic wieners are replaced with quality sausage or other chopped meat. The typical splattering of ketchup and mustard is elevated to specialty, house-made sauces. Cheese, lettuce and other toppings are commonly available as well.
Consider salchipapas an option in any occasion where you’d order nachos or chicken wings. This Colombian food favourite is very popular with Colombian youth.
Find it: Nearly anywhere that sells street food. Particularly in the evening and late into the night. The best one we had was at this outdoor food court in Santa Marta.
Arepas in their simplest form are small, grilled patties made of corn flour. A little too often, they’re just a shitty, stale, flavourless white puck; typically used to bulk up a meal. For this reason alone, for the first few weeks at least, they were my least favourite food in Colombia. I avoided them at all costs.
Other times, however, they’re sliced open and stuffed, almost like a dense, thicker version of a pita. Most commonly in this form, they’re filled with egg and cheese, and served as a quick an inexpensive breakfast. But different versions are also served throughout the day. This is where I fell in love with arepas. In Medellin, we frequented a shop that filled with almost anything you can imagine. BBQ pork rib and melted cheese for example; or roasted chicken, avocado, cheese, corn and bacon dripping with garlic aioli was another.
Long story short, arepas can be amazing, so don’t be put off by the dry discs that make rice cakes taste like foie gras.
Find it: Everywhere, in many different forms. Look for the stuffed ones from food stalls and street carts in the morning. One of our favourite shops is Deli Arepas in Medellin.
Mondongo – Colombian Tripe Soup
Clichés suggesting it’s “only for the adventurous,” or “not for the squeamish,” do it a disservice. By no means is this reason to avoid mondongo; if anything it’s reason to seek it out. Just ask around.
Truth be told, neither of us found a bowl of mondongo that we enjoyed; which is unfortunate considering how many locals and other travellers rave about it.
Tripe, and occasionally pork or chorizo, is stewed with root vegetables, spices and lime juice. When done right, the tripe is soft, almost like slightly overcooked pasta, and gives very little in the sense of flavour. Unfortunately, tripe is also one of those ingredients that needs respect. If it isn’t prepared properly and is simply thrown the mix, it can impart a taste and texture that can border on unpleasant. If there’s anything on this list that you shouldn’t try a “just ok” version of, it’s mondongo.
Find it: Though we can’t make any specific recommendations here, a lot of people love mondongo, the good stuff is out there. It’s typically served only on weekends, ask around for the best spot!
Another typical Colombian soup is ajiaco – and this one we love! Chicken and three types of potato are simmered to form the base. The types of potatoes are key here, as each lends a different texture, one of which actually dissolves into the broth. Corn on the cob is added, as well as guascas, which gives ajiaco its distinct flavour.
Served with rice, avocado, crema and fried capers; this not-quite-stew is the epitome of comfort food. Though delicious enough to eat any time of day, it’s especially warming on those chilly Bogota mornings; or when you need a little boost after a night of aguardiente.
Find it: On menus across the country, particularly in Bogota. We often found the best Ajiaco at smaller, nondescript restaurants tucked away on side streets.
Traditional Colombian Dishes
Fresh Local Trout
This is a specialty found primarily in the coffee regions high in the Andes. Where cold, mountain streams criss-cross the countryside. Now, never in my life until visiting Colombia have I seen fish prepared this way. The entire thing butterflied wide open, dredged in flour and deep-fried whole. Bones and all.
It’s ridiculously simple, yet this was something we found ourselves eating a little too often.
Find it: Though it’s available in much of the country, head to Salento or other villages in that region for some of the freshest. There are even trout farms where you can catch your own! The home-made sauce where we ate in Jardin is perfection!
Pastel de Arroz – Colombian Tamales
Tamales are found throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina and even some Caribbean islands. Dating back to the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, tamales have been evolving for centuries.
Each country has their own variation, ranging in fillings, yet nearly all use a base of masa, or corn flour. In a country as large as Colombia, tamales vary from region to region. On the Atlantic side of the country for example, masa is replaced with rice. The rice is mixed then with chicken, pork, olives, capers potatoes and peas, and steamed in a banana leaf.
Find it: In cities on the Atlantic coast, typically served on Sundays. Our favourite was from a lady in Santa Marta, on Carrera 5 beside the main church.
This is one of those extraordinary foods that, while quite simple in concept, delivers a ton of flavour and different textures. Preparing lechona is also quite labour intensive. An entire pig, typically juvenile, that is deboned and has all of its meat removed, while keeping the skin in-tact. The meat is finely chopped and mixed with rice, peas and seasonings, and stuffed into the hollow carcass. The whole thing is then roasted slowly for several hours.
The tender filling is served with shattered bits of the crisp, almost glassy skin. This alone is a work of art – the thing layer of melted fat contrasts the brittle exterior perfectly. To serve, a simple relish of pickled onions is drizzled on top. This subtle kick of acid is all that’s needed to cut through the rich pork.
Find it: Typically, lechona is found in and around the Tolima region of the central Andes. Jacinta Lechona, in Bogota, is our favourite.
This is it, the big one, and easily my favourite Colombian dish. What the full English breakfast is to, well, England, the Bandeja Paisa is to Colombia. This huge platter of meat and carbs was once a source of energy for those making the long-haul treks across the country. And while the unnecessarily portion size is no longer needed, it has remained nonetheless.
Even a modest bandeja often include grilled chorizo, fried egg, stewed beans, chicharron (fried pork belly), roasted plantain, a pile of pulled or ground beef, steaming rice and half an avocado. Occasionally blood sausage, roasted or fried potatoes and an arepa will be included for good measure. And if you’re really lucky, a few slices of tomato and a small salad appear for a poor attempt at balance.
Find it: The best option is somewhere in the Antioquia region of Colombia. Most restaurants in Medellin will serve this, ask locals for their favourite. The best we had was at El Mesón Paisa, in the mountain village of Jardin.
Colombian Pastries and Desserts
Obleas are two paper-thin wafers with any number of flavoured pastes between them. We’ve found everything from chocolate to tamarind. Typically, they’ll have a caramel sauce or sweetened condensed milk as a base. Other sauces can always be added. The kicker though, is the shredded cheese. Once your choice of toppings are added, the wafers are sandwiched together and you’re good to go!
The hyper-sweet sauces and salty cheese compliment each other in an oddly perfect combination. The crispy wafer holds everything together – just barely. It’s a quick and inexpensive snack to keep you going or a light desert after a heavy meal.
Find it: These are a fun little treat you’ll find everywhere. On street carts, little tables on the side of the road or even from old ladies on their front steps.
These fluffy balls of fried dough are common throughout Latin America and are a Colombian breakfast staple. Similar in concept to the humble doughnut, bunuelos are made with cassava flour and cheese. This gives a much lighter, almost creamy texture; as well as a subtle saltiness from the feta-like cheese.
For the full experience, stop into a coffee shop one afternoon and take part in a classic post-workday snack. Enjoy a bunuelo with a tall glass of hot chocolate and a slab of fresh cheese.
Find it: Found throughout the day in cafes and street carts. For the hot chocolate and cheese, we suggest Reposteria Cafe in Bogota. Just don’t expect a “light snack,” the portions here are generous.
Aguardiente is the quintessential Colombian liquor, and can inflict some serious pain if not respected. It’s anise flavour is similar to that of Italian sambuca or Greek ouzo. And much like it’s Mediterranean counterparts, it packs a hell of a punch. That reiteration was not an accident. Consider yourself warned.
Drinking aguardiente is a very social activity. You’ll often see people casually drinking aguardiente at small tables in front of tiendas; small, local convenience stores. The practice is so common in fact, you’ll often be given a small stack of tiny, plastic cups when you buy a bottle.
Find it: Everywhere. From supermarkets to corner stores.
This alcoholic beverage of South America dates back to the days long before the Spanish arrived. Across the region it’s made by fermenting things like cassava, quinoa, potato or plantain, and flavoured with fruit and spices. Here in Colombia, it’s most often made with a base of corn and sugar.
Colours and flavours vary depending on the types of corn used, as does the sweetness and alcohol content. We only tried the stuff once, and it was sweet like syrup and made us wince with tartness. It didn’t taste bad, in fact the flavours were quite nice, but it’s not something I’d have more than one or two of in a sitting!
Find it: Chicha is available in most of Colombia. The most common spot to sample different varieties is in La Candelaria district of Bogota.
Limonada de Coco
By far, the tastiest and most refreshing drink we had in over two months in Colombia is limonada de coco. Not only is it delicious, but dead simple to make. Coconut milk, fresh squeezed lime juice, sugar and ice – blended. That’s it.
Personally, I think what makes it so great is that it’s something that works all the time. It’s cool and refreshing when you’re relaxing on a beach in Cartagena; and the coconut milk is just rich enough to give that calming feeling after a cold rain in one of the great restaurants in Salento.
Plus, you can always throw a liberal splash of rum in for good measure.
Find it: Across the country, at restaurants and street carts. One of the best we tried was actually at Helena Adentro, a phenomenal restaurant in Filandia.
Writing an article about Colombian food and drink without mentioning coffee would be like talking classic rock without Led Zeppelin. It’s simply one of the defining aspects; a cornerstone of the industry. Colombian coffee is generally regarded as some of the best on earth.
What makes it so good? The beans aren’t roasted in butter as in Vietnam, nor are they picked from Indonesian cat shit – not that either of these are a bad thing. Colombia just happens to have perfect growing conditions and a well-honed culture of producers. So good in fact, it has UNESCO World Heritage status.
Find it: It’s so widely produced and exported globally, you could try this at cafes around the planet or in your own kitchen. Though for the real experience, head to one of the towns in Colombia’s coffee region. Cultivar Cafe in Filandia is an excellent choice.