There are many ways to travel Colombia on a budget. You can stay in dorms, cook meals for yourself, or ride local buses as often as possible. And those are all great ways to save a few dollars. But the best way to save a ton of money while also getting a great experience is by eating Menu del Dias.
By taking advantage of this special lunch menu, found everywhere, you’ll not only save a pile of cash, but enjoy some of the best local food in the country.
What is a Menu del Dia?
Menu del Dia literally means menu of the day. And they’re our favourite way to eat while travelling in Colombia. Around midday, small, family-owned restaurants, dodgy backstreet diners and even some decent cafes set their sandwich boards on the street declaring their daily offerings.
These are simple lunch specials featuring one or two meat options, that come with several sides — some sort of starch, salad, plantain and occasionally lentils or beans. Depending on the region, avocado or arepas may also accompany the dish. As well, they usually include a soup to start things off.
Sometimes, they’ll include fresh juice and even dessert. Though be careful with the juice, though not in Colombia, we’ve had a few bad experiences with street juice.
They’re Simple but Tasty
Now, these aren’t fancy meals, and you shouldn’t expect to find any traditional Colombian specialties on the menu, but they’re tasty, filling, and cheap.
When it comes to the soup, it’s hit or miss; though almost always a basic broth with a few chunks of plantain or potato. Inland, the broth is almost always chicken or beef-based. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get a chunk of meat or two. In coastal regions, fish is the go-to soup. Here, you’re more likely to be picking out bones or scales than bits of meat, but the flavour is usually on point.
The meat portion is typically a choice of res (beef), cerdo (pork), pechuga (chicken breast), or pescado (fish). Again, these options vary from region to region. Along the coast, for example, you might find several different fish or seafood options. In and around Medellin or Bogota, chicharron (deep fried strips of pork belly) is common.
Don’t expect filet mignon or a lightly-seared ahi tuna steak; the first three options are usually tougher cuts that have been pounded into oblivion. As for the fish, expect the whole thing fried in oil and slapped on a plate — skin, bones, and eyeballs.
The rest: rice, potatoes, or yuca, with salad and the rest, those are dirt-cheap fillers. Delicious and well made, but fillers nonetheless. That’s why they’re able to keep the prices so low. Restaurants don’t waste their time with fancy sauces, ingredients or cooking methods. It’s grandma’s cooking; it’s working-class food. And most of the time, you’ll be the only foreigner in a room crammed with locals on lunch break.
Which Restaurants Serve Them?
These simple, straightforward meals are often served only for lunch, around 11 or 12, until mid-afternoon. Some places offer their menu, or some version of it, into the evening. You’ll rarely find these restaurants in fancier parts of town, where rent is either too high or other tenants don’t want the “atmosphere” tarnished.
In Cartagena, for example, I’m betting there isn’t a single menu del dia to be found in the old city. The often dive-bar ambiance of these restaurants doesn’t exactly vibe with jewellery stores and boutique clothing shops.
However, head across the park to the grungy, bohemian vibes of Getsemani, with the crumbling brick walls splattered in brilliant graffiti, you’ll find a dozen or more.
How Much do they Cost?
As with most things, a menu del will vary in price from place to place. In Cartagena, you’ll likely pay at least 15,000. We found several in Santa Marta, only a few hours away, for as low as 8,000. But I’d be surprised to find one higher than 20,000. At that point, it’s just another restaurant meal.
And while 15,000 might not be considered much of a budget option by some, these meals are almost always big enough to be shared. Kylee and I almost never order one each, and the times we have, we leave uncomfortably full.
Save Money, Eat Well
While it might not be the cheapest option around, and not always the most varied, it certainly beats living on a diet of deep-fried empanadas. So the next time you find yourself searching for some good, well-made Colombian food at great prices, find yourself a menu del dia.