So this post is inexcusably late (new job, flat refurb and wedding planning will do that) but nearly a year later, I still have the same passion for this stunning country.
On planning our mega 4 month South America adventure, Colombia never featured in our plans and we were actively discouraged from visiting. There are good reasons for this. If you’ve seen the incredible Netflix series Narcos you’ll know exactly why. Not so long ago it was a country torn apart by violence.
But in Colombia times have definitely changed. Meet any backpacker in South America who’s been and they’ll tell you wholeheartedly it was the best place they visited. It’s a country of astounding natural beauty, with diverse landscapes. And the food is just as varied.
From the Carribbean flavours of the northern coast, to the fabulous coffee to the meat feasts of Medellín, there’s a lot for a foodie to like about Colombia. It’s where we had some of our absolute best meals in South America.
Here’s our top 10 Colombia eats (and drinks!):
Colombian coffee is pretty well known worldwide. And for good reason. It’s incredible. I’m not much with coffee usually, it gives me the shakes. But the coffee we had in Colombia didn’t. It was smooth and delicious. For any coffee lover, you cannot visit South America and not go to Colombia’s coffee triangle. Salento particularly was amazing, the scenery and the amount to do and see was astounding (see my tips below on what to see and do in Salento).
Ok, so empanadas are to be found everywhere in South America. But not all empanadas are made equal. These babies are made with cornmeal, deep fried and always served with fresh spicy salsa (which you stand at the counter and continually spoon over your empanada). They are one of the best things we tasted in South America. And found on pretty much every street corner in Colombia, they’re a reason to visit the country in themselves. (I’m salivating at the memory).
3. Bandeja paisa:
Not for the faint hearted, this calorie laden monster is the local dish of Medellin, la bandeja paisa, literally ‘peasant’s tray’. It contains pretty much every delicious thing you can think of, from chicharrones (crispy pork belly), beans, avocado, fried egg, arepa, fried plantain and any other kind of meat you care to think of. Top tip, always share it (unless you’re ready for belly and arteries to take a beating). Also this is the best meal to eat after summiting the 740 steps of el Peñol in Guatape, La Fogata restaurant on the Malecón highly recommended, good juice there too.
4. Coconut fish:
A classic Carribbean combo, this is quite simply delish. When visiting Cartagena it’s a must try, and Cartagena is a must visit. Try it at La Mulata, a fantastic fish restaurant or if your budget allows push the boat out and go to the wonderful La Cocina de Pepina in one of my favourite areas, Getsemani. Tips on Cartagena below.
Ok so technically these aren’t originally from Colombia, but from Venezuela. But Colombia have adopted them and they are delish, so definitely deserving of mention. Basically a bread/cake made from ground maize flour, they’re a firm favourite as a side with any meal (see bandeja paisa above) but the also make mean meals of their own with various fillings. Try Mi Arepa chain in Antioquia, who do every kind of filling, we had one right next to us in Medellín when staying at the wonderful Black Pine hostel, see below more tips on Medellín.
Also when visiting Parque Tayrona, find this little Arepa place on one of the beaches, they do amazing egg filled arepas made fresh.
6. Ajiaco (Sancocho and other traditional dishes):
Many tourists find Bogotá underwhelming, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. And it’s traditional restaurants were great fun. In the heaving Puerta Falsa (a firm tourist favourite, expect a queue) you can try some of Colombia’s most traditional dishes such as ajiaco (chicken and potato soup with cream, corn and capers, yum), tamales and sancocho. Other great restaurants we enjoyed for traditional Bogotán food were Fulanitos (gorgeous terrace with views over Bogotá) and La Puerta Real a super colourful restaurant full of vintage curios where you can actually dress up and have your photo taken in vintage clothing, so much fun. The traditional food in Bogotá is not sophisticated, it’s simple and at times quite heavy but definitely delicious. All of these restaurants are a bit of a tourist trap (bar Fulanitos which is popular with locals too) but good craic if you’re trying to get a flavour of traditional Colombia. More Bogotá tips below.
7. Agua de panela:
A hot drink made of sugar cane and water. It’s sweet sugary, warming, delicious. Great at the end of a hike. Have it at the hummingbird sanctuary on the Valle de Cocora hike.
8. Street fruit:
One of the best things about Colombia is the fruit and even better is that fresh cups of it are sold ready to eat on most street corners. Unripe mango with lime and salt was one of my faves. Yum.
9. Limonada de coco:
Lemonade and coconut milk. It’s a match made in heaven, add rum and you’re onto a winner. When in northern Colombia, find this drink you’ll never forget it (this was at Malagana bar).
(Fermented corn drink) it’s every bit as gross as you think it’ll be. Tastes a bit like fizzy fermented vom. Everyones drinks it though, so worth a try. Once.
Foodies travel tips:
1. Salento: Don’t miss out on Valle de cocora to hike amongst the world’s tallest palm trees and when you’re there check out the hummingbird sanctuary, stunning.
Stay at Casa Eliana, great food and the Spanish host is lovely. Betatown round the corner is also great and does mean breakfast. Be sure to try out Colombia’s explosive national game Tejo when you’re there. The horse riding in the area is also wonderful.
2. Cartagena: Stay in Getsemani, the simple but lovely Hotel la Magdalena (excellent price and air-con, you’ll need it in Cartagena!) Don’t miss out on the extraordinary Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, it has a network of fascinating tunnels. The mangroves are also well worth a visit.
Be careful when booking trips out to Islas Rosario, they are a tourist trap, try to go for longer than a day trip. Malagana in Getsemani is a great dinner spot and has a lovely rooftop terrace and excellent cocktails, try the limonada de coco with rum!
3. Medellín: Stay at the wonderful Black Pine hostel, the owners are super friendly, the area is great and it’s got the biggest kitchen of any hostel I’ve seen (and great brekkie). Definitely do the free city tour, the guides are so good and navigate you through a city with some very hard hitting subjects to discuss (give them a good tip). Try out the botanical gardens, they’re a great place for a stroll in the sun. If you’ve got a spare day the Parque Explora is super fun (think London’s Science Museum but bigger). Make sure you put aside a day to climb el Peñol and explore Guatape.
4. Bogotá: Stay in the Candelaria, it’s the fun student area and has amazing street art. Do the graffiti tour, good fun and you’ll get to know the artists. We stayed in the Explora hostel but there’s loads of good ones in the Candelaria. For a great set lunch try Capital Cocina y café it’s beautiful light and delicious food, reasonable too, a nice break from the heavy traditional food. Don’t miss the Museo de Oro, soo much gold, stunning. Also the Police museum is an unexpected great visit, housing Pablo Escobar curios and you get a free guided tour from a cadet, whose opinions are interesting in themselves. The Botero Museum is also great, if you like everything looking fat!
Other must try Colombian snacks:
Patacones: smashed, flattened and fried plantain, best snack ever.
Unusual flavoured crisps…
Aromatica, a herby, spiced hot drink sold by street vendors, nice and warming at night.
If you’re on the road and don’t have time for breakfast, get one of these. So chocolatey.
It’s not actually tasty but a good Colombian novelty.