With its quaint colonial towns, fascinating big cities, tropical seaside resorts, mountains and oceans that all beg to be explored, Colombia is one of South America’s best-kept secrets, and the diverse cultures, dynamic landscapes and storied history that make Colombia an exciting place to explore also make it an exciting place to eat.
The nation’s consistent climate and varying altitudes contribute to its lush forests and fertile lands, which are the ideal places to grow fresh fruits, vegetables and other produce year round. These ingredients are incorporated into dishes that make up a unique food culture that’s been influenced by the country’s indigenous communities, Latin and Spanish cuisines and African flavors. All these elements are mixed into recipes that are often passed down for generations.
THE DINING EXPERIENCE IN COLOMBIA
Latin America is the next hot dining scene, and most of Colombia’s culinary gems can be found in the capital of Bogotá. For the country’s best food experience, it’s best to embrace the extremes, from the high end to the casual and the healthy to the very, very deep fried. Yes, the city’s nuevo Colombiano chefs are creating innovative mash-ups with traditional ingredients and imported techniques, but it’s just as worthwhile to check out the array of street food as well. (Sample everything from empanadas to truly exotic fruit salads.)
TYPICAL COLOMBIAN DISHES
No matter where you are in Colombia, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Columbian delicacies:
- Bandeja Paisa - The bandeja paisa is Colombia’s unofficial national dish. This mega-calorie meal was originally devised to provide peasant workers with sufficient energy to keep them going throughout the day. Nowadays, it’s a substantial lunchtime meal that’s eaten on special occasions or just when you’re feeling incredibly hungry. It consists of rice, plantain, arepa (corn cakes), avocado, minced meat, chorizo, black sausage and fried pork rind. There’s also a fried egg thrown on top for good measure.
- Empanadas - Empanadas are the perfect treat to eat on the go! Similar to an English pasty or Jamaican patty, these stuffed pastries can be filled with just about anything, but popular fillings include meat, chicken or cheese. They’re nearly always deep fried.
- Sancocho - This traditional Colombian stew often includes chicken, pork or beef. All are delicious, but for a really hearty dish, opt for mondongo (tripe soup).
- Fritanga - Fritanga is a wonderful mix of fried offal. While that might not sound delicious—and it’s most certainly an acquired taste—fritanga is a great way to try out bits of meat you wouldn’t normally eat.
- Arroz con Pollo - Arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) is stewed together with chicken stock. The dish is hugely popular and simply delicious. Traditionally served with a large squeeze of tomato ketchup, this is a great cheap eat that’ll fill almost anyone up.
- Pan de Bono - Pan de bono is a small, round bread-like bite that’s flavored with a sweet cheese. Popular all over the country, pan de bono is eaten as a snack throughout the day and is often served alongside a delicious hot chocolate early in the morning. For bread lovers, this Colombian specialty is a must try.
- Arepas - Arepas are arguably the most famous part of Colombian cuisine. They’re like empanadas in that they’re made with either white or yellow corn tortillas, but arepas don’t have any fillings. They’re also bigger and toasted. Think of them like super thick Mexican corn tortillas.
- Fresh Fruits - The fruits found in Colombia’s markets are some of the world’s most memorable. Look specifically for tomate de arbol (sweeter than an actual tomato and with a hint of kiwi), maracuyá (like improved passion fruit), feijoa (with a flavor reminiscent of bubblegum, it’s best mixed with leche for a delicious juice), curuba (like a peach crossed with a strawberry) and lulo (sour, tongue-tingling “little orange” often found in cocktails and fresh juices).
Backroads Pro Tip
Colombia is the third-largest producer of coffee in the world, but up until recently, it was very challenging to get a decent cup. (All the best product was exported!) This is no longer the case, and a new breed of cafes are finally bringing world-class cups—and experiences—home.
REGIONAL FOODS AND SPECIALTIES
Colombia is a relatively small country, but the food culture is remarkably dependent on geography. Check out these region-specific specialties:
- Chocolate Santafereño - This is the unexpected combination of hot chocolate and cheese! Particularly popular in the capital, Bogotá, this is either eaten for breakfast or at around 4:00 p.m. for an afternoon snack. The hot chocolate and stringy, melted cheese are a surprisingly good combination.
- Ajiaco - This hot soup is made with different types of potatoes, chicken, capers, corn, table cream and guascas (a Colombian herb). The dish is typically found in the Colombian interior, near Bogotá.
- Seafood - Lobster, fish and shellfish abound near the Caribbean coast.
- Limonadas de Coco - Typical of the region near the Caribbean coast, these coconut limeades are made with fresh coconut, and they’re ample enough to bring all your coconut dreams to fruition!
Backroads Pro Tip
As mentioned above, don’t be surprised if a coffee or hot chocolate is served with a piece of cheese. Embrace this tradition! This is a specialty of Colombia’s chilly Andean regions. The Aztecs and Mayans made a sacred drink that melded toasted cacao beans, spices and water. The Spanish Conquistadors took it to Europe, where it became a fashionable thing to sip throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In the latter half of the 19th century, once industrialization helped to bring down the cost of chocolate and cacao, the drink became a central part of late-afternoon snacking and socialization. It’s unclear when cheese entered the picture, but one theory is it made its way into the chocolate via the treats often served alongside it. Both Pan de yuca (a large, flat cassava cheese bread) and almojábanas (a small round cheese bread) are traditionally topped with extra cheese.
COLOMBIAN DINING TERMS: GLOSSARY
Words to Know on the Menu
- Flying ants: Hormigas Culonas
- Diced tripe soup: Mondongo
- Guinea pig: Cuy
Words to Know When Dining Out
- Could I have the bill?: Podría tener la cuenta?
- I’m a vegetarian: Soy vegetariano.
- Waiter: Mesero (male) or Mesera (female)
- Menu: La carta or El menú
- Restroom: Baño
- Bon appetit!: Buen provecho!
Tipping is customary in Colombia, but check the bill to see if a service charge is already included. If it is, it's usually 8–10 percent, and it's still common to tip more (up to 15–20 percent of the total). This is especially true in upscale dining establishments.
Breakfast is an important meal in Colombia, but the spread pales in comparison to what many consider a standard American breakfast. Lunch, however, is a serious affair. A majority of Colombians take a two-hour lunch break each day (between 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.). They return home, have lunch with their families and even have a small siesta (nap) before returning to work in the afternoon. Lunch is the most substantial meal in Colombia, and it often consists of three courses: a soup; a main dish—meat, rice and some sort of garden addition (usually potatoes, salad or plantains)—served with fresh fruit juice and a small dessert, plus a tinto (small portion of black coffee).
For many Colombians, dinner is the least important meal of the day, and it’s not traditionally eaten with the family. Many Colombians have what most Americans would consider a snack for dinner. This usually consists of traditional Colombian food, such as an arepa or bread and cheese with a cup of coffee, hot chocolate or hot agua de panela (unrefined cane sugar juice). Dinner is just something small to tide them over until breakfast again! If you’re looking to enjoy dinner at a restaurant, the spread will be more ample, but don’t expect service to begin until later in the evening (around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.).
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Colombia adventure!