A Guide to Traditional Foods in Colombia

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Written by
Jennifer Richt

Published on: June 20th, 2024

Last modified: June 20th, 2024

Colombian cuisine is a kaleidoscope of bold flavours, fresh ingredients and unique treats. Each region of this Latin American country has its own specialties, ranging from the simplest snacks to elaborate meals that are meant to be shared.

Part of what makes traditional foods in Colombia so varied and interesting is the country’s cultural and geographical diversity. Its history, heritage and culinary repertoire reflect influences from Indigenous, African, Caribbean and European traditions. And thanks to its vast range of landscapes and climates, you’ll find different ingredients and cooking styles across Colombia.

According to our travel designers, the cuisine alone is a good enough reason to visit Colombia (though it’s far from the only one). In this guide we’ll introduce you to some of the best Colombian food, recipes, drinks and desserts to try on your next trip.

Small purple potatoes at the market in Silvia, Colombia.

Staple Ingredients in Colombian Cooking

Despite the immense variation across the country, many of the most famous foods of Colombia have certain ingredients in common. Staples of Colombian cooking include specific starches, fruits, vegetables, proteins, sweets and seasonings.

Let’s start with the starches. There are more than 800 kinds of potato in Colombia, so it makes sense that potatoes play a prominent role in many recipes. You’re also likely to come across yuca (cassava), a starchy tuber with its own distinctive taste and texture, and plenty of rice. Corn also makes an appearance in many traditional Colombian dishes, as do plantains.

Speaking of plantains – basically a starchier version of bananas – Colombia is absolutely brimming with beautiful fruit. Tropical fruits like mango, guava and passion fruit are common, though you’ll also find lots of unfamiliar fruits that are harder (if not impossible) to find outside of the tropics. There’s also an abundance of avocado, which is often served with savoury dishes. 

Fresh coconuts in the street of Cartagena, Colombia

As for vegetables, expect to see peppers, onions, yams, leafy greens and more. That said, meat and seafood often overshadow the veggies in Colombian cuisine – especially beef, pork, chicken and fish. Some classic recipes also call upon morcilla (blood sausage), chicharrón (fried pork belly) or mondongo (tripe). Common plant-based proteins include lentils and red beans.

As for the sweet stuff, Colombian desserts often involve arequipe (milk-based caramel, known elsewhere as dulce de leche), bocadillo (guava paste), panela (unrefined cane sugar), milk, coconut and cinnamon – not to mention chocolate made from locally grown cacao beans.

Sancocho traditional Colombian food

Popular Traditional Dishes in Colombia

Many of the most traditional Colombian dishes are specific to certain regions. One such specialty is bandeja paisa: a platter piled high with beef, pork, chicharrón, morcilla, sausage, rice, red beans, plantains, avocado, fried egg and more. Although it’s originally from Antioquia (the province of Medellín), bandeja paisa is widely considered the national food of Colombia.

Other hearty specialties include various soups and stews. There’s sancocho, a stew made with meat, chicken or fish plus potatoes, plantains and yuca. Another favourite is ajiaco from Bogotá, which features chicken, potatoes, corn and guascas, a native Andean herb that gives this soup its distinctive flavour. Lentil soup and tripe stew (also known as mondongo) are popular too.

In Cartagena and other coastal destinations, traditional dishes often spotlight fresh fish and seafood. Try cazuela de mariscos (seafood stew), coctel de camarones (shrimp doused in cocktail sauce) and freshly caught fish, either grilled or deep-fried whole – head, fins and all. 

There are too many classic Colombian dishes to cover in just a few paragraphs, but we’d be remiss not to mention tamales (corn cakes stuffed with savoury fillings and steamed in banana leaves), fritanga (a sharing plate of assorted grilled and fried meats) and lechona (a whole roasted pig stuffed with seasonings and sometimes vegetables or rice).

As for side dishes, expect to enjoy coconut rice, plantains, potatoes, beans and avocado alongside many traditional entrées. Other common sides include arepas and patacones, both of which are also popular street foods… but more on that below.

A person preparing tamales, traditional Colombian food

There are too many classic Colombian dishes to cover in just a few paragraphs, but we’d be remiss not to mention tamales (corn cakes stuffed with savoury fillings and steamed in banana leaves), fritanga (a sharing plate of assorted grilled and fried meats) and lechona (a whole roasted pig stuffed with seasonings and sometimes vegetables or rice).

As for side dishes, expect to enjoy coconut rice, plantains, potatoes, beans and avocado alongside many traditional entrées. Other common sides include arepas and patacones, both of which are also popular street foods… but more on that below.

Cartagena De Indias, Colombia, typical street food stall

Street Food Staples and Snacks

Street food from Colombia is a whole category in and of itself. Some of the most iconic and internationally beloved Colombian treats can be purchased from street vendors and market stalls throughout the country, whether you’re browsing La Perseverancia market in Bogotá or wandering the streets of Cartagena’s Old City.

First and foremost, there’s the famous arepa. It’s made from a dough of pre-cooked cornmeal (called masarepa) that’s formed into a disc shape and then grilled. Arepas can be stuffed with cheese and egg or topped with avocado, beans, meat or pretty much anything else you can imagine. They can be sweet or savoury and are often eaten as a snack, side dish or breakfast.

Another common snack that you’ll find on the streets of Colombia are patacones, which are made of green plantains that are smashed flat and then deep-fried. The result is crispy, salty and super versatile. Patacones can be eaten plain as a snack, covered in all kinds of toppings or served as a side dish – most often with fish.

Freshly prepared arepas with cheese on a street stall

Next up there’s the quintessential empanada. Unlike the empanadas you’ll find in other South American countries like Argentina or Bolivia, Colombian empanadas are made from corn-based dough and deep-fried (rather than baked). The most common fillings are beef and potatoes, though you can also find pork and vegetarian varieties.

A common accompaniment for any of the snacks described above is hogao, a flavourful sauce made from cooked tomatoes, onions and garlic. And beyond these savoury classics, you’re also likely to find sweet street foods like buñuelos (small balls of fried dough), obleas (thin wafer cookies with toppings) and alfajores (soft cookies with a layer of arequipe between them). 

Fruit Shop Displaying Hanging Pineapples and Assorted Produce in Colombia

Fresh Fruits and Refreshing Beverages

One of the highlights of any Colombian food market is the fruit. This country is bursting with colourful produce, from papaya and pineapple to native fruits like lulo and zapote. We highly suggest visiting Bogotá’s Mercado de Paloquemao, where you’ll find one of the best selections of fresh fruits – and juices – in the whole country. 

Apart from the endless array of fruit juices, there are some other refreshing drinks that are worth a try. Lulada is sort of smoothie made from the lulo fruit; aguapanela is a sweet drink made from panela dissolved in water; champús is a surprisingly tasty combination of corn, fruit and panela; and salpicón is essentially a fruit cocktail with soda or juice and sometimes ice cream on top.

When it comes to hot drinks, coffee reigns supreme. Most of Colombia’s world-renowned coffee comes from the Coffee Triangle, where you can visit plantations and learn about the production process. Another popular warm beverage is chocolate caliente, a spiced hot chocolate that’s sometimes served with cheese added straight to the cup.

Group of Colombian men working at a coffee farm collecting coffee beans

Savouring the Flavours of Colombia

We believe that tasting the authentic cuisine of Colombia is among the best ways to experience its culture. We can arrange all sorts of food-focused activities, whether you want to sample fruit, rum and chocolate in Cartagena, learn the secrets of Andean cooking in Medellín or get an up-close look at coffee and cacao production in the Coffee Triangle. Leave it up to our expert travel designers to craft a delicious, fascinating and entirely unforgettable itinerary for you.

Whatever you want from your foodie adventure in Colombia, our experts are ready to help:

Trip Inspiraton

Get inspired with our Colombia example trips and then get in touch to plan your own adventure

Where to stay

There are many incredible places to stay in Colombia. Here are some of our favourites, handpicked by our travel designers: