Colombia: A country of hot rains, steep drops, windy coasts, thick jungles. Of iguanas and parrots, leaf-cutter ants and capyberas. Empty wild spaces and cluttered cities. Drummers, dancers, and seasoned criminals; environmentalists, urban renewers, entrepreneurs, street artists.
And fueling it all, its food: hearty, colorful, often fried, and mostly delicious.
I’ll admit, my experience of Colombian food lacked a pretty crucial element. Colombians love meat. Barbacoas, braised pork, beef stews, chicken soups. But it wasn’t so hard to enjoy flavors of the country without being a carnivore (especially because I do love fish).
Behold, a recap of some of the tastes I enjoyed during a ten day trip in Bogotá, Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Parque Tayrona in February. Salud!
Because their capital city is chilly and coated in fog year-round, Bogotanos love their hot chocolate, and seem to drink it at all hours of the day. They like it with mild cheese and fresh white bread. At La Puerta Falsa, a popular snack joint near Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá’s Candelaria neighborhood, we were instructed to tear up the cheese and drop it into the hot chocolate, waiting for it to melt a little and then dipping bread in the mixture.
2. The sensational Sant Just:
Call me a heretic, but our favorite meal in Bogotá was at a little French/South American fusion bistro, Sant Just Traiteur, right off of Plaza de las Periodistas. We sat an arms-length away from the chef stirring pots, whisking things out of the oven, and stylishly topping off plates with seeds and herbs. The rare salmon on my salad had been marinated in brandy, and sprinkled with toasted quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and a citrus dressing. I dream to return here to eat another creme brulee de maracuya (passionfruit).
3. Platanitos and patacones:
On our flight to Cartagena, they served platanitos (plantain chips) along with a little caramel and some coffee.
You also see patacones, or fried plantains, everywhere along the coast. Especially tasty with fried eggs and hot sauce.
4. Fruta maravillosa:
Everything from perfectly ripe mango and melon to tart, crisp pineapple to fruit we don’t even have a name for, like lulo and uchuva. Sold everywhere on the streets, so juicy and balanced and refreshing in the humidity. In Parque Nacional Tayrona, we split coconuts, ate the meat for breakfast, and drank the water with rum and lime juice. When it was too hot for anything else, creamy popsicles with fresh chunks of coconut in them were the perfect snack.
Ajiaco is a typical Colombian dish made up of a potato and chicken broth, into which you immerse chicken meat, avocado, capers, rice, and corn. We ate lunch at a delicious and cheap joint in Cartagena called Espíritu Santo, where several people ordered generous portions of ajiaco. I had fish marinated in coconut, served with rice and plantains; so good I forgot about missing out on this traditional stew.
Once we were on the Caribbean, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some raw fish, and the ceviche in Cartagena does not disappoint. The gorgeous bakery Milas, which serves up delicate gold-encrusted brownies and macaroons and killer limonada de coco, also dishes out a mean shrimp ceviche with fresh corn kernels, coconut milk, and crisp shrimp that almost pop when you bite into them. At La Cevicheria, I ordered a mixed shrimp and fish ceviche. Not as delicate as Milas’, but boosted by a fresh patacón smothered in avocado on the side.
7. Arepa de huevo:
Take an arepa, a disk of dough made from fine cornmeal, and fry it a little bit to give it structure. Open it up like a pita, and crack a raw egg inside, adding a touch of salt. Deep fry the whole thing, until the egg is cooked. Eat fresh, with a splash of Ajibasco (see #9), preferably while watching the waves crash into broken shells at your feet.
8. Helado de la raza?
One Colombian ice cream company had an interesting marketing plan…
9. AAA: Aguila, Aguardiente, and Ajibasco
Aah, the accessories. Never miss a meal without an ice-cold Aguila beer (tastes sort of like a Pacifico), a shot of aguardiente (liquorice tasting liquor), and Ajibasco, Colombia’s Tobasco sauce (only much, much better).