From cosmopolitan Medellín and capital city Bogotá to colonial Cartagena and the famous coffee triangle, there’s a lot of ground to be explored in Colombia, says Nadia El Ferdaoussi.
For a country that rises to 5775m from sea level at the Pacific Ocean, with a Caribbean coastline and borders with Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela it’s no wonder the cuisine is so varied in each region of Colombia.
Most tourists to Colombia will start their trip in Bogotá and there’s no better way to get a feel for a city than visiting a local market. Paloquemao, the largest food market in the city, is your one stop shop to try everything from fruit you won’t find anywhere else in the world, to hearty cooked meals for a couple of euro.
Although restaurants come here each day to stock their kitchens, vendors are happy to sell individual items of exotic fruit, tell you the names and cut them up there and then to have a taste. Guanabana tastes a lot better than it looks and the word is fun to say, granadilla (above) is similar in texture to a passion fruit but tastes much milder and sweeter. Hot arepas oozing with melted cheese (below) are perfect if you’re feeling under the weather and pork tamales will fill you up for the day.
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Coffee, cocktails, and pizza
Over in Medellín, sometimes called the City of Eternal Spring for its pleasant year-round temperatures, expect to find a slightly more modern offering in tourist hotspot El Poblado. A very gentrified neighbourhood where most hotels are situated, you’ll feel relatively safe walking the streets here and there’s quite a strong police presence. Trendy coffee shops, acaí cafés and juice bars are nestled amongst hipster restaurants, boutique shops and stylish rooftop bars. Of course, expect to pay for the privilege, but you can still seek out local bars where the price of a cerveza won’t break the bank. Burdo does excellent cocktails in stylish surroundings and Bonhomía serves great pizzas from its wood-fired oven, huge tasty salads and decent wine in nice glasses - not something you’ll find that often in Colombia.
You can’t go to Colombia without learning a little bit about its most famous export, coffee. Salento in Quindio is a great base to visit a farm but also experience the stunning Cocora Valley, home to the tallest palm trees in the world. Close by in Armenia, you can visit Recuca to learn a little more about Colombia’s coffee history. It’s a little kitsch, but fun all the same. This is where I first tried paisa, a plate of beans, rice, egg with minced meat, chorizo and chiccarón.
For a more authentic coffee tour, visitors to the Magdalena region should take a trip from Minca about 45 minutes by jeep to La Victoria. The fascinating and turbulent history of this family farm and the passion that goes into making each cup is truly incredible. Due to the altitude and the single harvest (there are two cycles each year back down in Quindio), expect stronger quality beans in this region. Leave some space in your bag to bring home a couple of bags.
Dinner with a difference
Cartagena has food worth going to jail for, literally. At San Diego women’s prison you can eat a three-course menu for 90,000 COP (about €24) which happened to be one of the best meals of my trip to Colombia. Why? Selected prisoners receive training from some of the country’s top chefs in order to prepare the women for release and set them up with the skills to gain employment on the outside.
If you’re visiting Cartagena, Interno restaurant really is a must-visit - there’s no song and whistle, just a tastefully decorated dining room adjacent to the prison bars where inmates prepare a carefully thought out menu of Colombian Caribbean classics brought right up to date. Think ceviche and fresh catch with coconut rice, you can even order a bottle of wine to “celebrate second opportunities”.
Speaking of ceviche, you might have heard of La Cevicheria from Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Colombia on No Reservations. Like many restaurants that end up in the guide books, it’s a little overrated in my opinion. These places will have queues out the door no matter what, repeat business isn’t their aim, so it can often feel like they’ve stopped trying - especially when it comes to service.
The Getsemani neighbourhood in this region is absolutely worth a visit, though. Di Silvio Trattoria will satisfy any pizza and pasta cravings and the restaurants in this area, while still touristy, seem to be a bit better value for money.
Colombia is a foodie’s paradise. No pretension, just high-quality local ingredients and honest cooking. The G Adventures Classic Colombia tour takes in Bogotá, Armenia and Salento, Medellín and Cartagena, guiding you through a gastronomic journey worthy of your own travel show.
Author: Nadia El Ferdaoussi
Dublin native, Nadia is a freelance travel writer whose plan is to wander the globe until the novelty wears off (if that ever happens). Despite travelling to exotic locations the world over, her favourite country is Ireland, “when the sun shines, there’s no better place.” Her dream job would be mystery shopping in hotels, since she has a keen eye for detail and already spends most of her time living out of a suitcase. Nadia has a new found passion for wine and is quickly moving up through the ranks in terms of wine education. Her bucket list destination? Antarctica.
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