10 Traditional Dishes to Try When Visiting Colombia

Arepa con queso
Arepa con queso (photo: David Lee)

One of the great joys of traveling is being able to try the traditional food of a country.

Some countries are famed for their food and nowadays people are able to enjoy varieties of Chinese, Italian, French and Indian dishes in some form in their home countries.

Much less well known is Colombian cuisine and most people would find it difficult to name a typical dish from Colombia.

That doesn’t mean however that Colombian food isn’t worth trying; in fact the opposite is true as many of the dishes in Colombia are packed full of flavor.

Colombian cuisine is a blend of European and indigenous ingredients and many dishes include pork, potatoes, chicken, beans, corn and rice.

The main meal of the day is traditionally eaten between two and four, particularly in the countryside.

Lunch is usually three courses, with soup, a main course and dessert.

Dinner tends to be more of a snack, though if it is served as a main meal, it will be eaten around eight o’clock.

Below, Travel Supermarket takes a closer look at 10 traditional dishes to try when visiting Colombia:

1. Arepa

Arepas are perhaps the most commonly served food in Colombia. It is the most standard of accompaniments and is also eaten on its own.

Arepa is basically a kind of bread made from cornmeal which is often served with butter or corn.

Anyone who books a holiday to Colombia will quickly become very familiar with arepa when they arrive as it is widely served all over the country.

Ajiaco (photo: David Lee)

2. Ajiaco

Another popular dish in Colombia is ajiaco. This is a soup containing chicken, two or three different types of potato, corn, capers, avocado and sour cream.

An essential ingredient in ajiaco is guasca, a herb grown throughout South America.

Ajiaco has a very distinct taste and is ubiquitous throughout Colombia, so you’ll be able to try it in almost any kind of eatery.

Bandeja Paisa
Bandeja Paisa (photo: David Lee)

3. Bandeja Paisa

Colombia’s national dish is considered to be bandeja paisa. This is a real feast and not for the faint hearted.

It is a platter filled with steak, pork crackling and chorizo sausages served on a bed of rice and red beans. To top it off, there is usually a fried egg and it is often served with slices of avocado and sweet banana chips.

The designation of bandeja paisa as a national dish has been subject to much dispute and there are many disagreements about what should be included. You can find a version of it everywhere in the country.

Lechona (photo: David Lee)

4. Lechona

Lechona is another wonderful dish. This is typical of the Tolima area, which is to the west of Bogota. However, it is served in speciality restaurants throughout Colombia.

Certainly if you are in the Tolima area, you’ll see lechona at any kind of special occasion.

Lechona consists of a whole roast pig, stuffed with rice, peas, onions and a fragrant combination of spices and then cooked in a clay oven for up to ten hours.

Sancocho (photo: David Lee)

5. Sancocho

Another hearty dish is sancocho. This is based on the Spanish dish cocido and is popular almost everywhere in South America, with some regional variations.

In Colombia, the ingredients vary depending on what is available in the different regions of the country. It can be made with any kind of meat, or fish in the coastal regions, but almost always includes plantains, potatoes and yucca (cassava).

It tends to be served with plain white rice, which can be a side dish or added to the sancocho itself. Sancocho can be found all over Colombia and is often served in simple pavement restaurants as a dish of the day.

Fritanga Bogotana
Fritanga Bogotana (photo: Wikipedia Commons)

6. Fritanga

Yet another hearty meat-filled dish is fritanga. Served with arepas, manioc or plantain, this is a plate full of grilled meat such as chicken or beef as well as fried cow intestines. It is covered in aji sauce and can be found all over the country in some form.

You could be forgiven for thinking that everything in Colombia is meaty and huge but there are other less daunting dishes available too.

For those looking for lighter food, there is a dizzying choice of fruit easily and cheaply available.

Any visit to the market will introduce you to many fruits you have never seen before, in addition to many different varieties of more familiar fruits such as bananas or mangos.

Empanadas in Cali
Empanadas in Cali (photo: David Lee)

7. Empanadas

Colombian food is also great for snacking and there are plenty of stalls selling particular favorites. One such delicacy is empanadas.

This can be found all over South America, but each country has made it its own version of the dish.

The origin of this dish lies back in Spain and Portugal. Empanada comes from the Spanish word empanar, which means to wrap or coat in bread. Basically, the empanada is like a small pasty which is baked or fried.

In Colombia they are usually fried. These treats contain many different fillings that vary according to the region.

For example, in the city of Medellin chorizo-filled empanadas are extremely popular, while in poorer areas they can be filled with cheese and spinach. The variations are endless and all can be sampled on any street corner.

8. Churros

Colombian breakfast, as you can imagine, sets you up for the day. Churros, long pieces of fried dough, are popular.

More substantial is the calentado, which is particularly common in the Andean region of the country and consists of reheated beans and rice from the previous night’s dinner. It is served with arepa, egg, sausage or beef and hot chocolate.

9. Changua

Another Andean breakfast that is also easy to find in Bogota is changua.

This is a rich soup made from milk, water and eggs which are cracked into the soup without breaking the yolk. It is also served with spring onions, stale bread and coriander.

Hormiga Culona
Hormiga Culona (photo: Wikipedia Commons)

10. Hormigas Culonas

Finally, for those who are particularly brave there are hormigas culonas, which are a kind of ant.

They are collected during the wet season, soaked in salted water and then roasted.

In the north east of the country the ants are thought to have aphrodisiacal properties and are given as a wedding gift.

Been to Colombia? What’s your favorite dish?

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  1. First of all, great blog! Then I also have a question that I guess you’ve gotten a million times before, but how dangerous is Medellin in reality? I’m thinking about moving there for a while but I dont wanna go home in a body bag…

    Obviously there are risks but how big are they compared to the rest of south america?

    Thank you!

    • Hey Ben, I like to say that Medellin and Colombia are no more dangerous than any other country in South America, though I’ve so far only been to Ecuador and Peru. I felt less safe in Ecuador than Colombia, and more safe in Peru. I hear Chile is especially safe. And right now Venezuela is especially dangerous.

      I spend a lot of time sharing the highlights of living in Medellin, but there are downsides too, just as in any country. You may want to read this post, and especially the comments that have since been left. http://medellinliving.com/robbed-in-medellin-colombia/

      Regardless of the bad stories, I have a ton of friends living there right this minute, all of whom had spent time there in prior years as well.

  2. Okay, thanks for the answer. It’s really hard to know what the city is like because everybody is saying different things about the security, but it seems like a nice place to live for a couple of months so maybe I end up there. If not I’m thinking about Chile or Argentina instead.

      • yes, it is eaten, especially in Pasto and surrounds, but also in other areas. my family is from a “vereda” near Ubaté, Cundinamarca, and they used to raise cuyes. it’s possible some people in the region does it.

        as for breakfast, I haven’t had calentado for breakfast in years, also, I didn’t know having churros for breakfast was popular. I live in Zipaquirá (cund). and my breakfast consists of hot chocolate, bread and eggs, maybe fruits. once in a while caldo de papa. some people have coffee or aguadepanela instead of chocolate.

  3. We have just arrived in Medellin! I have tried the arepas, but there are some interesting things on this list that I must explore! I love the sugarcane juice they serve here.

  4. I lived in Medellin for little over a year, though it’s been many years ago now. Absolutely loved it! The food, people, landscape…wonderful.
    My fav foods that I miss SO much have to be:
    Arepas de maiíz con queso
    Frijoles y arroz
    Fresh baked pan
    Various fruits (Guava, etc)

  5. Good post! However,I’ve never seen anyone having Churros for breakfast in Colombia (and I’m Colombian) – that’s more like a Spanish tradition (in Spain), you can find them in Colombia as street food, like in festivals and it’s mostly had as a dessert. Colombians don’t eat sweet stuff for breakfast (more than hot chocolate as a drink).

    I’d include the Picada instead, which is more typical and very different from the Fritanga Bogotana.
    Also agree with Jay on the buñuelos! 🙂

  6. This is a great blog and lots of valuable information to be found. Although I don’t eat meat it would be nice to see a dish from the Caribbean on the list in the future.

  7. Are there any more foods from Colombia that u have. if not please tell me. and if so please send me pictures and the names of each food. thanku

  8. Thank you so much dave! great website, you helped me get a A+ on a project about Colombian dishes. This helped me a lot! Thanks again

  9. What about tamales??? They are delicious used for any acassion from breakfast to onces with chocolate an cheese. Jam jam!!! Deliciosos….

  10. So I’m cooking sliders for a party and people are sending in recommendations for an international flavor. What would s Colombian slider look like in your opinion?