There were many things I loved about Cartagena (architecture, beaches, music), but my favorite thing by far was the food. Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and their cuisine incorporates a variety of meat, seafood, and plant-based ingredients. The food combinations and cooking techniques are varied as well, reflecting influences from indigenous, Spanish, and African cultures.
Arepas, grilled corn-cakes made from ground maize dough, are an iconic food from Colombia. Cheese arepas are one of the most popular street foods served all over Cartagena.
You can also find versions of them sliced open like a sandwich and filled with a variety of meats, cheese, veggies, guacamole, and other sauces.
On the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Panama, coconut rice is a common side dish served with seafood. Arroz con coco blanco, or ‘white’ coconut rice, is the simplest version, made from white rice cooked in a base of coconut milk.
The most popular version in Colombia, however, is darker. The coconut milk is first cooked down until it reduces to coconut solids and coconut oil. The coconut oil fries the coconut solids until they turn a dark brown color. This caramelized coconut, called titoté, can also be purchased in jars in Colombia. The rice is then added and infused with the coconut flavor as it cooks until the rice acquires a golden brown color. Sweeter versions may include raisins, while the more savory versions typically served with fish will be seasoned with salt and onion.
Ceviche is a popular dish in coastal Colombian towns, thanks to the fresh supply of shrimp and fish. La Cevicheria, located in the old walled city, was once a little-known spot cherished by locals, but became famous after Anthony Bourdain visited on an episode of No Reservations. I was lucky to find a seat at the bar just as someone was leaving. I ordered the Peruvian-style shrimp and fish ceviche, marinated in lime juice and served with salad, crunchy maize, and patacones (fried plantain chips) topped with guacamole. It did not disappoint.
Mote de Queso
Mote de Queso is a traditional Colombian soup made from cheese and a root vegetable similar to yams and seasoned with onions and garlic. La Cocina de Pepina is a popular restaurant in the Getsemani neighborhood that serves this dish.
Fruit is abundant in Cartagena. You will see tropical fruit stands throughout the city selling watermelon and mangoes, as well as more exotic varieties found only in the region.
Cartagena is notoriously hot. One of the best ways to escape the heat is to head inside for some ice cream. Gelateria Paradiso is the prettiest parlor I’ve patronized, decked out with pink-and-green table sets, white wicker chairs, and floral-patterned cushions and wallpaper. They serve several vegan options and unusual fruity sorbets in addition to the standard flavors. The air-conditioning and wi-fi are strong, so it’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon.
Colombia is one of the largest producers of chocolate in the world, and hot chocolate is a very popular drink within the country. The ChocoMuseo in Cartagena offers workshops on chocolate making and has a free museum where you can learn about the history of chocolate and sample different bars.