With nearly 2,000 miles of coastline to its north and west, and the Amazon Rainforest at its heart, Colombia is as dazzlingly rich in natural ingredients as any Latin American country. But unlike Mexico, with its ancient gastronomic traditions, or Peru, where the government and an army of chefs have worked to promote local ingredients and recipes, Colombia hasn’t yet had its moment in the culinary spotlight.
Part of that is due to the fact that, even for Colombians, the food can be difficult to pin down. In Bogotá, with its high altitude and cool climate, the local staples tend to be hearty and starchy — fuel for working folk. But as the nation’s capital and largest city, Bogotá has also benefited from an influx of transplants from across Colombia as well as international tourism dollars, which have, over the last 30 years, slowly begun to create a place for Bogotá on the international culinary map.
Still, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, the delicious nuances of classic Colombian food can be easy to miss. For a little background, we present the Eater cheat sheet to the cuisine of Bogotá, Colombia.
What Flavors to Expect
The soups, stews, grains, and grilled meats that make up the bulk of Bogotá’s cuisine generally rank low on spice and chile heat, while scoring high in deep, earthy flavors thanks to techniques like smoking, fermenting, wood-grilling, and the use of tropical leaves and herbs, cacao, and coffee. Spanish and Arab influences from centuries ago live on in Colombia’s boldly flavored pastries, rice dishes, smoky sausages, and dairy products.
For those who crave a touch of heat, there’s the ubiquitous ají sauce, called ají criollo — a sometimes-thin, sometimes-chunky mix of onions, tomato, cilantro, vinegar, and the local ají pepper. You’ll find it readily available just about everywhere for spooning onto cheese empanadas and grilled meat, stirring into soups, or splashing onto potatoes and patacones (tostones, or smashed and fried unripe plantains).
Note: Ají criollo is not to be confused with the pungent, smoky, ochre-colored powder from the Amazon, also called ají, which is traditionally used in stews and starchy dishes, infused into achiote oil, or even sprinkled over plates as a finishing touch at some of Bogotá’s newer restaurants.
All the Starchy Things, Explained
No Colombian meal is complete without carbohydrates. Amasijos are non-yeasted bready foods that evolved from the convergence of European baking and native flatbreads like the arepa — a sort of cross between a tortilla and a pancake that’s become arguably the nation’s signature snack. It can be fat and puffy or dense and flat; deep-fried, pan-seared, or grilled; stuffed with nothing, just cheese, or the makings of the entire meal; and eaten anytime, day or night.
Arepas are just one example of the full, endless panoply of Colombian amasijos. Variations on the genre are made with corn, cassava, or wheat; sweet or savory; grilled or toasted or baked or fried; and enriched with all manner of cheesy, buttery fillings and toppings. (You’ll find some filled with egg, rice, meat, or vegetables, though this is more common in Venezuela.) You can eat them as a snack, for breakfast, or as a light meal — but always, always warm. Virtually every Colombian home has a parrilla para asar arepas — a special device for reheating arepas on the stove.
So what’s not an amasijo? Well, any yeasted bread, for one. And pastries like cakes and tarts. To better understand, here are some of the mainstay amasijos you’ll spot in just about every bakery case in Bogotá:
Arepas Blancas: Thick white corn arepas stuffed with butter and melted mild cheese and grilled.
Arepas Boyacenses: Slightly sweetened with panela (unrefined cane sugar paste), stuffed with cuajada (milk curd), and grilled over coals, a plancha, or the traditional hot flat stone.
Arepas de Choclo: Like a pancake made with a chewy, fat, savory type of corn called choclo, as well as butter and panela or sugar; it always comes topped with fresh cheese.
Almojábanas: A spongy, slightly sweet cornmeal-based cheese bread that’s perfect for onces (a light morning or afternoon meal) or for breakfast with scrambled eggs and hot chocolate.
Empanadas: The most famous of the amasijos is common throughout much of Latin America, where versions of these half-moon pockets vary by size, dough, fillings, and cooking method. In Bogotá you’ll find corn and wheat versions stuffed with meaty guisos (stews, usually beef or chicken), potatoes, rice, or just fresh cheese before being baked or fried. Try the classical Bogotá version — literally, empanadas bogotanas — made with milled corn, filled with a meat and potato guiso, and fried.
Pandebonos: Golden rounds of airy cheese bread that are crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle. Made with cassava starch, cornmeal, fresh cheese, and eggs, these are a signature amasijo from the Valle del Cauca region in the west, specifically the capital city of Cali. Bogotanos are known for filling theirs with bocadillo (guava paste), which is an abomination to Cali natives but delicious to just about everyone else.
Places for great amasijos:
Misia: Transversal 6 # 27-50, Bogotá
Abasto: Carrera 6 # 119B-52, Bogotá
The doorway of almost any tienda de barrio, a small neighborhood market
Supermarkets and tiendas all over the city, but the best ones are prepared by a nice señora in the savanna countryside
Restaurante Las Margaritas: Calle 62 # 7-77, Bogotá
Paula Silva’s roving pop-up: Locations vary, check website for details
Mercado de Paloquemao: Calle 19 # 25-04, Bogotá
Cheese, Glorious Cheese
If you couldn’t tell by the number of cheesy amasijos above, cheese gets stuffed into, melted on top of, baked in, and served alongside just about everything in Bogotá. (Though most of Colombia’s indigenous cuisines are dairy-free.)
The most common styles of local cheeses are campesinos (fresh), cuajada, doble crema (semi-fresh), hilado (mozzarella-style), or costeño (salted). There’s an aged cheese called queso Paipa that’s made in the towns of Paipa and Sotaquirá in the department of Boyacá, three hours away from Bogotá, but it shows up on plenty of menus in the capital city.
It’s also extremely normal to mix cheese with sweets. Don’t be surprised when your hot chocolate or agua de panela (literally, sugar water) comes with a side of white cheese — locals love to dip it in until it melts, and then drink the whole thing. The popular fruit cocktail known as salpicón often comes with a flurry of grated cheese. And then there’s the quintessentially Bogotano dessert cuajada con melao: a creamy hunk of cuajada cheese topped with melted panela.
We Cannot Oversell the Fruit
Bogotá’s eternal sweater weather makes this easy to forget, but Colombia is a tropical country. For a colorful reminder, head to any market and gaze in wonder at the remarkable array of fruits — many of which are only available here. Feijoa (pineapple guava), guanábana, passionfruit, lulo, mangosteen, pineapples, cactus tuna — that’s just a taste. (For a visual guide, see our freshly picked photo explainer.) Many Bogotanos consume fruits en masse, squeezing them into juices, creamy shakes, preserves, and all kinds of desserts and snacks.
For the ultimate in fruit-delivery methods, try salpicón: basically an over-the-top medley of chopped pineapple, watermelon, papaya, and banana, mixed with juice, and sometimes offered with a scoop of ice cream and, of course, grated cheese. It may sound like dessert, but salpicón is an all-day snack that’s most often sold from carritos (street carts) and is a requisite refreshment during weekly Ciclovía events, when Bogotá shuts down about 75 miles of streets to car traffic, leaving them accessible only to bikes, skaters, and pedestrians.
Places for great fruit:
Mercado de Paloquemao: Calle 19 # 25-04, Bogotá
Grilled Meats Worth A Road Trip
It’d be unfair to compare the asado tradition of Colombia with that of Argentina, king of the carnivore nations. But Colombia has its own grilled-meat culture that’s especially thriving in the savanna countryside outside Bogotá. Asado is a weekend thing here, when families flee urban life for the afternoon to gorge themselves.
These rural asado destinations focus on grilled cuts of beef, pork, and chicken with an imposing spread of Colombian sides: grilled plantains with melted cheese (of course) and strips of bocadillo, arepas, corn on the cob, fried cassava, boiled potatoes, fried chunchullo (intestines), and sausages like chorizo and morcilla. It usually all arrives in a giant paper-lined basket with containers of ají criollo and vinegary chimichurri on the side.
There are dozens of asado specialists — the most rustic are called piqueteaderos — within an hour or so of the city, and they make an ideal day trip for Bogotá visitors. Some favorites include El Tambor in the hilly town of La Calera about 45 minutes away, and El Humero in the nearby town of Chía. For a dose of kitsch with your carne, head to the legendary Andrés Carne de Res and its Bogotá sibling Andrés D.C., where you’ll also find a juicy braised chicken and baked potatoes with ají criollo, and calentaos — a hunger-busting “kitchen sink”-style breakfast of leftovers (beans, rice, plantain, meat, vegetables) that’s sauteed and served with a fried egg on top.
Don’t Sleep on the Soups
Yeah, so, soup. It’s not what you usually hop on a plane for. Yet Bogotanos will proudly hail their soup-centric cuisine to anyone who asks. And for good reason — these are deeply flavored, heady brews that are the ideal lunchtime antidote to Bogotá’s cool climate.
The most prized is ajiaco, a hearty chicken soup made with three different kinds of potatoes, corn, a distinctive aromatic herb called guasca (gallant soldier), and then garnished with pickled capers, fresh avocado, and heavy cream to taste. The result is beloved enough to hold a permanent place on the Christmas Eve dinner table in many Colombian homes.
There are other fortifying soups made with stout grains like barley, wheat, and oats, as well as a variety of plantains, native beans, potatoes, and other Andean tubers, all designed to comfort the body at 8,500 feet. Mom’s is likely best, but you’ll find excellent versions of several Colombian soups — as well as many other national staples — at restaurants like the legendary Puerta Falsa. Or, skip the line and head to Doña Elvira, warming Bogotano bellies since 1934.
What to Eat on the Street
Bogotá doesn’t have quite as dynamic a street food culture as Mexico City or Istanbul, but there are plenty of satisfying snacks to be eaten on the go. (Most vendors accept only cash.)
Amasijos: You can pick up arepas, empanadas, and all types of starchy snacks from sidewalk bakery stands throughout the city. Here you can pick up some arepas blancas along with grilled chorizo, scrambled eggs, OJ, and coffee for a sort of Colombian Grand Slam breakfast.
Fruit: Look for street vendors displaying plastic cups full of chopped papaya, watermelon, pineapple, banana, mangosteens, mamoncillos, tangerines, small sweet mangoes, and many other tropical varieties.
Corn: One of Bogotá’s iconic street foods, corn on the cob gets grilled over coals and rubbed with margarine or butter and salt until the kernels are deliciously tender inside and addictively crunchy outside. Try some at Plaza Usaquén or at the vendors near the soccer stadium.
Papas Rellenas: Whole potatoes that are peeled, mashed, and then rolled into a ball and stuffed with everything from rice and peas to ground meat and hard-boiled eggs, and deep-fried for munching with a splash of ají criollo.
Pastel de Pollo: A salty triangle of puff pastry filled with shredded, seasoned chicken (or sometimes beef or ham and cheese).
Obleas con Arequipe: The ultimate Colombian street treat — round wafer cookies filled with a thin layer of arequipe (dulce de leche) and a Wonka-esque assortment of choose-your-own toppings: blackberry and strawberry sauce, shredded coconut, chocolate, roasted nuts, whipped cream, and more.
Tamales and Other Leaf-Wrapped Foods
Colombians use a variety of leaves and other natural fibers to add moisture and flavor to fish, meat, masa, fruit, and other ingredients while they’re cooking. The cuisine here includes more than 50 different varieties of tamales and envueltos, which use palm leaves, plantain leaves, or corn husks to wrap fillings of meat or fish mixed with a starch — often corn masa, cassava, or rice — for cooking. Sweets like bocadillos and alfandoque (a sticky molasses candy) get wrapped up, too, in dry plantain or cane sugar leaves.
Tamales and envueltos can be found in pretty much every panadería and cafeteria across the city, not to mention most supermarkets, where you can scoop up pre-made versions for steaming at home.
The Local Booze to Know
For the most part, the city of Bogotá takes the edge off like the rest of the world, with beer, some wine, and a craft cocktail or two. But there are a few more traditional beverages you’ll likely encounter, should you want to raise a glass in Colombia:
Aguardiente: By far the country’s most popular alcoholic drink, this fiery distilled anise-based spirit delivers a strong licorice taste and a stronger buzz. It’s most commonly imbibed as a shot; as canelazo, a warm infusion with panela, cinnamon, and orange zest; or more recently, in craft cocktails mixed with tropical fruits and syrups.
Chicha: A native, naturally fermented alcohol made from corn, traditionally drunk by the indigenous peoples of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense region. It’s thick, sweet, beguilingly boozy, and slightly effervescent — sort of like a stronger, corn-based kombucha. These days you can occasionally find it sold at tiendas, in small rural towns, and at some of the touristy bars near the backpacker haven of Chorro de Quevedo. (The fermentation process is mostly unregulated, so imbibe at your own risk.)
Refajo: If Colombia had a national beverage, it would be this: a mix of light beer and a ubiquitous local soda called Colombiana that is orange-y in color but tastes a bit like a mix between cream soda and the Texas favorite Big Red. (Depending on the region, the preferred soda mixer can differ.) You’ll find pitchers of this stuff being passed around anywhere Colombians gather: at asados, after soccer games, at birthday parties, and at casual Sunday get-togethers.
What Else to Drink
Chocolate is an indelible part of the city of Bogotá. While you’ll find shops selling fancy bars for nibbling all over the city, the classic way to get your cocoa fix here is with a cup of hot chocolate. Called chocolate santafereño — a reference to an ancient name for the city, Santa Fé de Bogotá — the traditional drink is made by whisking a block of cocoa, cinnamon, cloves, and sometimes sugar in hot milk or water until it melts and turns frothy.
Some versions sub panela for the sugar, and all are ubiquitous at breakfast, dinner, or for onces santafereñas — a late morning or afternoon chocolate break that usually includes amasijos, buttered white bread, and hunks of cheese melted right in the cup. Think of it as a chocolaty version of tea time.
For less enthusiastic chocoholics, Bogotanos also sip aguas aromáticas — simple infusions of fresh or dried herbs such as lemon balm, chamomile, mint, basil, thyme, anise, and fruit, thought to have medicinal properties — throughout the day.
Fruit juice is, for most, the drink of choice, especially with a meal; popular flavors include papaya, lulo, mandarin, and tomate de árbol (tree tomato). One thing you likely won’t see many Colombians drinking at the table? Water.