Street food is a staple for most Colombians. Everywhere in the nation, from parks and metro stations to busy intersections, you’ll find vendors selling delicious fruits and all manner of corn manifestations and meat-filled treats. Sampling these goodies is a great way to familiarize yourself with Colombian culture and feel like one of the locals. You'll also develop a taste for native ingredients and regional dishes. Colombian street food varies from region to region, so an arepa or tamale in one region won’t be the same as those in another.
You can rest easy knowing the food here is usually properly prepared and clean. Most vendors have maintained their stands for years and take pride in their preparation. If they didn't, they wouldn't last long, as competition is fierce. So read on for some of our fave items you should definitely try while exploring the country's sights.
This savory bun-style cheese bread is a staple nationwide. It's made of pre-cooked cornmeal, eggs, milk, and salted cottage cheese. They're particularly favored in Cali and the Valle del Cauca, where they are often shaped like a bagel. Colombians eat almojábanas at breakfast or as an on-the-run snack, accompanied by a tintico (see below).
The quintessential and most ubiquitous street food in Colombia, the humble arepa is made of deep-fried sweet cornmeal dough. Don’t let the bland white-corn versions sold in fast-food restaurants put you off. Street-fare arepas are usually thicker and far more flavorful. They’re also very regional. In the highlands, the thick arepa de chóclo is heavily buttered then griddled and served with a crisp brown crust topped by a slab of cheese. Medellín has its arepa de queso, made with corn flour and cheese mixed together. Flattened and griddled, it’s served drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and topped with white quesito (farm cheese). In Cartagena, try the arepa de huevo, with an egg cooked inside the twice-fried dough.
Rich, creamy, and a delicious thirst-quencher, this oatmeal-based drink has a thick and custardy consistency, almost like a smoothie. Vegetarians and those with a sweet tooth rejoice—it’s made from oats, water, cinnamon, cloves, plus salt and sugar boiled together and then simmered with milk and served cold. Typically cafes and restaurants serve it in a tall glass accompanied by a cinnamon stick.
Buñuelos—savory deep-fried cheese balls—are a popular breakfast treat and a Christmas-time staple. They’re made of salty flour and curdled cheese and are served golf-ball size, often with chocolate sauce or arequipe, which is a Colombian version of dulce de leche, a confection made of sweetened milk. This quintessential street-food is best enjoyed fresh and piping hot.
Once an indigenous staple, this crispy flatbread made from cassava (yucca flour) is a familiar item throughout South America. It often appears as a side-dish to main plates and is typically bland. Colombia has several regional variants, most notably the casaba con queso de capa, a mozzarella-like curdled cheese unique to Mompos.
These deep-fried, donut-like pastries differ from traditional Spanish churros, which are typically served with a side dish of chocolate. For example, Colombia’s churros are often served solo and sprinkled with sugar. In Medellín, they usually come drizzled with arequipe, which is sometimes provided as a side dish for dipping.
A street-vendor staple, empanadas are a favorite savory treat for on-the-go snacking. Ranging from bite-sized to double-hand-size, these deep-fried cornmeal dough pastries are typically stuffed with potato and minced beef or chicken. You’ll also find veggie versions. They’re best enjoyed livened up with some salsa de ahí (hot chile sauce).
Don’t turn your nose up at the thought of devouring ants. Besides, these aren't any old ants— they're Hormegas culoñas (big ass ants). This savory and nutritious treat unique to Norte de Santander province is a local favorite. When roasted with salt, the crunchy and capacious rear-ends of this species of leaf-cutter ant are served as a breakfast side dish or an afternoon snack. Believe it or not, they have a texture and flavor not unlike roasted peanuts. You can buy them in jars or paper bags at street stalls, notably in the colonial town of Barichara.
When it’s time to quench your thirst in Colombia, you’re never far from a fruit-juice stall. In this country, you'll find near endless varieties of jugos, from sandia (watermelon) to limonada de coco (a blend of coconut milk and lime blended with ice). They’re usually made to order with your choice of water or milk, and with or without sugar. Try fruits you may not know, such as guanábana, lulo, and maracuyá (passion fruit).
Then there are regional specialties such as the champus of Cali (a mix of corn and fruits—perhaps lulo and pineapple—and prepared so thick it’s typically eaten with a spoon). There's also cholados (lulo blended with condensed milk, ice, and sugar), also of Valle del Cauca, and borojó, a rainforest fruit from the western Chocó region used to make a love juice (jugo de amor). It's popularly sold at stalls outside soccer stadiums to fans going home to celebrate after the match.
Like most South Americans, Colombians are fanatics for pork—never more so than when it’s a suckling pig slow-cooked over a hot charcoal pit until the skin is crispy. Street vendors sell it in chunks or strips, like pulled pork, often accompanied with hot sauce (aji picante) and a tamale or arepas.
Marranito means “little pig” and is an affectionate term for this plantain ball stuffed with roast pork or rinds, sometimes seasoned with savory spices.
This popular street dish is a stack of corn with pulled pork or other meat (or veggies), topped with fries and smothered with cheese and ketchup.
This fluffy merengue-based dessert resembles a pavlova and is most often served topped with strawberries, mango, or guanabana (a delicious tropical fruit) and whipped cream.
Another sweet treat found throughout Colombia, the oblea is a large, round, thin-wafer sandwich, with several layers typically spread with raspberry or strawberry jam, shredded cheese, and crème de leche or arequipe. They’re usually made to order, with as many layers as you desire, and served wrapped in foil. Hey, if it’s good enough for Mick Jagger (who ate one on the street when in Bogotá for the Rolling Stones concert in 2016), then it’s good enough for you.
The pandebono (it derives its name from “good bread”) is another doughy-soft, cheesy slice of heaven. It's made from corn flour, cassava starch, cheese, and eggs. It's especially found around Cali and the Valle del Cauca, where it’s a popular breakfast staple.
As simple a snack as you can buy, patacones are green plantains squashed flat into a patty and deep-fried. You’ll become familiar with them as a side dish to main plates in restaurants. But they’re commonly sold at street stalls and are sometimes topped with avocado and a savory hagao creole sauce of tomato and onion.
If you want a truly filling street dish then seek out a picada (the word means “chopped”). Overflowing with chunks of grilled chorizo, steak, and maybe an intestine or two, this hearty platter comes with all the trimmings: corn on the cob, plantain, yucca, and boiled papas criollas (new potatoes) stewed in herbs.
Especially popular in Cartagena, where they're served to beat the stifling heat, these shaved-ice snow cones drizzled with fruit juice are irresistible. You’ll find them sold from carts in all major towns in the tierra caliente (hot zone) of coastal Colombia.
Cross a hot dog (salchicha) with a potato (papa) and what do you get? A salchipapa. A street food staple, this plate of chunky hot fried papas and sausage is served with ketchup and maybe a savory sauce. It's a no-frills fast-food option that sometimes includes quail eggs.
A carry-over from the pre-Columbian cultures, tamales are standard fare throughout Mexico as well as Central and much of South America. You’re likely familiar with the recipe: corn dough mixed with meat or veggies (sometimes with cheese) and steamed inside wrapped banana leaves. Yes, Colombians substitute banana leaves for corn husks. Ingredients also vary slightly from place to place, with the regions of Bogotá, Cali, and Tolima putting their own spin on this classic dish.
No shocker that Colombians produce some of the best coffee in the world. Still, a gourmet coffee culture has yet to emerge within the country. Most locals take their coffee watery as a tintico (little coffee). It's popular in the highlands where it's sold on the street as a quick, warming pick-me-up.
Last but not least is Colombia’s cornucopia of tropical fruits—banana, guava, mango, papaya, and watermelon just to name a few. In the highlands, you can add strawberries and other temperate fruits to the list. Cartagena is renowned for its palenqueras—Afro-Caribbean women in traditional dress—who sell fruits from baskets carried atop their heads. But every city has vendors selling diced fresh fruits in plastic cups with a toothpick or plastic fork. Try a refreshing mango biche—shreds of mango doused with lime juice and salt and pepper!