Looking at a map of Colombia, travelling the country and seeing the strong emphasis on regionalism here, one could easily divide the nation up into sections: Pacific, Andean, Caribbean, Lowland, and Amazon. And then, within these sections you would have to have sub-regions like Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla, and so on. As you would guess, each region comes with its specialty in the kitchen.
So, let’s get this out of the way from the start: Colombian food may lack the spices and balance of Thai cooking, it may not be as adventurous as Mexican, but it should never underwhelm given the abundance of fresh produce available in almost every quarter of the country.
Obviously, you’re going to love the juices, not only for their exotic sounding names from lulo to corozo and zapote, but to savor their acid-sweet flavors and the knowledge that these are good for you.
If you are sticking to a backpacker’s budget you are obviously not going to receive the highest quality eats, but that doesn’t mean that you need to eat poorly prepared food — indeed, if you know where to eat you could be tasting some of the best foods of your trip. With street food it’s all about picking the right corner… most travelers don’t do this, and therein lays a big problem.
Generally speaking, if you head out for a lunchtime corrientazo — midday set meal of soup, mains, and a sweet — you are not going to be experiencing Colombian fine dining. There’ll be more water than other ingredients in the soup and the main platter will be starch heavy, probably consisting of pasta, yucca, rice, and plantain on the same plate. You have chosen to eat cheaply and so this is what you will be receiving. This is food for the laborer who needs sustenance.
My example of a classic food complainer is a Peruvian friend of mine who moved to London. He was under no economic duress to eat cheaply. We are all aware of how great Peruvian food is but not a day went by when he lamented the fare he was eating in London. One day, I asked after his shopping preferences and it turned out he had bought a 30p tin of Swedish meatballs. Obviously you get what you pay for.
So, my recommendation is to cut back on a beer or two each evening and put these saved pesos toward a good meal every other day. This way you can ensure that you can enjoy some of the better offerings in Colombia: well-presented, from good sources, and above all tasty.
After all, who can dislike an arepa e huevo or a yucca-based cheese carimanola? Who is going to decline a baked red snapper served on a palm leaf and accompanied by coconut rice on the Caribbean coast or a cockle-warming ajiaco soup in the chilly highlands of Bogota? Have you even tried the carne llanera from the central southern Lowlands? If not, I highly recommend it. And for the more adventurous there are Hormigas Culonas (fat-bottomed ants), crunchy and good, to be sampled in San Gil.
With the diversity of social backgrounds and geographies, Colombian cuisine is certainly inspired.