Colombia,  Food

Typical Food in Cartagena Colombia You Won’t Want To Miss

I focus a lot of time in each travel destination discovering the local cuisine. After all, food discovery is one of my favorite things about travel. I recently spent a month sampling the food in Cartagena Colombia. The country of Colombia is subdivided into six different regions, and each has its own variation on Colombian cuisine. Since Cartagena sits along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, its cuisine naturally has a lot of Caribbean influence. Common ingredients include a wide variety of seafood, plus coconuts and plantains. Those have always been some of my favorite things to eat, so I was definitely very happy in Cartagena. Let me show you some of the great food I found in Cartagena Colombia.

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Ceviche

If you are a Ceviche lover like me, then you will love Cartagena. In fact, one of Cartagena’s most popular restaurants is a Ceviche-focused establishment that became extremely famous after a visit from Anthony Bourdain. It’s called La Cevicheria and is located inside the Old Town walled city.

Though Ceviche originated in nearby Peru, it has become a common dish for its South American neighbors and up into Central America, too. It has always been one of my favorite Costa Rican Foods during my many visits there.

While there are lots of ceviche variations, the most classic ceviche consists of cubed raw white fish, cured in lime juice, plus herbs such as garlic & cilantro, and served with onions. Just like the version below from a Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant called Hamachi in the Bocagrande neighborhood. (We stayed in Bocagrande, and Hamachi was our favorite neighborhood restaurant. We ate there a lot. Plus I would get this particular Ceviche for takeaway often – it was the perfect light dinner.)

Traditional Ceviche from Hamachi - a restaurant in the Bocogrande neighborhood of Cartagena Colombia

Ceviche is such a popular food choice in Cartagena Colombia that you don’t even need to dine in a restaurant to find it. You’ll see Ceviche vendors dishing it up from food carts. Even on the beach….

A beach street cart selling ceviche - a common food in Cartagena Colombia

Cócteles de Camarónes

If you look close at that food cart, you’ll see that in addition to Ceviche, it is also selling Cocteles. This is another food favorite in Cartagena Colombia – the Shrimp Cocktail.

The Shrimp Cocktails in Cartagena consist of cooked shrimp mixed together with a generous amount of cocktail sauce, lime juice, onions, and other herbs. Many kiosks around town specialize in Shrimp Cocktails, where it’s typically served in a styrofoam cup along with a few crackers.

Shrimp Cocktails or Cóctel de Camarónes are a common food in Cartagena Colombia

One the most popular Shrimp Cocktail kiosks in Cartagena is located just adjacent to Old Town. It’s called El Sombreron Osteria. My pictured Shrimp Cocktail is from there. As you can see in the photo below, the kiosk is topped with a giant Colombian sombrero. And if you look closely, you can see that they have 10 different sizes of styrofoam cups to choose from! A certificate hanging underneath the counter indicates that they were once awarded the Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Shrimp Cocktail. But I later discovered, that sadly for them, this record has been eclipsed by a resort in Mexico.

The shrimp cocktail kiosk El Sombreron Osteria in Cartagena

Mojarra Frita

This is one of the most common menu items in Cartagena. Mojarra Frita is a deep-fried whole Mojarra (tilapia) fish. Many restaurants also offer other types of fish prepared the same way, but Mojarra is the most common and least expensive. No matter which type of fish you order, it will generally come with a side of Coconut Rice and Tostones (smashed deep-fried plantains).

Mojarra Frita - deep fried whole fish along with coconut rice and plantains is a common menu item in Cartagena Colombia

The Coconut Rice in Cartagena was a revelation. It’s quite possibly the best rice I’ve ever eaten anywhere. And we actually learned how to make it while participating in a cooking class in Cartagena. The uncooked rice is first stirred into caramelized unrefined brown sugar (called panela), and then cooked in coconut milk. It is sweet coconutty goodness. And goes great with fish!

The best Mojarra Frita dish we ate during our time in this part of Colombia was on a day trip to Palenque – an Afro Caribbean community and UNESCO World Heritage site about 90 minutes away from Cartagena. Here, the fish was prepared using a more traditional method…in an open kitchen over an open flame. The smoke from the fire, plus herbs used in the oil, added additional layers of flavor that we hadn’t tasted elsewhere. (You can learn more about our Palenque Tour here – I highly recommend it!)

A cook in Colombia places a fish in a cast iron pot

Arroz Con Camarones

Another very common type of food in Cartagena Colombia is what I will call the “Arroz con” dishes. Arroz means Rice. Con means With. And you will find a variety of proteins mixed into “Rice With” dishes on Cartagena menus. Shrimp, chicken, pork, and mixed seafood are all common options. Below is a version of Arroz con Camarones (Shrimp Rice) from one of my favorite traditional Colombian food restaurants in Bocagrande called Narcobollo.

Shrimp Rice or Arroz con Camarones is a very popular food in Cartagena Colombia

If you go to Cartagena’s huge central market called Bazurto Market, you’ll find that the many small restaurants inside the market display huge pots of Arroz Con Mariscos (Mixed Seafood Rice) along the maze of passageways.

A small restaurant inside Bazurto Market with pots of food displayed in front

I ate Seafood Rice from one of these tiny restaurants, but I wouldn’t recommend going to Bazurto Market on your own. It’s amazing, but it’s chaotic, difficult to navigate, and is most definitely not a tourist-oriented market. I visited on this guided Bazurto Market tour, and we ended the tour with lunch at one of those plastic tables.

Seafood Rice or Arroz Con Mariscos inside Bazurto Market in Cartagena

Cazuela de Mariscos

As you’ve seen so far, seafood is King in Cartagena. And this theme continues with Cazuela de Mariscos or Seafood Stew. This is a coconut milk based stew filled with a variety of seafood – shrimp, mussels, squid, white fish. And yes, it’s as delicious as it looks! I enjoyed this batch at Sierpe Caribe Fusión, a restaurant specializing in Cartagena Caribbean cuisine in the funky Getsemani neighborhood. It became another of our favorite multiple-visit restaurants in Cartagena.

Seafood Stew of Cazuela de Mariscos from Sierpe Caribe Fusión restaurant in Cartagena

Posta Negra Cartagenera

Also on the menu at Sierra Caribe Fusión, you’ll find this traditional dish – Posta Negra Cartagenera. For you meat lovers reading this post – finally a food favorite from Cartagena Colombia that’s not from the sea. This is a beef roast cooked in a sweetened marinade that includes Coca-Cola and brown sugar (panela). And as you can see, served with the always delicious and ubiquitous coconut rice. Posta Negra is a dish that manages to be both savory and sweet.

Posta Negra Cartagenera - a classic sweetened beef dish in Cartagena Colombia

Colombian Breakfast

So what about breakfast food in Cartagena Colombia? Pictured below is a fairly typical Colombian breakfast. This version is from a restaurant called La Brioche (locations in both the Walled City and Bocagrande). Eggs, chorizo, local cheese, avocado, and arepas. Often rice and beans have a place on this type of plate too.

A typical Colombian breakfast from La Brioche in Cartagena

I was surprised by the number of breakfast/brunch restaurants in Cartagena. If you don’t want Colombian breakfast, it is very easy to find waffles, crepes, pancakes, omelettes, and Egg McMuffins. In fact, a restaurant simply named Crepes & Waffles is one of the most popular, and serves breakfast food for lunch and dinner (it doesn’t even open until noon). They have multiple locations around town. And it’s really good too!

Arepas

I mentioned that Arepas are a common part of Colombian breakfast. Well, Arepas are a huge part of Colombian cuisine in general. In fact, there are reportedly 75 different documented ways Arepas are used in Colombian cuisine.

Arepas are a thick tortilla made from corn (maize). It’s one of the oldest types of foods in both Colombia and Venezuela, dating back around 3000 years.

This is a photo of my personal favorite Arepa meal in Cartagena from an Arepas restaurant called La Pepiada (locations in Old Town and Bocagrande). It’s basically an Arepas sandwich using Pabellón ingredients. Pabellón is the national dish of Venezuela and includes braised beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and cheese. La Pepiada always included both a cilantro sauce and a garlic sauce to go with it. My mouth is watering just looking at this photo.

The Pabellón empanada from La Pepiada in Cartagena Colombia

Street Food

But you don’t think that you need to visit a restaurant if you want to eat Arepas in Cartagena. Cartagena is famous for its street food. And Arepas, plus a whole lot of other types of food, can be bought from the plethora of street carts found pretty much everywhere in the city.

One of the most popular places to go for street food in Cartagena Colombia is Plaza de la Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood. Trinidad Plaza is the focal point for this amazingly colorful and vibrant neighborhood (my favorite in Cartagena), and is filled with many different food carts offering a variety of food choices.

Street food carts lined up in Plaza de la Trinidad in Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood

In Plaza de la Trinadad, I tried a common street cart version of Arepas. These were cut open like a pita pocket and stuffed with my choice of ingredients (chicken and chorizo). You can see the cart also has a bunch of sauces to choose from too.

An arepa stuffed with chicken and chorizo in Cartagena's Trinidad Plaza

Another really common type of Arepa that you’ll find on the Cartagena streets is the Arepa con Queso. These are thick white corn Arepas filled with cheese and then topped with butter.

Arepas con Queso cooking street side in Cartagena Colombia

Empanadas are another popular street cart food in Cartagena Colombia. Nearly every South American country has its own spin on Empanadas, and below is the ground beef empanada I bought from a cart in Trinidad Plaza. This one was pretty simple, and honestly not nearly as good as the empanadas I ate regularly in Buenos Aires Argentina.

An empanada from one of the street carts in Cartagena's Plaza de la Trinidad

You’ll find lots of other different types of street food in Cartagena too. If you are hesitant to figure it all out on your own, you might consider taking one of the many guided street food tours in town – like this one on Viator.

Carimañolas

Here’s one more type of food in Cartagena Colombia that is often sold on the streets. These are called Carimañolas. We learned to make Carimañolas as part of that cooking class I referred to earlier, so they are presented here a bit fancier than the street cart version.

Carimañolas served on a plate at the Lunatico cooking class in Cartagena

Carimañolas are football-shaped balls of cassava dough that are stuffed with a variety of fillings and then deep fried. Common fillings include cheese and ground beef. In addition to those two ingredients, we also stuffed our self-made versions with crab.

Jugo Naturales

As you walk along the streets of Cartagena, you’ll also see lots of fruit juice vendors. Colombia is known for its huge variety of tropical fruit, and fruit juices or Jugo Naturales are really popular.

A fruit juice vendor on the streets of Cartagena Colombia

While I read that it’s safe to buy these juices from street vendors (they supposedly use filtered water), I could never bring myself to do it. But, I did make a regular habit of ordering Jugos Naturales at restaurants to accompany my meal. I very seldom drink fruit juice at home, but these icy cold drinks were very refreshing in the Cartagena heat.

And I found myself ultimately trying lots of different kinds – a liquid tour of some of Colombia’s favorite tropical fruits, including mango, guanabana, passionfruit, pineapple, tamarindo, corozo. In restaurants, these juices were always blended with ice, along with my choice of water or milk. Pictured below is one of our favorites – Pineapple (with water).

A Jugos Naturales drink made from Pineapple in Colombia

Limonada de Coco

Another very popular drink in Cartagena that you’ll find on almost every restaurant menu is Limonada de Coco or Coconut Limeade. A blended delight of coconut milk, lime juice, and ice.

Limonada de Coco - a favorite lime and coconut milk drink in Cartagena Colombia

Cocadas

Finally, let’s finish up this tour of great food in Cartagena Colombia with a couple of sweet treats. Cocadas are one of the most popular candies in Cartagena. These are sweetened balls of shredded coconut with additional flavors added in for variety. Flavors like chocolate, panela (brown sugar), guava, and other fruits.

A dish of Cocadas- sweetened coconut balls

One of the best places to buy Cocadas in Cartagena is at the Portal de los Dulces, which you will see immediately after you enter the walled Old Town through its main gate – the Torre del Reloj. Portal de los Dulces translates to Portal of Sweets, and this is indeed what you’ll find. Along this long arched storefront promenade, candy vendors are lined up to sell you Cocadas and other local treats.

Vendors selling sweets lined up in Cartagena's Portal de los Dulces

Enyucado

And if you like coconut candy, then you’ll certainly love a coconut cake. Enyucado is one of the most common cakes you’ll find in Cartagena. We learned to make it in our cooking class and the end result is pictured below. In addition to grated coconut, Enyucado ingredients include grated cassava root, panela brown sugar, butter, a local mild white cheese, and coconut milk. And unlike a lot of coconut cakes I’ve eaten in the past, our Enyucado was surprisingly moist.

A piece of Enyucado cake in Colombia

Final Thoughts

As you can now see, you will find some pretty great food in Cartagena Colombia. And this is a look at just some of it. We stayed a month and I still didn’t have the chance to sample everything Cartagena has to offer. So enjoy your time in Cartagena and happy eating!

If you would like some more advice about traveling in Cartagena then be sure to check out these posts:

Tips for Getting Around Cartagena Colombia – Taxi, Uber, and Cabify

Is Cartagena Worth Visiting? – All the Reasons You Should Go

And if you would like to read about some of my other food insights from around the world, then check out these posts:

The Best Portuguese Food in Lisbon You Need to Try

How To Eat Tapas in Spain

A Quest to Find the Best Churros in Madrid

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