I flew into Barranquilla, Colombia. But, my real final destination was Cartagena, a fiery city on the the northern coast of Colombia. Cartagena has a unique feel to it because its a convergence of so many influences. it’s got Caribbean soul, mixed with Spanish customs, combined with an African flair.
The city, is also know as “La Heroica” because it was the first city to liberate itself from Spain. It is where people from all over the country come to live to the good life. Sunny days, cumbia music pouring out onto the street, beautiful colonial Spanish architecture… I see why my fave Gabriel García Márquez came here to people watch, ponder and write love letters.
While I was in the city I met up with Cynthia from the Cartagena Concierge. She was taking me on a tour to learn all about Cartagena cuisine — street food style. We spent the entire day exploring, even though it was hot as hades, we ate our way through the city like champs.
Our first stop was on the corner right outside my hostel in the Old Town. It was a little cart on the side of the road that had a crowd of people gathered around, and a mountain of green plantains beside it. I could see a crackling vat of oil on the cart. My first thought was I don’t know how this man is standing over hot oil in this heat, but God bless him.
1. Patacones con queso costeño
This was a true “heroica” breakfast: fried plantains with a soft, salty white cheese called costeño. The plantains are fried twice in a garlicky oil concoction. First they are fried whole then they are smashed into a pancake and fried again to a golden crisp.
The taste is salty, starchy and perfect with a dollop of salsa. The salsa was served up in water bottle, so I knew it had to be homemade and delicious.
2. Jugo de curuba & pan de bono
This was my favorite stop of the day, the juice bar La Esquina de Pan de Bono in the center of Old Town Cartagena. I let Cynthia do the ordering for me and she picked out a curuba juice blended with milk, sugar and ice. I had never seen or heard of the fruit curuba, but this was the bomb!
In the U.S. I get so used to the flavors we have like orange, banana, mango, and strawberry. Sometimes I forget there is so much more out there in the world for my tastebuds to discover. A whole new world opened up looking at this menu: curuba, feijoa, tomate de arbol, lulo, guanabana, maracuya, and on and on.
I could have come back here every day and eaten these juices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (I did actually come back the next day.) It was cold, sweet and refreshing!
Cynthia also ordered some pan de bono for us to share. Pan de bono is a cheesy little biscuit made with cassava flour, corn flour and costeño cheese. It’s like savory cake. And I loved it, like a fat kid loves cake.
On the outskirts of Old Town, the city is bustling web of chaos and cars. There are people on every corner hustling. They sell fruit, hats, bracelets, lotto tickets, cigarettes, and baby clothes. You name it they got it. But what we’re here for is cart full of deep fried goodness.
I noticed a running theme in Cartagena: they will fry any and everything. Pork chops, sausage, plantains, cheese, pig feet, anything! And they serve all the food groups for your fried pastries — corn, flour, yucca, potatoes.
3. Arepa con huevo
We were at the cart for one thing, Colombia’s specialty: arepas. I got the arepa con huevo, a fried corn cake with an egg on the inside.
This special snack is like a symbol of Cartagena’s melting pot, Cynthia explained. The corn came from the indigenous people. The egg came from domesticated chickens brought by the Spaniards. The seasoning and frying method were introduced by the Africans. And, the sauce served on top is drawn from Colombia’s Syrian and Lebanese immigrants.
I was ready to ingest the history, but didn’t think about the danger of eating this fried masterpiece. As soon as I bit into the arepa, molten egg! Ugh. I decided I’d put this particular bite on hold and moved on while I waited for it to cool down.
4. Agua de coco
Now this was a lot of fried food to have this early in the morning. So I was ready to move on to something a little healthier, and what’s better for you than coconut water?
We stopped at a cart full of fresh coconuts. A lovely gentleman who owned it whipped out his machete and perfectly chopped off the top and served it up. I never understood the hype over bottled coconut water, but fresh coconut water, it’s on a whole ’nother level.
Nearby we also made a stop to buy fruits. The seller was a colorfully dressed Afro-Colombian woman from San Basilio de Palenque, a town just over an hour from Cartagena.
Before I even got to Colombia, I had seen dozens of pictures of women like her, known as Palenqueras. Beautiful, smiling women with their melanin on fleek. They dressed in bright red, blue and yellow dresses and carried fruit. Palenqueros are descendants of Africans who escaped slavery in Colombia and founded their own cities. Today, many of the women commute to Cartagena to make a living selling fruits, desserts and pictures with tourists.
I loved catching a glimpse of these beautiful women everywhere I went in the city. Their smiling faces made me think of my grandma and reminded me of my own Afro-Latina roots.
At this stop we had tons of fruit options: watermelon, pineapple, bananas, star fruit, papaya, and mango biche. We went with pineapple and the mango biche, green mango marinated in lime juice and salt. Man, nothing is better on a hot day than juicy, sweet fresh fruit.
Next, Cynthia wanted to take me to see a more real side of town where heroicas live and eat. We hopped on the bus to leave Old Town Cartagena. We headed to the Mercado de Bazurto where a lot of locals come to shop for seafood, meat and produce. This market is not for the faint of heart, but braving the chaos is worth it. The fish and shellfish options here blew my mind. From salt water to sweet water fish varieties and gigantic jumbo shrimp that were the size of my hand.
6. Pescado frito & yuca
Inside the market there were several restaurants serving fresh caught fish and seafood. They also offered Colombian dishes like arroz con pollo, yuca, arroz y frijoles, and soups. Cynthia and I picked out a sweet water (fresh water) white fish and waited for the cook to fry it up.
The whole fish was served to us with a heaping pile of boiled yuca, I felt at home immediately. I love Latin food. The fish was fried, hot and delicious. It tasted buttery and I lathered it in fresh lime. It’s amazing how something as simple as salt and lime is all you need to make good food great.
But with the heat that day, the true highlight of the meal we had in the market was the aguapanela.
I was dripping sweet down my forehead. Then I got that disgusting feeling of the one little bead of sweat that rolls down your back. Gross. Then a sweet kid that was helping his mom run the shop handed me a glass of something that looked like iced tea. I drank it and felt like I was in a Gatorade and Coca-Cola commercial rolled into one. I’m sure I did that lip smack and said “Ahhhh!” It was so damn good and refreshing.
The drink was aguapanela. It is made from water, lemon or lime and a sweetener called panela, which is an unrefined whole cane sugar. So really, this drink is brown sugar in water, but it has a much more complex flavor than regular sugar. After we ate Cynthia took me back inside the market and showed me where she likes to buy her panela. I made sure to stock up!
8. Arepas con queso
Usually after a meal like that I would be full and ready for a nap. But in this humidity I was burning calories like nobody’s business, which also meant I had room to keep eating! Outside the market we made a stop for the another version of the arepa, arepa con queso. The arepa is pretty much THE street food in Colombia so eating it and loving it felt very necessary.
This version was grilled on a flattop with butter and filled with cheese. The sweet corn mixed with savory cheese kind of reminded me of eating cheesy grits. Yum! This was a big improvement from scorching my mouth that morning.
9. (More) Jugo
After riding a crowded bus back to Old Town with no air conditioning Cynthia and I were getting tired in the heat. So she took me to another juice shop she loves so we could hydrate and get some AC. This time I went for a mix of mango and maracuya (passionfruit).
Sitting down we had a chance to chat and Cynthia told me more about her business Cartagena Concierge. She and her husband’s family started it. They have been developing specialized tours to show off their favorite parts of their home country. She put together the food tour herself, and shared some of her ideas about how she wants to expand in the future. Hearing from other entrepreneurs is always such a lesson in resourcefulness, creativity and drive.
Next up was Palettería in Old Town Cartagena. This adorable little shop specializes in frozen Popsicle-like treats called paletas. Looking inside the display I was overloaded with choices. Blueberry, chocolate, pistachio, guanabana, peach, Nutella, and Bailey’s. They had dozen of flavors and on top of that I had to choose yogurt, fruit juice, or low sugar.
My strategy for narrowing it down was this: I have to pick a flavor that I can’t get back at home. I know most of my fruits in Spanish. So, when I came across the lulada option (made with lulo) and had no clue what fruit that was, I knew I had a winner. (I couldn’t pick just one, I came back later to try the tamarind and tres leches versions too, all equally awesome!).
Last but not least dulces! We had a selection of traditional sweets flavored with banana, coconut, and tamarind. All made by the Palenqueras. And when I say sweets, I mean sweet!
This was a sweet note to end the tour on because it also reminded me of my mom. Her middle name is Dulcelina. So as a kid her nickname was Dulce (She’s the sweetest person I know, so the name is fitting). And my trip to Colombia meant a lot not only to me but to her as well. Colombia is where our roots are from. Eating this food, walking these streets and absorbing the culture felt like my family invited me over for dinner and gave me a big hug.
Cynthia and Cartagena Concierge are the best! I highly recommend them and if you’re in Cartagena be sure to check them out: http://www.cartagenaconcierge.com.co/about-us.html
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I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.