• Colombia!

    Colombia: Caribbean Sea coast. Go Now!

    Although most of the people live inland, Colombia also has its share of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (pictured). Go Now!

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    Ecuador: Sally Lightfoot Crab. Go Now!

    The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador are home to incredible wildlife, such as the famous Galapagos Turtle and the lesser known, but more common Red Rock or Sally Lightfoot crab (pictured). Begin Your Journey!

  • Chile!

    Chile: Torres del Paine National Park. Go Now!

    The Andes dominate much of Chile, including the breath-taking Torres del Paine National Park (pictured). However, the country also hosts the world's driest desert and a thriving metropolis. Begin Your Journey!

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    Bolivia: Salt flats. Go Now!

    This hidden gem is full of surprises, from the impressive salt flats (pictured) to the migrating flamingos. It also clings to the most historic indigenous culture on the continent. Explore Bolivia!

Food, Dining, & Drinks in Colombia

WARNING: Drug trafficking violence is a risk in Colombia, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Colombian Food - Bandeja Paisa
Bandeja Paisa

Colombia sits on the junction of North America and South America and when the earliest settlers arrived from the north they brought with them numerous foods that make up a substantial part of the historic diet and continue to be important today. However, other foods were present prior to these early settlers and this is where Colombian food begins.

Most of the native plants to Colombia were not found elsewhere so are almost unheard-of outside the country today. Among these, many are fruits including zapote, lulo, nispero, mamoncillo, guanabana, uchuva, and others. Despite these little known fruits more well-known fruits also existed, including guava, mango, blackberries, and strawberries. The lands were also home to various beans, cassava (yuca), and, in the mountains, quinoa, a hardy grain, and potatoes.

The animals present in Colombia were also an important part of the historic diet, but to a lesser degree. Fish and other seafood have always been an important staple in the diets of the people along the coasts and along the rivers in the country's east that flow into the Amazon River. In the rivers the freshwater fish of trout, pike, and catfish are common while in the ocean and Caribbean Sea the sea life is much more diverse and integral to the historic diet.

Culinary Influences

Both people and foods made their way to what is today known as Colombia from the north via the Isthmus of Panama. These foods came via wind, animal, and of course people. However foods also moved the other direction and after people settled the whole of South America foods from Brazil and other regions made their way north to Colombia. This spread of foods included tomatoes, peppers, corn (maize), peanuts, melons, squash, cassava, papayas, chocolate, vanilla, avocado, and others.

These new foods supplemented the existing foods in the region, giving the people a large variety of edible plants. These early settlers used these plants as well as animals to form the bulk of their diet, as the foods varied from the mountains and valleys to lower elevations and the coast. From this point, into the 1400s, little changed in the diet other than in food combinations and cooking techniques as the people truly lived off the land as hunters, gathers, fishers, and later as farmers.

In the 1400s and 1500s the Europeans arrived to the region and began settling the lands. Instead of adopting the local cuisine, many of these Europeans sought to maintain their diet from Europe, which led to the introduction of European dishes, cooking techniques, and ingredients. However, as many of the ingredients in Europe were not available in Colombia many local substitutes were found as plants and animals from Spain and elsewhere in Europe were quickly imported.

Much of this European influence came from Spain as the region of Colombia became a Spanish colony and most settlers were from Spain. This led to the introduction of Spanish-styled soups, stews, desserts, and other dishes. Even today the heavy Spanish influence is impossible to miss, although most dishes in the country today use local ingredients so they are different from Spanish cuisine.

Perhaps more significant than the new dishes were the new plants and animals the Europeans introduced to Colombia. Although hundreds of plants and animals were introduced to the region by the Europeans, a few of the most important of these were wheat, rice, pigs, chicken, and cattle. Others were also introduced and are now common in Colombia, although they differ in terms of popularity and importance. Some of these include onions, cilantro, garlic, black pepper, limes, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples, and oranges.

Since the late 1800s the food in Colombia has changed in a number of ways, but most importantly in terms of production, transportation, and availability. Due to advances in technology, better transportation and storage techniques have allowed for the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods and better preservation methods have increased the shelf life of foods as they now have access to foods that are not in season. Despite the technological changes, few people have truly altered what they eat so much as they have changed how they eat and what they eat when.

In recent decades the people's diet is again being added to, although the traditional foods have not changed much. The base diet in the country is nearly identical today as it has been in the past, but in the past couple centuries a number of ethnic restaurants have been opened in Bogota and other large cities or tourist cities, giving the country more diversity, although few people ever eat these foods and those that do rarely eat them regularly.

When & Where to Eat

The first meal of the day in Colombia is breakfast, which is often small as it consists of a small amount of food as well as coffee or tea, but little else. Mornings are often times interrupted by a small snack served with additional tea or coffee.

Lunch is usually the largest meal of the day in Colombia and it tends to last from about noon to 2:00 or 3:00 pm as during this time many people go home to eat, meaning shops are often closed. Lunch almost always consists of a soup, a meat (or seafood), potatoes, rice, and other fruits or vegetables, including fried plantains or cassava. It is often finished with coffee or tea and in some places a siesta, or nap. Most people still eat lunch at home, but in some places, especially in the larger cities, this is slowly ending as people eat at work, from street vendors, or in restaurants in order to avoid the long mid-day break.

Because of the large lunch, dinner tends to be a bit smaller and is not usually served until 8:00 pm at the earliest. More commonly dinner is served at about 10:00 pm and at large gatherings, parties, or business meetings it may begin even later. If eating dinner in the home, it tends to be a rather small meal, but for parties, large gatherings, or business dinners it can be a huge feast.

Staple Foods

Beans: beans are served with numerous dishes as a side
Bread: breads are served with many meals
Corn: corn is used to make a number of dishes
Plantains: perhaps the most common side with Caribbean-inspired foods
Potatoes: a common side dish, usually potatoes are not served with other starches
Rice: a common side dish that replaces quinoa, usually rice is not served with other starches
Suero: similar to yogurt and sour cream, this Middle Eastern food is now a staple along the Caribbean coast

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Ajiaco: this, one of the national dishes, is a potato soup with chicken, corn on the cob, avocado, and numerous herbs
Bandeja paisa: this national dish has it all, including beans, pork, meat, plantains, rice, chorizo, and more
Changua: soup with eggs, potatoes, garlic, onions, and cilantro in a rib-based broth with milk
Patacones: twice-fried plantain patties usually served as a side; this can also be stuffed with cheese and other ingredients
Tamales Tolimenses: found in Tolima, the corn-dough is filled with rice, chicken, pork, potatoes, peas, carrots and other foods and spices

Dining Etiquette

If you're lucky enough to be invited to a Colombian's home, which is more common than it is in many South American countries, be sure to come with a gift such as wine, chocolates, or a cake. Also dress nicely if you're meeting locals in their home or are meeting business acquaintances. If you are simply eating at a restaurant with friends the dress is a bit more casual, but you should still wear nice clothing.

When meeting locals for a meal be sure to arrive about 30-45 minutes late and up to an hour late for a party. Greet everyone when you arrive; men generally shake hands, while women may kiss each other on the check, but this varies based upon the relationship. As you begin socializing avoid sensitive subjects like religion, politics, money, or even business, although you may be at a business meal (let your host bring up business prior to discussing this).

When you are directed to the table, let your host seat you as they may have a place for you; be aware that men and women generally sit on opposite sides of the table and the hosts will often sit at the heads of the table. Stand beside your chair until your host sits, then let women sit first. From this point on you are stuck at the table as getting up during a meal is considered rude. In a restaurant you may be seated at the same table as other people; politely ignore them, although some people may engage you in conversation if they notice you are foreign.

The host will often begin the drinking with a toast, generally just the word "salud" and he or she will serve you, as a guest, first, but don't eat until your host indicates you may begin with the words "buen provecho." If you are drinking and wine is the beverage of choice, try to avoid pouring wine as there are a number of rules when pouring, two of the most important being that you should only pour wine with your right hand and you always make sure that when you pour it the bottle is facing forward.

Before eating or drinking, place your napkin in your lap, keep your hands on the table by resting your wrists on the table, and never place your elbows on the table. Eating is done in the continental style, meaning the knife should remain in your right hand and the fork in your left; get used to this style as everything but bread and sandwiches are eaten with utensils, including fruits among others. The bread should be placed on your plate or on the table itself as bread plates are rare. You should try everything offered to you and if you enjoy something compliment the host and you will be quickly offered more; if you are offered additional food, initially turn it down then accept it after your host insists.

When you are done eating leave a little food on your plate then place your fork and knife together with the tines down pointing right to left. Once everyone is done eating expect at least a half hour of conversation either at the table or elsewhere. Your host will dictate the location, but don't get up or excuse yourself until your host does and invites you to do the same. The end of the meal may also be accompanied by a beverage, such as coffee or cognac.

If you're eating at a restaurant, call the server over by making eye contact and saying "mozo;" if you need the bill you must specifically ask for it. The host is expected to pay for everyone present, but guests should offer to assist, something that will likely be turned down. If a local host does treat you to a meal, try to reciprocate by taking him or her out at a later time. If you're the host, be ready to pay for the entire meal and add a tip of about 10% for good service; sometimes this is already included in the bill as a service charge, but if not tip at your discretion.

Celebrations & Events

Colombian Food - Christmas meal
Christmas meal

The celebrations and events in Colombia are extensive and diverse as nearly every city and town has festivals. However, unlike some countries, there are few foods strongly tied to certain holidays. More than anything holidays are filled with favorite foods, not foods reserved for certain holidays or events.

The most common of these foods and events is called lechona, which is a whole roasted pig stuffed with vegetables and rice. Traditionally villages would eat this every Sunday and even now many people maintain the tradition by eating pork with rice and vegetables on Sundays.

There are a couple religious holidays that offer numerous foods. The biggest of these is Carnaval, which takes place every year on the Tuesday prior to Lent (and for three days prior to Tuesday), a day that usually falls in late February or early March. The city of Barranquilla is the best known city in Colombia for this festival of over eating and over drinking and it is only surpassed by Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for South America's largest Carnaval festival.

The time around Christmas is also a popular time for eating too much. From Christmas Eve to New Year's there is plenty of food in Colombia as Christmas offers families intimate dinners, but New Year's gets people out eating and drinking. Many towns also host a festival during this week with the Feria de Cali in the city of Cali hosting one of the largest festivals, including beer and food on many street corners.

A final festival of interest is the Congreso Nacional Gastronomico, which, as its name would suggest, is a culinary festival in the town of Popayan. However as many chefs arrive from abroad these foods aren't always authentic to Colombia.


In Colombia you can find all the popular international drinks, such as tea, coffee, juices, and soft drinks, but there are also some more unique specialties. Well, perhaps not too unique, but Colombian coffee is world-renowned for its high quality and the Colombians regularly drink this beverage. The country is also known for its chocolate and during the winters hot chocolate is popular. A final non-alcoholic drink that is quite popular is aguapanela, which is made from panela (a kind of sugar) in water; often times lime juice or cheese is also added.

Colombia offers nearly every type of alcohol, including beer, wine, and hard liquors, but for a taste of something local stick with the local hard liquors. Chicha is a fermented drink made from corn, which was invented by the Incans and was regularly used in religious festivals. Although illegal for some time, today it is again legal and has some groups of followers. Aguardiente is another local liquor that is made from sugar cane and is similar to rum; it is very popular in mixed drinks. There are other local liquors as well as wines and beers, some of which are local, but foreign imports are also easily accessible.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in the large cities of Colombia, but not safe in more rural regions. Either way, check with locals before consuming the water and if you do decide to drink the water, remember that many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: April, 2013