As Colombia tends to be a meat and potatoes kind of country, the plus side of Cartagena being so touristy is that you can find a wider variety of culinary options there. Because of the city’s tropical coastal location, there’s an emphasis on seafood and there are all kinds of unique and delicious fruits and juices available. There’s also a thriving street food scene, so it’s easy to find cheap and tasty bites to eat. Here are some suggestions of foods to try and restaurants to visit in Cartagena:
Arepas de Queso from Street Vendors
Arepas are corn cakes that can be filled with a variety of ingredients or eaten plain, and the cheese ones they sell on the street in Cartagena are a force to be reckoned with. These arepas are already rich and hefty, and then the vendors lather on extra butter after you order. Once I was with another Californian who tried vainly to stop the vendor from adding butter. He laughed at her request and added even more. So basically what I’m saying is that you should be hungry when you order one of these arepas or be prepared to share it.
My Canadian friend and I stumbled upon La Cevicheria during a rainstorm and it felt like it was meant to be. We hid out and had some ceviche in this restaurant’s charmingly cheesy sea-themed interior while we waited for the storm to pass. We ordered the coconut lime ceviche to share and it came with a side of saltine crackers. The coconut milk added a wonderful touch to the lime and fish, but I wish there were significantly less coconut flakes in the ceviche. This restaurant is located in the chichi San Antonio neighborhood and Anthony Bourdain made an appearance here on the Colombia episode of No Reservations. The prices reflect this. If you’re on a budget, you’ll probably want to split the cost, or just ask around town for where you can find good quality but inexpensive ceviche elsewhere.
Accion de Gracias
In Cartagena, don’t be fooled by restaurants that look run down and try to appeal to budget travelers. You will likely find mediocre and overpriced food at such places. Meanwhile, you may find other restaurants that appear to be upscale but are actually fairly affordable on a backpacker budget. Accion de Gracias is one such restaurant. I had countless set lunches in Colombia and I had the best and most flavorful of all them here: fish with coconut rice, a local staple in Cartagena. The portions are huge, so if you have a late lunch here, you’re pretty much set for the rest of the day. It’s located on the edge of the Getsemani neighborhood along the walk to the clock gate entrance of the main walled city.
Crêpes & Waffles
Crepes & Waffles presented a nice alternative to the often heavy or fried meals in Cartagena with tasty crepes and fresh salads. I almost cried with joy when I saw arugula on my plate because I was seriously craving some fresh greens at that point on my trip. Crepes & Waffles is a Colombian-owned chain that has spread around Latin America and to a few other parts of the world. Some locations focus solely on desserts, but the one I visited serves both entrees and desserts. The brand strives to hire women in need, and it was wonderful to see an efficient all-female staff running things.
As my Chilean friend and I wandered in circles around Cartagena’s Old City, I wondered why she was so enthusiastic about finding a popsicle shop. But when we finally found La Paletteria, I understood why we had come. Cartagena’s hot, so you’ll probably want ice cream no matter what, but this place is something special. They have a huge selection of flavors, all beautifully presented in a glass case. In this colorful array of paletas, they have all of the expected flavors as well as some rare tropical fruit flavors. Nothing is labeled, so if you struggle with Spanish, you’ll want to brush up on your dessert-related vocabulary beforehand.
Juan Valdez Cafe
I hate to admit it, but I have to confess that I went to Juan Valdez — the Colombian equivalent of Starbucks — everyday when I was in Cartagena. When the heat, a lack of caffeine, and the tourist zoo of Cartagena were starting to get to me, I’d stop by for iced coffee and air-conditioning to re-energize before going back out into the city.
I’m a sucker for a charming interior, so I was intrigued when I walked by this restaurant decorated in a cutesy pink hen house theme. It turned out to be more than just fun decor, the food was also pretty tasty. It’s a quick and casual place that serves mainly arepas and empanadas, and I stopped by more than once for light breakfasts or lunches. When they bring your food out, they also give you three bottles of unidentified sauce, so it’s fun to play around with the flavors and spice up your food. El Gallinero was the first place I tried jugo de pina con hierbas (pineapple juice with herbs), an unlikely yet extremely delicious juice combination.