I’VE LIVED in Bogota for nearly four years now. It’s a busy, fast-paced city, with chilly weather because of its altitude at 2,600m. Both of these things have had an influence on Bogota’s cuisine. Restaurants serve a selection of soups and hot drinks, and there are street vendors on every block selling hot tasty snacks. Here’s a comprehensive (but by no means exhaustive) list of things you can try while you’re in the city.
An aromática is a fruity herbal tea and an excellent defense against Bogota’s cold spells. The best aromáticas are served in local places around the Candelaria, in which the vendors boil up a delicious concoction of fresh fruit, herbs and sugar cane.
2. Hot chocolate a la colombiana (with cheese)
Colombia has a unique way of preparing hot chocolate. A big chocolate bar is divided into different chunks. You break off a couple of chunks, add it to a large metal jug with some milk, and heat over a low flame. Once the chocolate melts, you rotate a wooden grinder back and forth in the jug, to churn up the hot chocolate before serving. The custom in Bogota is to drink hot chocolate with a chunk of soft cheese (queso campesino) which you dunk into the chocolate.
Chicha is a traditional indigenous drink — also known as ‘indigenous beer’ — made from fermented corn and honey. It tastes like very sweet beer and is quite strong, usually served in a shot glass. Try it, but it may take a few shots (or maybe a whole bottle) before you acquire a taste for it.
The arepa is to Colombia what the tortilla is to Mexico. Different regions in Colombia have their own ways of preparing arepas. The basic arepa is made from varying combinations of corn and wheat flour, sugar, cheese, and butter, with your preferred topping. My favorite is the arepa boyacense, stuffed with cheese, which originates from the Colombian region of Boyacá, but is also popular in Bogota. Try eating it with the barbecued beef at any asadero restaurant.
Bogota’s signature dish is a tasty soup packed with complex carbs, fat, and protein. If you’re feeling famished on a rainy afternoon in Bogota, ajiaco is the cure. It features on most lunch menus. This soup is made from potatoes, chicken, corn, guasca herbs, rice, and avocado, and some people like to add cream and capers. Everyone has their own preferred way of eating ajiaco and first-timers will have to see what works best for them. I just throw it all together and start eating.
This hot soup, consisting of beef, potatoes, and coriander will warm you up. Caldo de costilla (served with beef ribs) or caldo de carne (served with a slice of beef) are typical breakfast dishes in Bogota. I found it a bit weird having soup for breakfast at first, but I soon became a fan. It’s also a great hangover cure.
Changua is made by heating up milk with spring onion, poached egg, and a special type of bread called pan calado. The essential ingredient is a sprinkling of coriander, which gives the dish its distinctive flavor.
Empanadas are popular all over Latin America, but each country has its own way of preparing them. In Colombia, these pastries are normally deep-fried and filled with rice, egg, meat, and many other kinds of delicious fillings. One of the tastiest snacks you’ll eat in Bogota.
9. Hormigas culonas
This ‘delicacy’ from the region of Santander can be literally translated as ‘big-assed ants’. You’ll find people selling these giant ants in little packets in the Candelaria. I tried one once. Crunchy on the outside and with a smooth salty texture on the inside, this would be an excellent source of protein if ever there was a famine in Bogota. However, the distinctly insect-like aftertaste convinced me not to repeat this experience ever again, unless I happened to be on the brink of starvation.
This is a popular sweet’n’sour street nibble. Spaghetti-like strips of sour mango are served up in a pot, and you choose your toppings: salt, pepper, lemon juice, pineapple sauce, condensed milk, honey, and sugar sprinkles.
11. Papa rellena
Try this street-food delicacy as a snack between meals. This is a boiled potato filled with a hard-boiled egg and fried in batter. Add a few drops of ají (a spicy sauce made from chili pepper, tomato, onion, and coriander) and enjoy.
12. Pollo sudado
This is chicken cooked in boiling water with potatoes, onion, tomato, and red pepper (at least that’s the way my mother-in-law cooks it). It’s a custom in Colombia to pack every dish with multiple carbs, so don’t be surprised when it’s also served with a generous helping of rice.
13. Oblea with arequipe
As someone with a sweet tooth, this is one of my favorite street-food snacks. A large, round wafer is covered with your preferred toppings, which can include arequipe (a caramel-like spread), jelly, chocolate drops, and sugar sprinkles; then covered with another wafer to make the sweetest wafer-sandwich I’ve ever eaten.
Chicken, rice, and corn flour are cooked in banana leaves, which give the dish its distinct flavor. Tamales are sold in many downtown restaurants as well as in some supermarkets.
15. All the fruits you’ve never heard of
The Colombian Amazon lies 1,000km to the south of Bogota, which explains the abundance of tropical fruits that are available, many of which I’d never even heard of before I moved to Colombia, let alone tried. You’ll find all these fruits in Bogota’s markets and grocery stores, and the juices will be available in any restaurant, café, or food-cart you go to.