The Best Food in Cartagena: A Dish-by-Dish Tour

Exotic fruits are sold by palenqueras, fruit vendors who walk around the streets of Cartagena, Colombia. luchilu
By Beth Collins

Cartagena may not be the official capital of Colombia, but some would argue that it's the culinary capital. The local seafood and tropical fruits serve as the foundation for the cuisine, and the unique blend of cultural influences -- Spanish, African, and indigenous -- give it a special edge. From delicious juices to hearty fish dishes, this coastal city has earned its spot on the culinary map.

Photo Caption: Exotic fruits are sold by palenqueras, fruit vendors who walk around the streets of Cartagena, Colombia.
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Eating sancocho in Cartagena, Colombia. prezius
Nearly every culture has a signature stew, and in Colombia, it's all about sancocho. The hearty dish is traditionally made with hen (gallina), but with the abundance of über-fresh seafood at their fingertips, chefs in Cartagena often swap in fish. The rest of the components are like a greatest hits of local ingredients: plantains, yucca, corn on the cob, and cilantro. Rice and avocado, served on the side, are to be mixed in as you eat.

Where: You can find this all over Cartagena, but La Cocina de Pepina has one of the best versions in town (callejon vargas, getsemani, callejon vargas cll 25 No 9a-06 local 2, Cartagena 130015)

Photo Caption: Eating sancocho in Cartagena, Colombia
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Eating empanadas from a street vendor in Cartagena, Colombia. oneris
It's nearly impossible to stroll through a plaza in Cartagena without passing a street vendor selling empanadas. Even more difficult: getting a whiff of the cornmeal pastry, fried in deep vats of oil, and not buying one (or more) on the spot. In the morning, get your egg fix with an empanada con huevo. Later, go for one filled with meat or cheese.

Where: Head to any of Cartagena's open-air plazas and follow your nose.

Photo Caption: Eating empanadas from a street vendor in Cartagena, Colombia
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A variety of arepas being sold in stacks by a street vendor. ruurmo
Arepas are popular throughout Colombia, but connoisseurs gravitate to Cartagena's version, which tends to be extra buttery and fluffy. This is an equal-opportunity food: one makes for the perfect mid-day snack, but order a couple and you have a filling meal. Fillings range from gooey cheese to chicken, pork, or beef.

Where: One of Cartagena's most prevalent foods, arepas can be found everywhere from street vendors to casual restaurants.

Photo Caption: A variety of arepas being sold in stacks by a street vendor
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Chincharrón or fried pork belly is a Colombian specialty. photogaby
All the state fairs in the U.S., with their deep-fried Oreos and Snickers bars, can't hold a candle to Cartagena. Fried food is so popular there that it has its own category -- fritanga -- and it's everywhere. Typically eaten as a late-afternoon snack, the treat comes in seemingly endless varieties. Try dedos de queso (deep-fried cheese sticks), yucca frita (yucca fries), and bunuelos (cheese balls covered in a maize batter, and then deep fried), and, if you're a bit more adventurous, fritanga made from pig's feet, skin, or intestines.

Where: Get your fix from street vendors and at some bars.

Photo Caption: Chincharrón, or fried pork belly, is a Colombian specialty.
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Ceviche in Cartagena, Colombia. magtravels/
Seafood reigns supreme in this coastal city, and ceviche is king. You can find the traditional version of the dish -- raw fish marinated in citrus juices -- but be sure to seek out Cartagena's take on it, too. Chefs here use cooked shrimp instead of raw, and in place of the standard citrus-juice base, they whip up a tomato-mayo dressing that adds a nice tanginess to the shrimp.

Where: Get the traditional version at any number of cevicherias in town. For inventive takes on the dish, head to El Boliche Cebicheria (Getsemani calle larga #9A-36, Cartagena, Colombia, 57-6604871)

Photo Caption: Ceviche in Cartagena, Colombia
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Pargo Rojo or red snapper in Cartagena, Colombia. thefuturistics
On menus, this coastal dish shows up as pargo rojo con arroz de coco y patacon -- a mouthful (both figuratively and literally), but it's worth every bite. The snapper and the plantains are usually fried, and the faint coconut flavor of the rice is the perfect complement.

Where: Club de Pesca Restaurant (57 5 660 5863, Fuerte de Pastellito Manga, Cartagena, www.clubdepesca.com)

Photo Caption: Pargo Rojo or red snapper in Cartagena, Colombia
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Exotic fruits are sold by palenqueras, fruit vendors who walk around the streets of Cartagena, Colombia. michaelkeen
One of the simplest -- and greatest -- pleasures in Cartagena is buying a perfectly ripe piece of exotic fruit from one of the palenqueras. It's hard to decide what's better: admiring the brightly clad women as they effortlessly balance bowls of fruit on their heads; or watching as they make quick work of your fruit, chopping and slicing it into bite-size pieces. Of course, eating it is pretty great, too. Cartagena's warm, gentle climate produces some of the tastiest sweet coconut, guava, mango, pineapple, and papaya you'll ever try.

Where: The palenqueras stroll the beaches and streets throughout the day.

Photo Caption: Exotic fruits are sold by palenqueras, fruit vendors who walk around the streets of Cartagena, Colombia.
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Limonada de coco in Cartagena, Colombia. melosh
No doubt encouraged by the hot climate, Cartagenians have mastered the refreshing drink. Juice stands abound, armed with mounds of tropical fruits -- so
me familiar (bananas, mangoes, papayas), others less so (lulo, curuba, guanabana). You choose your combination and the vendor will blend it for you on the spot, serving it up in a plastic cup so big it's practically a meal. Other favorites: limonada de coco, made from coconut milk, lime, and condensed milk; and avena, made with oats, milk, cinnamon, and sugar, and served ice cold.

Where: Drink stands can be found throughout the city, particularly around the plazas and along the more populated streets.

Photo Caption: Limonada de coco in Cartagena, Colombia
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