This Caribbean jewel found on the northern Colombian coast is currently on the radar of avid travelers near and far. It’s colonial beauty, colorful backdrops, and charming corners that look like something out of a postcard provide major visual stimulation to all who pay a visit to this historic city. The only thing even more enticing than Cartagena’s chromatic aesthetic is its local dishes, providing a wide array of diverse and intense flavors for every palette.
¡Bienvenidos a Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena is a city of drastic contrast. Avocados, coconuts, passion fruit and many other varieties of fresh produce that we would pay a pretty penny for in the United States can be bought for a mere dollar or less on any street corner.
These same fruit carts can be found in front of a luxurious boutique hotel in Cartagena, often hidden behind nondescript colonial doors politely keeping spectators at bay by means of its aesthetic charm. Once through the gates, you’re met by vibrant tile floors, lush palm trees and a sense of romantic eclecticism distinctly described as “Caribbean Chic”. Continue on to find lavish inner gardens and rooftop pools that feature expansive views that overlook the city.
While it is nice to indulge in the more luxurious side of Cartagena there is something to be said about the down to earth spots that are purely made for sipping Aguila (the national beer) and salsa dancing until the early hours of the morning.
These casual corner spots don’t boast the elaborate gardens or flashy tiles. Instead, these spots are animated by its people and their culture. Beyond more inviting doors, find a multi-colored scene of locals, Colombian music, chisme (local gossip), and a standard of hospitality and inclusivity that Colombia has become known for.
This vast diversity is also apparent in the city’s local cuisine where unique and varied flavors are very much a part of the Cartagena experience. Cartagena is home to one of the largest and oldest ports in Latin American where cultural fusion is a centuries-old tradition and is a deeply ingrained feature of the city.
The foods one must try in Cartagena mirror this particular tradition of mixing: African inspired, freshly retrieved seafood, European touches, Lebanese traditions, and local starchy ingredients have become staples in Cartagena’s local food scene.
The following local dishes are not be missed on your trip to Cartagena.
7 Can't-Miss Dishes in Cartagena
1. Fried fish, Coconut rice + Fried plantain
Fresh-caught fish served whole and fried. We’re talking REALLY fresh - like, hours before it hits your plate. This no-frills dish is as authentic as it comes, usually requiring you to use your fingers to pick around the bone. Enjoy this with a side of sweet coconut rice and a crunchy fried plantain, offering a balance of textures and tastes. You’ll find this sweet and salty combination often while eating your way through the Caribbean.
This hearty seafood dish is commonly served to beachgoers looking to take a break from the sun and want to grab a fresh and authentic bite.
2. Quibbe Marinero
Lebanese food is a tradition to Cartagena (Surprised?)
The best spot to taste it is El Árabe Internacional, which has been serving to the Costenos since the late 1940’s. Kibbeh is a traditional dish, usually made of cracked wheat, minced onions, and finely ground lean beef and spices. In keeping with Cartagena’s culture of ethnic fusion, this restaurant also offers a pescatarian Kibbeh, bringing an authentic flavor of eclecticism you can’t find anywhere else.
Make sure to try their homemade pistachio and cherry ice creams as well!
3. Posta Cartagenera
A local culinary staple, this dish varies depending on your unique family traditions.
In its most essential form, it is made of beef cooked in a sweet dark sauce made from Cola, onion, garlic Worcestershire sauce, cumin and panela (a local type of brown sugar). Chefs will cook the beef until it’s tender while it marinates in this unusual sauce. Families may serve it with coconut rice, potato salad, fried yucca, or fresh avocado.
This is just one of many recipes included in Cartagena de Indias en la Olla, an iconic cooking book owned by many local families. Pick up a copy on your trip to learn more about how simplicity, sweetness, French influence, and freshness all contribute to the style of cooking often found in this city.
4. Coconut Pie
Need I say more?
There are really no words to adequately describe this buttery delight. The crust is salty while the inside is white and creamy. The best place to eat it is Rosita Benedetti (although a lot of restaurants include it on its menu.)
Ask. Find. Then add vanilla ice cream.
This treat is SWEET so only indulge if you have an insatiable sweet tooth.
5. Raspao con Cola
Some pleasures are all about simplicity.
This Cartagena classic (ask locals about it) is a shredded ice cone drenched with a local sweet drink like Kola Román (a vibrant pink soda), condensed milk or tamarind juice. It’s sold on the streets and the plazas dotted throughout Getsemani or the Old Walled City.
While on the street, consider indulging in another classic, mango with lemon and salt. It makes for a great mid-morning snack while you walk around the city.
¿Te gusta el coco? 🤔 Las cocadas, consideradas el dulce típico de la región caribe, son hechas a base de este fruto tropical. Su exquisito sabor se ha extendido por todo el territorio colombiano, deleitando el paladar de quienes nos visitan. En el Portal de los Dulces encontrarás una variedad de tamaños y sabores, siendo los de arequipe y dulce de leche los más apetecidos. 🍬 #ViveLaMagia
This is a combination of a shredded, chewy coconut, milky texture and heavenly sweetness made into little bites. You can buy Cocadas in a passage known as the Portal de Dulces that faces the center’s clock tower, where you can also find several other traditional sweets.
Coconut, as you may have noticed, is a common ingredient used in many of Cartagena’s culinary staples. It is also used, to cook shrimp and as the base to many fishy, creamy soups and stews.
Have it for breakfast.
This torpedo-shaped yucca fritter is stuffed with cheese and can be served vegetarian or come seasoned with ground meat.
Pro Tip: Make sure you try it with suero, a much tastier and more indulgent version of sour cream. In fact, suero, in Cartagena goes with fried green plantains (tostones), combined with coconut rice and pretty much everything else you see fit.
Known as “the ketchup of Cartagena” use this as you would your favorite American condiments. No words can describe its rich creaminess.