Snoop around the verdant public squares, church plazas and along the ancient wall of colonial-era Cartagena, and you’ll find some of the city’s best eats. From old-fashioned wooden carts, mobile grill tops and tiny kiosks come deep-fried wonders, seafood cocktails and tropically sweet snacks. Though the UNESCO World Heritage site has recently trended towards the tony, locals keep it real — taking their meals on the cobblestoned avenues and alleyways that wind through town. Follow their lead, with this street food field guide of Colombia’s port city.
Cartageneros understand the appeal of having breakfast anytime, hence the ubiquity of arepa con huevo. For these, vendors mold patties of cornmeal into pockets, crack eggs into the pouches and deep fry the whole thing. The arepas come out of the bubbling oil all crisp and golden. They’re passed over scorching hot and a bite yields an oozy, yolky center. Look for variations that have thicker, chewier pockets, and others that are twice-fried and crackly. All deliver a shock of salty goodness and are only slightly improved with a zap of hot sauce.
Not for the faint of heart, mazorca desgranadas are the endurance sport of late night street snacks. Onto a bed of griddled corn kernels go sausage slices, pulled pork, pulled chicken, a fistful of wilted lettuce and a swath of fried cheese. Atop the heap, the vendors toss a blanket of potato chip sticks and then hose the unholy mess down in mayo, hot sauce and ketchup. Borderline obscene, the cardboard tray heaves under the weight of the meal. Track this monster down on Trinidad Plaza at night — just cross your fingers that a vendor rolls up and that you get there before it sells out.
Bocadillo con queso
Sweet-savory obsessives will be into bocadillo con queso. The queso amounts to enormous loafs of chewy, slightly-salty white cheese pocked with air bubbles smaller than the holes in a slice of Swiss. That and a thick fruity guava paste are homemade in small batches. You get a hunk of cheese and a just-enough sliver of guava wrapped in wax paper. Look carefully for these vendors just inside the clock tower gate of the old city — their stations are small, sometimes nothing more than a cooler and a metal tray of cheese.
Skirt the walls around Bolivar Plaza and you’ll spy piles of corn husks or banana leaves tied up into little packages. Inside are bollos — boiled hominy, taro or yucca tightly packed into dense, almost cake-y buns. Vendors slit them open and cut the rolls into sections to allow for easy noshing. Pro tip: Ask for a chicharon topper — the strips of frizzled pork skin take you from hearty snack to full-on meal. Or dress the warm segments with a touch of butter. Sniff around for the mildly sweet coconut-flavored version if you’re ready for dessert.
Don’t shy away from the shrimp cocktail vendors you’ll see on many corners. Cartageneros take this stuff seriously, and the best carts get mobbed during lunch. For a few bucks, you walk away with a small vat of tiny crustaceans or fresh crab meat. In ceremonial, almost reverential fashion, the vendors apply to the seafood, minced onion, hot sauce, and fresh squeezed key lime. Then they layer on mayo and ketchup. The concoction is mixed together and handed over to be eaten on tasty soda crackers. A local favorite is the Sincelejo cart attached like a barnacle to the side of the apartment building at 8-100 Venezuela.
Hunt for this cool treat: homemade ice pops called bollis in flavors like mango and tamarind. Rip open the top of the plastic wrapper and squeeze up the frozen filling. Try the níspero if available — the pulpy fruit itself is wincingly sweet, but its chestnutty taste is perfectly toned down in this icy form. They are mostly sold by roving vendors, but if you head to Getsemaní, the hip neighborhood just outside the old city walls, and inquire with the kindly couple at the window of the turquoise blue house at 29-17 Carrera 10, you’ll be rewarded with half an arms-length of coolness.
All manner of empanadas are on hock across town and visitors could make a tasty day out of sampling the wares of every cart. There are doughy, golden domes filled with savory chicken and mushrooms, crispier cornmeal crusts filled with seasoned ground beef, and there are carimañola, a cousin of the empanada, whose casing is made with cassava (or yucca). For a sure thing, beeline for the kiosk called Loncheria Polo Norte at 4-24 Calle 33, which also sell pastelitos, a deep fried, puff pastry empanada. Pimply, frizzled and filled with pork, they’re begging to be doused in hot sauce. Chow on the spot so you can swig from tall glass bottles of soda (which must be returned and are reused).
Among the fritos and the other heavy street treats are simpler joys of Cartagena’s tropical environment. The city rivals Los Angeles in its love for juices, and fruit vendors nearly overrun the streets, making a cup of fresh squeezed orange juice easier to find than coffee. Look for exotic specimens such as the cherry-like corozo and the tart plums native to Colombia. Most tropical locales offer in-shell coconut juice, but in Cartagena the nutty water is frothed and zinged with lime-ade to make the ultimate cooler. To get it, just find any juice stand and ask for a coco-limonada.
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