Up to this point in my travels in South America, I’ve yet to come across that culinary Holy Grail for travel bloggers, which is the discovery of a great street food scene. This remains one of the events I most look forward to in my travels, and perhaps is why I’ve subconsciously left Southeast Asia, home to the heavy hitters of street food delicacies, for the end of my trip. In Perú there were the delicious salteñas, empanadas made with sweet potato crusts, which were often a regular lunch for me, but nothing else that was special. Ecuador, may be unfair to judge because I spent the majority of my time being served food in a mess hall on the shrimp farm, but in my travels afterwards, I didn’t find any noteworthy street food. However, in Popayán, my first stop in Colombia, the portals to that magical world of street food were reopened and stayed opened through the rest of my trip throughout the country.
This is how a few of the cities played out:
Popayán – My first foray into the street food scene of Colombia started off well enough…
Cali – When I wasn’t trying to keep up with the insane workouts with Arturo, master of the hair gel and Latin shimmies, I did try to explore the city of Cali even though I knew it wasn’t meant to be that great. One particularly long walk disappointingly led me to a shopping mall rather than a happening outdoor plaza, but on my way back to the hostel, I came across the cholado row, stands serving up a more elaborate and tastier version of the fruit flavored shaved ice I had in Popayán. These stands even came with a proper sitting area, television and woman who will give you a pedicure if you’re interested. Talk about value added service! The cholado itself is simply amazing and I regret not having my camera with me to document the colorful creation. It actually dances in your mouth as the widely varied textures and tastes of the maracuyá, banana, melon and various berries fight for attention from your gustatory senses. You then almost spiral into sensory overload as the semi-sweet and sometimes bitter flavors are overshadowed by the creamy sugar rush of dulce de leche, which is usually poured over top of the fruit mixture. This experience is only slightly marred by the battalion of hungry and persistent bees that are swarming around looking to get in on the action.
Later on in the day, I discovered a little pocket of street vendors by the hostel and immediately noticed the unmistakable smell of fried dough. I walked over like a zombie and purchased my first of several bags of churros. It makes me happy to know that no matter where you are in the world, every culture understands the power and beauty of fried carbs dipped in confectioner’s sugar. Like the sketchy creep that I am, after the second day, I began finishing the bag off in an alley next to the hostel because I didn’t want to risk sharing with anyone else. Sadly, I made that mistake the first time while I was trying to be sociable and ended up only having a few of the onion ring-looking delights.
My final meal from the street vendors was a deluxe arepa. Arepas are small round corn flour pancakes filled with anything from cheese to eggs to every meat known to man. The deluxe arepa that I ordered was of the “every meat known to man” variety. I didn’t realize it at first but as I was eating my way through the sandwich I tasted beef, cheese, chicken and pork and found it amusing how I was violating almost every major world religion in just one snack.
Taganga – By this point in Colombia, street food had become my way of life. After having my usual pescado frito for lunch I usually planned my dinners around what was available from one end of the main street to the other. First I’d start with an arepa de pollo accompanied by garlic and guacamole sauces. Next up was the empanada de carne which also came with its own set of green sauces (I was being lazy and failed to ask what they were composed of). When it comes to empanadas de carne though, I’d go for the more expensive skirt steak versions as opposed to minced beef (carne molida). After all of those savory delights, I needed a sweet beverage. I usually opted for maracuyá or mango since I know these won’t always be in plentiful supply as I continue my travels. The key with the juice stands is to not leave once they give your drink. Chances are good that they made more than would fit into your cup and will happily or begrudgingly refill your cup if you’re still lurking nearby. For dessert, I cheated and went to a brick-and-mortar bakery that was reliably open at later hours and served giant chocolate frosted donuts filled with arequipa, the sweet caramel sauce popular in these parts. What can I say? Donuts are worth the sacrifice in atmosphere.
Bogotá – I’ll write more about this gem of a city later, but suffice it to say, I’m none too pleased. I did however, have some pleasant experiences with the juice stands and tried my first arepa de huevos, which was fresh off the grill with just the perfect amount of vegetables accompanying the scrambled eggs.