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THIS IN-DEPTH GUIDE COVERS THE EXCITING FOOD SCENE OF SALENTO, COLOMBIA - INCLUDING ALL OF THE TOP RESTAURANTS AND CAN'T-MISS TRADITIONAL COLOMBIAN FOODS.
We were lucky enough to spend 3 months living and exploring Salento, Colombia - one of the most colorful towns in the country and also one of the most visited. In fact, after the historic coastal city of Cartagena, Salento and its neighbor Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora) are the second most visited place in all of Colombia.
While it is safe to say that most touristy towns don't usually have the best food options - many seem overpriced and underwhelming - somehow Salento has been able to foster a relatively strong food scene. And while Colombian food might be the most common cuisine available, the town is also home to various other international restaurants and cuisines, including Venezuelan, Spanish and Italian.
Below you will find our comprehensive Salento Food Guide, which outlines all of the best spots to eat at while visiting the town as well as a brief outline of some of the can't-miss traditional Colombian foods that all travelers should try at least once while exploring the country.
► Make sure to check out our interactive Salento Food Map at the end of this article to get an idea of where all of the top restaurants and cafés are located in town.
\\ A Quick Guide to Traditional Colombian Food
Below are some of the top foods all travelers should try at least once in Colombia. Luckily, many of these foods (and drinks) are easily available throughout the country - from the hot Caribbean Coast all the way to the cold mountains of the central Andes region.
During our time in the country, we noticed that the most famous Colombian foods usually focus on simple ingredients (potatoes and cheese being easily the most common items) that fill you up. This is likely due to the fact that many of these traditional foods and meals came about during a time when many Colombians were struggling to make ends meet. Fast forward to today, and food that was once considered comida de pobre (poor people food) is now eaten by all socio-economic classes.
TOP FOODS TO TRY IN COLOMBIA
| Aguapanela: this simple, sweet drink is quite common throughout the whole country of Colombia. But, while you can find it nationwide, it is especially easy to come across in the colder, mountainous region of the country. Aguapanela, which is simply just hot water with panela (unrefined cane sugar), is served at all times of the day, though especially during lunch and at dinner time. At some restaurants you can also get it with a side of cheese.
| Hot Chocolate with Cheese (costeño or campesino cheese): at first these two foods might not seem to go together very well. But let us tell you, after a cold day outside, nothing tastes as warm and as cozy as a huge cup of hot chocolate and a salty slice of cheese.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: costeño cheese comes from the coastal region and is very salty. Campesino cheese comes from the mountains and is a little less salty and a little tangier. It is also very squeaky.
| Lulada: this local drink originated in the Valle de Cauca region of Colombia. It is made of smashed lulo, which is an exotic fruit that is yellow in color and quite tart (it is also popular in nearby Ecuador and Panama), lime juice, water, sugar, and ice.
| Arepas: very likely the most popular food in Colombia, arepas are a simple but filling food that can be made in a variety of different ways. While arepas are eaten at all times of the day, they are especially popular in the morning (they are one of the most common Colombian foods for breakfast throughout the whole country) and as a late afternoon snack.
A couple of well-known arepa varieties are arepa de huevo (which is a fried arepa with a cooked egg inside), arepa de queso (corn arepa with salty melted cheese inside), arepa andina (a simple flat white corn arepa) and arepa paisa (similar to arepa andina but with melted cheese on top). In Salento, you can find a couple of different arepa stands, including one selling stuffed arepas (delicious!).
| Pan de bono (pan de yuca, pan de queso): no day in Colombia is complete without at least one pan de bono, or its two almost identical brothers pan de yucca and pan de queso. No matter which one you choose, it is always a good idea to eat it with either a hot coffee or hot chocolate in hand.
All three of these treats look pretty much the same: a small doughy ball that is somewhat gooey on the inside. The pan de bono is the gooiest, while the pan de yuca is a bit more firm. No matter which one you choose, you can expect a slightly salty and cheesy delicious treat.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we found the best pan de bonos in Salento were from Casa de Pan, a panaderia off of Calle 5 about a block and a half from the main plaza. We recommend stopping by for an early, light breakfast of pandebonos there.
| Obleas: a very common afternoon snack or after dinner dessert, obleas are thin Colombian wafers characterized by their round shape and slightly brown color. They are traditionally spread with arequipe (caramel) and other toppings such as fruit jams, grated cheese, or chocolate sprinkles.
| Hogao: one of the most popular condiments in Colombia is hogao, which is a savory mix of tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro that are sautéed until they become soft and fragrant. This delicious sauce is added to numerous other popular Colombian foods, including bandeja paisa (see below), arepas and red beans.
| Calentado: while arepas and pandebonos are popular Colombian breakfast foods, the most traditional Colombian breakfast is definitely calentado - which mostly consists of last night's reheated leftovers. The dish stems from the past when much of the Colombian population lived in poverty and nothing - including food - was wasted. Today, the filling breakfast usually includes rice, beans, plantains, steak, fried eggs, and arepas.
| Arroz con Coco: this popular side dish is a delicious mix of savory and sweet. It consists of white rice, coconut milk, sugar, salt, and water. Some people add dried fruits like raisins to make it sweeter, while more traditionally it is served on the coast, both the Pacific and the Caribbean, with fried or grilled fish and patacones (fried plantains).
| Bandeja Paisa: this massive meal, which is also known as bandeja de arriero, bandeja montanera and bandeja antioquena, is a heavy, high calorie feast that is traditionally served on a big, oval platter. There are commonly a total of 13 ingredients used in the dish, including golden-fried chorizo sausages with lime, hogao sauce, white rice, ground beef, plantain, an arepa, avocado, stewed red beans, fried pork belly, and a fried egg. Originally, the platter of food was meant to provide plenty of nutrition and energy to the local farmers to help keep them going for the whole day. Today, you can find bandeja paisa at most traditional Colombian restaurants - including at many in Salento.
| Ajiaco (the national dish of Colombia): this savory soup is made up of chicken, potatoes, corn and herbs. In the past, it was considered a poor man's dish because it had to include three varieties of potatoes - which were and are abundant and inexpensive in Colombia. The soup is often topped with avocado slices, capers, rice, cilantro, and black pepper.
While you can find plenty of food tours all over Colombia, here are some of the best:
Find more food tours in Colombia at GetYourGuide.com
VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN FOOD IN COLOMBIA | IS IT POSSIBLE TO FIND?
We were happily surprised to find a relatively wide array of restaurants serving vegetarian food and sometimes even vegan food all over Colombia. For the most part, you can order a vegetarian meal at most restaurants within the country - including at places serving up traditional Colombian food. Most vegetarian meals will include rice, beans (which are really tasty), grilled or fried plantain, an arepa and sometimes avocado (aguacate) or cheese.
One great meal to order, especially in the morning for breakfast, is bandeja frijoles, which is a large platter of food that includes beans, rice, avocado, plantains, an arepa and an egg (it is like a bandeja paisa but without the meat). If you can't find this on the menu you can usually just ask for it or see if they can make you a meal without the meat.
💬 INSIDER TIP: the restaurant Balcones de Ayer in Salento serves up a delicious vegetarian bandeja frijoles. So if you want to get an idea of the traditional dish, but don't want the meat, then we suggest heading there.
\\ A Quick Guide to Salento, Colombia
Located in the mountains of central Colombia, Salento is a rather small town (population: 7000) with a lot to offer the traveler - both in terms of culture and cuisine, and also in terms of outdoor adventure.
The colorful mountain town is located in the northeastern part of the department of Quindío, Colombia, which is one of the three departments that make up the Colombian Coffee Region or Coffee Axis. In fact, this part of the country is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to it being such a good representation of the coffee growing culture.
Salento is located around 40 minutes from the capital of the department, Armenia, and roughly 50 minutes from the large city of Pereira (which is the capital of the neighboring department, Risaralda). Both cities have an international airport and large bus terminal, making it super easy to get around the rest of Colombia from Salento.
Many people visit Salento to explore the nearby Cocora Valley, an absolutely beautiful place full of towering palm trees and mountains (the trees are actually the tallest palm trees in the world). Cocora Valley, or Valle de Cocora, is so stunning that the Disney movie Encanto is actually set there.
Overall, Salento is a fantastic place to explore in Colombia. Not only because it is beautiful and full of adventure (hello Los Nevados National Park), but because it has a lot to offer travelers - including some really tasty food.
➳ Want to learn more about Salento, including the top things to do and see? Then make sure to check out this in-depth travel guide on the exciting mountain town.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if there is one thing we noticed while living in Salento for three months, it was that during the "off-season" some restaurants tended to be closed on less busy days. In our experience, Mondays and Tuesdays were the common days for restaurants to be closed (unless Monday happened to be a holiday). If planning to head out to eat on either of those days we would recommend checking if they are open first. Usually you can find the restaurant's WhatsApp number online or if in doubt, just simply walk over to see if they are open or not.
THE ULTIMATE RESTAURANT AND FOOD GUIDE FOR
While traditional Colombian food is definitely the most common cuisine in Salento, the town actually has quite a bit to offer for its size (only 3,600 people live in the town itself). This includes such cuisines as Italian, Venezuelan, Spanish and Asian. And best of all, almost all of the food is quite affordable - especially if you stop in for lunch (which is usually a set menu that changes daily).
💱 EXCHANGE RATE: while it of course fluctuates, a good way to figure out the exchange rate between the Colombian peso (COP) and other common currencies is it is around 4x1 for USD (so 4000 COP equals $1) and 4.5x1 for Euros (so 4500 COP equals €1).
BALCONES DE AYER
This super busy mom-and-pop restaurant is located not too far from the main square in the middle of Salento. Balcones del Ayer, which translates to "yesterday's balconies" is an awesome restaurant to try local Colombian food. Including, the local favorite: trout (trucha). The portions are huge, the price is reasonable, the service is impeccable and the food is super tasty. Plus, they have delicious vegetarian options - including, a vegetarian version of bandeja paisa.
| COST: for two huuuuge plates of food, two hot chocolates with cheese and coffee, it cost around 55000 COP (~ $14.50 / €12.15 Euros)
| WHERE: Balcones del Ayer is located close to the square off of Carrera 6 (on the left side). You will know you are in the right place when you see all the people inside (the place gets busy, on weekends especially). There is also a hotel above the restaurant that you can stay at. Find the exact location here.
| ORDER: the vegetarian options are amazing, so if you are looking for something without meat we highly recommend ordering the plate or bowl. Otherwise, the hot chocolate and cheese is tasty and filling.
EL RINCON DE LUCY
Hidden a bit away from the main touristy area, this small restaurant serves up delicious almuerzos (lunch) at a very affordable 12000 COP. If you are looking for a healthy, filling, vegetarian meal in Salento then this is the place to go. Plus, the owners are incredibly kind and welcoming and the lemonade is super refreshing. The only real drawback is the use of plastic cups :(
| COST: 12000 COP ($3 USD / €2.65 Euros) for a large lunch plate that includes soup, beans or lentils, salad, vegetables and rice. Plus lots of lemonade.
| WHERE: the restaurant is located off of the main touristy road (Calle Real) by about two blocks. You can find the exact location here.
| HOURS: the restaurant opens up for lunch at 11 AM most days of the week (they are sometimes closed on Mondays and Tuesdays).
A newer restaurant in town, this spot only serves up vegetarian and vegan dishes. The owners are young and are seriously looking to add a bit of modern spice to the Salento food scene. Even if you aren't vegetarian, we recommend stopping in to try the lunch. It is filling, flavorful, healthy and absolutely delicious.
| COST: the set lunch menu costs 13000 COP ($3.40 USD / €3.10 Euros) per person.
| WHERE: the restaurant is located off of Calle 6 just past the gas station. It is on the right side of the street if you are heading towards the main plaza in Salento.
| WHAT TO ORDER: their daily lunch menu is absolutely delicious. We also recommend stopping in to try their veggie rice and lentil patties topped with a tomato and pesto-esque sauce. Amazing.
Located right off the main square, this local pizza shop is the perfect place to carbo-load before a big day on the trail (or for that matter, after a long day on the trail). We have visited a couple of times and have never been disappointed with their selection and food.
There are three sizes of pizza available: personal, medium and large/family. We suggest the medium for two people (even if you are hungry - it will totally fill you up) and the family-size for more than two people. They also allow you to split the pizza into two different types (pepperoni on one side, vegetarian on the other for example) for no extra cost. For vegetarians, we recommend either the veggie pizza or the fugazzeta pizza, which comes topped with some of the best caramelized onions we have ever tasted.
| COST: a small pizza costs between 16000 - 18000 COP, a medium pizza between 33000 - 37000 COP and a large/family size between 44000 - 49000 COP. So roughly $4.30 USD / €3.76 Euros, $8.86 USD / €7.75 Euros, and $11.65 USD / €10.20 Euros.
| WHERE: Somevi Pizzeria is pretty hard to miss once you make it to the square. It is located just one building down from the intersection of Carrera 6 and Calle 6 (not to be confusing) and right next to a craft shop.
| HOURS: 1 PM -10 PM, usually 7 days a week (but we have seen them closed on random days...)
TANGARA HORNO Y CAFE
While Somevi might be the most popular pizza spot in town, it definitely is not the only one. If you are looking for something a little different, then we recommend checking out this lesser-known spot that is similarly located near the main square. One of our favorite things about this pizza restaurant is their homemade crust, which is a bit thinner than other places. Similarly, they also offer tasty homemade fresh juices - including, mango, pineapple and raspberry.
| COST: a personal pizza (4 slices) costs 13000 COP ($3.40 USD / €3.10 Euros) while a medium pizza (8 slices) costs 25000 COP ($6.70 USD / €6 Euros).
| WHERE: this restaurant can be a bit tough t