Colombia for Foodies and Shopaholics

A cosmopolite’s guide to the best addresses in Bogotá, Medellín, and Bucaramanga

Colombia for Foodies and Shopaholics
Medellín at night. Photo by author.

This article was originally published on my Medium site, and contains a few updates.

Yes, you read that right: Bucaramanga. Spending the last year trotting around South America, I found this enchanting small city to be the highlight of my six months in Colombia. I visited this city on a whim — a stranger I dined next to at a hot restaurant in Bogotá recommended it to me — and a two-week pass-through turned into a three-month stay. Viridian green hills shrouded in mist watch the city from the east, public parks are dotted with a wide variety of flora, the thunder is the loudest I’ve ever heard in my life…

Oh, and did I mention it’s the shoe capital of Colombia?

My favorite refreshments available at supermarkets around the country. All photos by author.

National brands

For clothing and shoes, I recommend shopping at local boutiques. In the US, I know boutiques to be more expensive than chains, but I found the opposite to be true in Colombia. Local small business owners, or micropreneurs, make great clothes for prices better than national or international chains. I was surprised that Zara was kinda hella expensive. Be warned: for home goods, I didn’t find Colombian brands to be great, but I had great luck with clothes and shoes.

One of my deepest regrets is not getting another tube of the Papaya & Bromelina Enzymatic Cleanser from Loto del Sur. It has the texture of an ointment and washes off the day beautifully. As in, Dean Martin singing “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” beautiful. Another item I got from this line that I loved to use in the shower was the Azúcar, Panela & Limón Exfoliator. I found their items to be luxurious and effective.

I’m not crazy about your typical sodas because I find them sickly sugary, or too synthetic tasting. However, I developed an addiction to the sandía & albahaca (watermelon & basil) flavor from Hatsu. Generally known for their teas, this lightly flavored soda was my refreshment staple for the hottest days in Bucaramanga and Medellín.

Pardon me, but I might have to overuse the -holic suffix in this article. For my fellow chocoholics, Evok should be your first stop. They have a wide variety of chocolates that integrate the different fruits and spices grown or loved in Colombia, the third most biodiverse country in the world. My favorite is the 40% chocolate bar flavored with cardamom, cinnamon, and orange. I can’t comment on their teas, but as a baked goods enthusiast, I can confidently advise you to skip the brownies.

Make sure you save to your Google Maps the closest Tiendas D1 to where you are staying. In case you are surprised to see a discount grocery chain on this list: one of my skills is finding great things for a reasonable price. I would always stock up on popsicles, frozen fruit pulp for smoothies, and their fried gigantic corn.

In other supermarkets, you can find Akys limonada de coco by the juices in the produce section. Thank me later.

Crepes & Waffles. You can’t turn around without bumping into this chain restaurant. This was first recommended to me by an old friend of mine who is from Bogotá. Delicious and popular, give this one a try for an early lunch.

I won’t get too much into comida típica, the common food for each region. The advice I have is to go where your intuition tells you, where you see a group of local office workers on a lunch break, and save a note of the exact address — sometimes when I would go back to look on Google Maps for a hole in the wall I loved, the place wouldn’t exist.

Bird’s eye view of Bogotá. Photo by author.

Bogotá — The city for visually striking artisanal clothes and arepas

If you tell anyone who’s been to Bogotá that you’re going, they will probably assume you will be staying in the hot neighborhood of Usaquén. On the street and in shops, you will find collectives of artisans selling super cute clothes, small batch chocolates, traditional Colombian hats, and more. The vibe is colorful and happy, much unlike the gloomy grey skies this high-altitude city is known for.

Saturdays and Sundays are when the Usaquén flea market is in full swing, but that’s not the only stop you should make in the neighborhood. Start at the centro comercial Santa Barbara and take your time browsing the streets on that side of Carrera 7 up until Calle 120a. Don’t miss Calle 119b!

Two shopping malls you can shop and dine in are Unicentro in Usuaquén and Andino, which is north of Chapinero.

The cutest evil eye charm from Usaquén and a delicious arepa from Chapinero. Photos by author.

I’ve had a couple Colombians confess to me that they prefer a Venezuelan arepa. After tasting the deliciousness around town, I can’t imagine how much better it can get! I spent most of my time in Chapinero (you should too if you are a foodie), and I found that the best comida típica was on the west side of Carrera 7, in some random holes in the wall.

On the east side of Carrera 7, you will find more upscale dining options. Explore the area from about Calle 53 to Calle 72. My picks are Mr Romano for fancy Italian, Tío Mao for an Asian fix, and Al Agua Patos for brunch.

Medellín — The city for mall shopping and fancy pastries

Known as Medallo to the locals, this city is the hotspot for jetsetting foreigners. This isn’t surprising, given local musical artists Maluma, Karol G and J Balvin are currently enjoying worldwide recognition. The locals this year complained how hot and dry it was compared to the past, but generally you can look forward to pleasant weather year round.

The CC Santafé seems to be a very popular mall, but I favor the one across the street because they have more independent labels. Two stores in the mall Oviedo I found most unique are Pilú for nature-inspired, luminous gold-plated bronze jewelry and Alado for groovy clothes in sumptuous fabrics.

My ring from Pilú and lunching at Amsterdam Plaza. Photos by author.

For those of you who still love gluten and sugar, try to stay near the trio of malls Amsterdam Plaza, Del Este and El Tesoro, all located on Transversal Superior. Incredible pastry shops are scattered between these three centros comerciales popular with well-to-do locals for shopping and dining. Be warned: this is steeply uphill from the main tourist area of El Poblado, so you probably don’t want to walk the entire way.

For comida típica in a less touristy, but still cool, neighborhood, check out the upper floor of the Plaza de Mercado de Envigado. I found myself in this place after unsuccessfully looking for the flea market that Dr Internet said existed, and enjoyed a delicious fried fish meal from a restaurant that specializes in food from the Caribbean coast.

I love the flavors of Asia, so I can’t resist seeing how it’s done around the world. Check out Karate Pig, in the Vizcaya mall close to central El Poblado. The sushi dog was novel, crunchy, and tasty.

The hills of Bucaramanga. Photo by author.

Bucaramanga — The city for locally-made shoes and fast casual food

I was definitely feeling a “hot girl summer” vibe here. Reggaeton is the sound of the city, with colorful printed crop tops with matching trousers dotting the storefronts in town. On top of that, the people here are so incredibly sweet, which says a lot for a country known for its warm citizens.

My pick to bring some “hot girl” into my summer was Pepita Perez. Not the cheapest boutique, but I found their clothes to be unique, in a vibrant neutral palette. This district I liked a lot for clothing browsing and shopping. To get a feel of the area, I recommend starting from Mia Alma Mia on Carrera 36, stop by D’Sara on Carrera 35A to check out trendy shoes, and walk up to Laurina on Calle 37 to finish your exploration of the neighborhood.

If you have limited time, but will be staying for at least two weeks, make your first stop Almazul in the mall La Quinta. You can have shoes customized with heels and materials of your choice. I didn’t go shoe shopping until I was getting ready to leave the city, so yet another regret I hope someone else will learn from. I did however, pick up a pair of peach linen trousers that look great on me, so I can’t cry too much over it. A few doors down you will find Bulé, a swimwear boutique with very cute bathing suits.

And yes, there is a shoe district with plenty of options for men and women. Some places are cash only, and some close for lunch, so plan accordingly. What I did was conduct some reconnaissance one afternoon, then returned the following day with a plan of attack. The store Camila Oviedo is at the center of the San Francisco district at Carrera 22 & Calle 20, so make your way there, then go a block in every direction.

After all of that, I suppose you need some food. There is a decent amount of variety, given the small size of the city. For meat lovers, put a pin in your Google Maps at Cotiza Longaniza. If you need to cleanse your palette with an açai bowl, check out Oh My Bowl. For coffee, alfajores, and a mean roast beef sandwich, make a stop at Caramell.

Goodbye, Bucaramanga. Photo by author.

There it is, my guide to three awesome cities in Colombia. Were I ever to go back, I would visit tourist hotspot Cartagena and more small cities, probably Villavicencio and Leticia, if the AI-generated Barbies by graphic designer Cosmica are accurate.