Colombia is one of the most beautiful and diverse places that I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. From the tropical paradise along the country’s northern Carribbean coast, to the rolling lush green hills and valleys of the Zona Cafetera, to the wild jungles on the Pacific Coast and Amazon Basin, Colombia’s beauty and energy exudes from every corner of the country. It’s a stunning place to visit with an incredible bounty of beautiful landscapes and remarkable things to do. We spent six weeks exploring gluten free Colombia, which is the longest trip we’ve taken to date.
But is it easy to eat gluten free in Colombia? That’s what I’m going to cover here.
Even with what we thought was plenty of time, we found ourselves running out of time to fit in all of the amazing things we wanted to do. We said the words “I guess we’ll have to come back to do that” more often than I’d like to admit.
There’s so much to do and see – it’s no wonder that the number of tourists visiting Colombia has been steadily climbing over the past decade or so.
This post probably contains affiliate links, which just means that if you click through and book or buy something, I earn a little bit of money for recommending it at no additional cost to you. I stand behind all of my recommendations, and would never recommend something I wouldn’t do or use myself.
Colombia is home to countless ingredients that are naturally gluten free – corn, yuca, plantains, every fruit you could possible imagine – sounds like a veritable gluten free paradise, right?
But if you look one level deeper, you’ll start to uncover the landmines that made Colombia one of the most challenging places I’ve ever traveled in terms of eating strictly gluten free.
The good news? Those naturally gluten free ingredients I mentioned are readily available everywhere we traveled. And in the bigger cities – Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena – you’ll find a handful of Celiac-safe restaurant options.
And in those cities, bigger grocery stores like Exito and Carulla are all over and have plenty of gluten free items to choose from. I found gluten free pasta, rice, crackers, plantain chips, and more. I even found exactly one brand of gluten free bread! If you’re willing to cook for yourself, you won’t have much of a problem at all in those cities. Don’t worry, I’ve got a list of my favorite gluten free groceries I found on my trip below.
The bad news? Cross-contamination is going to be an issue at nearly every restaurant you visit. But more on that in a second – I’ll tell you exactly what to watch out for, and how to communicate your needs.
Don’t miss my guide to the best places in Colombia – you’ll want to make sure they make it into your Colombia itinerary!
How to Travel Gluten Free in Colombia with Celiac Disease
This is a guide for Celiacs traveling to Colombia who need to eat strictly gluten free. If you have Celiac Disease, cross-contamination matters. Eating an empanada that is fried in the same fryer as breaded chicken strips that contain gluten means that the empanada isn’t ACTUALLY gluten free. And that’s a fairly regular occurrence in Colombia.
Sure, there are lots of foods made with naturally gluten free ingredients – like most arepas and empanadas you’ll come across on the street – but the way they are cooked means that often they are not actually safe for Celiacs. That arepa is made with corn, but it’s cooked on the single small grill in the kitchen that also cooks the toast, the hamburger buns, and more.
I’d definitely avoid almost all fried foods. And in Colombia, it seems like EVERYTHING is fried.
Hidden Sources of Gluten to Watch Out For in Colombia
While Colombian cuisine uses a lot of seemingly gluten free ingredients, the final product is often not safe for people with Celiac Disease for one of these reasons. These are the things you need to watch out for based on my experience and talking to chefs, locals, and servers in Colombia.
- Confirm that all arepas and empanadas are 100% corn – no wheat flour is added. For what it’s worth, every single time I asked, they were 100% corn, but you need to confirm.
- Confirm that no flour is added to thicken soups, which happened a few times.
- Ask about soy sauce and jugo Maggi in ceviche and meats, like fillings for empanadas or tamales.
- Bouillon cubes (cubitos de caldo) are often used to add flavor to soups, rice, and more. And they contain gluten. You need to ask about them specifically to make sure they aren’t added. Most higher-end places don’t do this, but best to confirm.
- Avoid everything fried, as a general rule. There are no dedicated fryers, as often the kitchen is small and there’s only room for one. It’s a cross-contamination nightmare. You can ask whether other foods are fried in a fryer if you’re Spanish is good, or use a gluten free restaurant card.
- Avoid arepas, empanadas, and tamales made with store-bought masa (like P.A.N.), which all are processed on the same equipment as wheat and have a “may contain gluten” statement on the back. I accidentally ate P.A.N., which is safe and certified gluten free in the US, for a few days at the beginning of the trip and wasn’t feeling so hot. Then I found out why when I flipped it over and read the back of the package. Always read the label. A good reminder.
Must-Try Gluten Free Eats in Colombia
Here are some foods that I fell in love with in Colombia, and found to be reliably gluten free. You still need to ask though.
Arepas de Choclo: arepas that are made with a sweet corn base made of fresh corn, masa, milk, sugar and butter. Then they’re grilled, topped with more butter and fresh cheese. A highlight of our trip – just make sure they’re 100% corn and they’re not cooked on the same surface as toast or something (or ask them to please clean the grill).
Fish steamed in banana leaf: We had this a few times, including one time that we cooked it ourselves in a cooking class, and it was one of our favorite things we ate on the whole trip. The fact that it’s steamed in a banana leaf also helps avoid cross-contamination. It’s usually served with coconut rice (more on that in a second) and steamed veggies. YUM.
Coconut Rice: AKA the best kind of rice. Why do we ever make regular rice when coconut rice is so simple? We learned to make this twice in separate cooking classes, and it’s basically coconut milk, salt, and sugar, and should be safe for Celiacs almost everywhere.
Tamales for Breakfast: Tamales, similar to the fish above, are usually cooked wrapped in some kind of leaf, which is great for avoiding cross-contamination. And they’re a quintessential breakfast food, particularly in Bogota in my experience. Double check that the filling doesn’t contain gluten in the form of soy sauce (salsa de soya) or bouillon cubes (cubitos de caldo), and that there’s no flour mixed in to the outside (there shouldn’t be).
Soup: In Colombia, soups are sexy. Whether it’s a simple vegetable soup served as an appetizer, or a main course that’s full of things like potato, yuca, and plantains, the soups in Colombia are amazing. In particular, be on the lookout for Ajiaco, a stew of chicken and potatoes, and Sancocho, a hearty stew that you’ll usually find in Antioquia, the department whose capitol is Medellin. Colombians love their soups. Watch out for cubitos de caldo, which I found are widely used to add flavor to soups in smaller restaurants, and they contain gluten. You. Need. To. Ask. And be specific. A gluten free restaurant card will help if you’re not confident in your Spanish.
All of the fruits and fresh juices! I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of fruit or fruit juice before Colombia. Then I realized exactly what I’ve been missing out on. Colombia is home to SO MANY FRUITS. Some of which I’ve never seen or heard of before, some of which are actually illegal in the US. You need to do a tour of the local market in Bogota or Medellin with a guide. It was one of our favorite experiences on the whole trip. We’ve explored local markets in places like Budapest and Mexico City before, but adding a local guide takes away the intimidation factor of either asking questions of the vendors, or figuring out how to eat that fruit that kind of looks like a stegosaurus. We spent three hours with Sylvia at Paloquemao Market in Bogota doing a guided fruit tasting where we tried 25+ fruits, most of which we NEVER would have tried without her help. Here’s a similar tour in Medellin. And drink all the fresh juices you can – but especially lulo and guava.
Ceviche in Cartagena: Cartagena is known for its ceviche made from fresh-caught fish, and it’s fairly Celiac-friendly. Soy sauce is usually what you need to watch out for, and it’s easy enough to ask about. Head to Pezetarian or El Boliche for some of the best Celiac-friendly ceviche in Cartagena. And don’t forget to read my guide to gluten free Cartagena.
Platanos: Kind of like arepas, you’ll find pantains in all forms in Colombia. From the sweet yellow version served as a dessert or a way to add sweetness to a sauce, to the fried green patacones (make sure they’re pan fried! Most are, in my experience), which you’ll find EVERYWHERE and are made with enough salt and garlic to kill a small child. We basically ate plantains every single day for six weeks, both at home and eating out, and I’m still not sick of them. Here’s how to cook them for yourself and ten recipes to try at home.
Before Your Trip: Get a Gluten Free Restaurant Card and Book a Place with a Kitchen
There are two things I’d suggest you do before your trip to make it WAY easier to eat gluten free while you’re in Colombia.
Get Yourself a Gluten Free Restaurant Card
In my experience, knowledge of Celiac Disease was almost zero, and the challenge was compounded by the fact that many Colombians, especially outside urban centers where there are a lot of tourists, don’t speak much English. I gave my schpiel in Spanish (“I have Celiac Disease, I can’t eat gluten or I’l get very sick, which includes wheat flour, bread, soy sauce…”) to at least 20 people, and maybe two or three really understood what I meant.
You’ll need to be specific about your needs, and it needs to be in Spanish. If you don’t speak Spanish, Jodi from Legal Nomads has a solution for you that will make eating gluten free in Colombia significantly easier. She has a gluten free restaurant card in Spanish that is specifically designed for Latin America. It clearly communicates our needs as Celiacs, including cross-contamination and specific hidden sources of gluten found in Central and South America like Jugo Maggi and bouillon cubes. It will cost you $9, which is nothing in the grand scheme of your trip, and it will save you tons of stress and anxiety and help you get safe gluten free food in Colombia regardless of how much Spanish you speak.
Seriously, get one. I speak okay Spanish (like, 2nd grade level if I had to guess), and I bought it and used it on my trip. I suggest you do too. It helped me out in several situations where my rudimentary Spanish wasn’t quite cutting it.
Book a Place to Stay with a Kitchen
If you’re traveling with Celiac Disease in Colombia, you need to book a place with a kitchen. Full stop. You need to have a way to turn the bounty of amazing local ingredients into delicious gluten free food.
Here’s how to find amazing places to stay that have a kitchen.
You basically have two choices – booking your own apartment through Airbnb or Booking.com, or booking a hostel with a shared kitchen (also on Booking.com). On our trip, we stayed almost exclusively in private rooms in hostels where we had our own space, but were sharing a kitchen and other amenities with other travelers. We avoided the party hostels, because my 8:30pm bedtime doesn’t really jive with techno music that continues until sunrise.
We used Booking.com to book almost all of them, and it was super useful to keep all of our travel plans in one place. Plus, the flexible booking terms made it easy to change our plans when we wanted to stay an extra day somewhere we loved.
With your own apartment, you’ll have privacy and your own space, but you’ll pay more and you won’t meet other travelers or have a source of local knowledge. With a private room in a hostel, you’ll get your own space, but you’ll have to share other amenities like a kitchen and sometimes a bathroom (though you can totally find rooms with private bathrooms), and you’ll usually pay less.
It totally depends on your travel style, but I wouldn’t be afraid of hostels in Colombia.
Here’s how to use Booking.com to find places with a kitchen:
- Go to Booking.com. Duh.
- Fill in your details – where you’re going, travel dates, and number of people/rooms
- Once you’re on the results page, look to the left side of the page where it says “Filter By,” and scroll down until you get to “Room Facilities.”
- Select “Kitchen/Kitchenette” and any other options you care about, like a private bathroom, and wait for the updated list.
- Voila! Now your entire search will show you exclusively places with a kitchen that you can use to cook for yourself!
Where We Stayed in Colombia
Here is exactly where we stayed in Colombia – most of the places we stayed were amazing, but there were a couple that I wouldn’t recommend. So I’ll offer some alternatives.
Hostel Aurora (Bogota) – Lovely boutique hostel right in the middle of Bogota’s best neighborhood, in my opinion. Nice, spacious, light-filled private rooms with options for a private or shared bathroom, great kitchen facilities, free filtered water, and a great patio. The staff were also super friendly and helpful, which is always a plus. Highly recommend this place – it’s a cross between a boutique hotel and a hostel, which is my favorite kind of hostel if we’re being honest. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Hostel Tralala (Salento) – We stayed here for a full 7 days, and it was amazing. Not one, but TWO kitchens on site, and both are well-equipped with oil, salt and pepper, and plenty of cooking utensils. Great staff that helped us navigate a tricky political situation that shut down major roads in the country while we were there. We met the Dutch owner a few times and his friendly black cat. We stayed in a private room with our own bathroom for most of the time, and then moved to a private room with a shared bathroom, which was also great. It’s also a block off of Salento’s main square, which was great. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Hacienda Venecia (Manizales) – We stayed in the hostel here for a couple of nights to relax and stay on a working coffee farm. The private rooms in the hostel share a bathroom, but the kitchen is nice and it’s a SUPER relaxing place to stay, with plenty of hammocks, hikes around the property, and options to learn about coffee and chocolate. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Lulo’s Hostel (Jardin) – This is the place I wouldn’t recommend. It was meh, at best. Jardin, however, was one of the highlights of our trip in Colombia. Check out Apartamentos Primavera, or Ayahuasca Casa Artística.
Los Patio’s Hostel (Medellin) – I have mixed feelings about this place, but I would probably recommend it as long as you know what you’re getting into. On one hand, the location is fantastic – on the outskirts of El Poblado between the hustle and bustle of the most popular part of Medellin for tourists and the metro station – and the facilities are truly amazing. The kitchen is FANTASTIC. The rooms are basically boutique hotel rooms, and you can choose a private bathroom or a shared bathroom. The ONLY thing I didn’t care for was the vibe. According to Hostelworld, it’s the #3 hostel for solo male travelers in the world, if that tells you anything, and it was gringo central. It’s also the best hostel in Colombia and all of South America, and the 10th best medium hostel worldwide. The Colombian man at the front desk who we chatted with for a few minutes said “it feels like I walk into a different country every morning when I come to work.” If you’re prepared for a rooftop bar pumping top 40 music and countless pub crawls, then this is the spot for you. I enjoyed our stay, but didn’t enjoy the cringe-worthy Fyre Festival-esque videos playing constantly on the many TVs around the common spaces. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Casa Cliché (Medellin) – On our second trip to Medellin, we stayed in a different neighborhood, Laureles, which had a much more local feel to it than El Poblado. I enjoyed it A LOT more, although it’s a bit less central and well-connected than El Poblado. Casa Cliché is run by a group of French travelers, has a handful of private rooms with shared bathrooms, a large kitchen, and a lovely terrace where we ate meals and played Uno and Scrabble every day. Highly recommend this place. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Finca Hostal Bolivar (Minca) – Maybe our favorite place we stayed on the whole trip. It’s small, holding ~10 people total, and it has two lovely private rooms with their own bathroom (with lovely blue-tiled walk in showers).The German/Colombian couple that own it are super nice and friendly, and they have their own little terrace to watch the sunset, which I recommend you do at least once. Quiet. Peaceful. Great kitchen, and more importantly, great hammocks. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Eco Hostal Yuluka (Tayrona) – This was the other place that we LOVED. We stayed in the 8-person dorms for a night, and it sucked. But that’s mostly because dorms are terrible in all situations if you ask me (man, I’m getting old). The location is great, just outside of Tayrona within walking distance of the El Zaino entrance (plus, they have a free shuttle). AND THEY HAVE A WATERSLIDE (and a pool). The private room was great, and I would highly recommend it for basically any traveler heading to Tayrona. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Airbnb in Cartagena – Beautiful apartment in terms of design, but it was kind of falling apart. The bathroom door fell off and a handyman had to come fix it. The AC only worked during the day, which is fine I guess, and the WiFi straight up stopped working after the first day. Instead, I’d look at this Airbnb in Getsemanni, or this Airbnb in San Diego (two of the best neighborhoods in Cartagena).
During Your Trip: Eating Gluten Free in Colombia
I am living proof that you can absolutely visit Colombia with Celiac Disease, but you’ll need to approach it a little differently than most people. Let’s get into specifics about traveling to Colombia gluten free.
Where to Find Gluten Free Groceries
As I’ve already covered, you’ll need to book a place with a kitchen. But once you have a kitchen, where do you get the food?
Exito is like a Target or Walmart here in the US, where you’ll find groceries, electronics, clothes, and basically everything in between.
Carulla is like a Kroger or Safeway, where you’ll find exclusively groceries. In both stores, you’ll find a variety of gluten free packaged foods like pasta, rice, crackers, rice cakes, and bread, along with all of the naturally gluten free foods like cheese, meats, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Some also have a separate gluten free section – like this one at the Exito in El Poblado in Medellin.
Chances are, you’ll have one of the two stores relatively close to where you’re staying in those bigger cities.
In the smaller towns, it’s a little more complicated. If you know you’re heading from a bigger city to a smaller town, I’d recommend stocking up on some of those packaged gluten free foods in the city. Or example, we went to Exito before heading from Medellin to Minca to grab pasta and pasta sauce, gluten free bread, and crackers. And I’m glad I did, because when we got to Minca there was not a “libre de gluten” in sight at the one little market in town.
In those smaller towns, you’ll usually find a combination of a few types of stores. There will be a smaller supermarket with a sparse selection of packaged gluten free foods. Then there’s the tienda, which is like a convenience store and is a good place to buy water. You’ll also find fruterias, stores that sell exclusively farm-fresh fruits and veggies, which is where we ended up shopping most of the time. It’s funny – over the course of a week in Salento where we shopped at the same fruteria almost every day, the price of a zucchini miraculously got lower over time like a loyalty program or something.
Armed with your packaged gluten free food and a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables, you’ll be able to create pastas, stir frys, and more.
Gluten Free Groceries to Buy
I LOVE exploring the grocery stores in pretty much every place I’m traveling (check out this round up of the best groceries I found in New Zealand). So much so that Alysha pretty much rolls her eyes every time I say “OH LET’S GO THERE!” and point at the fourth grocery store of the day.
Here are the top gluten free finds over my six weeks in Colombia. Most of them were found in Exito or Carulla in either Bogota, Medellin, or Cartagena (sometimes all three!).
Sary + La Cajonera arepas – More on arepas below. Don’t miss the yuca version filled with cheese.
Noglut gallettes – little biscuits or cookies, I’m not sure what to call them. But they’re a great snack.
Vitad gluten free bread – the only gluten free bread in Colombia that I found. The Pan Campesino, which is basically white bread, is better than the 4 grain.
Barilla gluten free pasta and sauce – I trust Barilla gluten free pasta in the US, and I was thrilled to find it in Colombia. They have a couple of different types of pasta that are labeled “Senza Gluten” in big red letters (they also make regular pasta, so that’s important), and all of their pasta sauces are labeled gluten free.
El Dorado gluten free pasta – all sorts of pasta made from different grains like rice, corn, and quinoa, along with some chickpea and lentil pastas. They also make regular pasta, so look for the “sin gluten” label.
Thai Kitchen – Same as in the US, their curry pastes, rice noodles, and coconut milks are gluten free.
Platanitos plantain chips – they remind me of Inka Chips, which are one of my favorite gluten free travel snacks, except they’re cut thinner so they’re crispier and WAY saltier. SO GOOD. The best part? They cost roughly $0.60 per bag of 2.5 servings (okay, let’s be honest, one serving).
Are Arepas Gluten Free?
Colombians serve arepas with nearly every meal. If you know me, you know arepas are one of my go-to gluten free meals when I’m dining out – like Pica Pica in San Francisco, and Quiero Arepas in Denver. I’m always on board for arepas. Imagine my excitement when I decided to go to Colombia, land of the arepa!
First of all, Colombian arepas are actually different than the ones you usually find in the US, which are Venezuelan-style. Colombian arepas are usually flat, rather than being stuffed with all sorts of fillings, and are served alongside a meal almost like toast might be in the US and Europe. Other times they’re stuffed with egg, cheese, and meat, and then fried.
As a Celiac, there are three issues to watch out for when it comes to arepas. Sure, they’re made with 100% corn, but that does not mean they are safe for Celiacs as some might claim.
- Most, if not all, store bought masa (cornmeal) is processed on the same equipment as wheat and has a “may contain traces of wheat” statement on the back. Even P.A.N., which is my go-to harina de maiz in the US where it is certified gluten free, is not safe in Colombia because it is processed on the same equipment as wheat. The first few days in Colombia, I was eating arepas made of P.A.N. and wasn’t feeling great. “Can’t be the arepas, P.A.N. is safe!” I said to myself. Wrong. When I looked at the back of the package, I quickly figured out why I wasn’t feeling too hot. A good reminder to always read the label, even if it’s a food that is safe at home.
- You’ll often find arepas (and empanadas) that are fried, which is almost always not going to work for us as Celiacs. Most places only have one fryer and use that fryer to fry all sorts of things, some of which contain gluten. In general, I’d avoid all foods that are fried because they are likely cross-contaminated. They’re not always fried – sometimes they’re cooked on a grill, which is fine as long as they’re willing to wipe it down for you if they cook other stuff there.
- Like tortillas in Mexico, you need to make sure the arepas are 100% corn. I found that every single time I asked they were, but make sure to double check.
The combination of those three things means that most arepas in Colombia aren’t 100% gluten free and safe for Celiacs.
Most of the store-bought brands aren’t labeled gluten free, and the one brand I reached out to that actually replied told me that they are processed on shared equipment. I’d assume that anything not labeled gluten free is too.
I found Sary all over Bogota and Medellin in Carulla and Exito, and there are seemingly endless varieties. You can get them plain, in yellow or white corn. Or you can get them as a mix of yuca and corn stuffed with mozzarella cheese (YES YES YES). And in all shapes and sizes too – small, fat, huge.
I found La Cajonera in Exito in Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena, and the yuca + cheese versions were OUTSTANDING.
Final Thoughts: Gluten Free Colombia
Colombia was tough in terms of eating gluten free. But I would encourage you to look past that, and travel anyway. Once you realize that, as long as you’re willing to cook for yourself you can travel anywhere in the world with Celiac Disease, your mind will be opened to all sorts of amazing possibilities. I don’t let Celiac Disease hold me back from unforgettable travel experiences, and I write these guides so that you feel the same sense of empowerment and possibility.
Heading to Colombia? You won’t want to miss these other travel guides I’ve written for Colombia:
- Gluten Free Bogota: A Guide for Celiacs
- Gluten Free Medellin: The Best Celiac-Safe Eats
- Where to Eat Gluten Free in Cartagena, Colombia