Gluten Free Medellin: A Travel Guide for Celiacs
Medellin was our favorite big city in Colombia. On our six week Colombian adventure that took us all over the country, exploring from Bogota to the Caribbean Coast, we found ourselves in Medellin twice. In total, we spent 9 days in Medellin, and it has everything I love in a city. Great public transit (including gondolas – so innovative!), a solid food scene, amazing coffee, and a story. Of all the places we traveled in Colombia, it was easiest to eat gluten free in Medellin, probably due to the big expat population.
Over the past decade or so, it has become a hub for digital nomads looking to work on the road, and you see subtle signs of that around the city with tons of co working spaces and fancy coffee shops and bars.
I’m not going to sugar coat it – it was hard to eat 100% gluten free in Colombia. In fact, I would say it’s the hardest place to eat gluten free that I personally have ever been to (as of writing this in March 2020). But like almost every other big city in the world, there are gluten free eats to be had – you just need to know where to find them.
And that, my friend, is why I wrote this guide to gluten free Medellin. To help you confidently navigate Medellin whether you have Celiac Disease, or you have another reason for avoiding gluten.
Heading to Colombia? You won’t want to miss my guides from my six weeks traveling all around Colombia.
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.
Gluten Free in Medellin: Tips for Traveling Gluten Free
Before we get to specific recommendations for gluten free restaurants in Medellin, let’s talk about preparing to travel gluten free in Colombia.
Psssttt! I have a whole guide for traveling gluten free in Colombia that you should DEFINITELY check out if you’re planning on traveling to Colombia and need to eat gluten free. It has everything you need to know about navigating the country gluten free.
The bottom line is that awareness of Celiac Disease, gluten, and cross-contamination is basically zero in Colombia. In Medellin, there was a bit more knowledge than other places we traveled, like the small mountain towns, but it’s still extremely limited, so you will need to be prepared for that.
The single biggest tip I have for traveling gluten free to Medellin, and Colombia as a whole, is to book a place with a kitchen. You need to be willing to cook for yourself – there’s only a handful of gluten free options in Medellin, and having the flexibility to cook for yourself will give you peace of mind that no matter what, you’ll be able to eat safely.
That means you’re probably staying in an apartment, through Airbnb or Booking.com, or a hostel with a shared kitchen.
We stayed almost exclusively in private rooms in hostels in Colombia, and I cannot recommend them enough for traveling Celiacs. Sure, you don’t have your own space like you would in a private apartment, but you’ll pay less, be more social and meet other travelers, and have access to friendly staff who actually know the city and can help you navigate Medellin.
More on where we stayed in a second.
The second tip I have is that you need to speak Spanish. Some people, like servers at restaurants, speak a bit of English. But a lot of people don’t.
If you don’t speak Spanish, you need a gluten free restaurant card in Spanish that explains your situation and outlines your specific needs, like avoiding cross-contact with gluten and specific call outs for sources of hidden gluten.
Jodi over at Legal Nomads has a Latin America card that I have personally used in both Mexico and Colombia with great success. I speak rudimentary Spanish – like 2nd grade level, if we’re being totally honest – and when that wasn’t enough, I pulled that out and asked the server to give it to the chef. It’s that easy. It’s the best $9 you’ll spend on this trip for the peace of mind and ability to confidently communicate your needs in the face of a language barrier. Click here to get your gluten free restaurant card.
Where to Stay in Medellin
We stayed in two places in Medellin, and both had their own pros and cons.
Los Patios Hostel near El Poblado, which is a boutique hostel and has super nice facilities, but it’s big, and a little gringo-ey for my tastes. I’d still recommend it though because the rooms and bathrooms were fantastic, as was the kitchen and rooftop deck. It’s located between the El Poblado metro and the heart of El Poblado, so it’s perfect for shorter stays where you want to make it easy to get around. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Casa Cliché in Laureles was much smaller – only about 20 people max – and was much more low key and chill. Plus, it’s significantly cheaper, though you’ll be sharing a bathroom with one other room. Laureles is my favorite neighborhood to stay in while you’re in Medellin. Casa Cliché has a great outdoor patio, big rooms with plenty of closet space and room to move around, and a good kitchen (although the fridge was PACKED when we were there). It’s a little far from the metro, but that’s not much of an issue when cabs are so cheap in Medellin. Click here to check prices, reviews, and availability.
Top Tips for Traveling Gluten Free in Colombia
Here are the sources of hidden gluten that I came across, and how to avoid them.
- Wheat flour used in arepas and empanadas. Confirm that all areas 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.
- Wheat flour as a soup thickener. Confirm that no flour is added to thicken soups, which happened a few times.
- Soy sauce and other sauces. As 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 in Colombia, 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.
Where to Find Gluten Free Groceries in Medellin
In Medellin, I found two great grocery store options that had plenty of gluten free options. Both have locations in both of Medellin’s best neighborhoods, Laureles and El Poblado.
Exito is a huge department store – kind of like a Target or a Walmart if you’re in the US – with an enormous grocery section, and things like electronics, clothing, and home goods. They have a modest gluten free section in the store with bread, crackers, and desserts, but you’ll find most of the gluten free options mixed in on the regular shelves. I found bread, pasta, crackers, arepas, and even Thai curry paste and coconut milk!
Carulla is a grocery store, like Safeway or Kroger here in the US. They have a similar selection as Exito in terms of food, but they don’t have anything else. If you want to buy a TV, don’t shop at Carulla. They have an excellent selection, and you’ll find them peppered in around the city.
No matter where you’re staying, you should find one of the two within walking distance.
For a list of the best gluten free groceries I found in Colombia, head over to my guide to gluten free Colombia.
Don’t Speak Spanish? Use a Gluten Free Restaurant Card!
Like I mentioned above, a gluten free restaurant card in Spanish is a must if you don’t speak Spanish, or you’re not sure if your high school Spanish is going to cut it.
I recommend Jodi’s cards specifically because they do two very important things. First, they call out cross-contamination, which most of the free cards completely ignore. Second, it calls out specific ingredients – like bread, cubitos de caldo, and soy sauce – that people who don’t know what gluten is might not realize aren’t safe for you.
I personally have used her cards for years, and can’t recommend them highly enough for people who are anxious about the language barrier. With her cards, I can confidently communicate my needs and safely travel in spite of an intimidating language barrier. You’ll pay $9, but it’s more than worth it in my book.
Click here to get your Gluten Free Restaurant Card for Latin America
Gluten Free Medellin: Specific Gluten Free Restaurant Recommendations
Here are the gluten free restaurants in Medellin that I personally spoke with about their ability to serve someone with Celiac Disease. I personally ate at almost all of them. Below that, you’ll find a couple of restaurants that didn’t respond to me on Instagram or via email, and I didn’t have a chance to make it to in person.
For both groups, you still need to communicate your needs – in advance, if possible.
One of my top rules for gluten free travel is to NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, take an internet stranger’s word for whether or not a food is safe for you. And yes, that includes me. Things change in kitchens all the time, so make sure to double check with the restaurant.
There are exactly ZERO dedicated gluten free restaurants in Medellin that I came across.
Naan Sabores de India
For our first meal in Medellin after 10 days in small towns in Colombia’s Zona Cafeteria, where we cooked every single meal for ourselves, we were ECSTATIC to be in a place with Celiac-friendly restaurants again. And we LOVE Indian food. It’s one of my go-to gluten free travel options because, with the obvious exception of the breads, most of the food is naturally gluten free. When we came across Naan Sabores de India, I knew we had to do it.
You might have noticed that the name of this place is literally a food that we can’t eat. I almost didn’t even bother reaching out, but I decided “what’s the worst that could happen, they say NOPE?” and hit send on that Instagram DM. And I’m glad I did, because they gave me a detailed rundown of what was safe, and what I needed to avoid.
At a high level, you can’t have the breads or anything fried, including samosas, and MOST IMPORTANTLY the “cebollitas fritas” (fried onions) that come as a garnish on some dishes. YOU NEED TO SPECIFICALLY CALL THAT OUT. When I explained my situation to the server in semi-coherent Spanish, she was super knowledgeable and called out the cebollitas fritas without me getting to it yet, which is a positive sign. She even double checked with the kitchen when I asked a question about how they cook the meat for the curry.
Overall, it was fantastic experience. So good that we actually went back twice. The Chicken Korma and Yellow Curry were the standout dishes for us. They have two locations – one in El Poblado, which was our first stop, and one in Laureles, which we checked out on our second time in Medellin. Highly recommend. Make sure to communicate your needs to the server.
VegStation is a great illustration of why you always need to double check what internet strangers tell you, because Findmeglutenfree lists this place as dedicated gluten free. Spoiler: It’s not, which was a big bummer for me based on my expectations. It is, however, 100% vegan, if you’re worried about that.
That being said, there are only two things that contain gluten as of March 2020 – the ramen, and the hot dog – neither of which I was particularly interested in, and neither of which are much of a risk of cross-contamination.
The server understood my needs and pointed out those two dishes on their semi-well marked menu. Though they have indicators for both contains gluten and gluten free, and the only difference is the slash through the bundle of wheat, so make sure you pay attention and confirm your order with the server.
The Burger of the Andes, with a quinoa/squash patty, vegan cashew cheese, and pineapple, was fantastic, and the bowl with vegan meatballs was good too. I’d go back.
At 12:30 on a Saturday, we were literally the only people there, but when we walked by at 8pm on a different night, it was PACKED. So it might be more of a dinner spot. The food was good, and lunch for two was a whopping $12USD for gluten free & vegan food. In San Francisco, one of the dishes would have been AT LEAST that much. Probably more. I love Colombia.
Bird House Kitchen and Drinks
This is my #1 recommendation for gluten free food in Medellin. Located in lovely Laureles, Bird House was my favorite gluten free restaurant in Medellin. It’s a small space, but has a nice outdoor patio area in front, and 4-5 tables inside.
Potatoes are the name of the game here, and the basic premise is that you choose a potato-based base (I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to phrase that, so please forgive me for the confusing description), then you choose from a list of toppings – veggies, sauces, meats, and cheese.
The bases include baked potato, stir fried potatoes, fried potato chips, and a potato-based pizza crust, which is my recommendation. Toppings include meats and vegetarian proteins like chickpeas and beans, veggies, sauces like pesto or neapolitan, and cheese.
They only serve pizzas with a potato base, so there’s no risk of cross-contamination like there is at most other gluten free pizza places. They do serve a few things with gluten – like lasagna, and toast for breakfast – but the menu is clearly marked, and the staff is friendly and helpful.
I spent ~15 minutes chatting with the manager after our first meal there about eating gluten free in Colombia, and things that I’ve had to watch out for, and she assured me that they don’t take the shortcuts (like cubitos de caldo) that some other places take. We went back a second time for the pizza – that’s what you should get. Oh, and you should probably get pineapple on the pizza, because pineapple on pizza is the best. That’s a hill I’m more than willing to die on.
“Sushi in Medellin, which is in the middle of the Andes. That’s what you’re going with Matt?” Hear me out – I had the same concern. Sushi in a landlocked country in the middle of the mountains? PASS.
Then we went to the Pezetarian in Cartagena, which is on the ocean, and I felt MUCH better about it. They have sushi, ceviche, and hot bowls at Pezetarian, and they are all made with gluten free soy sauce. The menu is clearly marked – the only thing that contained gluten when I was there was a pasta dish.
WHY DO YOU EVEN HAVE A PASTA DISH, PEZETARIAN?
But that’s beside the point. The point is, it’s a great option for Celiacs. One thing to watch out for: The soy sauce on the table IS NOT GLUTEN FREE, but tell them you’d like gluten free soy sauce and they’ll bring you a little dish of it from the kitchen.
Full disclosure – I actually didn’t make it to Verdeo. I wanted to, but by the time we were going to go, the coronavirus had made it to Colombia and we decided not to trek across the city to get here. But, I did talk to them and they confirmed that they have a few options that are safe for Celiacs. And by a few, they really mean a few. On their menu, which has dishes labeled with “apto por Celiacos” (safe for Celiacs), there’s 4-5 options for you to choose from.
Final Thoughts: Gluten Free Medellin
While Colombia isn’t the most Celiac-friendly country, it’s well worth visiting. And Medellin is the best of the bunch for traveling Celiacs like you. There’s so much to do and see, and Medellin was our favorite city. It has a harrowing recent history, where it has gone from one of the most dangerous cities in the world to one of the most innovative, that I recommend you take some time to learn about from a local tour guide. There are a few gluten free restaurants in Medellin, but the reality is that you’re going to need to cook for yourself if you’re planning on spending any significant time in Colombia.
Planning a trip to Colombia? Don’t miss the other helpful Colombia travel guides I’ve written.
- Gluten Free Colombia: A Comprehensive Travel Guide for Celiacs
- Gluten Free Bogota: A Guide for Celiacs
- Where to Eat Gluten Free in Cartagena, Colombia