What’s That Fruit: Pitaya

To me, the best part of Colombia’s food scene (if you can peel your eyes away from the fried cheese and sizzling street foods), is its produce. The country’s tropical climate and range of altitudes lends itself to a crazily varied list of native plants. Here’s the start of a small series introducing a few of my fruity friends. First up, pitaya.

Pitaya, or dragon fruit, might be my favorite funky-shaped produce on the western hemisphere. In Ecuador, the fruit grows inside a hot pink peel. But in Colombia, pitaya is typically smaller and bright yellow. When I first arrived to Medellin and was adjusting to the food, one of my roommates offered me pitaya, saying that it’s great for the stomach and helps with digestion.

Here’s the low-down: It’s native to Mexico, grows from a cactus, and has been traded and cultivated across the globe, namely in Asia. Pitaya is high in iron, magnesium, antioxidants, and fiber. It’s also got some Vitamin C and B-2. Not a bad way to start your day.



Cut it in half and scoop out the speckled white insides, much like you’d eat a kiwi. It’s sweet, light, and refreshing, just like Medellin’s springtime weather. (No air conditioning needed.) And much easier to slice open than a watermelon (just saying).


In Colombia, you don’t have to venture too far to find this tropical fruit in a city. Check out a local neighborhood market, where a pack of three is priced at one thousand pesos (about thirty cents). Or stop by a fruit vendor in they city’s centro, where  mamoncillos and mangos pile high on wooden push carts. Toss a few in your backpack, and your next sweet tooth craving is covered.


In the Colombian Kitchen

Colombia’s food is meat-heavy: wide platters of chicharrón; packaged salchicha dominating the deli section in supermercados; and shredded beef prepared in the street, sandwiched between burger buns, lathered in orange sauce and cole slaw, and piled with papas fritas. The traditional Bandeja Paisa dish native to the Antioquia region includes carne molida, chicharrón, chorizo, and frijoles con tocino (beans prepared with pork): a triple-threat in the meat department.

I like how the words for Colombia’s foods roll of the tongue with liquid attitude, twirls of the r and accented os. But more often than not, these words describe cuts of meat that I’m not so ready to eat.

Five months in Medellin has meant lots of shared meals, questions for servers, bellies full of fruit juices, and piled-high almuerzos. I’ve grown accustomed to the sweetness of plátanos fried in olive oil and the simplicity of heating up an arepa at any time of day; sifting solids out of fresh jugo de maracuya and leaving frijoles to simmer on the stove.

Here’s what I’ve been eating:

I start almost every morning with avena– oatmeal. Although the texture of hot oats cooked in water repulses my roommates, it’s the one constant food that I can find almost anywhere– a morning routine I can maintain anyplace I wake up. And at the side is an oversized cup of instant coffee. I was surprised at first, to realize that most Colombians in Medellin prepare instant coffee at home, if they drink it at all. Many prefer agua panela con limón, a beverage served either hot or cold, prepared with panela (solid, unrefined pure cane sugar; the product of the sugar cane plant).


Lunch almost always includes an arepa. They’re sold in packs of 10 or 20 in the refrigerated section in the grocery store, and fresh ones are always available on the street. Arepas are like thick corn tortillas, and it’s so easy to heat one up over the stove that we won’t even bother calling it “cooking.” Many people will top a hot arepa with butter and cheese for breakfast. I like my lunch-time arepas covered in aguacate con sal y limón. Avocados are everywhere in Colombia. It’s basically a national obligation to eat them all before they turn bad.

And juices accompany almost every meal. With a page-long list of native fruits to try, and many sold in packs of three for only 1,000 pesos (less than 50 cents), drinking juice is a basic household responsibility. (Not everyone cares for a coffee machine, but I have yet to meet a paisa who doesn’t own a blender.) Mix the fruits of your choice with agua or leche, strain it into a pitcher, and share with anyone who stops by. It seems it’s custom that when someone walks in the door, the juice pitcher pops out.


Because the traditional Colombian lunch is the plato fuerte, dinner tends to lean on the smaller side. I like to sauté a few vegetables and a pile of plátanos in olive oil, pile them into a bowl and call it a night. There are more than six or seven types of bananas and plantains in Colombia, four different avocados, and new mysterious fruits that seem to appear every day. I have yet to find one I didn’t like.


The National Diet Relationship Rollercoaster


The road curved and wove through the mountains as we left Medellin behind. The van swayed with each turn, and the driver pursued our arrival in Armenia with a relentless foot on the pedal. The views were lush, green, and speckled with palmas and rolling hills. I vomited the entire time.

The afternoon before we departed for Salento in Colombia’s cafetero region, my visiting friend, Seleste, and I struck out on the town for a traditional lunch. Mondongo, my roommates insisted, was a must-try for any tourist in Colombia. It’s a sopa tipica made with peppers, carrots, onion, cilantro, and tripe, which is meat from the stomach of a cow. We found a small table in the back of Ajiacos y Mondongos in Poblado. I’d read that Anthony Bourdain ate there on one of his many visits to Colombia. So, obviously, if you’re going to be a tourist in your new city, you might as well follow this guy’s lead. The tiny restaurant—with its warm yellow walls and pitchers of fresh guava juice right outside of the kitchen—was packed with locals on their lunch break.


I ordered a vegetarian-ized bowl of a bean soup similar to a cazuela. With slices of banana, cilantro, and a spoonful of picante, it offered a subtle spice and a comforting, filling meal—like diving into a deep dish of chili on the couch at my parents’ home on a Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, I tasted this cozy soup again the next morning on the bus, for a consecutive five hours. But! These are the expected side effects of travel. You’ve got to know what you’re getting yourself into.

After another stomach episode following a late-night arepa binge (stuffed with huevos revueltos, cheese, and mushrooms), street food and I went on a break. We haven’t totally divorced, but I’m definitely more cautious of these flat top-fried friends’ intentions. Unfortunately, it took a visit to the emergency room for me to learn when to say no, gracias to this new national diet. That’s also when I realized that I hadn’t renewed my travel health insurance, but we can’t be on top of everything at once, right? After all, I haven’t yet claimed to be fully adult.

Although simply feeding oneself can be a task in of itself, there’s nothing quite like cooking at home, wherever that may be. My shared apartment’s kitchen eternally remains the central hub of the eight locals with whom I live. Sometimes I struggle to cook rehydrated beans over our one functioning burner at 10:30 at night, intending to make my own version of the restaurant’s bean soup that I enjoyed the first time around. But at the very least, I can count on a stomach that has mostly resolved its attitude problems, along with snippets of interesting late-night conversation.

El Pacífico: La Barra


I visited Cali, Colombia during Semana Santa, planning to take some salsa classes but finding the entire city to be closed. During Holy Week, everyone seems to vacate town. So there was only one thing to do: follow their lead and head to the beach. Cali is only about three hours away from Buenaventura by bus. From Buenaventura, you can take a lancha (a small motor boat) to Juanchaco, and from Juanchaco, ride on the back of a motorbike on a muddy unpaved road to reach La Barra. My motorbike driver dropped me off here, and suggested I walk until I find the hostel.


“Está cerca,” he promised. But I’d been in Latin America long enough to understand that 1) when asking for directions, nothing is as near as people say, and 2) if you’re lost and see a dog, you should probably follow it; they always know where the food’s at.

I stayed at the cozy Casa Majagua, a two-story home built on stilts and supplied with blankets of mosquito nets. The owners were the sweetest young couple, one woman from Bogota, and a man from Spain. If you go to visit La Barra, plan to carry any snacks, produce, and water with you that you will need for your stay (and carry any trash back out). The limited fresh produce available is reserved for the locals, and bottled water is hard to come by, as it all must arrive first by boat, and then by motorbike. Luckily, the neighboring hostel doubled as a restaurant. They serve fresh fish every day. (La Barra locals also eat very little meat, as that, too, must travel far before reaching their plates.) My veggie alternative included frijoles and plátanos with every meal before hitting the beach and slipping into a food coma.

El Pacifico

There were hardly any people in sight– a complete escape from the rest of the world, with only a sprinkling of humans on the shoreline opening up to the Pacific. Once every afternoon, someone would roll by with a fruit cart. And obviously, when you’re hanging out on a beach seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it’s your obligation to wave them down and try whatever it is they’re selling. This is a variation of a cholado, a mix of papaya, mango, and pineapple doused in lechera, a super-sweet sauce of condensed milk. As a kid, I liked to sprinkle sugar on strawberries. But this takes Sugar Intake to a whole new level. Beach food really is a category of its own. In the States, we usually think of salty french fries, beer, watermelon and frozen grapes. La Barra delivers another palate: savory fried plantains, sticky cocadas, syrup-covered fruits and aguapanela.


And with a very full stomach and skin somehow sunburn-free, it was only a short walk back to bed.