Travelling along Colombia’s coast and Eating Gluten Free from Cartagena to Santa Marta

Boat on the ocean in Colombia

I spent three weeks in Colombia and tell you how to eat gluten free in Cartagena, Colombia and how to travel gluten free in Santa Marta, Colombia. It was our first time in Colombia and we had no idea what to expect. I was excited to have lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and seafood of course.

We were escaping the cold Canadian winter, we wanted the beach time especially bad. So, we tried to stay right by the beach, so we could spend as much time there as possible. 

How to Eat Gluten Free in Cartagena Colombia

Before going to another country, you should print out a few of the Celiac restaurant cards in Spanish. Always be prepared with the list of questions to ask at any restaurant before dining out. See the list of questions to ask for gluten free here. I know communicating with someone in a different language can be difficult, but you should at least try to get all the answers for yourself.

Celiac Travel Tips: If you have data or Wi-FI while travelling, put the questions into google translate and pass your phone back and forth between the restaurant employee and yourself. I managed to have great conversations this way.

If the restaurant has a FaceBook page, I usually message them using google translate into Spanish to get some questions answered before I even go.

Stay at a Place with a Kitchen in Cartagena

You should always try to book a place with a kitchen, so you can cook for yourself and not rely on others to prepare your meals. This is the key to living a celiac life without borders. You must take your food intake into your own hands.

I love to tell you exactly what it costs to stay somewhere. We were pretty shocked how expensive it was and we paid $186 CDN per night. It was the high season and over New Years, which is a huge celebration there. Our place was in the best location in the city. We had a small bachelor suite and it was above a bar that pumped out loud music from 8 pm to 4 am. Surprisingly, we got used to the music.

Once I check in I always start by reviewing the kitchen items and we had a hot plate and microwave, which is really all you need. Another huge tip for us with Celiac is to wash all the utensils, plates, pots and pans, then you know everything is taken care of and don’t need to worry about if you washed something before you use it.

We found a lot of English in Cartagena which made it easy to communicate with others and talk with locals. There were many beggars who spoke perfect English.

We felt safe in Cartagena and we were able to walk the streets at all hours of the day without worrying about our safety. We did however stay in the tourist city center area for the whole time.

Cartagena Colombia Gluten Free Restaurants

I did not find a lot of restaurants advertised items that were gluten free, but there were many places that had items on their menus that were naturally gluten free and they were willing to assist me to get a meal that was gluten free.

Stepping Stones Cafe offers fresh and locally sourced food. They offer gluten free meals and can make other accommodations as well. See their menu here.

Gokela is a health and fresh restaurant where I could grab a salad at and it was delicious. To see where their locations are in Cartagena, click here. One of the addresses is #3- a 393 Calle 33 Paulo VI-I, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia.

El Kilo was very accomodating and I reached out via their FaceBook page and they told me that they could provide a gluten free meal and gave me a name and number to contact them. I had the fresh fish with rice and fried plantain chips. If you want to contact them on Facebook, click their link here. The address is #36- a, Cra. 7 #36122, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia.

Carmen is a fancy restaurant that we loved and had a few date nights at. We would make a reservation earlier in the day and talk with the the staff and they would pre-plan what we would have off of their menu. They did a fantastic job. It was expensive, but worth it. My favourite was the pargo platero. To check out their website, click here. The address is Cll 38 # 8-19, Calle Del Santísimo, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

Aqua de Mar here is the menu, which is mainly naturally gluten free. The address is Centro, Calle del Santísimo #8-15, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia.

 Pezetarian has a wonderful menu that identifies many items on the menu that are gluten free. Check out their menu here.

Tayrona Beach in Colombia
Tayrona Beach in Colombia

Disclosure: Some of the links are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

Eating Gluten Free in Colombia by Shopping at Grocery Stores

We always check out the local market and grocery store and stock up on things for our fridge, which included bacon, eggs, peppers, onions, potatoes, rice, coconut milk, water, bananas, ketchup and some meat. In Cartagena, we made breakfast and lunch at home and ate out for supper at the restaurants above.

Colombia has regular grocery stores where we focused on buying naturally gluten free items for our meals at home. They have lots of fruit stands on every corner, so we purchased lots of fruits to have have for snacks as well.

Get the Best Gluten Free Travel Guide and More….

  • Whether you are newly diagnosed or just need travel tips from someone who has done it before, Discover the Best Way to Travel Gluten Free.
  • 55 colored pages packed with personal recommendations and tips.
  • Invaluable resources.
  • Fillable worksheets.
  • Spanish AND French celiac restaurant cards.
  • Directly downloadable upon purchase.
Gluten Free Travel Guide Cover Page

Get the Best Gluten Free Travel Guide and More….

Gluten Free Travel Guide Cover Page
  • Discover the Best Way to Travel Gluten Free.
  • 55 colored pages.
  • Invaluable resources.
  • Fillable worksheets.
  • Spanish AND French celiac restaurant cards.

Are Colombian Empanadas Gluten Free?

The traditional Colombian empanadas are gluten free. Of course you will have to ensure the type of flour is not wheat based, but it is usually made from masa harina corn flour.

It is also a traditional Colombian meal, so it is worth a try if you can find one. I tried a few and my favourite were the chicken ones and I found a fruit filled one that was amazing.

Colombian Empanadas Recipe

This is a recipe that I made after going to Colombia and getting a taste of different types of food. I love trying new things and expanding my cooking skills. This is how I explore the limitless opportunities to live Gluten Free anywhere.

The Dough

  • 2 cups of yellow masa harina corn flour (if you have another type of gluten free flour and want to experiment, try it out)
  • 2 cups of warm water
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon of your favourite seasoning
  • Your favourite pie filling
  • Egg or butter

The Filling

I suggest using your favourite filling. If you are not sure, start with a fruit filling and buy your favourite pie filling to add in the middle. After mastering this, then graduate into adding a meat filling. I love to have it filled with shredded chicken!


Prepare the material you are going to use for flattening the dough. I use either parchment paper or a plastic sheet that I have from plastic wrap. Divide the dough into 10 equal pieces. Roll one piece of empanada dough into a round, press into a disk-shape and place between the two pieces of parchment paper.  Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a round that’s about 6-7 inches in diameter and  cut the rough edges off the dough. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put a large tablespoon of filling on one-side of the dough.Using the bottom piece of parchment paper, fold the dough in half, enclosing the filling and gently pressing out any air as you go. Pinch the edges together. Place the empanada on a baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining pieces of dough and filling.

Brush the tops of the empanada with egg wash (or melted butter), and place the baking sheet in the center of the preheated oven. Bake until golden brown on the edges and light brown on top, about 15 minutes.

Fantastic Colombian Recipes


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Are Arepas Gluten Free?

If you are talking about the traditional Colombian arepas, then yes, they are naturally gluten free. They use cornmeal to make this lovely item.

It is like a flatbread made from ground maize dough. Traditionally made from pre-cooked cornmeal. I love when things are naturally gluten free and no substitutes are required!

Santa Marta Gluten Free Restaurant

I ate at a cute restaurant called Ikaro. You can check out their FaceBook page and send them some questions if you’d like here. Their address is Calle 19 # 3- 60 Santa Marta, Magdalena.

Hours: Open daily from 8 am to 10 pm.

Restaurants can change owners, chefs and menus: please contact the restaurant to ensure a gluten free meal can still be offered.

How to Eat Gluten Free on the Colombian Coast

We travelled from Cartagena to outside of Santa Marta. When we got to our second location,we were staying at a hotel. We had breakfast included which was provided by hotel staff where they provided a strict portion amount to us. I was lucky to have the basics where I had eggs, fruit, juice and coffee. There were randomly sausages, but I couldn’t speak with the cook about what was included in them, so I stayed clear of those.

I would snack through out the day on fruit and yogurt which did the trick in the hot weather on the Colombian coast. For suppers, I relied on fish or shrimp, coconut rice and grilled plantain. We had never had coconut rice before Colombia and it soon became a favourite. I would try and use google translate to tell them I couldn’t eat gluten and I had those Spanish Celiac Restaurant cards.

I would also test the restaurant meals with my Nima Gluten sesnor. If you haven’t heard about this invention, check it out. I wrote about my Top 3 tips when using the Nima Gluten Sensor. I use it a lot when I travel and it has helped me reduce any anxiety I have about eating gluten free.

For transportation between Cartagena and Santa Marta area, we booked a tourist bus which picked up a whole bunch of North American’s and bused to our next stop just over 200 km’s away.

As we drove along the highway we saw local villages. I saw heaps of plastic waste in the communities which is a symptom of the undeveloped drinking water infrastructure in communities. Our world definitely has a plastic problem.

We settled in the Rodadero area of Santa Marta which was just a short cab drive away from our hotel. The area was filled with Colombian vacationers and we didn’t experience many English speakers. We saw the people on their vacation. Luckily, we used google translate a lot and people tried to understand us all of the time.

Each night the city filled with vehicle loads of local and national police. I have experienced this is also in Mexico, so it wasn’t completely foreign to me. While we did walk around at night, we weren’t trying to use the ATM or be in less busy areas in the evening. The locals were used to the police presence and went about their day.

We saw a lot of families through-out our time there which was really touching. It was not unusual to see teenage kids holding hands with their fathers or grandparents. It was evident everywhere we went, the importance of the family unit.

Gluten Free Fish and salad

PS  – I didn’t find gluten free beer, this is my husband’s beer. But this is an idea of what I ate every evening for supper. It was delicious freshly caught fish with a plain salad and grilled plantain or arepas and rice.

How Not to Over-Pack?

I have a serious over-packing problem, so I leaned on others who are much better at packing. I took a look at this list of how to pack light for South America to get me started.

Don't Forget Your Mosquito Repellent

When you are venturing out into the National parks, you must have the best mosquito spray possible and great pants for hiking. For all you need to know about what products to pack for your trip, check out the best mosquito repellents here.

Free Things to See in Cartagena Colombia

We started the coast trip in Cartagena, in the old city center. I would recommend the following things to do in Cartagena that don’t cost a cent (except maybe the cost of a beverage):

  • Walk around the defensive walls and check out the city from this vantage point.
  • Get lost in El Centro and tour the streets filled with colourful buildings. The colourful buildings and walls surrounding the old town were built to protect against pirates and are a sight to see.
  • Get a coffee and find some shade. People watching in El Centro will not disappoint.
  • Step out at night and take in the nightlife filled in the streets. There were dancers and music in the streets which will keep your attention for the night.
  • Peek into the large Cathedrals where you will see the catholic community practicing their faith or get a glimpse of a beautiful wedding taking place.
  • Go to a nearby beach and enjoy some sunbathing.

Click here for an awesome 4 day itinerary for Cartagena.

Things to do In Santa Marta and Area

Some things to see and do in Santa Marta include the following:

  • Take in the beach for a few days. In this area there were beach vendors but they didn’t pester anybody, they were there for people to get things from them when they wanted them – it was a nice change of pace.
  • Check out Tayrona National Park. Use a local guide and don’t get into the big tour traps where you don’t see anything too exciting. The local small guides provide you with a better overall experience and you have a better chance of finding some English-speaking people. You will need to have the Yellow Fever vaccine to enter. Nobody was checking if you had the vaccine, but I wouldn’t chance it – just get it!
  • Take a ride into Santa Marta and check out the city for at least a half day. The streets are filled with people once the hotness cools off and around supper is the best time to go.
  • Check out a sunset on the beach

Honest Observations about the Beaches

We checked out the beaches surrounding Cartagena and they were good and we enjoyed the water. The beaches were not filled with people, so we weren’t annoyed by people selling us things, which we should have appreciated a bit more.

We were told that we had to check out ‘playa blanca’, which means white sand beach in Spanish. We had to take a boat ride to get there and it was a bit sketchy. You can tell that boat safety is not as advanced as one would want it to be. It is boater beware kind of thing, just make sure you have a life jacket in case your boat doesn’t make it.

We did end up getting to a white sand beach with beautiful water, but it was also filled with what felt like a billion people. There wasn’t room for a towel to lay down, so you had to buy a chair under a make shift umbrella. I don’t mean to sound like a snob, but the chairs are just those plastic white chairs, don’t expect those comfy loungers. This was the ultra-high season, so it will be less busy if you are not going over New Years.

On the busy beach we were accosted every 2 minutes with someone trying to sell us something which interrupted the Zen we were hoping for. We did meet some new friends from Texas on the boat ride that we met up later for New Years, always look for the positives.

I have experienced beach vendors who are pushing a massage before in other hot destinations like Mexico and Cuba, but here I found a mysteriously aggressive masseuse here on playa blanca. Usually you are hoping for a relaxing atmosphere to enjoy a massage, but on these beaches, they started touching you without warning constantly even after constant no’s or head-shaking. An overall bizarre experience which can only be laughed at from a distance.

Insurance in Colombia

If you are looking for a good travel insurance provider, then World Nomad is a great option.

Gluten Free Travel on the Colombia Coast is Possible

If you travelling to Bogota and want the Ultimate Gluten Free Guide to Bogota, check it out!

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If you follow my guide to eating Gluten Free on the Colombian Coast it will help you. If you are considering a trip to Colombia and have some questions at GlutenFreeTraveller. Send me a comment below or email. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest.

Understanding the Colombian Culture

If ou have never been to Colombia, then read up before you go:

  • Colombia – It has the recent developments in this emerging South American country.
  • Colombia Handbook – For more about culture and things to do and see in this country.
  • An Englishman in Colombia – An interesting and adventurous look at the dangerous and alluring sides of the country in Latin America.

Cheers, I hope you enjoyed my lovely trek,

Brett – The Ultimate Gluten Free Traveller

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Brett Duncan Gluten Free Traveller

“Committed to inspiring people with Celiac to travel the world and explore the limitless opportunities to live Gluten Free anywhere.”

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