Updated June 28th, 2020.
Is there a better way to explore a continent than through your stomach? We don’t think so!
South American street food is a mystery to many before they visit the continent and for most travellers, street food conjures up images of Mexican dishes. Whilst everybody loves a taco, there is a stark difference between the types of street food that you can find in Northern/Central America compared to South America. The latter has a vibrant food scene in its own right and there is something for everyone, no matter your tastes!
From meaty sandwiches to raw fish, sickly desserts and homemade helados, South America promises to deliver some truly delicious treats. And even better than the array of flavours is the cost… prepare to pay under $2USD for pretty much everything listed!
Boasting some of the world’s best treks, nightlife and historical sites, you probably didn’t need another reason to visit South America but in case you do, these flavours are enough to seal the deal. Without further ado, let’s get your tastebuds tingling with some of our favourite South American street foods!
Don’t forget – also check out our article on the best drinks to try in South America!
Top 21 South American Street Foods You Need to Try!
1) Manzana Acaramelada – Argentina, Ecuador & Peru
For those of you who still need to work on your Español, these are essentially, toffee apples. Although not the first thing to jump to mind when you consider South American street food, toffee apples are popular in various countries across Latin America, especially during their holiday season. What a delicious way to get a cheap burst of sugar and one of your five a day!
2) Brigadeiros – Brazil
This traditional Brazilian dessert is basically a chocolate bonbon or fudge ball. It’s an extremely sweet snack but if you don’t have too many, they’ll go down a treat on a long bus journey up the coast!
These chocolate bonbons can be found on the street, in cafes and some restaurants. There are even some places which sell only brigadeiros, like Maria Brigadeiro in São Paulo. In a specialist cafe such as this, it is possible to find a whole range of different flavours to suit all tastes.
3) Ceviche – Ecuador & Peru
Introducing the South American version of sushi! Although Peru claim ceviche came from them and have christened it their national dish, some argue that the origins of ceviche are not so black and white. This mixture of raw fish seasoned with lemon or lime juice is best (unsurprisingly) along the pacific coast of South America where you can eat the freshest fish straight from the sea! You can learn how to make your own Peruvian ceviche at this cooking class in Cusco!
Although a few countries in Latin America have their own version of ceviche, the original Peruvian mixture is miles ahead in terms of enjoyability and flavour. In Ecuador, the fish in the ceviche is already cooked and comes in a citrusy tomato-based sauce. It is completely different from the Peruvian version!
Ceviche tends to be served with salad leaves, red onion, cold sweet potato and roasted corn. In Ecuador, they serve it alongside bowls of popcorn. Be warned coriander haters, you may be spooning out these pesky green bits as it is nearly always featured in this dish.
4) Dulce de Leche – Argentina, Peru & Uruguay
Sweet tooth? Then dulce de leche is for you! Best described as a chocolatey, caramel, milky liquid, this sweet substance can be put on anything, from doughnuts to muffins to toast!
It is made by slowly heating sweetened milk until it begins to change colour and adopt a caramel-like appearance. Dulce de leche is used in desserts across the continent and often features in churros, cakes, pancakes, flan and waffles to name a few!
It’s not unheard of for some travellers to buy it in bulk and ship it back home as it’s not only delicious but also quite difficult to find outside of South America. Argentina and Uruguay are the main places that call this sweet treat dulce de leche, but it is known by other names such as manjar blanco and arequipe across several South American countries, including Brazil, Colombia and Peru.
5) Sopapillas – Argentina, Chile, Peru & Uruguay
These tasty fried pastries and breads are found all over South America. They can have anything from pumpkin to cinnamon rolled into the dough.
Depending on whether they are served as bread or as a pastry, they come with either pebre (a sauce consisting of onion, garlic, coriander and chilis) or chancasa (a sauce made with orange peel, unrefined cane sugar and cinnamon). It is also not uncommon for the former to be served with the old faithfuls: ketchup or mustard!
The quintessential street food, sopapillas are perfect for a top-up when you’re at a random bus stop or a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Once you find out which flavour suits you best, you’ll be addicted for the rest of your trip!
6) Empanadas – Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru & Uruguay
Literally meaning ‘encases in bread’, empanadas are cheap pastry-style snacks with meat, cheese and vegetable fillings. Originally from Portugal, they have been adopted by plenty of South American countries.
Empanadas can be deep-fried or baked, sweet or savoury. Depending on where they are purchased, it is possible to find empanadas made from yuca, corn, plantain, bread or pastry.
In Argentina and Uruguay, they sometimes come filled with dulce de leche whereas, in other countries such as Bolivia, they deep fry cheese empanadas before sprinkling icing sugar on them.
In Argentina, nearly every province has its own flavour of empanada. There even is a national empanada festival in Tucumán province on 23rd June every year!
7) Humitas – Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador & Peru
Humitas are popular in the Andean countries and unlike Mexican tamales, they are made using freshly ground corn.
The dough generally consists of fresh corn, onions, eggs and spices, however, this depends on what country you are buying the humita in. They are pressed into a rectangle shape before being wrapped in corn husks and boiled, baked or steamed.
Although generally eaten in the countries listed above, there are other variations. For example, in Brazil, they are known as pamonha and in Venezuela as hallaquita.
Easily recognisable for their rectangular shape, there are many different combinations of both sweet and savoury available. Generally, a humita will set you back around $1.50US tops so they are a good, cheap South American snack food if you are on the go!
8) Salchipapas – Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador & Peru
When I returned from South America and told my family that sausage and chips are one example of the continent’s street food, nobody believed me. It’s true though! Salchipapas are a delicious, greasy taste of home!
This fast food dish is a mix of French fries, thinly sliced beef sausage (similar to the taste and texture of a boiled hotdog) served with coleslaw, American mustard, ketchup and ají. As well as being readily available from street vendors, many budget restaurants and chicken shops will also sell this dish.
Locals will tell you that salchipapas is the dish of the poor man. That suits us backpackers just fine!
9) Arepas – Colombia & Venezuela
Flatbread sandwiches found mainly in the northern countries of South America. The dough is usually made from maize which is baked first and then lightly grilled. Once the dough is cooked, the sandwich can be filled with anything, depending on preference.
Popular fillings include cheese, chicken, avocado and various other meats. In Medellín, you can find a sweet-tasting corn version called ‘Chocolo’. Instead of being stuffed with cheese, they have a soft cheese on the top. The taste is interesting but definitely delicious with the sweet and salt making the perfect combo! Head to Las Chachas to try arepas in Medellín.
10) Pão de Queijo – Brazil
Literally cheese bread! pão de queijo is a snack that can best be described as a chewy, cheesy doughnut, just a few centimetres in size. They are made with a certain type of gluten-free flour in Brazil (Tapioca) which means that often (but not always) they are a perfect snack for travellers with celiac disease.
This is another dish with African roots and stems back from the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais. The African slaves scraped up the leftover tapioca from cassava roots and made bread rolls using it. As time progressed, more ingredients became available for the Afro-Brazilian community so they began to fill the rolls with cheese. This is how the pão de queijo was born!
11) Anticuchos – Bolivia, Chile & Peru
Chances are that you’ll smell these beauties sizzling away before you actually see them! Similar to the Mediterranean shish kebab, this popular dish is usually found on street carts and stalls. The skewered meat can be anything but it is usually a beef heart. Don’t let that put you off though!
Antichuchos are usually served with potato, corn and ají and are cheap to buy, making them the perfect snack. Although it is possible to find anticuchos in Bolivia, they are usually accompanied by peanut sauce instead of ají. The going rate for a stick of antichuchos is around 4 soles in Peru ($1USD).
12) Churros – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile & Peru
Introducing everybody’s favourite sweet treat: churros! Originally brought over to South America by the Spanish, these delicious snacks now pop up all over the continent.
Similar in taste to doughnuts, the dough mixture is piped into tube-shaped sticks which are then fried in oil before being rolled in cinnamon sugar. They come in many varieties but one of the most popular is churros filled with dulce de leche!
13) Choripán – Argentina, Chile & Uruguay
Essentially, choripán is a chorizo filled sandwich. The sausage can be made out of beef or pork and is served fresh from the grill. The roll is likely to be a crusty bread (like a French stick) and it is usually served with a chimichurri sauce.
In Argentina, choripanes are traditionally served as starters during a barbecue (asado). They are easily found on the streets and also at sports venues.
In Brazil, they eat several different versions of the traditional choripán. These include salsipão and sanduíche de linguiça. The Brazilians sometimes add to the sandwiches, filling them with melted cheese, onions, mustard and shoestring potatoes.
14) Acarajé – Brazil
This is another Brazilian favourite! Acarajé originated from Nigeria but was brought to Brazil by West African slaves.
It is very popular in Bahia in the north-east of the country. Black-eyed peas or peeled beans are rolled into a ball before being deep-fried in palm oil. Once they are cooked, they are stuffed with a spicy paste and usually some form of seafood. Delicious!
15) Papa Rellenas – Chile, Colombia & Peru
These stuffed potatoes are a hugely popular dish, especially in Peruvian cuisine. Although papa rellenas are often found on street stalls and carts, the dish has also been adopted by some of the finest chefs in Lima who have turned it into a high-class meal!
The baked potato dough is stuffed full of ground beef, hard-boiled eggs, onions and cumin before being deep-fried. It is usually served with either ají or hot Creole sauce.
In Colombia, papa rellenas are commonly eaten as snacks or as a breakfast food. They differ slightly from the Peruvian version as they also include tomatoes and rice. If you’re heading to Colombia and fancy trying more of their cuisine, why not head off on a Bogotá food tour?!
16) Completo – Chile
Ask for a completo at one of the street food stalls in Chile and you will end up with their take on the traditional American hot dog. The completo uses boiled frankfurters (also known as wiener sausages) and is served in a bread roll.
The thing that makes this different from a traditional hot dog is the generous added extras that come with it. Completos are usually topped with mashed avocado, sauerkraut, chopped tomatoes and various condiments such as mustard and copious amounts of mayonnaise.
It is not the most aesthetically pleasing meal but it is authentic cuisine and something which is guaranteed to fill a hole!
17) Buñuelos – Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador & Peru
These are fried dough heaven, like Latin American doughnuts! The dough is usually wheat-based which has been flavoured with anise. Once the dough has been shaped into individual pieces, it is deep-fried and then given a sweet topping.
In Colombia, the buñuelos are filled with white cheese. There is a street food stand located right outside the San Javier metro station in Medellín which does some incredible varieties. Like most sweet treats from South America, there is also a dulce de leche version and it is possible to try it here!
18) Pastel – Brazil
Similar to deep-fried empanadas, Brazilian pastels are thin, crispy pastries which come with an assortment of fillings. Pastels are generally rectangular in shape but are sometimes found in half circle form.
Pastels are said to have arrived in Brazil along with the Japanese immigration. The Japanese are said to have adapted the Chinese wonton to create a new kind of snack that they could sell on the street. This snack ended up being the pastel.
Pastels can contain everything from cheese to meat to shrimp which means you are sure to find one that you enjoy. Although sweet pastels exist, they are far less common and those with banana and chocolate filling can be difficult to find.
19) Patacones – Colombia, Ecuador & Peru
These tasty treats are plantain slices which have been twice-fried until they are golden in colour! After the frying is complete, they are bashed down into flattened disks. Patacones are a standard side to many dishes (usually fish) eaten in the above countries and are also sold on the street as a quick snack.
Generally, they are salted and eaten like crisps or potato chips. However, they are sometimes served with guacamole or ají. These snacks are cheap to pick up and make good nibbles for those long bus journeys.
20) Helados / Cremas – Argentina, Colombia & Ecuador
Did we save the best till last? I think so! For those of you who already have some words mastered in Spanish, you may already know that helado means ice-cream!
Keep an eye out for homemade helados. They are usually sold from battered old freezers outside local houses or from the ice cream bikes you see cycling about. The best ones are usually made using local fruit and are just sold on the stick, with no packaging, so they are a great snack for those wanting to reduce your plastic use whilst travelling!
A whole range of flavours is usually available, including salted mango, avocado and even cheese! They’re super refreshing on a hot day and will only set you back around $1USD each!
21) Choclo – Peru, Ecuador & Bolivia
Ending with a simple one, it’s choclo (or corn on the cob to you and me). A healthy snack at any time of day, you will find these steamed cornsticks at many street stalls across South America, particularly in Ecuador and Peru. Smothered with butter, mayonnaise, cheese or some other unidentifiable yellow substance, they’re one of the cheapest street snacks around.
Have we missed one of your favourites off the list? Tell us in our Facebook community and we’ll add it!
Buen provecho amigos!