A vegetarian travel guide to South America: Tips + Local specialties
South America is characterised by the wild Andes mountains, diverse cultures, adventurous water sports, untouched jungle and meat. No joke there, I am talking about a lot of meat. Every country in South America is unique, but all Latin American countries are on the same page when it comes to their carnivore culture. The trend of vegetarianism is crossing the ocean as you are reading this blog. Yet in my experience sticking to your vegetarian diet can still be quite challenging in South America.
Do you fear an empty growling tummy throughout your journey in South America? Spoiler alert: there is no need to be worried! I get that you might feel like you should carry additional luggage for your vegetarian food to South America. But rest assured, from your flight to your excursion through the Amazon, if you are prepared and persuasive you will not need to compromise your vegetarian values during your trip. Find everything you need to know about vegetarian food in South America in this vegetarian travel guide.
VEGETARIAN GUIDE: MEALS ON AIRPLANES
Nowadays almost every major airline offers the option to book a preference for a vegetarian or vegan meal for your flight. Some airlines even allow you to choose from a variety of options. Did you book a flight with an airline that does not offer the option to request vegetarian or vegan meals? Prepare your own meal in advance and make sure to bring extra snacks.
VEGETARIAN GUIDE: COOKING
Does going out for dinner every day not fit in your budget? An easy solution is to book accommodations with kitchen facilities. Usually hostel and backpacker friendly hotels provide well-equipped kitchens. Check whether an accommodation has kitchen facilities before booking.
In large cities there are plenty of supermarkets where you find a wide range of fruits and veggies. The local market also sells a lot of vegetables and fruit at a fair price. Often products at the market are organic too. Stock up on spices and nuts when you get the chance so you can cook a vegetarian meal in remote areas of South America and have your daily dosis of protein.
If you prefer not to spend the majority of your trip on the toilet it is recommended to research carefully which fruit and vegetables you can eat uncooked and unpeeled. This may be different depending on the country you decide to visit in South America. Be careful when washing unpeeled fruits and uncooked vegetables with tap water. If you are prone to stomach problems an easy solution is to cook the water you want to use to wash your food beforehand to kill bacteria. A next level solution is to freeze and unfreeze the boiled water before usage. If you carry a water filter you can use the filter.
VEGETARIAN GUIDE: RESTAURANTS
In tourist areas dominated by Western restaurants finding a vegetarian or vegan meal is easy. Remote areas are more challenging. To make your quest a little easier you search for the right place in HappyCow, an application that offers an overview of vegan(n) restaurant options around the world.
In South America and especially in Argentina and Brazil there are many ‘por kilo’ / ‘por quilo’ [per kilo] restaurants. In a typical per kilo restaurant you grab a large plate upon entry and scoop up tasty bites until there is a mountain of food on your plate. At the checkout your food is put on a scale and the weight determines the price of your meal. The per kilo buffet features many types of rice, beans and vegetables with delicious herbs and sauces. Often there is a salad bar too, but I would be careful with this as the ingredients might be washed with tap water (a popular cause for diarrhea among gringos).
Another tip for finding vegan(n) restaurant options is to keep your eyes open for cuisines where vegetarian dishes are more common. The Middle Eastern and Italian cuisine feature a wide variety of vegetarian dishes for example. Your chances of finding a veggie-friendly meal are greater in touristy restaurants, but often these meals come at a high price.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
If you cook every night or you only eat out in touristy hot spots you are guaranteed of a tasty vegetarian meal every day of your trip. Missing out on interaction with locals and local vegetarian specialties would be a shame though. Therefore, it is essential to learn to communicate in Spanish and Portuguese about your animal-friendly diet. List your dietary needs, Google the translation, write down the phrases and memorise them before departure.
Meat is king in South America. Prepare yourself for baffled looks in disbelief when you tell someone you choose not to eat meat. Oh and by the way, there are many interpretations of vegetarianism in South America. A simple soy vegetariano/a is not going to cut it.
Another good-to-know is that carne translates to red meat in Spanish and Portuguese. Consequently, sin carne is not a helpful statement as you may still be served a chicken wing. For vegans it is recommended to claim that you are allergic to any type of animal product, this often works more effectively than explaining in detail all the things you don’t eat. Be exact, crystal clear and don’t forget to smile and say please and thank you.
VEGETARIAN GUIDE: BOOKING EXCURSIONS AS A VEGETARIAN
As much as you want to explore South America on your on terms, some excursions can only be done through tour operators. Examples are a visit to the Amazon or a trip to Machu Picchu. Booking an excursion is the time to find a balance between quality and price. Especially as a vegetarian it is not recommended to book the cheapest tour without thorough consideration.
If you are willing to pay a little more, chances are the organisation provides vegetarian meals without extra costs. Make sure to inquire about the division of profits of your excursion before your booking. This way you ensure that chefs, guides and luggage carriers (if applicable) are fairly paid. Be prepared to tip at the end of an excursion.
Are you hungry yet? Find local specialties listed per country below.
Although Argentina is known as the country of steaks hanging over the edge of your plate, this destination also offers many gastronomic options with Italian influences. Make sure to check out the markets and bakeries for empanadas de humita, a savory snack with corn and alfajores de dulce de leche for your sweet tooth. Dishes with calabaza [pumpkin] are also delicious and a popular ingredient in Argentine cuisine.
VEGETARIAN GUIDE BOLIVIA: ACCEPT LIMITED CHOICES
Bolivia is one of the most challenging countries in South America to travel to with an animal-friendly diet. During your trip in Bolivia cheese, corn and potatoes are your friends. Sopa de papa [potato soup] or sopa de quinoa [quinoa soup] and chocolo con queso [corn with cheese] are popular vegetarian dishes that you can find everywhere.
VEGETARIAN GUIDE BRAZIL: ALWAYS ASK FOR OPTIONS
In Brazil it is a treasure hunt to look for local vegetarian specialties. Somehow animal product seems to be incorporated in every dish. Always inform whether a dish contains animal product because it is not always obvious and make sure to ask for options.
Keep your eyes open for tapioca, a floury and sticky pancake with a coconut, cheese or vegetable filling and feijão com arroz [black beans with rice]. For a refreshing specialty on a swelling hot day, visit a beach kiosk selling Açai. Açai is ice cream made from Amazonian berries served with banana and granola or paçoca (peanut with sugar and salt).
VEGETARIAN GUIDE COLOMBIA: MORE VEGETARIAN DISHES THAN YOU WOULD THINK
The food in Colombia is delicious, also for vegetarians, so bear in mind that you will gain a few kilos during your trip. One of the most popular vegetarian snacks are arepas, flat buns made from cornmeal, water and salt. You fill up arepas just like tacos and there is also a sweet variant for breakfast.
Another popular vegetarian masterpiece in Colombia are platanos. These are large savory bananas that are fried twice, smacked until they’re flat and served with rice, beans and lime. Colombians also love friend cheese balls, referred to as queijo frito.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you travelling with an animal-friendly in South America is completely doable and you’ll cancel your additional suitcase with vegetarian supplies. Are you looking forward to your tasty trip already? Vamos a comer!