Destination South America: envision lush rainforests, smoggy cities, century-old cathedrals, trekking expeditions, and meat. Lots of meat. From the lauded steaks of Argentina to the fried guinea pig of Peru, meat is central to South American diet and culture. So, um, what if you don't eat meat? Or fish? Or cheese or eggs or milk? Oh, and you want to experience the countries from, say, outside a tour-bus window or a resort's private beach. And your budget's not bursting with opportunities to dine at touristy restaurants or stay in swank hotels that cater to guests' every needs.
If you think you're staying at home with your Boca burgers, grab your phrasebook and book a flight. It may not be as easy as checking the airline's no-meat meal option, but vegetarian ventures into the carnivorous continent of South America are entirely doable. They don't have to leave you hungry, broke, or wan with lack of protein either; you just need to know what you're doing. Those who've trudged the roads-and ridden the rickety buses-before you may have had to learn the hard way, but you don't have to.
Before You Go
Any trip requires planning, and staying vegetarian requires extra logistics-negotiating. Some light research and well-chosen purchases will greatly reduce hassle and hunger pains.
Do your research
First, hit up your computer to get a feel for your destination. You'll want to look for the amount of restaurants and veggie-friendly grocery stores in your region, as this will be your best tip-off to how prepared you'll need to be. In general, large cities (Lima), tourist destinations (Cusco), and travel haunts (Aguas Calientes) will have the most restaurants and stores. Venturing further off the beaten path? You'll need to be even more prepared.
Happy Cow is an excellent resource, with a comprehensive list of vegetarian restaurants and stores worldwide. Listings here are usually up-to-date and include user reviews; the site also has a travel forum, great for advice and trouble-shooting. Useful links to vegan-specific travel info can be found at Circle Our Earth.
Shopping before departure
Once you've gotten a feel for the veggie-friendliness of your destination, head to your favorite grocery store. Depending on your itinerary and the duration of your trip, you'll either be stocking up on some just-in-case snacks, or arming yourself with an arsenal of meal supplements.
You won't want to travel without Primal Strips - vegetarian beef jerky. These affordable godsends deliver the one thing your body will crave most: protein. Packing a punch of up to 12 grams of protein per strip, they'll transform a plate of papas fritas and veggies from a semi-filling snack to a proper meal. Shrink-wrapped, they'll also last in your backpack for weeks, even months (really).
You'll also want to purchase protein and meal bars that travel well. This means avoiding chocolate coatings and, unfortunately, any raw bars; they inevitably turn into a melted, soupy mess at the bottom of your bag. Cliff Bars are excellent, as they last long and aren't particularly large; nut and granola bars are also good options. You'll want to pass on trail mix; nuts are readily available, and bags of trail mix invariably puncture and burst, leaving a sprinkling of seeds inside your backpack.
Decide whether you want to purchase peanut butter. An investment in space and weight, this bulky commodity is nearly impossible to find in South America-and both staggeringly expensive and full of partially hydrogenated oils when you can track a jar down. If you're vegan or have nut butters as a staple of your diet, it may be worth lugging a jar around. Scoops peanut butter on fresh banana makes for a pretty awesome breakfast.
Where to stay to make things easy
There's no real trick here: stay places with kitchens. You'll end up cooking a lot of your own meals throughout your journey, which is both fun and saves money. Most youth hostels and backpacker-friendly hotels have guest kitchens; quality varies, so make sure the kitchen is well-equipped and clean. Most mid-range hotels do not have guest kitchen access, so make to book such stays in locations with plenty of vegetarian restaurants.
Meat is central to Latin American culture, and most South Americans are baffled by the decision to decline what is viewed as a vital part of a healthy diet. Communicating your dietary restrictions will involve more than a couple key vocabulary words. You're likely to encounter all sorts of interpretations of vegetarianism, as well as strange looks and curious questions (do you live on vegetables?). Graciously not compromising your vegetarian values will mean being as explicit as possible. And saying please. With a smile.
Basic differences in meat-related culture in South America
You'll quickly learn that carne refers in most countries and regions only to red meat. Simply asking for something sin carne will more-often-than-not lead to chicken on your plate. Stating soy vegetariano(a) will be similarly unsatisfactory, as the varying understandings of vegetarianism can lead to anything a plate of fish to a dish with meat chunks more-or-less picked out. Vegan? The closest Spanish phrase is the wholly inadequate vegetariano stricto, so you'll have to rely of specificity and your willingness to claim dairy allergies, a little white lie that is surprisingly effective.
Eating at non-vegetarian restaurants
When ordering food in non-vegetarian restaurants, you'll want to talk with the wait staff a bit. This doesn't mean you need to become well versed in culinary Spanish or Portuguese. Learning a few key phrases and vocabulary will help significantly. You'll often find it easiest to state what you don't eat than what you do. Learn words for fish, poultry, red meat, dairy products, and eggs. If you note a look of mystification and panic on your server's face, try to smile, even make a joke if your vocabulary permits. Remember that they'll be going out of their way to help you.
Booking tours as a vegetarian
Despite traveling independently, there are many must-see attractions that require booking multi-day tours: the Inca trail and Angel Falls, for instance. Now is not the time to skimp and save; you'll want to look for quality over deals. There are many benefits of booking with a more professional tour company: the guides are well-trained, the porters and staff are better paid, and the companies tend to engage more environmentally friendly practices.
A bonus for vegetarians is that they are more skilled in accommodating travelers' dietary needs. A quality tour company will, for instance, pack pan integral (whole-wheat bread) for vegans instead of white bread, which often has milk added. A more budget tour company is likely to provide you with slightly larger portions of the starch and vegetable everyone else is eating, with no protein replacement. Or you might discover your vegetables cooked in butter. It's not fun to decline much-needed sustenance when you've been hiking through the jungle all day.
When booking your tour, you'll want to communicate your diet explicitly. Again, it'll be easier, especially for vegans, to list what you don't eat. A professional company will be prepared and gracious. Expect monotony (lentils and rice for 4 days...), but also know that they are doing they're best to accommodate you.
Finding vegetarian restaurants
One of the cool things about traveling vegetarian is that you see a whole other side of a destination that other folks don't. You have to hunt for your food, which adds a certain element of adventure. The restaurants you end up in will often be in odd parts of town, away from the main tourist drag. You'll discover many vegetarian restaurants in South America are run by religious groups, often Hare Krishnas (it seems as though every hamlet in Peru has a Govinda restaurant). This means you'll get taste of an entirely different sub-culture.
Many vegetarian restaurants feature economical plates of the day, that include a starter and dessert. Many such restaurants also house mini-markets that sell a few hard-to-find essential items like dehydrated soya meat and soy milk. A good budget-friendly tactic: fill up your camel hump at noontime with a plato del dia, purchase some protein items for dinner, stop by the local produce market, and cook a mean stir-fry in the hostel kitchen.
Not just restaurants explicitly claiming vegetarian have veggie-friendly meals. While not strictly vegetarian, naturale restaurants focus on natural, healthy ingredients, and thus feature several vegetarian options. In Brazil, por quilo restaurants, where you pay for food by weight, usually have killer vegetable options. Additionally, look for restaurants featuring cuisines that traditionally have veggie-friendly items; this includes Middle Eastern or Chinese.
Lastly, the big tourist restaurants almost always offer at least one vegetarian option. Use these only in desperate scenarios; meals are usually overpriced, not particularly tasty, and served to you by someone wearing a vest. Also, avoid soups, stews, and other dishes where animal and dairy products can discreetly lurk.
Aside from vegetarian restaurants, you're apt to find veggie-friendly foods for purchase at a variety of places. Larger cities like Buenos Aires have entire vegetarian markets. Here's where you stock up on protein sources. One of the best things about South America is the produce-healthy fruits and vegetables abound in colorful markets. Pick up a couple key spices, and you've got ingredients for curries, stir-fries, stews and more. Be sure to read up on the health and safety food tips of your destination, as the fruits and vegetables in many regions are only safe for consumption if cooked or peeled. (Goodbye, salads.) Stock up on high-protein snacks like nuts at any available opportunity.
Food is a great way to experience another culture, and there's no reason to feel confined to vegetarian restaurants and hotel kitchens. While your choices will be limited, you don't need to grow sullen and sallow while other travelers sink their teeth into the regional dead-animal delight. Vegetarian empanadas, savory pastries, can be found throughout South America; quinoa is ubiquitous along the western side of the continent, while corn and potatoes have a strong presence throughout. If you're language skills warrant, make sure to check for lard in fried foods and chicken stock in stews.
Here's a quick break-down of delicious, veggie-friendly foods found in popular destinations:
Despite being renowned for its beef, the culinary diversity of Argentina affords vegetarians many options. Look for vegan empanadas de humita (corn) and croquetas de arroz con calabaza (croquets with rice and pumpkin). The country's Italian influence means lots of polenta, pasta, pizza and farinata.
Potatoes and yuccas are your new best friends in Bolivia. Look out for papa a la huancaina (potatoes and eggs in a spicy cheese sauce), chocolo con queso (corn with melted cheese), and veggie saltenas (savory, empanada-like pastries). Helado de canela, cinnamon sorbet, is an entirely vegan traditional dessert.
Portuguese rice and black beans, feijão com arroz, are a totally vegan staple of the Brazilian diet. The variation tutu com feijão, mashed beans with manioc flour, is also vegan-friendly. For the vegetarians, pão de queijo (savory cheese buns) and palmito pasteries are delectable.
You know the Nuts 4 Nuts stands on Manhattan street corners? The sinfully sugary nut treats were actually invented by a Chilean, who brought the business back home. You'll find stands through big cities like Santiago, as well as their knockoff Nuts 5 Nuts. Empanadas de queso (cheesy empanadas) can be found in McDonald's. Porotos con rienda (boiled beans and spaghetti) and porotos granados (pumpkin and bean stew) are other good dishes to try.
Traditional Colombian treats, arepas are fried cheese and corn patties. Along the Caribbean coast, look out for raspado vendors; the vegan syrup-drenched shaved ice treats are awesome on a sweltering afternoon.
Patacones (fried plantains) are vegan, while lapingachos consist of mashed fried plantains, potatoes and cheese; skip the sausage usually served on the side, but definitely get the avocado.
If you're not already in love with quinoa, get ready. This wonder-grain, native to the Peruvian/Bolivian region, is super nutritious, high in protein and just about everywhere. Prepare it like rice in your hostel kitchen, but be sure to specify you don't want meat added when ordering it in a restaurant. Vegetarians can also find quail's eggs on most street corners. Mazamorra morada, a jelly-like dessert made from purple maize, is vegan.
Here you'll find pascualinas, savory pies with spinach or chard, eggs and cheese. Cheese ravioli can be found in most restaurants. Vegans will love garrapinada, peanuts tossed cocoa, vanilla and sugar, sold in bags on downtown streets.
Arepas are also popular in Venezuela, as are the similar cachapas, corn pancakes topped with cheeses. Also be on the look out for tenquenos, fried breadsticks filled with white cheese.
That garden burger in the freezer seeming pretty unappealing right now? That means you're ready for some vegetarian adventuring through the Americas.
About the author: Lauren Quinn is a freelance writer from Oakland, California. This means she spends a lot of time asking people if they want salt on their margaritas. She has traveled independently (and once illegally) to almost 20 countries, and is busily plotting her next adventure.
Photo credits: Veggie ingredients by Denni Schnapp on Flickr, Primal strips by dremiel on Flickr, Veggie meal by aka lusi on Flickr, Veggie pizza by kalavinka on Flickr, Veggie market by Andy Hares on Flickr.