When I first decided to start traveling South America I thought about all the incredible landscapes I’d see, the vibrant cities I’d visit, and the rich history I would encounter. I was all excited and giddy and an idiot.
I did not give food a second thought; I expected it to be easy.
It was a challenge – And as a plant-based traveler, I should have known better.
Eating a restrictive diet, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian or just allergic to peanuts, means you need to do your homework before you travel – even if it’s just a weekend away to your parents!
(Thanks mom, tuna salad still doesn’t count as a salad)
To be honest, I didn’t think finding veggie options in Latin America would be so hard at times that it made me almost regret everything, but alas, it was.
So let me spare you the trouble and tell you eight things I wish I knew before I visited South America on a plant-based diet.
#1 You will need a lot of patience (and maybe carry a snack with you)
Now, I know hardcore vegans are already carrying their own potatoes to the opera, but I’m not one of them. I like to see things in a city or town and eat somewhere geographically convenient.
If you’re like me, arm yourself with patience and think about what you’re ok being flexible with: either you go across town for that one Veg-friendly place listed on Happy Cow, or you’ll have to settle for side dishes in a nearby restaurant or food truck.
In case your apps fail you, you don’t have GPS, your Spanish (or Portuguese) sucks, or you just can’t afford to keep looking for a place, take a deep breath and opt for some basic side dishes. To avoid making a dumb hangry decision, carry a pack of mixed nuts on you.
#2 Happy Cow LIES
Happy Cow is to plant-based travelers, what they say diamonds are to girls – except when it’s not.
Your friendly veg-food app is not usually up to date on all things plant-based south of the Equator. I sadly turned up more than once to a location listed as “open,” only to find it did not exist anymore. Not cool Happy Cow, not cool.
Note: Happy Cow is user supported, so if the community is not active, the app is a no-go.
#3 You will eat A LOT of Potatoes
If you’re into free walking tours, meeting other humans who are not on the same diet as you are, and experiencing all a city/town has to offer – potatoes are your new BFF! (Except in the Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo, where I paid for two potatoes the same my friend paid for 300 grams of meat).
Most bars and venues will have some version of “papas bravas” option (and sometimes holy guacamole), in addition to good ole fries; and while you’ll eventually be tired, they are your safest plant-based option.
If you don’t eat eggs or dairy – those papas bravas have mayo on them. Beware and ask for them without dressing, yes that means just potatoes.
#4 Understand and Accept That You Won’t Eat as Cheap as a Meat Eater
That insane $3 lunch menu in Quito? Yeah, that has meat in it – even the bean soup. You’ll likely be able to find vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based options in every major capital in South America, but they’ll usually be more expensive, as they are located either at high-end or touristy areas.
If you’re on a backpacker budget, those charges add up. Fast.
Spare yourself the heartache and accept that you’ll have to spend a bit more to get your nutrients in. If you’re mentally prepared for it, you’ll feel less hopeless despair.
#5 It’s better to say you’re allergic if you’re very strict with your diet
This is both hilarious and sad. When I was visiting Panama, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina, I had better results saying I was allergic to dairy than that I did when I said I eat a plant-based diet.
Why? When I didn’t say “allergy”, the server or chef/cook would often forget, and I would bite into my veggie sandwich with glee, only to find it had some cheese in it. Vegans – beware!
This also helped with the well-meaning servers, and occasional chef, who insisted I’d have some seafood instead. People don’t necessarily understand why you choose to go veggie, but if you threaten to No 2 uncontrollably or faint in their establishment, they’ll let you be – dairy and fish free!
#6 The Best Country to Visit on a Plant-Based Diet is Peru!
It’s not all bad! Yes, you’ll eat lots of potatoes, but there’s hope still. Introducing the country you never knew you could love so much: Peru!
With their many quinoa and veggie-based dishes, delicious dairy-free chicha morada, and countless amazing veg-friendly traditional dishes, you’ll have fulfilling, mouthwatering and well-balanced dishes – even in the mountains!
A big plus: if you explain you don’t eat meat, more often than not the lovely Peruvians will offer to make something from scratch (and off-menu) for you. Follow @theveganglobetrotter for all your Peru-related vegan tips. She is a local (now living in France) who is always dropping the skinny on where to eat and what to ask for!
#7 Cooking At Least One Meal a Day is Your Best Way to Stay Healthy
South America is wonderful, mixed, and varied – but we like our fried foods, sugar, and salt as much as the next person. You’ll often find that the vegetarian or vegan options are some beans (which may or may not have been cooked with a pork leg in it), fried plantains/potatoes, a simple garden salad, or pasta.
These are all great foods, but if you eat a lot of them very often, you may not get the same nutritiously balanced diet you have at home. Try to cook one of your meals a day and make sure you put in all the nutrients those potatoes are not giving you!
#8 Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay will give you a run for your money – and sanity!
Argentina and Uruguay are well-known meat exporters, and, while Buenos Aires has a pretty nice and growing plant-based community, the most common food offering is “Asado” – their version of BBQ.
The vegetarian and vegan food scene is budding in Argentina, scarce in Chile, and pretty much non-existent in Uruguay. Now, remember: the capitals always have a little more to offer, but the further you go into the country, the fewer your options will be. Be chill and roll with it!
#9 Facebook is your new best friend
Everyone is on Instagram these days, but the plant-based communities in South America are well organized, and they almost always have active Facebook groups or pages. Here’s a list you may find useful (Spanish speaking groups, but you can always post a question to the admins):
- Vegans and Vegetarians in Bogota
- Veg Panama
- Vegans and Vegetarians in Quito
- VegVeg in Bolivia (not as complete as the others, but always good to ask a question!)
- Vegans and Vegetarians in Rio de Janeiro
- Vegans and Vegetarians in Chile
- Veganius in Buenos Aires (this is not a group, but a store with great food and the kindest owner)
- Vegans and Almost Vegans Uruguay
- Caramelos de Lima Website. A full vegan and vegetarian guide to Montevideo, Uruguay.
Visiting South America you expect a lot of delicious natural fruits, organic meals, plus ALL THE VEGGIES, and while that is mostly true (omg the juicessss), it is also true that you will often find yourself wishing for something other than black beans, rice, and salad.
It’s OK! Change takes time, and the plant-based scene is just starting in South America. Give it time, eat some cashew nuts and enjoy the sights.
Disclaimer: I’m a flexitarian that prefers to eat a plant-based diet, which I do 99% of the time. I have eaten animal products, such as eggs or fish, at remote locations in South America where kind natives shared their food with me.