Surviving a Vegetarian Year in South America

On the search for our first meal in Bolivia we walked into a restaurant recommended by a local and asked if they had any vegetarian food. The guy’s response was,‘solamente tenemos comida para comer’ roughly meaning ‘we only have food for eating’… good start. Unfortunately this meant that we ended up in the pretty pricey tourist place across the road and we parted with far more Bolivianos than intended, but hey, I got my omelette (if you don’t like omelette, learn to). My main tip for being veggie on the road is: swallow your pride. You’ll miss out on the ‘authentic’ restaurants and most of the ‘delicacies’ on offer (whole roasted guinea-pig complete with eyes anyone?!), and you will most certainly end up in fast food joints. Unfortunately South America is never going to be a gourmet experience for the average vegetarian.

Just so you know, this is not a health food blog, just me sharing my experiences and my acquired wisdom about how to survive and eat yummy things. Apologies in advance for any weight gain, there is quite a lot of cheese involved…

Brazil

I spent 9 months living in small town Brazil, a little place called Bonito in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul that is home to far more cows than people. Luckily, one of the owners of the tourist attraction I was working at was veggie, so they had some idea of what to feed me. Even more luckily, a Colombian chef showed up for a few months and taught the cooks how to make a kind of ‘vegetarian meat’ that they could make into burgers or throw into sauces in little pieces, so I was getting the protein I needed. The woman that cooked for us in the evening gradually figured out how to cook with soya meat but I still ate omlettes about 5/7 nights a week.

Brazil is the land of rice (arroz) and beans (feijรฃo) with absolutely everything. A meal isn’t considered to be complete unless these two elements are present, probably accompanied by another form of carbohydrate, be it spaghetti or fries. I was once presented with a plate of spaghetti, fries and rice with beans on the side. Any low-carb diets will need to be put on hold during your time there. Max out on the beans for as long as you can bear to (they aren’t bad but you quickly get sick of them) as they’re a much needed source of protein.

Luckily, some of Brazil’s best street food is veggie friendly. I can highly recommend Pasteis (Pastel in the singular), which are envelopes of pastry filled with a variety of toppings (palmito or palm heart was a personal favourite) and usually a lot of cheese. They are cracking hangover food. So much delicious sinfulness.

Tapioca

There’s also Tapioca, which is Manioc powder that fuses into a pancake shape and can be filled with either sweet or savoury toppings. Again, it is usually filled with a large amount of cheese. Can you tell I like cheese? This can be found on most street corners and on beaches. In Itacare in Bahia we got at-parasol Tapioca service, as if that place wasn’t heavenly enough. There’s also a great veggie restaurant in Itacare, any hostel should point you in the right direction!

In Bahia, the famous dish is Moqueca, a type of stew normally with veggies and either fish or meat and lots of African inspired spices. Fear not! You can easily find a restaurant that will leave everything out but the vegetables and the delicious flavourings. The restaurant upstairs in the Mercado de Modelo in Salvador is happy to oblige.

Moqueca

Lastly, you’ve got Acai. Acai berries are all the rage in health circles apparently, being an antioxidant superfood etc etc, but in Brazil they are made into a delicious sorbet style frozen dreaminess and topped with muesli and banana, strawberries or honey should your little heart desire. The taste is a bit strange to begin with but if you keep going you’ll become an addict. Perfect beach food.

Acai

Top tip: have a look at some Portuguese food vocab or you’ll have a nightmare of a time with the menus. Meat = carne but is interpreted as just beef and pork so you have to stipulate you don’t want frango (chicken) or presunto (ham) either…

This applies in Spanish-speaking countries as well. If you don’t speak Spanish, make sure you learn key food words before you go if you’re a veggie to save yourself biting into anything you’ll regret. In Bolivia we asked if a kind of rice ball had meat in it and were assured it didn’t. On biting in to it and pointing out the obvious meat, she said ‘Well, it’s only a little bit’. *Bangs head against wall*.

Bolivia

Bolivia is generally a case of biting the bullet and eating at the touristy restaurants, as a lot of guest houses don’t have kitchens and supermarkets are pretty much non-existent. Potosi and La Paz are crammed full of backpackers and, surprisingly, the majority of restaurants advertise that they have vegetarian options, catering to the huge number of vegetarian travelers that are out there nowadays.

The Magic Apple in Potosi is a dedicated veggie place that’s dirt cheap and absolutely yummy and gives you that hit of nutrition your body is craving. In La Paz we got lucky with the Hotel Torino, right by the Plaza de Armas (really cheap private rooms!) which had a super cheap lunch in the courtyard with a seperate vegetarian one in the next room, so my travel buddy was able to get a meat hit whilst I stocked up on my veggies.

All of the Uyuni Salt Flats tours will cater to vegetarians but if you take one of the cheaper ones by the last day the pickings will be pretty slim so make sure you’ve stocked up on snacks to take with you.

In Sucre, try and find a hostel with a decent kitchen as the central market is an embarrassment of riches. We stayed at VP Hostel just up from the market where the kitchen was on the roof with a terrace and stunning city views and we cooked everyday, saving money as well as getting something approaching our 5-a-day.

Sucre Market

I’ve mentioned this before, but the burger kiosk by the jetty in the north of the Isla del Sol do a to-die-for avocado, cheese and tomato sandwich. Even if the Isla del Sol wasn’t one of my favourite spots in Bolivia, I think I’d go back just for that sandwich.

And the rest…

We did a whistle stop tour through Peru, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay before going full circle and heading back to Brazil. Peru is very similar to Bolivia in the absence of supermarkets but vegetarian options in most restaurants in Cusco and Aguas Calientes (Macchu Picchu). Chile isn’t very veggie friendly but supermarkets are something they do have, and you can find soya burgers etc and buy plenty of nuts and things to keep your energy levels up. The prices in Chile make the presence of a supermarket very welcome indeed. Most people in Argentina looked at me like I was from mars when I said the word ‘vegetarian’ so we again did a fair amount of cooking and eating cheese empanadas, like Brazilian Pasteis but not deep fried… which makes them healthy, right?!

I’m planning my next adventures, so if anyone has any practical veggie travel survival tips to share, please comment!

Go for the rainbow!

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