Meat, fried meat and more meat, including guinea pigs and llamas. That’s been our experience of the South American diet so far. We definitely haven’t been living the vegan dream while travelling through Colombia, Peru and Bolivia this year, so how exactly have we been coping? From renting apartments with kitchens to stuffing our faces with avocados and surviving travel days on Ritz crackers, here’s how we’re managing vegan South America travel.
Travelling as a vegan versus vegetarian
To fill you in on our vegan journey, I was vegetarian when we left the UK in 2013, so I’m used to avoiding meat products. I found travelling through Asia, the USA, Oceana and Europe as a vegetarian pretty straightforward. At the very least, it was always easy to get a plate of rice, egg and vegetables. While I found some Asian countries like the Philippines more challenging, places like Sri Lanka and Chiang Mai had incredible vegetarian options.
However, since transitioning from vegetarian to vegan last summer, food and travel has become a lot more complicated and requires much more planning. We spent last autumn road-tripping through Europe while we were still figuring out our vegan diet, and it was a fairly soft landing. We rented apartments and shopped at supermarkets filled with vegan products, including Tesco, Lidl and Carrefour.
We also searched Tripadvisor as we travelled through Europe and discovered some brilliant vegan restaurants, most of the big cities we visited had multiple options. In Amsterdam, for example, we ate vegan pancakes and in Porto, Da Terra quickly became our favourite for its all-you-can-eat buffets. In Prague, we took visiting family to Vegan’s Prague for delicious vegan versions of Czech food.
There were no problems having a vegan Christmas in the UK either because the vegan scene there is really picking up pace. UK supermarkets are now full of vegan products, Tesco has a whole new range and has actually employed a ‘head of plant-based innovation’. There’s even a country pub where my parents live in Hampshire which has a heavily vegan menu. Unfortunately, things haven’t been so great since we left in January to travel in South America.
How we’re managing vegan South America travel
From our experience, the standard diet in South America revolves around fried meat, rice and empanadas with beans and the occasional dose of plantain. Take Bandeja, a traditional Colombian dish which consists of a huge platter of pork, beef, chorizo and fried egg – somewhat like a British fry-up. The street markets here are full of hunks of meat and fish and on a recent trip to some ruins in Bolivia, we were taken to a restaurant that served llama and guinea pigs. Saying that, there are a few things vegans will love about South America:
Avocados – you can get huge, tasty avocados from markets, shops and street sellers at a cheap price. Our favourites were the super-sized Colombian avocados and we practically lived on them!
Quinoa – is common in South America as it grows well here, particularly in Bolivia.
Beans – we’ve found that all types of beans, as well as chickpeas and lentils, are readily available in the South American countries we’ve visited.
Although veganism and even vegetarianism isn’t well known in this region, we’ve also found that big cities in South America do have some vegan-friendly restaurants. For instance, we found an amazing raw vegan café in Lima and there were a few vegan restaurants in El Poblado, Medellin, including a pizza place.
Tips for travelling vegan in South America
So, how have we survived travelling vegan in South America? Here are some of the tactics we’ve used:
Renting apartments – we’ve mainly stayed in apartments with kitchens so that we can cook for ourselves. Given that we also need wifi and space to work as digital nomads, this seems to be the only accommodation option that really works for us when we travel these days. We normally use Airbnb to find apartments, if you haven’t used the site before, you can get £25 off your first stay by using our sign-up link.
Shopping at supermarkets – the shops here obviously don’t have the huge range of vegan products available in Europe, but we’ve been able to buy a variety of ingredients from local markets and supermarkets. A typical haul includes these cheap ingredients:
- Locally-grown vegetables, including avocados, potatoes, carrots, broccoli and greens.
- Seasonal fruit, such as berries, mangos, bananas, oranges and passion fruit.
- Beans, chickpeas and lentils.
- Pasta, rice and quinoa.
- Bread, although it costs more to buy bread without sugar.
- Soy milk, we’ve also seen nut milk.
We also buy more expensive products when we can find them such as:
- Peanut butter.
- Dark chocolate with no milk.
- Snack foods.
Stocking up on snacks – speaking of snacks, when we know that we’re going to be travelling all day or over the course of a few days, we stock up on snacks. There have been days when we’ve had to catch flights and buses and have lived off Ritz crackers, Oreos (they’re vegan!) and Lays crisps. Definitely not the healthiest diet but better than starving.
Using Tripadvisor – when we don’t have access to a kitchen because we’re staying in a hotel/hostel or are going to be out sightseeing all day, we always check Tripadvisor to find vegan-friendly restaurants. Happy Cow is also a useful resource, the site lists and rates vegan and vegetarian restaurants all over the world.
Make dietary requests – when we book tours, such as our recent trip into the Amazon rainforest, we check with the company beforehand to see if they can provide vegan meals for us. This worked out really well at Madidi Jungle Ecolodge and they cooked us some incredible vegan meals.
Travelling with supplements and UK products – we stocked up on some vitamin B12 supplements before we left the UK as this is pretty much the only thing you can’t get on a vegan diet. Non-vegans actually only get B12 because the animals they eat have been supplemented with it. We also brought some Marmite and nutritional yeast with us from the UK to spice up our meals, sadly our stocks are just about gone.
Flexibility – it’s hard to be a very strict vegan in South America. Unless you’re at a dedicated vegan restaurant, you never know (without interrogating the staff) what oil your food is cooked in, for instance. The definition of vegan also varies, as we found out in Colombia, where we came across vegan meals served with honey. It’s lucky that Andrew can read Spanish ingredient lists at the supermarket well, but it’s still possible to make mistakes when shopping. You need a bit of a flexible mind-set as a vegan in South America.
Other vegan travel dilemmas
Veganism isn’t all about diet and there are other things we have to consider when we travel. Freezing cold in La Paz? We can’t just pick up a cheap sweater off the market because they’re all made of llama wool. When booking our Amazon tour, we spent hours researching to find a company that wouldn’t take us piranha fishing or exploit animals by prodding or feeding them.
This week we’ve been researching treks in the Sacred Valley for our upcoming trip to Peru and all tours include the use of horses to transport gear, which is something we’ve always been opposed to. For instance, we trekked to Everest Base Camp independently last year to avoid using either porters, yaks or horses. This means that we’re now looking at visiting Machu Picchu independently using a combination of train journeys and short hikes.
Although we’ve always been conscious of avoiding animal exploitation when we travel, we’re more hyper-aware of these issues now that we’re vegan. As a result, we spend more time planning, researching and asking questions. However, given that we feel so passionately about the ethics of veganism, this small inconvenience is definitely worth it to us.
We’re super-excited to be visiting some great vegan cities later this year such as LA, Portland, Oregon and Glasgow in the UK, which will make up for the meagre vegan options in South America!
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Are you a vegan traveller or considering vegan South America travel? Do you have other dietary needs to negotiate while travelling? We’d be really interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.