Vegetarian eating in Latin America is not easy. Latinos across Central and South America love their meat. But finding cheap eats to fill you up and satisfy a vegetarian diet is possible if you know where to look.
When I first decided I wanted to write about vegetarian Latin American food treats on a budget, I thought this would be an easy post. I couldn’t wait to remember all the delicious bites I’d picked up on the road to fill my belly. But my rose-tinted travel memory forgot that it’s actually quite a challenge to eat vegetarian in Central and South America. Especially if travelling on a budget.
In most Latin cultures, if it walks, breathes or even twitches a little bit, it is likely to get eaten by somebody. Iguanas, guinea pigs, alpacas, grasshoppers and even a strange May fly bug is not safe. Every part of a creature will be consumed – chicken legs, sticking out the top of pots in Honduras, cow hearts being fried on the bbq in Peru and pigs head stew are all dishes I’ve seen (and cannot un see) being cooked up during my year in Latin America.
As a fairly long term vegetarian, I was fascinated by this total love of meat. I know very little about meat eating, and loved learning about the different types of food, and seeing the excitement in the eyes of the locals as a plate arrived. Latinos love to talk about food, think about food and most importantly to eat it!
But it didn’t make it too easy for me in my quest to eat, but without meat!
It’s a little disappointing not to be able to try as many things from the local markets, street food vendors and cocinas. But a vegetarian traveller doesn’t have to spend all their time cooking in the hostel. It’s possible to pick up some vegetarian cheap eats and have fun seeking them out while you do.
Here are my top 10 vegetarian Latin American cheap eats worth seeking out when you go. Often these are found in more than one country and, as there are some disputes over where certain foods originated, I have simply included the country I tried them in!
1. Pupusas, El Salvador
These are my absolute favourite Central American snack and I wish we had them in the UK. They are a tortilla, stuffed with a filling of your choice and heated. Queso (cheese) is the most popular vegetarian option, but con queso y jalapeno is the best (cheese and chilli). Another choice is whether to have pupusa ‘de arroz’ (rice) or pupusa ‘de maiz’ (corn), which refers to the type of flour in the tortilla. In Santa Tecla, I found pupusa ‘de papas’ (potatoes) and pupusa ‘de platano’ (banana) – these were incredible.
Pupusas are served with a type of chilli coleslaw called ‘curtido’, which you will find on the table. Make sure the cafe looks clean and reliable before you dive in for the slaw though as this is left out all day. It’s not worth risking a trying a bad one!
2. Gallo Pinto, Costa Rica
Gallo Pinto is a traditional dish found all over Costa Rica. It’s consists of rice and beans so it’s perfect for veggies. I enjoy trying a local dish and not having to pick a tourist option because it’s the only one without meat. Sometimes this vegetarian latin american treat is served with eggs, tortillas or if you’re very lucky some fried platano also.
3. Balleadas, Honduras
Balleadas are a great vegetarian option when in Honduras. They can be found being served at the side of the road as well as in cafes. A traditional food here, balleadas consist of a flour tortilla and are most often served with refried beans and sour cream*. In bigger cafes there are options like scrambled eggs, avocado or cheese to add too. I ate a lot of these!
* Note, sometimes this is called ‘crema’ in the menu and sometimes it is ‘mantequilla’. Mantequilla is the word for butter usually, but for some reason in this context it means a type of lightly soured cream.
4. Vegetarian Tamales, Guatemala
Tamales are a stuffed savoury corn dough wrapped in leaves (often banana leaves) before being cooked. They are often sold as street food or on the side of the road and are a delicious vegetarian option. Tamales can be stuffed with lots of different things – tomato, pepper, chilli, fruits and nuts – there are lots of different options available and it depends on what the seller has made for that day.
Tamales are delicious but can be tricky for a vegetarian as you don’t know what’s inside until you open the leaf and find out. Often they are served with chicken or pork, so speaking a little Spanish is essential to make sure. It is definitely worth the effort!
5. Cinnamon Rolls, Belize
This may be a bit of a cheat, but they are incredible so I can’t help mentioning them to get your mouth watering if you are heading to Belize. In Caye Calker, cinnamon rolls will be served for breakfast with eggs. I highly recommend Glenda’s for breakfast if you’re going there.
6. Empanadas, Ecuador and Chile
I lived on these in Quito, Ecuador and found myself seeking them out again when I visited Santiago, Chile. They are a classic pastry with tasty filling and happily there will often be a veggie version. Perfect for a picnic.
7. Yucca Bread, Ecuador
Yucca bread comes in many forms in Ecuador. Check out any bakery to be baffled by which one to pick. It’s main ingredient is unsurprisingly yucca, with some salt. A great stomach filler.
8. Patacones, Colombia
These are fried green plantain and are a delicious alternative to papas fritas! They are served in lots of places, but in Colombia they are particularly delicious and often served with garlic. Colombia has a lot of brilliant deep-fried street food for vegetarians to try – don’t expect to lose weight on a a trip to South America!
9. Arepas, Colombia
These tasty treats can be found on many a street stall in Colombia. Like most of the stuffed dough options Latin America has to offer, there’s often a vegetarian option. They may be filled with vegetables, cheese, eggs or plantain – or maybe a combination of all these things.
10. Sopaipilla, Chile
There are different types of Sopaipillas, but in Santiago, Chile I tried one that included pumpkin in the dough. They are a deep fried pastry, that’s almost sweet with a savoury topping. The one I had came with a tomato and herb sauce and the option to add a chilli kick – which of course I did.
What is your favourite vegetarian Latin American food? Is there anything tasty you can recommend? (Let me know in the comments below).
This post is part of the Wanderful Wednesday blog hop!