All across Latin America, meat reigns supreme. As a vegetarian travelling in the region, you will find your options pretty limited, depending on where you’re travelling. However, there are ways to avoid meat slipping onto your plate.
The first trick is to be mindful of the fact that Latin America culture does not embrace vegetarianism – far from it. In many cases people struggle to comprehend the concept at all. This means that you need to be specific about what you do not eat.
Spanish words and phrases for vegetarians
Carne (car-neh) – red meat
Pollo (po-yo) – chicken
Pescado (pes-cuh-doh) – fish
If you tell a waitron that you don’t eat meat (carne), it’ll most likely be interpreted as red meat. Don’t be surprised if a “vegetarian” salad then arrives loaded with chicken.
Another place where the communication could go awry is where soups and stock is involved. If you ask for a meat-free option, it is not unfathomable that you will be served a delicious quinoa soup that tastes quite meaty. It’ll be the stock, because that is not red meat either.
Here are some more Spanish words and phrases you may find useful if you're a vegetarian visiting Latin America:
Soy vegetariano/a / vegano/a – I am vegetarian / vegan (change the o to an a for female speakers)
No como carne, ni pescado (ni jamón, ni pollo...) – I don't eat meat or fish (or ham, or chicken)
¿Tiene comida vegetariana? – Do you have vegetarian food?
So what are the safe options for vegetarians visiting Latin America?
In Chile and Argentina, the options will be wider. Both countries are culturally more western than some other parts of the continent, so vegetarianism is slightly better understood. In Argentina in particular there is a strong Italian influence so vegetarian pasta and pizza dishes are abundant.
In general, cities will be easier to navigate with specific dietary requirements, and Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Lima all have a number of decent vegetarian restaurants. In the rest of the region, as long as you’re specific about your needs, many restaurants will be happy to accommodate you.
For pescatarians, Peru is a breeze as the iconic dish, ceviche, is found just about everywhere.
For totally meat-free options, here are some things to try
Corn, onion & cheese wrapped in a corn leaf and boiled. This snack is found in many parts of Latin America, from Argentina to Ecuador.
Empanadas (salteñas in Bolivia)
A little like a pasty, if you opt for a plain cheese one, you’ll be safe. You’ll find ‘em in Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, and Chile.
Papa a la huancaina
Potatoes served with boiled egg and cheese sauce. Order this dish in Peru or Bolivia.
Pumpkin and bean stew. This one’s a delicious staple of Chilean cuisine.
Rice & beans
You’ll find variations of this dish in Central American countries, as well as Brazil, where it is served in just about every restaurant.
Peppers stuffed with boiled egg and cheese. These can be quite spicy and are served all over Peru. Be warned though that they are sometimes served with meat, so make sure you specify you’re after the veggie version.
This is a Colombian street food, made from corn flour. Not officially a vegetarian snack, but as you choose your arepa toppings, it’s easy to go for an option that suits you.
"I travelled across much of South America (including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil) as a pescatarian and whilst it wasn't as easy as it would be in Europe, it is definitely feasible and I still got to try lots of delicious dishes and snacks. You soon start to learn the Spanish words you'll need like 'carne' (meat) and 'queso' (cheese), and luckily much of the continent is packed with exotic fruits and vegetables so there's plenty of variety. Many places will be flexible too, so you can ask to have all the sides (avocado, rice, beans, potatoes, egg, arepas, salad, vegetables etc) without the meat. As vegetarianism becomes increasingly popular across the world, the restaurants are more likely to get used to visitors asking for meat-free options." - Hannah, Llama Travel
Don’t let your vegetarianism put you off travelling in Latin America. Browse our holidays to Latin America here.