Traveling Vegetarian: How to Stay Satiated (and Sane)

I admit it. When I was young and impressionable, seeking the easiest route, I gave up vegetarianism to see the world. It was a very naïve, pitiful decision. The very first country I traveled to was Mexico. Aside from that one weekend of debauchery in Tijuana while at UCLA, this experience took place in Zihuatanejo and Monterrey, Mexico. Overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of beans (undoubtedly cooked with lard), rice, and unpasteurized dairy product (read: CHEESE), not to mention unpleasantly frequent trips to the bathroom, I opted for the easiest alternative.

Zihuatanejo, Mexico- Where I first sold out...

Zihuatanejo, Mexico- Where I first sold out…

The next time I went to Latin America, which was my move to Argentina, I made the abominable decision that I would eat poultry and fish. Granted, it could have been much more extreme, since Argentina is world-renowned for its beef, but still, this just wasn’t right for me, and I knew it. Although this immeasurably opened up my menu options in such a carnivorous land, something was off. Not only did I feel less healthy, I was perpetually faced with the fact that I was going against my own principles.

Why am I vegetarian? The question is posed quite often. There are many, many responses. However, the basics are as follows: If it had a mother and two eyeballs, I shouldn’t eat it. If I could not kill it myself, I also shouldn’t eat it. Animal rights play a huge part of my life and belief systems. Are chickens treated better in Latin America than the U.S.? Well, that’s quite a tricky debate that I won’t go into right now. Let’s just suffice it to say that most animals eaten for consumption around the world are mistreated in such horrible ways that the most stoic of men will run seeking solace from their mommies.

Guinea pigs being raised for consumption in Urubamba, Peru

Guinea pigs being raised for consumption in Urubamba, Peru

It wasn’t until I met a Paulista friend in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who had been vegetarian for years, that my eyes were forced open to my own hypocrisy. I had already traveled for months, even years, in countless Latin American countries, eating poultry because I felt I had no other choice- but I did. As my new friend and I toured Sao Paulo and Rio Janeiro together, sharing many meals, I became utterly ashamed. This whole time, I was simply making excuses for myself. Perhaps I had listened to others (albeit non-vegetarians) too much. Maybe it was that I hadn’t tried hard enough. No, the truth was that I really hadn’t tried at all. This is a grave confession to acknowledge.

If you are a vegetarian traveling the world, or a traveler wanting to become a vegetarian, below is my humble opinion on how to stay sane and satiated while on the road. It may not be the most convenient or facile way to travel, but- at least for me- it allows me to stay true to my principles while exploring this vast, enigmatic world. So, here goes:

1. Do your research.

Some destinations are undoubtedly more carnivorous than others. If you are looking to visit, say, Peru and Taiwan, the difficulty of traveling to, and especially living in, the countries is vastly different. (The latter is quite possibly the most vegetarian-friendly place I’ve been to.) This doesn’t mean that you should skip any location because of the national diet. However, it’s good to know if you’ll end up banging your head against the wall in hungry frustration or sleeping happily with a stomach full of veggies and fruits. Ask around. Browse through WordPress blogs. Other helpful sites are Happy Cow, The Vegetarian Resource Group, Facebook groups, or my Vegan Travel Blogger Directory.

Nothing beats the food truck vegetarian options on SE Hawthorne in Portland, OR

Nothing beats the food truck vegetarian options on SE Hawthorne in Portland, OR

2. Be prepared.

Just because certain locations will have fruits and vegetables, it doesn’t mean that they will be in season or readily available. If you’re on a short trip, bringing your own protein bars, nuts, legumes, and multi-vitamins will greatly help.

3. Cook your own meals.

Try to get a hostel or hotel room with its own kitchen. Even though night markets and daily specials abound in most cities, having a means to cook your own food allows you to choose exactly what you consume and when. (This will also limit your spending.) For example, many countries in Asia will serve you mixed vegetables, but it’s not uncommon for the dish to be laced with oyster sauce.

4. Be flexible.

Unlike large, eclectic cities like San Francisco, New York, and Portland, many places in the world still haven’t gotten the hint that some people simply don’t enjoy eating animal carcasses for dinner. Sometimes we need to make sacrifices to explore this world while staying true to our beliefs. This could mean that carbs become your new best friends, and, in terms of weight, your worst enemies. On long bus rides, I usually carry bread, water, and peanuts with me. While overnight buses often stop at restaurants, most of them time the options are limited and meat-centric.

Mouth-watering, vegetarian pad thai in Phuket, Thailand

Mouth-watering, vegetarian pad thai in Phuket, Thailand

5. Indulge.

When you do get the chance, overload on vegetables and fruits. (Just make sure they are ripe and washed.) Not only will your body be in need of the essential vitamins only plant food can provide, this will also help keep you regular. As some of us know too well, constipation on the road is no fun.

In my past travels, I have found that the most veggie-friendly countries have been Taiwan, Brazil, Ecuador, the US, Canada, and (sometimes) Thailand. Of course, I have only been to 22 countries, so there are many places out there I know nothing about.

Which countries would you add to this list? What is your advice on maintaining a healthy, vegetarian diet while on the road? If you are vegetarian or vegan, what dietary challenges have you faced and overcome while traveling? I’d love to read your comments below!

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21 thoughts on “Traveling Vegetarian: How to Stay Satiated (and Sane)

    • Cristina Luisa says:

      You are absolutely right! It can be done if you have the mind to do so. Wow! I can’t imagine being vegan in SE Asia. I’m mostly vegan at home, but it gets more tricky when you travel. Did you cook your own meals frequently? I’m curious as to what your diet was like. I had an overload of noodle and rice dishes. (I was also on a budget.) I would LOVE to go to India- it’s high on my list! Thanks for the response.

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      • pinkybinks says:

        I did cook a little in Burma and India. Found vegan places in Bangkok and KL, and most places if i am honest. When it was not possible i ate crisps and nuts and fruit. Yey for India.You will love it!!! 🙂

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      • Cristina Luisa says:

        You’re right- big cities are always easier. Thank goodness for the Indian communities in Malaysia! Good for you for being so dedicated to your diet. I reaaaally would LOVE to go to India! How long were you there and what places did you see?

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  1. Jamie Ray says:

    This past year I travelled twice, once to Guatemala and to Oaxaca, Mexico. I did not ask about lard/cooking fat, but I was always able to get some combination of rice/beans/plantains/tortillas/cheese and a salad of tomatoes and avocado, and fruit salad. Many places would fry me up eggs for lunch or dinner. I had some great nopales tacos, and potatoes and rajas tacos.

    My best experience was in India (although it would be hard if you were vegan). I loved walking in someplace and being asked Veg or Non-Veg? Amazing variety of vegetarian food.

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    • Cristina Luisa says:

      Oooh, sounds delicious!!! After being in SE Asia for three months, I’m all about Mexican food right now. 🙂 Did you have mole in Oaxaca? I haven’t been to Mexico since 2007(ish), so I’m curious as to how the cuisine has changed, if at all. That’s awesome that you had no trouble as a vegetarian. I do think vegans would have it harder in Latin America.
      Where in India did you go? I’d loooooove to travel there! Maybe study in an ashram?

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  2. Alva B. Malone says:

    Vegetarian alternatives are commonly available at larger restaurants. The magic phrases, for vegetarians, are “sin pollo” (no chicken), “sin carne” (no meat), “sin huevo” (no eggs) and “sin queso” (no cheese). If you can communicate this and then gesticulate to the menu, the waiter normally will give you suggestions. In regular restaurants, they will even try to edit an existing dish for you. Just make sure you are clear. Chile Rellenos are a definite standard in any restaurant for the vegetarian.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cristina Luisa says:

      Thanks for sharing your advice, Alva. Being fluent in a language- or at least knowing the key words- is most definitely helpful! I’ve also found that many waiters are more than eager to help you find something you can eat by altering or creating specific dishes.

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  3. Rajam says:

    Great article- I was vegan for a time while traveling- including around Mexico and Venezuela and didn’t really find it difficult to follow that kind of diet. And considering I hardly had any money- in those countries purchasing fruits, vegetables and tortillas was easy. Maybe it was so easy because I never bought already cooked food- I was always purchasing fresh from stands by the road.

    Both in Mexico and Venezuela, I was able to cook beans and rice beside the road while I was traveling through those countries. Of course telling people there that you don’t eat meat is extremely shocking to them and they’ll pretend not to understand what you are saying. I remember once in Venezuela this fellow gave me a tamale with meat and denied there was meat in it. I waited until I’d walked away and then fed it to my dog. I didn’t want to insult him by denying the food or allowing him to see I fed
    it to my dog.

    I would think some countries it would be very difficult to be vegetarian, like in the Himalayan mountains, but not so much in places around the world where a variety of food grows or is imported.

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    • Cristina Luisa says:

      Hi Rajam,

      Thank you for reading my post and for your lovely response. I love that so many people have been able to travel and maintain a vegetarian, or vegan, diet in the same regions I thought it couldn’t be done.

      When I first started traveling, I was only 21, a bit sheltered, and didn’t know how to cook. So, confronted with a little bit of adversity (or Montezuma’s Revenge!), I opted out for the easiest alternative- eating poultry. Being immersed in Latin America, where it was almost unheard of for people to be vegetarian, I suppose it was a way for me to conform to the culture as well. And, like you said, you don’t want to offend anyone, especially when they’re being hospitable.

      I’m eager to go back to Latin America and see how things have or have not changed gastronomically. Maybe vegetarian food is more accessible nowadays. Or perhaps I’m more resourceful and willing to go out of my way to follow my regular diet.

      I do agree that some locations with sparse population or availability of food would be more difficult. I’ve heard that Mongolia is one of those places where food in general is hard to come by.

      How long were you vegan? Was it for health purposes, religion, animal advocacy? I’m always curious.

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      • Rajam says:

        Hi Christina,
        Thanks for your question. I became a vegetarian at 19, in truth, because my boyfriend was vegetarian and he influenced my decision. Initially for animal advocacy, but then later, I felt like it improved my health and the way I feel. In my early 20’s, while traveling, I was experimenting with food choices and tried the vegan diet for 2-3 years, during which one of those years I ate only raw foods. Which is why I know it’s possible to have those diet choices when poor because I hardly had any money during my travels!

        It was during the mid-1990’s that I was traveling those countries, so not sure if there are more vegetarian options in restaurants these days or not. But I’m sure there are still food stands all over the place where you can procure food, that’s not already cooked at a restaurant. Again, I had no money, so eating out was never an option for me and that probably made the choice so much easier.

        About 10 years ago, I did start eating fish and seafood. Today, it’s been 20 years and I still haven’t eaten any beef, pork, chicken or any kind of land animal. I’ve cut my seafood intake even further to almost nil due to the increasingly poor health of our oceans.

        Liked by 1 person

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