Many vegetarians are hesitant to travel to South America for fear that the entire subcontinent is populated with the famous parrillas of Buenos Aires or the pig roasts of Ecuador. The fear is that there are no vegetarian-friendly cities in South America.
But the truth is that there is a wide variety of cuisine in South America and the basis of most meals is rice and beans. You may have to explain to a waiter that sin carne (no meat) also means no chicken or fish but even the smallest of restaurants is often happy to accommodate people with special requests.
The term vegetarian may be confusing for some restaurants who happily offer up chicken as an option. However, meatless restaurants are becoming more popular as the vegetarian population grows, creating new hubs for vegetarian-friendly cities in South America. When in doubt ask if there is a Hare Krishna population in the city because it means there will be an accompanying vegetarian restaurant.
Many consider Cali to be the home of the world’s best salsa dancers but it is home to great fresh produce. The popular San Antonio neighborhood is home to a unique vegetarian restaurant that is popular with meat-eating locals in Colombia.
Mononoke is a Japanese-inspired vegetarian restaurant open Wednesday to Friday from noon to three pm for a set lunch for under $5. If you are looking for an injection of green vitamins this is a great place to get it.
While Ecuador is certainly the home to delicious roasted pig and the world-famous cuy, its most beautiful city is also the site of three fantastic vegetarian restaurants: El Paraiso, Govindas and Café Austria.
And while Govindas and Café Austria provide delicious options, El Paraiso is the favorite amongst locals. Located on the corner of Simon Bolivar and Manuel Vega this restaurant is known for its gigantic fruit salads and is packed at peak hours. Lunch with fresh juice will only set you back a few dollars.
Many expats retire in Cuenca, Ecuador and it is slowly becoming one of the best vegetarian-friendly cities in South America.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
It may be surprising to hear that the city with world-famous parrillas is also home to some great vegetarian food. While much of the city of Buenos Aires craves steak and other meat, there is a steady vegetarian population. Most options are located in the Palermo neighborhoods: Palermo Hollywood, Palermo and Palermo Chico, neighborhoods very popular with the tourist and expat communities.
In Palermo Hollywood, Bio features an organic menu. In Palermo, Spring restaurant includes a very popular vegetarian buffet and often has a long line of patrons. Palermo Chico is the home to Natural Deli, which is not entirely vegetarian but with many vegetarian options including what many think are the best salad options in the city. As all of these restaurants are in the chic areas of the city be prepared to pay US prices for meals. If Argentinian street food is easier on your budget make sure you look for empanadas that are vegetarian or with spinach.
For vegetarians who eat fish, Lima, Peru is very easy for pescetarians/vegetarians who eat fish. Arguably the home of the best ceviche in the world, Peruvians have a number of wonderful fish and seafood dishes that rival some of the best cuisines in the world.
For those that do not eat fish, there are a number of vegetable-based dishes, including roasted stuffed peppers or try some Peruvian street food. One of the most popular vegetarian restaurants in Lima is El Alma Zen in Miraflores, which consistently scores well despite being a bit pricey by Peruvian standards.
For something less formal, La Gran Fruta in San Isidrois extremely popular for fresh juices, but there is also a simple menu of fruit salads and simple sandwiches. And for those on a budget, the market is always a great place to find freshly squeezed fruit juice and simple restaurants that are willing to cater to vegetarian standards.