Central America as a Vegan
This spring I traveled to Costa Rica for a 10 week study abroad program. We spend the ten weeks traveling across the pacific coast of Costa Rica and Monteverde, while learning about native wildlife and sustainable agriculture. At the start of the program, I had only been vegan for almost two months, so I was still adjusting to my different diet.
We had all of our meals provided, but I still had to be aware of ingredients and supplement my meals with additional foods to make sure I was getting enough protein. After the program, I traveled through the arenal region of Costa Rica, then the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Costa Rica prides itself in having a high biodiversity, but still much of the rainforest is being cleared for animal agriculture and fruit exports.
Why eat vegan in Central America? Animal agriculture uses five times as much land much land than growing plants. In order to farm cattle for beef or dairy, rain forest must be cleared to provide cattle with land to graze. Forests are replaced with non-native grasses for grazing, which nearly completely diminishes native biodiversity. I visited a dairy farm in Costa Rica, which preserved small sections of forest so animals could pass through. Even animals that are not free range, still have to be fed corn or soy from large scale industrial farms making animal products less land efficient than plants.
Whether you are vegan or trying to reduce your animal product consumption, it can be difficult traveling in countries that rely on animal products for a main protein source. I thought it would be easy being vegan in Mexico I thought bean burritos were a traditional Mexican food, however I could not find a single vegan bean burrito during my week in Mexico. Luckily many Central American countries eat a lot of rice and beans in addition to animal products. Here are my tips for maintaining a vegan diet while traveling in Central America.
- Check your refried beans. Refried beans sold in stores and restaurants usually contains animals fat or beef flavor. Opt for dried or canned beans in grocery stores and whole beans at restaurants.
- Ask for rice and beans at restaurants. Many restaurants only have meat on the menu, but they may still serve rice and beans. In Costa Rica, the only vegan dish I could find at restaurants was called casados, which is white rice, black beans, salad or vegetables and plantains. However, there are usually very small portions of beans, so I have had to ask for two or three servings of beans just to get enough protein.
- Plan your meals ahead. I made the mistake of waiting until I was hungry to start searching for food in a not-so-touristy town in Mexico. I asked four restaurants if they had any vegan options but did not have any luck, so I had to eat oatmeal for dinner. If you plan on eating at a restaurant for dinner look at menus before dinnertime, if there are no vegan options you could always cook dinner.
- Pack snacks. I always carried a bag of nuts or peanut butter with me at all times. If I started to get hungry, I grabbed a handful of nuts to tide me over long enough to find a vegan meal. It is very rare to find a grocery store with bulk goods in Central America. Everything is in plastic, so packing a bag of nuts or trail mix from bulk at home helps reduce plastic waste. If you are in Monteverde, Costa Rica, there is bulk nuts at Marlene’s Trail Foods and bulk nut butter at Monteverde Whole Foods (not the same chain as in the US).
- Mexico has the best vegan tacos! The highly touristy cities in Mexico are hot-spots for vegan food. I ate five very different vegan tacos at five different restaurants in Tulum and Cancun, which were made with tofu, lentils, seitan, and vegetables. If you are in Cancun, I highly recommend eating at the Sirena Morena. They have mostly vegan food in a secluded garden setting. They have a little shop with health food and zero waste essentials like bamboo toothbrushes and straws.
- Accept that you are not perfect. Grocery stores and common foods in a different country may be completely different that what you are used to. The list of ingredients on food items will be in a different language and food servers might misunderstand you, so mistakes might be made. I spent the day on a boat while snorkeling in Costa Rica and all there was to eat was packaged refried beans that contained “beef flavor”. In one restaurant, I did not realize my meal came with a salad, which was already topped with a likely dairy dressing. I would rather not waste food and instead learn from these slip-ups.
Traveling in a different country as a vegan may be difficult. There were some times I got frustrated and I just wanted to be home with a plethora of unpackaged vegan food. Traveling allow you to meet new people and experience new cultural foods. If someone shows curiosity about your diet you can use that as an opportunity to explain your choices and even share your recipes and dishes.
1 Zollitsch, W., Winckler, C., Waiblinger, S., and Haslberger, A. 2007. Sustainable Food Production and Ethics. Wageningen Academic Publishers.