*Note if you are vegan and do not like pictures or talk of animal meat (cooked), stop now.
I never intended to go vegan. Last year I simply wanted to experiment with my diet to see if I felt better eliminating certain items. I ended up finding out by cutting out certain food groups that I more or less ended up “vegan.” When I say vegan, I know a lot of vegans out there may get upset because really what I am following is more of a whole food plant-based diet. To learn the distinction between the two here is a great article.
I have been trying to adopt a more vegan lifestyle to leave a smaller carbon footprint, make healthier decisions regarding what I put into my body and would love to see animals exploited less in mass food production. Nonetheless, I am probably not the staunchest advocate of veganism you will find. I am probably more likely to advocate for people to eat plant-based for health reasons than anything else.
I only had a couple of months vegan at home before I set off on my journey to travel the world, so I had hesitations to say the least. I actually did quite well there, and for the first several months traveling, being pretty much exclusively vegan for about 6 months…so let’s talk about the ups and downs of travel and what derailed me a bit.
Mexico: Vegan Tacos
Just writing this has me drooling thinking about all of the yummy vegan food options in Mexico City (CDMX), tacos, of course, being my favorite. As someone who grew up with meat and was always a fan of tacos, finding substitutions was important to me.
Mexico City, particularly in the Condesa and Roma Norte neighborhoods, has a growing number of vegan restaurants or restaurants with vegetarian or vegan options. Just two of my favorites were Forever Vegano and Por Siempre Vegano in Roma Norte. At Forever Vegano I loved getting the Jackfruit tacos, chilaquiles for breakfast, or a number of other yummy items. Por Siempre Vegano was my go-to taco stand. Bustling in the evenings and on weekends, it is definitely a neighborhood favorite. Tacos al pastor is a crowd pleaser and one of my favorites as well.
My biggest struggle with Mexico was the cheese. At home, it was easy for me not to buy and therefore avoid it. In Mexico, it was abundant. People understood the concept of vegetarianism, but didn’t understand being vegan as often and couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t want cheese on your tacos.
I did cook some at home in Mexico, but with the abundance of cheap taco options and amazing food flavors including the spiciness I love, I was often tempted to abandon my leftovers for something yummy off the street. With street vendors, flor de calabaza, calabazitas, nopales, huitlacoche or champiñones were my veggie options. These are usually mushroom or zuchhini type options or cactus in the case of nopales, which is not my favorite. I had a sweet family that set up “shop” daily on the corner by my house that that knew my order well.
I enjoyed visiting the markets, or mercados, and sometimes locals pointed out new fruits or veggies for me to try. Overall the Mexican people were extremely accommodating and wanted to share their culture with everyone they encountered. “Provecho” was commonly directed your way as you were eating, which is short for buen provecho and more or less means “enjoy your meal.”
Colombia: Fresh Fruits and Veggies
I don’t want to diss the food here in Colombia. There are definitely great things to eat. I just find that the vegan scene is not nearly as big here as in Mexico City. In all fairness, I have not made as much of an effort to seek out vegan only options in Medellin as I did in CDMX. It seems that the majority of them seem to be centered in the Poblado and Laureles neighborhoods, and I often find myself in different parts of the city. The one that I have tried, Veg Station in Poblado, is great and the menu del dia is only 12 mil COP, or less than $4USD for soup, entrée and fresh juice.
So, what derailed me a little on my arrival to Colombia? First thing is that I was already getting a little more relaxed as I was leaving Mexico. I wanted to “try” things I was afraid I was missing out on and overall just got a little lazy about asking for things without cheese, etc.
Then I got to Bogota and beyond the cold shock factor found myself trying to learn all new food item names. My Airbnb host did the best to point me in the direction of healthy food options and I did find some great salads, pastas, soups and other things but a lot of the traditional Colombian food is meat based. I embraced the idea that while traveling I may occasionally be places and either need to or choose to consume meat or other animal products. While I personally minimize them in my own cooking and where I can control, when I am out, I just do the best I can.
I tried Ajiaco, a traditional dish of Bogota, which was some type of delicious creamy chicken soup. I also got a stuffed arepa, which I asked for with just vegetables, but when they got my order wrong and gave it to me with meat I didn’t make a big fuss.
My struggles in Colombia. Arepas here often have butter or cheese. Most dishes have rice and beans and meat. In talking with some of my Colombian guy friends, it seems that a dish is not complete without rice or meat, particularly at lunch. I think one of the biggest things for me has just been that in Mexico City, I was surrounded by a lot more vegans or vegetarians. Here in Colombia, most of my friends are meat eaters which makes going out to eat more of a challenge. I have never been one to be difficult or wanted to be accommodated for, particularly in someone else’s country, so I usually go along and order whatever. These friends convinced me to order the traditional dish “Bandeja Paisa,” where of course I could not finish the meat.
I have been doing a lot more cooking in Colombia than I did in Mexico City and the thing that I love the most is the abundance of new (to me) fruits and vegetables that I can incorporate into cooking, smoothies, etc. Cooking at home is where I return to my little plant-based or vegan abode. I drink fresh fruit juices just about every day, getting more servings of fruit and veggies here in Colombia than I did in Mexico, where the majority of the veggies that I got were peppers and onions. If I want spicy, it’s likely going to have to be cooked at home, as contrary to some people’s beliefs Colombian food is not spicy at all.
Finding supplements and vitamins
One of the things I have found perhaps the most surprising is the difficulty at times in trying to find what I consider to be pretty basic supplements. Probably nowhere in the world has the same pharmaceutical or supplement market as the U.S., so things that may be a little more unfamiliar like CoQ10 I anticipated may be hard to find. However, even vitamins such as Vitamin D, B12, and others I have struggled to find. Unlike my super sunburn prone self, I guess the rest of the world gets their Vitamin D from the sun, and with a lack of vegetarians or vegans the B vitamins are usually only available in a complex.
I have not ventured to another health market here in Colombia, but I did find nutritional yeast, algae, spirulina and other powdered supplements in the healthy or organic section of some mercados in Mexico City. In both cities, I have found an okay selection of gluten-free items, and lactose-free items or dairy substitutes, but beyond that the health items selection is usually very tiny and much more expensive. I usually just try to pack my diet with as many natural vitamins and antioxidants as I can through fruits and veggies.
B12 deficiency can be an issue for vegetarians but luckily I have not been eating plant-based too long and have tried to make sure that I take B vitamins. Still at some point in the near future I will likely test my levels to make sure these “B complex” vitamins are doing the trick or see if I need to be doing B12 injections or find some other method of procuring B12.
My sentiments regarding traveling “Vegan”
Regardless of my personal views on eating meat or other substances, I always try to be a gracious guest in other countries. When I am offered food, I take it and try it. I may not order it again but to me that is part of the travel experience and interacting with other cultures.
I had heard that South America was particularly “meat-heavy,” and so far, I have found that to be true and more than the actual findings, just the prevalent sentiment that you “need meat.” Although, I should say that coming from the barbeque and mostly carnivorous state of Texas I am used to this sentiment.
I do the best that I can, cook for myself quite a bit, but ultimately give myself some slack about not being the perfect vegan or eating plant-based all the time. I set out on this journey really to improve my health, and have stuck with it for that reason. I feel better when I don’t eat Bandeja Paisa, so that’s the plan. But if I want to try something, to know what the locals eat, I am not going to deprive myself of that worldly experience.