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South America is known for its tropical landscapes, bustling cities, vibrant cultures, and meat. Lots of meat. Admittedly, it’s not the easiest continent to visit for those seeking vegetarian dishes. The concept of vegetarianism is not widely embraced or understood here yet; if you request a vegetarian meal, you may, for example, receive a vegetable dish served with fish or chicken. So, it’s best to be specific and ask for options without fish, red meat, or chicken. While vegetarian options vary region to region, there are some good vegetarian choices in every country in South America.
Carne is considered beef in Argentina, so if you ask for a meal sin carne, don’t be surprised if you get chicken on your plate. The Italian immigrant population here is a boon to visiting vegetarians, as there is an abundance of vegetarian pasta and pizza options available. The empanadas (pies) with cheese are a good snack and are sometimes jazzed up with some onion or chili sauce. The rice croquettes with calabaza (pumpkin) are tasty and meat-free as are the humita, which is corn mixed with cheese and onion, wrapped up and cooked in the corn husk.
Brazil also has a strong Italian influence, so vegetarian pizzas and pasta options are readily available. Brazil’s staple is rice and beans served with salad and meat, but you can replace the meat with a cheese empanada or omelette, which are both common here. The self-service option is everywhere in Brazil, where food is priced per kilo. This allows for excellent and inexpensive vegetarian options that include salads, vegetables, rice, and vegetarian pastas. There are also snack bars everywhere in Brazil serving vegetarian snacks such as pão de queijo, açaí, and various fruits.
Chile is perhaps one of the easiest countries in South America for vegetarians to navigate, as it has several meat-free national dishes. As in Argentina, in Chile the cheese empanadas and humitas are a common, tasty snack. For meals, the porotos granados is a healthy, vegetarian option of cooked shell beans with corn and squash. Another option is the tomatican, which is a tomato stew mixed with corn and onions, making for a nutritious and wholesome meal.
Peru and Bolivia share similar foods. The humble potato makes up an important part of the majority of the main dishes, and the variety of types gives delicious and unique flavors. Papa a la huancaina is a dish of potatoes with eggs in a spicy cheese sauce. Chocolo con yueso is corn with melted cheese. Other dishes include causa, which is layers of yellowed potatoes with different fillings such as eggs, vegetables, and cheese, and the rocoto releno, which are stuffed peppers with various fillings. Empanadas are available throughout both countries, too. Quinoa is native to Peru and Bolivia, so there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy this superfood.
Venezuela is a little trickier in terms of vegetarian options, yet there are some available. Quinoa is cheap and plentiful as it is imported from nearby Peru and Bolivia. A staple in Venezuela is black beans and rice, often made more flavorful with onions, tabasco, and herbs. There is also the arepas, which is corn pancakes topped with cheese and sometimes onions.
In Colombia, as in many South American countries, rice with beans and salad is common and is sometimes served with avocado. The meat can be swapped for an omelette (as in Brazil) or additional vegetables. One of the best vegetarian food options in Colombia is the huge choice of fruit, from the standard banana and apple to more exotic options such as yellow dragon fruit, Spanish limes, and gooseberries. There are plenty of fruit and vegetable markets that can make for great cooking at the hostels.