A Taste of Bogotá – Vegetarian Style

As I ventured out for my first Colombian meal I sardonically said to my boyfriend, “Screw it, I’m going to eat churraso (grilled meat) today.”   And though I’ve been a strict vegetarian for nearly 15 years, that’s exactly what I did.

I was absolutely famished after traveling 15 hours from Los Angeles to Bogotá.  And as we walked down the mazelike streets of La Candelaria I knew exactly what we were in for.  As vegetarians, finding our first meal in a foreign city is typically a frustrating experience.  I can’t even count how many times we’ve walked aimlessly down unfamiliar streets, desperately scanning menus at restaurant after restaurant for something, anything, vegetarian.  Not being able to find one meat-free option is dejecting.  As a result, our first meal in a new country tends to either be a homemade sandwich (i.e. vegetables and bread) or an overpriced pizza at a tourist-oriented restaurant – both of which get really old, really fast.

However, this time Aaron looked on Happy Cow and came across a supposedly vegetarian restaurant called Loto Azul.  He urged me to give it a shot and assured me that it was only a short walk from our guesthouse.  I was grumpy from having low blood sugar, and I couldn’t help but feel I’d been down this road before.  Most of the time these restaurants have closed down or they’re not really vegetarian or they simply don’t exist.  I was so hungry, I just didn’t want to get my hopes up.

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A sign for ¨Comidas Rapidas Vegetarianas¨ (literally vegetarian fast food) is posted on a crumbling and graffitied wall in La Candelaria. We never actually found this particular restaurant.

I became even more pessimistic as we walked along La Candelaria’s streets, passing sign after sign selling churraso, perros calientes (hot dogs) and empanadas de carne (meat-filled pastries).  I was just coming to terms with the fact that I was in the heart of a carnivorous country, and I was in the midst of ruing the day I became a vegetarian when Aaron proudly announced, “Here it is!”  Oh my god, food at last!  We walked into the crowded cafeteria-style restaurant, but with my rudimentary Spanish I was unsure about how to actually order.  We saw the Colombian customers point to one of the five dishes on display, so I followed suit.  I pointed at a random plate, sat down at an empty table and proceeded to scarf down my meal.  It wasn’t until my mouth was stuffed with food that I finally stopped to examine what I was consuming.  That’s when I realized I was actually eating churraso!

Not to worry, this vegetarian restaurant was legit and just happened to serve a soy-based variation of this ubiquitous Colombian staple.  But seriously, eating fake churraso in Colombia was the last thing I would have expected.

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My first Colombian meal was 100% vegetarian. Not only is Loto Azul a great place for lunch (it’s closed for dinner) but there is also a small store inside which sells a variety of soy-based fake meats and other vegetarian delights.

Based on all of my research I was under the impression that the concept of vegetarianism is virtually unknown to Colombians.  And I knew that it would be a struggle to find healthy, meatless meals.  But Bogotá turned out to be a major exception.  In Colombia’s capital, there is currently a big push to live a more healthy lifestyle.  On Sundays residents gather to exercise in the city’s parks, there’s a giant market that sells organic, locally grown produce and there are even gluten-free options on restaurant menus.  Wait, where am I?  Am I back in LA?  Nope, this is Bogotá.  Not only are there more than 50 pure-vegetarian restaurants sprinkled throughout the city, but there were a handful located a stone’s throw from my guesthouse.  While vegetarianism is definitely a growing fad, some of Bogotá’s meat-free eateries have actually been around for decades.

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At Loto Azul I paid 7,500 pesos ($4 USD) for a set meal of soup, salad, a full plate of food – including quinoa, rice, a chickpea patty, and veggies in a savory gravy – a glass of papaya juice and dessert. A great value, indeed.

And, no, these establishments don’t just serve beans and rice.  There is a surprising range of downright creative interpretations of traditional Colombian eats. Think quinoa-filled empandas, mock churrasco with a cilantro chimichurri sauce and veggie tortas (a sort of sandwich with thick bread).

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As a strictly vegetarian restaurant, Quinua y Amaranto is currently ranked #8 on Trip Advisor’s restaurant list. This just shows how trendy vegetarianism is in Colombia´s capital. Set meals cost 14,000 pesos ($7 USD) making it an affordable option.
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Colombians love their soup; there are literally hundreds of different types. Alas, most are not purely vegetarian. But I was able to sample quite a few in Bogotá’s meat-free eateries.

Most restaurants have a menu del día (daily set menu) which consists of fruit juice, soup, salad, entrée and dessert.  So much food!  And the cost ranges from 7,000-14,000 pesos ($4-$8 USD).  I thought I would spend my time in Bogotá in a constant state of hunger, but it turns out I feasted like a king.  Not only was the food at these restaurants healthy but it was delicious, filling and affordable.

Have you ever had a tough time finding a decent meal while traveling?

 

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

25 thoughts on “A Taste of Bogotá – Vegetarian Style

    1. Haha, after 15 years I don’t think I’ll be breaking my vegetarian steak anytime soon. But I must say those meat-filled empandas look and smell great! Sometimes I’m sad that I don’t eat meat, especially when I’m traveling.

  1. Hola Justina! I hope you are enjoying the celebration of Colombia getting to the quarter finals. What a celebration it must be there. Be safe and have a wonderful time. GO COLOMBIA!

  2. That all looks so delicious! I’ve been obsessing over South America a lot recently but I was worried about what it would be like as a vegetarian travelling there but clearly veggies can get lucky 🙂

    1. I was seriously shocked by the vegetarian fad that appears to have swept over Bogota. Now that I have traveled around Colombia for three weeks I can assure you that Bogota is definitely an exception. But, the good news is that being a vegetarian in Colombia is not as hard as I thought if would be. Yes, it can be frustrating and there are a lot of beans and rice involved. But I’m most definitely not going hungry and I’ve stumbled across some downright delicious meals 🙂

  3. Loto Azul looks delicious! I didn’t eat in La Candelaria when I was in Bogota because I was staying in an uptown neighborhood and only went there for a few tourist attractions. If I go back I will have to find this place.

    1. It was so good, Anna! It doesn’t really matter if you’re a vegetarian or not because everything I tried was good and healthy. I definitely recommend going there next time you’re in Bogotá!

    1. Hi Marcella. Yeah, finding vegetarian food in South America is hard! It was definitely a pleasant surprise to find out that vegetarianism is a pretty big trend in Bogota. And that fact that these restaurants are good and cheap still boggles my mind.

  4. I am pleasantly surprised to hear about this! Since I’ll be staying in Bogota for a few days next month, I’m bookmarking this post.

    1. These restaurants were so great and so affordable. Make sure to check their hours because a lot of restaurants in Bogota are only open for lunch. Also, whenever I’m in a new city I always go onto Happy Cow to find nearby veg-friendly restaurants. This site was a lifesaver in Bogota and everywhere in Colombia for that matter. Enjoy!

  5. This makes me so happy to read. 🙂 I’m planning on heading to South America after I leave Korea and I was wondering how veggie friendly it would be. It wasn’t until I’d lived in Mexico for a good year or so that I’d figured out what I could and couldn’t eat and where the best places to go were. Bogota strikes again! I swear all I ever hear is good things about that city.
    Ceri recently posted…Tour of my Korean Apartment

    1. I’m from Southern California and my dad’s side of the family is Mexican so I am obsessed with Mexican food. Being a vegetarian can be a bit of a bummer with both Mexican and South American food. But since you lived in Mexico I’m sure you’ll get the hang of what you can and can’t eat quickly. Plus I’m guessing you speak some Spanish? I speak a little and it went a long way in Colombia. Bogota had a surprisingly big vegetarian scene, but to be honest the rest of the country wasn’t like that! And I can’t speak for the rest of the continent. Have you heard of Happy Cow? I always look on that site whenever I’m in a new city 🙂 Also, Bogota is the best. I really, really want to move there…

  6. I’m from Bogotá and I agree with you about Loto Azul and Quinua y Amaranto. Currently, I work on the north side of the city and I really miss go to lunch to Quinua y Amaranto, by far, my best vegetarian place on the city.

    Saludos! 🙂

    1. Oh my gosh, I miss the food in Bogotá so much. The veg restaurants are so unbelievably good. I so hope that someday I have the chance to live there. I love that city!

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