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.
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.
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.
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).
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?