Being a vegetarian in small-town Colombia

I´ve been a vegetarian for 5 years. At home in Frankfurt, it’s pretty easy for me to be meat-free: there are tons of vegetarian restaurants, and almost every restaurant has a vegetarian option.

But before coming to Colombia, I was a bit worried about Colombian food. It seemed to consist only of meat-filled empanadas and arepas. Vegetarianism, moreover, is not widespread in the region - less than eight percent of South Americans eat no meat. While I really do enjoy food and was excited about tasting it in Colombia, eating meat wouldn’t be an option for me.

So… how would life be as a vegetarian living in a small Colombian town named San Carlos?

When I first looked for food in San Carlos, I got a little frustrated because I couldn’t find a strictly vegetarian restaurant. All I could find was chicken, arepas con carne, and meat-filled empanadas.

In restaurants, moreover, the first question would be: “Which protein would you like?” They didn’t mean chickpeas, lentils, or protein-rich vegetables. Here, protein is used as a synonym for meat.

So what could I do?

I decided to only go for the side dishes and skip the meat. It was pretty good, because I could get all these amazing vegetables and fruits: fresh salads, tomatoes, avocado, potatoes, as well as fried eggs and rice. Delicious!

As a beginner in Spanish, being a vegetarian can also be a great way to talk to locals. For example, it put me in a situation where I was standing at a food stand in San Carlos, looking for anything that doesn’t have meat in it. With the little Spanish I had, I kindly asked the woman at a food stand if it was possible to get something vegetarian. She was so helpful and kind, and offered to prepare “tortas de lentejas” (lentil patties) for the next day.

Lentejas? Lentils? That’s a new word I can add to me vocabulary, yeah! During the next days I visited her food stand to get to know more about Colombian food. She kept preparing new vegetarian food for me, as well as vegetarian empanadas for other students. I really enjoyed sitting there and ordering this amazing food while watching the locals stop, get empanadas, and ride away on their motorcycles.

As San Carlos is a very small town with no tourists, the people are very interested in talking to foreigners. And that’s what always happens to me when I sit at the food stand. People talk to me, guess where I’m from, and ask what I’m doing here. This was also a great way for me to learn new words and practice Spanish. Trying out new food and speaking to locals at the same time – there are certainly worse ways to learn Spanish!