by Dinesh S. Parakh

P1010349Canadians are fond of heading south to escape the clutches of winter, with many of the most popular destinations being in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. Trouble is, these parts of the world are not known for their animal-friendly culinary offerings, lacking a well-developed ‘veg consciousness’ compared to places like India, Taiwan, Ethiopia or Jamaica where vegetarianism is part of religious and cultural tradition.

Some veg travelers don’t particularly care about the food, are fine with picking around meat, and take their chances with being temporarily malnourished. For others, authentic local (veg) food is an integral part of the travel experience. If you are indeed a veg foodie, we’d like to share some of our family’s experiences and tips for more successful (and delicious) veg travel, focused on Central America and the Caribbean.

Safe, friendly and clean Costa Rica is popular with North Americans, and partly for that reason, it is relatively easy to find veg meals. You can order pizza/pasta/stir-fry in many restaurants, but there are also plenty of exclusively veg offerings. For example, the Israeli-run Lands in Love was a stunning find – a hotel smack dab in the middle of the cloud forest where all meals are vegetarian (with a really full breakfast included in the price) – and absolutely delicious! There are also a number of yoga resorts in Costa Rica with veg cuisine.

Panama is also popular with North Americans, so you’ll find many of the usual North American fast or casual food chains with their one or two veg items. But there are also dedicated veg restaurants, especially in Panama City.

We had absolutely no problems in Guatemala, from a superb veg restaurant in Guatemala City (Arbol de la Vida), to numerous veg and veg-friendly options in popular Antigua, to the super-healthy vegan meals at the fabulous Lake Villa on Lago Atitlan. During our stay at the Lake Villa, Traci, the owner, ferried us around in her boat to neighbouring villages and we were somewhat astonished to find the lake literally ringed with excellent veg options! Even in the jungles of Tikal, our guide was able to arrange satisfying veg food from a hotel/restaurant run by her brother.

When it comes to veg food, not all Caribbean islands are created equal. My sister and brother-in-law just returned from Jamaica raving about the veg options. Turns out that the small percentage of the population identifying themselves as Rastafarian (for whom vegetarianism is an article of faith) appear to wield an outsize influence on culinary matters. A quick search on HappyCow reveals at least eight dedicated veg restaurants, with plenty more that are veg-friendly, so you might want to consider booking a hotel/resort that is not “all-inclusive” when traveling to the all-right isle. In stark contrast, a popular tourist place like the Dominican Republic has no vegetarian restaurants listed, though I know of at least one resort (Sirenis Punta Cana) that claims to have an all-veg restaurant.

There are plenty more exclusively veg offerings in the region, including in Puerto Rico, Grenada, Belize, Trinidad, and the Bahamas.If you spend some time researching veg options prior to travel, you will be richly rewarded. Reliable information is more readily available than ever before, particularly online. HappyCow.net is my personal favourite (check out the dedicated travel and B&B sections), but there are plenty of other online resources as well. The easiest way to start searching? Just type in the country/destination name + “vegan” or “vegetarian”.

The black is all old lava flows from two years agoThere are also dedicated veg travel companies like VegVoyages which do a superb job on both the travel touring and the food, and which can deliver exceptional value-for-money. My parents took a trip to Malaysia with them a couple of years ago and had a fantastic experience. But last year, they went to China with a group of friends booking through a ‘regular’ travel company – and simply by specifying and emphasizing that the entire group was veg, they ended up well-fed and with no complaints.

A final option is to consider using an Indian travel company like SOTC or Cox & Kings. Companies like this offer international tours with (mostly) Indian vegetarian meals. You may not get the same variety of local food that you would with another company, but the advantages include a lot more flexibility in terms of dates, itineraries, etc.

So to sum up:

1. Use online resources such as HappyCow.net and Responsibletravel.com to identify vegan restaurants, hotels, resorts, B&Bs, tour companies, etc. And return the favour by contributing reviews and/or new finds whenever you can!

2. Keep an eye out for international veg chains like Loving Hut & Govinda’s.

3. Support vegetarian tour companies like VegVoyages, Veggie Tours, VegiVentures and Green Earth Travel as well as Indian tour companies such as SOTC and Cox & Kings.

4. Consider choosing travel destinations based on veg offerings, perhaps a particular country, hotel or resort. Those with veg-friendly religious or cultural traditions, or that cater to a lot of Canadian/American/British/Indian tourists may be better bets. Yoga resorts are ever more popular and are a pretty safe bet for veg food.

5. Insist on veg options and vote with your wallets by supporting veg travel. It can only contribute to the spread of more compassionate eating – and how could that ever be a bad thing?