Travel Eating: Healthy Vegan Meals on a Latin American Vacation… Sort of

The Colombian rainforest smells sweet. Dewy flowers burst with fragrances that made me think of warm apple pie, juicy ripe fruits and a steamy cup of tea…but the retreat kitchen served deep-fried plantains and flavorless iceberg lettuce drowning in raw onions at every meal. Just outside Mexico City, the pyramids of Teotihuacan conjured images of a civilization thousands of years gone, and the hotel restaurant served bread that tasted just as old. I’d all but guzzled the last of my emergency energy bars… so, what’s a health foodie to eat?

This wasn’t my first trip out of the country as a health-food obsessed vegan. I’d survived Chile and Australia, and several other trips to Mexico. Even in the butter-coated Parisian cafes, I’d found nibbles of freshness—a salad or veggie sandwich—we even stumbled into a vegan restaurant one night. Istanbul offered a panoply of vegan eats that could rival the finest offerings at New York City’s Candle Café or Fatty’s in Los Angeles. But surviving an option-less menu deep in the heart of the jungle left me with little to eat, save my own fingernails. Somehow though, I managed to make do.

Fruit in the mornings was delicious and a most healthy savior. While others followed up their plates of papaya, melon and jungle bananas with eggs and fritters, I ate more fruit or bummed chia seeds off a fellow retreat guest. Chia seeds made the perfect breakfast because they’re long lasting and provide protein, fiber and essential fatty acids. They pack easily and can be made into a porridge with hot water and little else. I added trail mix.

If I ate lunch or dinner, it was the dreaded iceberg “salad” that I’d spend 20 minutes de-onioning. Every so often I’d indulge a fried plantain trying not to imagine the trans fats clogging my otherwise spotless arteries. Eating with gusto is the most important nutrient, I’d tell myself as I’d force down bites of excessively salted white rice and a veggie soup so putrid it still sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it. On a few occassions, we’d glean fallen coconuts and hack them to pieces for their revitalizing liquid and tasty meat. The forest would approve, I told myself.

In Mexico, as fresh whole corn tortillas eluded me at a resort catering to American palates (my fellow Americans, you love rabbit and goatlings, by the way), I embraced an old frenemy: White bread. Topped with sugary jam in the mornings or salsa verde and a bit of avocado mash in the evenings, if it weren’t for the basket of bread, I’d probably have eaten my shoes. And now that I think about it, next trip south of the border, I’m packing an extra pair.

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Image: Jill Ettinger