Traveling While Vegan: Ecuador, Part I
Some countries provide a softer landing for vegan travelers than others. Turns out, being vegan in Ecuador is definitely not easy.
Not easy but… doable!
Here are some resources for eating vegan in Ecuador. From general tips to specific restaurant, bar, cafe, and grocery recommendations in the cities of Cuenca, Vilcabamba and Guayaquil — these will help you enjoy your vegan Ecuadorian travels with greater ease.
The Cuisine of Ecuador
Ecuador has a meat-heavy cuisine. This is true of many countries, and it is definitely true in this Latin American country. The extra kicker is that, whereas in Mexico you can often survive on rice, beans and plantains, Ecuador doesn’t seem to have such solid, non-meat options.
Among the non-meat options is hominy — those big, pretty bland corn kernels. They feature fairly prominently in Ecuadorian cuisine. They will often be made into a medley of some sort along with unique beans like chochos.
Potatoes and yuca are also common in Ecuador. These are helpful staples for a vegan traveler but a vegan can only take so many potatoes, of course.
One thing that is pretty amazing is that popcorn is served as an appetizer or quick snack in Ecuadorian restaurants.
Finally, while the meat might be amazing here (as a vegan, I wouldn’t know), the rest of the cuisine does not seem to have much spice. Unlike India where there are myriad of spices used or Mexico where many hot, flavorful peppers are incorporated into dishes, Ecuadorian food is… rather bland (at least the veggies).
Vegan In Ecuador
This paints a fairly bleak picture for a vegan looking to explore this breathtakingly beautiful country. Luckily, there are many silver linings!
Fruits and Veggies
First off… the produce!
The markets in Ecuador are filled with fresh produce that you already know and love (avocado, sweet potato, onions, bananas, etc.) and tons of fruits that you might not have in your life every day (cherimoya, pitahaya, tomarillo, papaya, mango, pineapple, etc.). This produce is all super affordable and it’s fun to try new fruits that you haven’t had before.
The 3 for $1 avocado situation ain’t bad either!
Budget Dining — Eating In & Eating Out
The availability of all of this affordable produce is a major benefit of Ecuadorian travel. Travel can be expensive so it is great to find cost savings where you can.
My recommendation is to rent an apartment or house with a kitchen when you have more time in one city so you can prepare some meals of your own.
Of course, if you’re like me, when you travel you tend to eat out more than normal because you want to explore and get a sense of place through cuisine.
When you wind up in a restaurant, say you are “vegano”. It’s pretty widely known in Ecuador — at least in Cuenca, Ecuador. Say “sin leche, mantequilla o queso” to clarify if they are unsure how “vegano” is different than “vegetariano”.
There are restaurant recommendations below to help you on your way. Many have “almuerzos” (lunches) for a set price that are super affordable (like $2.50 affordable). If a lunch costs more than $2.50, it likely won’t break the bank though some foreigner-run places are pricey.
The Benefits of Gringo-ization
Speaking of foreigners..
Ecuador has become a popular place for U.S. and Canadian (gringo) retirees because it is affordable and welcoming. This can cause some “false economies” — driving up prices for locals and travelers alike. But the presence of all these foreigners can in some cases be helpful for eating vegan in Ecuador.
As you can see from the restaurants suggestions below, many of them are either run by gringos, or popular with gringos. What this can mean is that there is a greater chance of finding veggie and vegan cuisine because of the foreign influence.
Now, there are Ecuadorians and immigrants from other Latin American countries who are also advocating veganism, so the presence of vegan-friendly menu items isn’t only from the U.S. and Canadian foreigners. But, the gringo resource websites about Ecuador can help you find the vegan things you are looking for either way, especially if your Spanish isn’t that great — check them out below.
ONLINE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE RESOURCES:
Zen Vegan Travel
While there are many resources for finding the specific vegan food you want in Ecuador, I have really worked to embrace accepting that things are obviously different in Ecuador. That might sound negative or unbelievable but it really has its benefits!
If you travel without expecting things to be different than your daily life back home, you are going to be miserable. This goes for food too.
Embrace the novelty of the produce at the mercados and look forward to indulging in some of your favorite vegan foods when you return home.
But… if there are food items you are really wanting, you can always get creative.
For example, I like to have unsweetened almond milk in my coffee. Unsweetened almond milk can be hard to find in Ecuador (though I have found it at Supermaxi). Luckily, I found a small natural grocery a block away from my apartment (La Chakra — see below) and one of the people who works there makes some up for me.
I just send a Facebook message when I want some almond milk and they message me back when they have some ready for me. She even made me chocolate almond milk one day!
In addition to the recommendations I give, use your online resources. That’s what the internet is there for, right?!
Happy Cow is a known vegan restaurant finder and, in LATAM, Todo Vegano is its equivalent. There’s also the international TripAdvisor which can help at least find vegetarian-friendly, if not vegan, restaurants.
ONLINE VEGAN RESTAURANT DIRECTORIES:
Cuenca is a popular travel destination in Ecuador and a popular retirement town for U.S. and Canadian ex-pats. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site — the buildings are lovely.
If you find yourself in Cuenca, you have vegan options. Here is the Cuenca Vegan Roundup (in no particular order)!
Restaurants, Cafes & Bars
The Pub is a gringo-owned bar. They brew their own beer with hops from the Northwest, U.S. (!) and host chefs who cook up unique menus each night. As of writing this post, Taco Tuesdays were a thing — complete with vegan tacos.
Café de Ñucallacta is very popular with ex-pats. They have great coffee and, for us vegans, almond milk to put in that great coffee. Yes!
The cafe has a few veganizable menu items. Their breakfast burrito (served any time of day) is delicious and sometimes comes with an incredible homemade salsa. They also have a veggie sandwich. For both of these items, leave out the cheese and you should be set.
This is another popular hangout for the non-Ecuadorian travelers and residents. Cafe Austria won’t hook you up with vegan milk for your coffee but they do have a number of menu items that can work for a vegan.
For breakfast, opt for the continental breakfast without the yogurt and for lunch you can have a veggie curry among other veganizable menu items. They also have solid Wi-Fi.
Ananda Restaurant Vegetarian (GOOGLE MAP)
This is a small restaurant between Café de Ñucallacta and Cafe Austria. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Ananda is a solid option for an affordable almuerzo (lunch). If the almuerzo isn’t totally vegan already, just specify that you are “vegano” and they’ll do some helpful substituting for you.
There are a number of Restaurant El Paraíso locations around Cuenca. It is good to know about these restaurants because they have decent smoothies for $1.
They are all completely vegetarian — not vegan, but there are a couple of vegan options and they can direct you to them.
These lunch options aren’t the tastiest but they are affordable are and a good option if you are trying to eat vegan in Ecuador. They come with a protein they call “soy meat” which seems to more seitan than soy-based. Try it out!
Restaurant Govinda’s Vegetariano (GOOGLE MAP)
Govinda’s has a lunch buffet that seems to vary in terms of how veganizable it is. Sometimes there will be a bunch of dairy in the mix and sometimes not.
Either way, there are a la carte menu items that you can purchase that are vegan or veganizable.
The restaurant itself is a nice place and there is ample seating due to a second story for lunch overflow.
Listen, it is tough to eat veggie or vegan in Ecuador. It’s no wonder that many of the restaurant options are run by gringos. This is the case with Windhorse Cafe like many of the other recommendations here.
Windhorse Cafe is a sweet little restaurant. They have limited days that they are open: only Thursday-Sunday.
Their beet burger on a toasted bun is really quite delicious. It’s a loose interpretation of a burger but it is indeed tasty.
Also, they have U.S. magazines (maybe from two years ago, but still!) for you to flip through while you wait.
Inca is great because it’s located right on the River Tomebamba and there are tables with fires in the middle for chilly nights (fire table!). Also, they have craft beers on draft — a hard find in Cuenca.
Onto the vegan stuff…
The menu has a few vegan options: chips and guac, veggie stir fry and tacos that can be made vegan (ask if the flour tortillas are vegan or just opt for the corn tortillas).
There are also a bunch of gringos at Inca always and they sometimes have live entertainment.
Grocery Stores & Markets
La Chakra has become my local natural products store. The people who work there are delightful and they work hard to get you the product you are looking for.
They always have vegan cheese, vegan sausage and vegan, gluten-free breads in stock. You can also find coconut oil here which isn’t available in all grocery stores.
In addition to their stock items, ask them to let you know when they get specialty items in like shiitake mushrooms from Vilcabamba!
La Chakra can also make up some homemade, unsweetened almond milk for you. Connect with them on Facebook or WhatsApp to let them know when you’re out and they’ll message you when they’re back in stock!
Nectar is a tiny bit confusing to find. It doesn’t have an obvious storefront but a vestibule where you walk to a second door, ring the bell and wait to be let in.
Once you are inside, you’ll likely see people, including many gringos, hanging out in the atrium area while they wait for a haircut in a salon that is also in the building.
The very small health food section is in a room to the right. Here they have hemp hearts, coconut oil, cashews, nutritional yeast and much more… for a price. Things are definitely marked up in health food stores around Cuenca because they tend to have the harder to find items.
If Nectar doesn’t have an item you are looking for, ask them if they can order it for you and you might just get lucky.
Mercado 10 de Agosto (GOOGLE MAP)
This market is where I would recommend getting almost all of your produce. The produce isn’t necessarily organic, fyi, but it is very affordable and very abundant.
You will walk out of there with a full grocery load of produce for under $10.
The going increments are in dollars. So, for $1, you get 3 avocados. For $1, you get 2 papayas. Sometimes $1 gets you too much produce — like with carrots. Ask for $0.50 worth instead.
Cilantro will be $0.25 and, if you get enough produce or keep going back to the same vendor, you’ll get a regalo, a gift, as a thank you — often a pear or an apple.
In addition to produce, you can find peanut butter upstairs and rice downstairs. There’s also an enormous meat market — you’ve been warned.
Supermaxi is one of the grocery chains in Cuenca. It is a higher-end market which both means that it’s a bit more costly that Coral (see below) and might have some specialty items that you wouldn’t find at Coral.
For example, there is tofu hidden in the cheese section of Supermaxi and there are even some vegan meat substitutes hidden in the meat section.
If you’re jonesin’ for some very vegan foodstuffs, Supermaxi is a good place to start your hunt.
Coral is the more affordable supermarket chain in Cuenca. They have almost everything that Supermaxi has except some of the specialty vegan things mentioned above. I also couldn’t find coconut milk or bouillon cubes in Coral but I could in Supermaxi.
Coral also is half department store. So, if you’re looking for things like a pillow, coffee maker, slippers, etc., you can find them at Coral.
One thing to note — like in some other countries, in Coral you need to have a staff person weigh your produce in the produce section to price it before you head to the cash registers. Cash registers do not have scales.
If you are lucky, you’ll end up in the beautiful town of Vilcabamba. This small valley surrounded by lush mountains is a true paradise. Gringos have fully taken root here, for better or for worse, and there are many delicious vegan restaurants.
Restaurants, Cafes & Bars
In addition to being a wonderful hotel (stay here!), Izhcayluma also has a great restaurant with many vegan options. The view from the restaurant is incredible so get here before the sun sets.
For one, they make there own tempeh here! Yay! There are tons of tempeh dishes because of this so get your fill because tempeh is a hard thing to come by in Ecuador.
Their chili is also out of this world good.
Izhcayluma also has German beer on tap so get some good beer while you have access to it!
If you find yourself eating at United Falafel Org. (UFO) for every meal during your time in Vilcabamba, you wouldn’t be the only one.
In addition to delicious vegan falafel (plates and sandwiches), UFO also has baba ganoush, curry and, if you’re lucky, vegan cake.
The hummus here is tasty and the setting right by the main plazas cathedral is very convenient.
I’m craving this right now!
The Juice Factory (GOOGLE MAP, www.facebook.com/Vilcabamba-Juice-Factory-185452361521929/)
Now, The Juice Factory won’t serve you the $1 smoothies of Restaurant El Paraíso but the splurge on a $3 smoothie might just be worth it. There are tons of smoothie options but the Refrescate de Chocolate is incredible: cocoa powder, almond milk, banana, maca and coconut juice. Whoa.
They also might have some vegan cookies in stock.
This is a very small sampling of vegan options for the bustling city of Guayaquil from a one day stop there. Apparently there are many more choices but… here’s a start.
Restaurante 8–28 (located by at least one other Chinese restaurant — GOOGLE MAP)
There is at least one other Chinese restaurant in a row by Restaurante 8–28, so check the door to make sure you’re going into the right one (although the others could be good too!).
Restaurante 8–28 is a good option for a vegetarian in a jam. Plus, Chinese is great comfort food, right?
Lorenabo Comida Vegetariano (GOOGLE MAP, www.facebook.com/Lorenabo-Comida-Vegetariana-349333655103479/)
The Lorenabo almuerzo (lunch) is a very affordable and simple vegan choice. They will bring you a set menu, along with your choice of a juice or sweet soy milk.
This is a fine place for lunch but nothing special. Sometimes you just need a quick simple vegan meal though!
An easy way to travel when you’re vegan is to come packing snacks. Hit up a grocery store to stock up on some essentials if you find yourself without a ready vegan restaurant option.
Mi Comisariato is a decent sized grocer. I couldn’t find any tasty vegan granola bars here (that weren’t crazy sweet) so I would stick with nuts, dried fruit and other non-processed foods for snacks.
More Ecuador To Come
That’s the roundup after a month or so of eating vegan in Ecuador. Stay tuned for a Quito installment soon.
Have you traveled in Ecuador? Have you been to Cuenca, Vilcabamba, Guayaquil or other cities? Share your recommendations! Comment below or tag Plenty Vegan on Instagram!
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Originally published on Plenty Vegan.