By Paige Newman, Exclusive to VegDining.com
After two months touring much of Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua, I found vegetarians would have an easier time than vegans in carnivorous Central America. Sometimes gallo pinto (mixed rice and beans) is a reliable meal, though it may be laden with animal products. Accommodations with kitchens make mealtimes easier, as canned beans, rice, avocadoes and other produce are available. Shops also offer Bioland soy cookies, protein powders, and granola bars.
An abundance of natural beauty, friendly people, and thrilling animal encounters more than compensate for extra food foraging. Near the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, volcanoes and lakes are exquisite, and there’s authentic culture at the Masaya mercados with crafts, bulk goods, and spices. There’s no escaping, however, the poverty … and the live animals ready to be sold for meat.
For respite from Granada’s humidity and bustling vibe: Euro Café and The Garden Café, offering bagels and hummus (rare in Central America), fresh smoothies and tranquil patios. El Tercer Ojo has a spiritual ambiance, books to peruse, and a delicious vegetarian brochette. For some tasty Italian food on quieter Calle La Calzada, try Pizzeria Don Luca.
On the peaceful Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua, swim in a stunning lake with a view of volcanoes, hike to petroglyphs, or frolic with frogs and fireflies. Hacienda Merida is a good place to sleep and enjoy the buffet with soy meats, veggies and homemade bread.
Swimmers and surfers love the beaches north of lively San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua: Playa Marsella, Bahia Majagual and Playa Madera. Top herbivore dining spots are El Gato Negro, with coffee, books for sale and tons of travelers, and artsy El Colibri, with delicious Mediterranean meals.
Heading south into the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, heavenly beaches next to monkey- and iguana-filled rainforests were a highlight. In Nosara, Oasis Natural Foods is all vegetarian and offers soy ham and cheese, and Harmony Hotel has upscale veggie options. In Santa Teresa/Malpais, Zula Restaurant makes great falafel, and Casa Zen has a relaxing gazebo for sipping chai and munching on Asian food.
Montezuma is a haven and so is its Café Organica, with fresh salads and dairy-free ice cream. In tiny Uvita, decompress on isolated beaches and treat yourself to Cascada Verde Eco Lodge, where after a rough day lying on hammocks observing rainforest wildlife, you can dine on garden-fresh vegan meals decorated with edible flowers.
Lands in Love (Tierras Enamoradas) is a vegetarian-friendly eco-vacation and nature adventure resort. Located 32km from San Ramon and close to Volcan Arenal, it offers all the amenities with a wide variety of tours and activities.
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica boasts beautiful beaches and has fun cultural flavor from reggae to local indigenous cacao farms. In Cahuita, Restaurant Natural Ingrid makes a unique garbanzo and onion sandwich, soups and salads. Cha Cha Cha! and Café Corleone dish up yummy veggie fare. Stay at Centro Turistico Brigitte and wake up to a large breakfast of fruit, gallo pinto and ever-popular fried plantains.
San Jose, while not the prettiest city, serves as a hub for the rest of the country and has some worthwhile vegetarian choices. I stayed at Casa Ridgway, run by the Friends Peace Center next door, to meet activist travelers. It’s within walking distance of Restaurant Naturista Shakti and Restaurante Tin Jo and fairly close to all-vegetarian Vishnu (also in Heredia).
Bring your Lonely Planet guidebook, some mosquito repellent, and flexibility – and you’ll be delighted with the bountiful beauty of Central America.
Paige Newman has written and volunteered for many vegetarian and ecological organizations since choosing to go vegetarian at age four. She has lived in San Diego for five years and loves Latin America.
This article was originally printed in VegDining.com. Photos courtesy of Paige Newman.