It's funny how we think something is difficult, and then "WHAM!"... I'll show you difficult. Such was my experience going from Chile to Bolivia as a vegan. Chucha! (Shit!) I left Santiago with vegan empanadas literally coming out of my pocket. Man, I would love to have been mugged that night... "No really, I have NO money, it's just a bunch of empanadas, I swear!"
Give me a minute, as my mouth waters in remembrance of these tasty, flaky treats. Mmmm... Real food.
Okay, I'm back. Exiting Chile was nothing less than a shit show. Border control was a small building with an epic line. "Boy, I'm getting hungry! No problem - I'll be eating soon enough," I thought! Good thing I told the tour company for my 3 day jeep trek to Salar de Uyuni (salt flats, geysers, pink and green lagoons, hot springs amidst the Andean mountains) about my special vegan diet. Conversation went like this, verbatim (albeit, I was speaking excellent Spanglish, which I've omitted to help you better understand how it went down):
ME: "Oh, and one more thing. I'm a vegan. Do I need to bring my own food?"
AGENT: "No es problema. Vegetariana."
ME: "No, actually I'm a vegan. Sorry. Er... I know it's complicated. No meat... But, also no eggs, no milk, no butter, no cheese. No animal."
AGENT: "No es problema."
ME: "Are you sure? It's sort of always a problem."
AGENT: "No es problema."
In case your Spanish is worse than mine... Everything was "no problem." I dreamt of vegan empanadas as I stood in line waiting to get my passport stamped.
After driving a bit, we got out for some breakfast/Bolivian mud hut immigration business. Needless to say, breakfast was not vegan. Ravenously, I began to unwrap my 22nd Clif Bar of my trip, which like a genius, I decided to pack in the event of an emergency. (FYI, I've justified at least one cliff bar emergency every day so far). Okay, no big deal. Surely lunch and dinner will be better...
I feel that now is a good time to mention some details of the trip: Lonely Planet describes this excursion as "...worth a visit!" though "...none of the travel companies get glowing reviews." I went with a company called Cordillera because of the advertisement on their office door which exclaimed, proudly: "No deaths since 2008!" In this remote part of the Bolivian desert, we were meant to expect the following: extremely high altitudes, sub-zero weather, basic accommodations is a laughable understatement - so no heat was just one example of what made the term roughing it seem more than appropriate. A safe and comfortable way to ascend into high altitudes is no more than 300 meters a day. Well, in four hours, we went from 2500 meters to 4900 meters. What the fuck are meters?!? I know, being American is annoying for this reason, because we are the one of the few people in the world who don't use the metric system. All you need to know is that it's HIGH... and this little piggy got sick. I don't mean a little headache; I mean puking, dizzy, trouble breathing, crazy fever (remember no heat), headache -- the works. I was scared, and in retrospect it's a good thing I was too sick to eat, because there wasn't anything FOR me to eat. Salar de Uyuni will be remembered as the best diet of my life. On the third day when I could finally keep food down, this is what they had for me:
Cooked, but now cold carrots and string beans? Pasta, boiled potatoes, and ketchup. It was the most delicious gross food I've ever had -- I was kind of starving.
Bus strikes in Uyuni made it impossible/dangerous to arrive in the town we expected. Our group of eleven pooled together euros, soles, pounds, dollars, pesos, and bolivianos and somehow convinced them to drive us to Oruro... A kind of charming shit hole a couple hours closer to La Paz, where most of us were headed to next anyway. Once in Oruro the group decided to get pizza. (Can't win, I thought). So, I ordered a most delicious cheese-less pizza, which I assure you, even though I asked, was not vegan. A vegan knows, but not eating was no longer an option.
I'll admit, La Paz turned out to be one of my favorite parts of this trip so far, and although I was desperate for a kitchen, (no hostels in Bolivia seemed to have any) I was getting better at this whole "ordering" thing. If I had to guess, I'd say 75% of the "vegan" food I ordered was actually vegan. Sigh.... we do our best in this world, Alex. After lunch in La Paz, we headed to the Witches' Market where I couldn't help at guffaw at the prices of all these amazing goodies. I mean, shit was practically free. Everywhere, handmade alpaca sweaters. I was freezing and I wanted one. Bad. My new Spanish speaking friend asked the nice lady in one of the shops if the llamas were harmed in order to make these fine digs. She assured us that not only were the animals not harmed, they were combed very carefully to get the best of their coats. I couldn't help but notice the llama fetuses for sale behind her. Shiver. Happily I trotted off in my cruelty free hoodie.
As the safety of Bolivia was questionable*, we decided to continue on as a group, though now we were down to 6. Copacabana here we come!
Again, eating 100% vegan was not something I was ever gonna be able to be certain of, no matter how many times I asked. Also, in this small beach town, restaurants are known for having terrible service, as there is only ever one person working and they are doing everything: serving, taking orders, making drinks, bussing, running dishes, dish washing - they're probably cooking the damn food, too. EXCEPT... there was one notable restaurant called La Orilla. This restaurant came highly recommended by Trip Advisor, and it's no surprise - this place was packed. And just like the other restaurants: one guy. Only THIS guy was a pro, and the fact that he spoke perfect English was a major plus for me. I had fajitas, and I was assured (this time the assurance actually felt like it meant something) my food was completely animal free. And my God it was so good!
The next day we left this quaint and beautiful gem for Cusco, Peru. Hopefully I have better luck there, though I was NOT sad to discover this vegan treat for the bus ride (giant popped sweet corn -- comparable to kettle corn, only not really).
*Turns out Bolivia is perfectly safe so long as you don't act like an idiot. Stay in groups, don't get wasted and get in an unmarked taxi, don't walk alone down alleys at 3am, etc...