By Jackie Bastianon
Here's everything I wish I knew before living and travelling through Mexico as a vegan for the last three months.
Almost three months ago, my boyfriend and I packed up our laptops, sublet our apartment in Ottawa and hopped on a plane to Mexico. We’re lucky enough to both work remote jobs that gave us permission to temporarily move to another country within the same time zone. We did some research and decided to rent an Airbnb in Tulum, which is a two hour bus ride south of Cancun. The apartment complex we’re in is located in a quiet neighborhood north of town, right next to the jungle with great coffee shops, restaurants and the beach just a short bike ride away. It’s quite a touristy town, with lots of beach clubs and resorts situated on the water, which is one of the main reasons it’s known as one the best places to be vegan in Mexico.
There is one large chain ‘Supermercado’ located in the west end of the town called Chedraui that we go to every few weeks for more specialty items like oats, plant-based milks, Beyond meat products, tofu, vegan cheese and butter. Most of our shopping is done at corner stores and ‘Fruterias’ in our neighborhood which carry things like black beans, refried beans, lentils, rice, bread and a wide variety of fresh produce and juices. The vegan speciality items are the grocery stores about the same price as back home (not cheap), but I’ve been more than happy to pay for them. But the prices at the local stores have been exceptionally low compared to what we’re used to in Canada. I go down the street every few days to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables, and today I was able to get 2 mangos, 4 tomatoes, a bunch of bananas, 4 hot peppers, 4 avocados, a bell pepper, a cucumber, a red onion and 2 freshly pressed juices for the equivalent of $15 CAN!
Cooking and Restaurants
The kitchen in the Airbnb we’re renting is better equipped than most places I’ve ever stayed in, but is still missing things I’m used to like a microwave, oven and blender. We’ve also been limited by the spices we’ve been able to find and some more speciality ingredients so we’ve kept our meals pretty simple with a rotation of a few easy options for every meal. Eating almost all our meals at home has been a great way to enjoy the local produce (I eat several fresh mangos a day), stick to our budget and eat in a way that’s fresh and healthy.
Breakfast: Fresh fruit, oatmeal, avocado on toast
Lunch: Lentil and bean salad, peanut butter and banana sandwiches
Dinner: Black bean tacos, fajitas, quesadillas, pastas, tofu stir-fry, burgers
I’ve really loved the quality of the fresh produce here and the experience of being able to form a relationship with the people who sell me food. I’m excited to make a bigger effort to eat more seasonally and go more often to the farmer’s market when I get home.
There is no shortage of vegan restaurants here in Tulum. I’ve only scratched the surface, but my favourite place has been an all-vegan food truck called ‘Perro no Como Perro.’ It’s located in the Centro and serves a variety of street tacos, tortas, burgers and sausages with mock-meats. My go-to order is the tacos ‘el pastor’ with vegan cheese. On one hungry occasion, I once ate 10 of these in one sitting. The food is cheap and delicious (15 pesos, or ~$1.50 CAN / taco) and the people who run the truck really care about the animals.
I’ve been very lucky in Tulum, but generally being vegan and traveling in Mexico just requires more planning. In the places that we visited around the Yucatan Peninsula outside of the tourist towns, eating vegan or plant-based food is not common at all. In larger grocery stores vegan options are limited to beans, bread, peanut butter and fruit & vegetables and finding something like tofu or plant-based milk is a treat. This required me to be more flexible with what I ate and cooked, by keeping it really simple. People here eat a lot of street food, specifically tacos. Outside of the lovely truck I mentioned, it’s rare to see even one vegetarian or vegan option listed on the menu. Places that serve vegan food are generally more expensive because they’re geared towards tourists which I always find quite frustrating.
I always use the Happy Cow app when I travel, which shows all the restaurants and stores with reviews of vegan options close to you, no matter where you are in the world. This really saved me when in places like Valladolid and Merida where I struggled the most with finding places to eat. Learning how to say basic things like vegan “vegano” and without cheese (sin queso), without egg (sin huevo) and without cream (sin crema) in Spanish goes a long way in restaurants where people don’t speak English, which is really common here. When going on a day trip or a bus ride, we bring things like peanut butter, bread, tortilla chips, fruit and other easy snacks to help tide us over between meals. When traveling, I always make it a priority to stay at hostels with kitchens, so I have the option to cook a simple vegan meal and eat on a budget. One of the hostels we stayed at was run by a lovely Mayan woman who made breakfast every day, and kindly made me a vegan version each morning we were there. This gesture meant so much to me, as it gave me the opportunity to still participate in the hostel experience and eat her traditional home-cooked recipes, like sopas.
Reflecting on Privilege
Being here has made me really appreciate how privileged I am to choose to eat this way. For a lot of people, there are serious systemic barriers to being vegan: not having time to plan or cook, not having options in restaurants, not having access to resources, vegan restaurants being too expensive, living in food deserts, not having a supportive community of people around them. Back home, I am incredibly lucky to have access to such a wide variety of specialty vegan products and that almost every restaurant and cafe I go to these days has an option I can eat. I’d imagine that people trying to transition here have a lot more challenges to face than I ever had. It’s an important reminder that being vegan is not accessible for everyone, but for those of us who do have access it’s a choice that we should all consider making.
Being vegan in living and traveling in Mexico hasn’t been as easy as it is back in Canada, but with some planning, flexibility and creativity it has been 100% doable, relatively cheap and of course worth it for the animals.