Guide to Vegan and Vegetarian Travel in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a great travel destination. The locals are extremely friendly and laid back. Beautiful beaches line the coastline – beaches with swaying palm trees (perfect for hanging a hammock), clear water, and excellent snorkeling just a few feet from the shore. While you could certainly spend months exploring every nook and cranny of this archipelago, Puerto Rico is so small that it’s also a great place for travelers with limited vacation time. During a weeklong road trip, you can explore historic cities, caves, mountains, rain forests, coffee plantations, salt flats, and lots and lots of beaches. The terrain is astoundingly varied for such a small land mass.
The vegan food options however, are not so varied (at least if you want to eat traditional Puerto Rican food, that is). Puerto Rican cuisine, referred to as “cocina criolla” by the locals, is typically very meat heavy. Chicharrón (fried pork skin) and lechón asado (barbequed pig) are some island specialities, as is almost every type of seafood – especially in the coastal towns (jueyes = crab, pulpo = octopus, cangrejo = crab, langosta = lobster).
That said, there are a few vegetarian and vegan-friendly Puerto Rican foods that you can find almost anywhere.
Mofongo is a very filling dish made with plaintains that have been deep fried, mashed with lots of garlic, and then formed into a ball. Mofongo is most commonly made with plantains, but other starchy tropical tubers may be used (like yuca in mofogo de yuca, or breadfruit in mofongo de pana). Trifongo is another similar dish made with plátanos maduros (sweet yellow plantains), plátanos verdes, (unripe green plaintains), and yuca (cassava root). Mofongo relleno (stuffed mofongo) is also popular. Common fillings are generally meat-based, but it’s often possible to customize and ask for a vegetable filling instead. Like almost every dish prepared in Puerto Rico, you’ll have to ensure it is vegan by checking to see if it was cooked with pork or bits of bacon (as this is quite common in classic mofongo).
Tostones are green plantains that are cut width-wise and deep fried, then smashed into flat rounds and deep friend again. The end result is crisp, golden brown medallions that are salted and eaten like french fries. The best ones (in my opinion) are either pre-soaked in garlic water or prepared with minced garlic.
Arroz con Habichuelas, Arroz con Gandules
Just like almost anywhere in the Caribbean and Latin America, good ‘ol rice and beans is very popular in Puerto Rico. Frijoles is the Spanish word for beans in much of Latin America, but the Puerto Rican word for beans is habichuelas. Habichuelas are often served as a stew with potatoes, squash, peppers, and other veggies, though ham is often used as well so always be sure to check. The habichuelas most often found at restaurants and street stalls are red kidney beans, but habichuelas blancas (white beans), habichuelas rosadas (pink beans), and habichuelas tiernas/habichuelas verdes (green beans) are also common, as are chick peas. Puerto Rico’s national dish is arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). This dish is often seasoned with sofrito (an aromatic salsa-type sauce) and diced ham. While it’s possible to find vegetarian rice and beans, you’ll probably have the easiest time at restaurants that cater to tourists. If you’re polite and willing to speak Spanish, however, it is possible to custom order vegetarian items at most places. Most Puerto Ricans we met were very friendly and they tried their best to be accommodating.
Plaintains, Squash, and Viandas (Starchy Root Vegetables)
Viandas (or starchy tropical tubers) are an important staple in the Caribbean. There are many types with varied tastes and textures, and they are prepared in many different ways. Some common root vegetables in Puerto Rico are yuca (cassava), batata (white or yellow sweet potato), ñame (yam), yautia, malanga, taro, and apio. Pana (breadfruit) and chayote squash is quite common, as are many types of potatoes and plantains. Here is a good guide for information about common tropical roots and preparation instructions.
Deep fried pastry turnovers are popular at small restaurants and street stalls. Many are stuffed with assorted meats or seafoods, but it is also possible to find some stuffed with fruits and vegetables. These turnovers are called empanadillas, but are commonly refereed to as pastelillos on the eastern side of the island. If the empanadillas are being made on the spot and if you ask nicely, it is generally possible to custom order them with whatever ingredients are on hand (guava, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.)
Fresh Tropical Fruits
Fresh tropical fruits are varied and abundant. They have some of the largest avocados I’ve ever seen, and the pineapples, mangoes, coconuts are very fresh. Based on my research, here are some other interesting fruits that can be found in Puerto Rico: guava, jackfruit, tamarindo, chironja (oranjelo), corazón (custard apple), pomarosa (rose apple), anón (sugar apple), caimito (star apple) guineos niños (ladyfinger bananas), parcha (passion fruit), carambola (starfuit), guanábana (soursop), frambuesas (Puerto Rican raspberries), bananas rojas (red bananas), jobo, mamey sapote, mammee apple, quenepa. You can find some of them at the grocery stores, but more uncommon ones are best searched for at fruit stands or farmers markets.I didn’t get to try all of them when in Puerto Rico, but I had my fair share of jugo de china (orange juice), jugo de papaya (papaya juice), and coco frío (fresh cold coconut juice – very authentic and refreshing!) Another popular fruit drink is a frappe tropical (a blended fruit concoction with parcha juice, coconut cream, banana, and pineapple).
Local Brews & Tropical Cocktails
Rum is the national drink and you can find rum here in every shade and flavor. It’s great in a cuba libre (rum and coke), piña colada, mojito, or other specialty cocktail. Chichaito is a shot consisting of white rum mixed with anise liqeur. A few of these were given to me by the bartender to try. One of these is a great way to end a meal.
For those more into beer, the local brews are Magna and Medalla. Puerto Ricans seem to prefer light beer, but Magna is slightly darker and I personally liked that one the best out of the two.
Puerto Rico’s rich, home-grown coffee is certainly a must try for coffee lovers. Coffee is grown in Puerto Rico’s cool, mountainous interior. Several tour companies offer tours to Puerto Rico’s coffee plantations, which are located in the agricultural areas of Jayuya, Adjuntas, Lares, and Yauco.
Tips for Being a Happy & Healthy Vegan in Puerto Rico
- Learn some Spanish. Even though English is widely spoken in the tourist areas, Spanish is the local language and even just knowing a handful of words and phrases will be a tremendous asset (especially if traveling outside of the Old San Juan area and attempting to customize meals). Trying to speak Spanish is also a good way to show respect, so any attempt to speak it (no matter how poorly) will be greatly appreciated.
- Plan ahead. Puerto Rico has several restaurants that specifically cater to vegans and vegetarians. While I wouldn’t recommend planning your trip around them, knowing where you are in relation to them is a good idea. It would be a shame to miss them if you happen to be nearby. Visit Happy Cow for a list of veg-friendly Puerto Rican restaurants and health food stores. If traveling with a smartphone, you can also download the Happy Cow app or Plant Eaters app to discover some veg-friendly places nearest to you.
- Eat at small, local places and custom order. While small town eateries are not likely to be the most vegan friendly places, these types of places may just end up serving you the best meal of your trip if you give them a try. The food served at tourist restaurants in Old San Juan is very pricey, typically more bland, and you miss out on a lot of the local flavor when eating at places like this. At a lot of these smaller places, you can speak directly to the chef (this is where your Spanish comes in) and inquire about the possibility of custom ordering a vegetarian meal. From our experience, many places have at least a few vegetables in the kitchen and are very willing to do so. If you happen across the right place and are willing to speak up, chances are you’ll be very pleased with the result.
- Rent a car if traveling outside of San Juan. Buses and taxis are easy to come by in San Juan, but public transportation otherwise is not so great. Having a car ensures you a great amount of freedom. You can visit certain vegetarian restaurants that would otherwise be difficult to reach or drive to specialty markets and grocery stores, stock up on a few basic food items, and just store everything in your car.
- Bring a travel stove and self cater. We camped quite a bit during our trip and were so glad we decided to bring our travel stove. This actually enabled us to try more local foods, as we were able to pick up interesting, raw ingredients from the grocery store and prepare our own vegan meals with them. Many of these items would likely not have been made vegan if ordered at a restaurant and prepared in the classic Puerto Rican method, but in making our own vegan Puerto Rican fusion meals, we were able to expand our horizons a bit.
Vegan and Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurants in Puerto Rico
A more extensive list of vegan-friendly restaurants & health food stores in Puerto Rico can be found on the Happy Cow Web site (with reviews, price ranges, etc.) but mentioned below are the few we managed to check out while there.
Please Note: I don’t update my pages very often, so always double check the actual Web sites to check details.
We were passing through Mayaguez and seeing that it seemed to be a college town, decided to check the Happy Cow app on a whim. We’re so glad we did because we probably wouldn’t have known about this place had we not. We got there just as they opened for lunch. Food here is served cafeteria style (you grab a tray, choose from many different choices, and pay per item). The ladies working there were very friendly and they happily explained what each of the dishes were. Miguel ordered rice, beans, some sort of casserole made with mashed breadfuit and vegetable protein, and fresh watermelon juice. I ordered rice, garlicy mashed plantains, some sort of carne guisada made with soya chunks, and fresh papaya juice. Afterwards we were thoroughly stuffed and drove to the beach to nap off our meals.
El Meson in assorted locations around Puerto Rico
El Meson is a fast food place that serves sandwiches and baked potatoes. It’s a chain with many locations throughout Puerto Rico and it has several vegetarian options that include a variety of veggie meats. Many sandwiches can also be made in baked potato form. Request no cheese to make them vegan.
Lucky 13 BBQ in Rincon
We just happened across this place because we were looking to stay at the Rincon Inn for the night, which is located next door (but their office had already closed). They didn’t have a lot of veggie options, but the ones they did have were creative. Also the bartenders were really nice and they recommended us a great place to camp for the night. We ended up sticking around for a few beers and ordering the Mr. Green (tempura fried asparagus tacos) and chips with black bean salsa.
Vegan and Vegetarian-Friendly Guesthouses in Puerto Rico
Maravilla Mountain in West Puerto Rico
Vegan B&B that offers housing at two locations – one in the mountains and one on the beachfront. We tried to contact this guesthouse to inquire about staying, but never got a reply. It seems that this guesthouse requires advance notice and may only be open during certain seasons. This place got great tripadvisor reviews and it seems like a neat place to stay though.
Dreamcatcher House in Ocean Park, San Juan
A friend stayed here in 2014 and said “the guesthouse has an amazing chef who lives there (Dario) who makes some fantastic vegan meals. The guesthouse itself is pescatarian.”
Vegan Puerto Rico Blogs
Vegan Puerto Rican Recipes
Not able to get to Puerto Rico but still want to make some Puerto Rican recipes? Here are some interesting vegan Puerto Rican recipes I’ve found.
Plantains and Root Vegetables
Mofongo (Mashed Green Plantains) with Deep Fried Tempeh from Vegan Ricans
Yuca Alcapurrias (Yuca Fritters) from Karma Free Cooking
Yautía Fritters from Karma Free Cooking
Pastelón (Plantain Casserole) from Puerto Rican Vegan
Pastelón (Plaintain Casserole) from Vegan Ricans
Pastelón de Yuca Cruda (Raw Yuca Casserole) from Karma Free Cooking
Fried Yucca from My Vida Vegan
Tostones (Fried Green Plantains) from My Vida Vegan
Vegan Sanchocho (Root Vegetable Stew) from My Vida Vegan
Sopa de Platano (Green Plantain Soup) from Eating Vegan Like a Rican
Tofu Pasteles from Vegan Family Home Cook
Habichuelas Guisada (Stewed Beans) from Puerto Rican Vegan
Habichuelas Guisada (Stewed Beans) from Eating Vegan Like a Rican
Asopao de Gandules (Pigeon Pea Soup) from Vegan Ricans
Asopao de Gandules (Pigeon Pea Soup) from Whats4Eats
Spanish Rice and Beans from Puerto Rican Vegan
Arroz con Gandules (Rice with Pigeon Peas) from Karma Free Cooking
Arroz con Gandules (Rice with Pigeon Peas) from Hungry Vegan
Sauces and Seasonings
Annato Infused Olive Oil from Eating Vegan Like a Rican
Sazón Seasoning from Eating Vegan Like a Rican
Sazón Seasoning from Whats4Eats
Yuca al Mojo (Cassava with Garlic Sauce) from Vegan Ricans
Sofrito from Puerto Rican Vegan
Sofrito from Eating Vegan Like a Rican
Achiote (Annatto Oil) from Whats4Eats
Adobo (Garlic Pepper Vinegar Marinade) from Whats4Eats
Mojo (Garlic Sauce) from Whats4Eats
Tembleque from Karma Free Cooking
Tembleque from Vegan Ricans
Arroz con Dulce (Coconut Rice Pudding) from Eating Vegan Like a Rican
Coquito (Puerto Rican Eggnogg from My Vida Vegan
Pina Colada from Whats4Eats