I Survived as a Vegetarian in Peru, And You Can Too

“You might have trouble finding food.”

These words were solemnly delivered to me, on several occasions, as I talked with meat-eating friends about my upcoming trip to Peru. I had never been to South America and was excited to finally check off a long-time travel goal of mine, but began rethinking my packing strategy as I prepared for the meat-loving country. Perhaps less layering pieces for the Inca Trail, and more snacks?

I have been a vegetarian for almost 18 years. In that time, I’ve travelled through farm communities in Laos, beer halls in Germany, remote villages in Australia, even Memphis, Tennessee (90-95% meat thanks to plentiful bbq joints), all while maintaining my dietary choice. While it has sometimes been a challenge (in a carb-induced hangover in Memphis I began wondering if I’d develop scurvy), I’ve always managed. Would Peru be too much for me?

Our journey began in Lima. Breakfasts at our hotel were easy enough to navigate; I’m used to scarfing fruits and veggies when I know I may not see them again for awhile and took advantage of the buffet set-up to start each day. Hotel breakfasts are pretty standard with what they offer – white, starchy rolls and jam, cheese and luncheon meats, other meats (so much meat! at every meal!) and “essence of coffee” which still confuses me, given the coffee that’s produced in the region. Lunches and dinners took a bit more planning; I spent a lot of time Googling recommendations in between practicing “Soy vegetariana” and “No como carne, ni pollo, ni pescado, ni jamon”, which basically means “I can’t eat anything on your menu, man alive help me.” My fiancé, on the other hand, could eat everything on any menu, twice, so he happily went along with many of my suggestions. I had good success at Tostaduria Bisetti, Saqra and Burrito Bar.

Saqra in particular has a mushroom ceviche that is out of this world; Steve practically licked the bowl. It was nice to be able to experience a Peruvian culinary staple and understand what the fuss is about, having never had ceviche before. Thankfully pisco sours are vegetarian.

We travelled next to Cusco. The altitude mucked about with my appetite for a bit, which was somewhat of a blessing as it allowed me to pace myself on the carb addiction that I was quickly developing. Peruvians love potatoes! And quinoa. I love these foods too, but my pants were quickly becoming snug. As Cusco caters to more tourists than Lima, I did find it easier to find food options, and highly recommend La Bodega 138 (we may have eaten there three times, no regrets, it was amazing), Granja Heidi and Organika. I would move into Organika if I could, just for the pumpkin soup and lava cakes. While I do eat dairy and eggs, I think vegans would manage just fine in Cusco with the number of veg-only restaurants available. It was a pleasant surprise. Menu options favour local ingredients and are on the simpler (albeit spicier) side, all washed down nicely with Argentinian wine or a local ale.

A special shout-out to the Meeting Place Cafe for its out-of-this-world waffles and for actually serving café con leche. My adventures in trying to find a simple coffee with milk in Peru deserve a post of their own.

In between stops in Cusco we walked the Inca Trail (and survived! More on this later!). If you’re doing the Trail, make sure you book with a tour provider who can accommodate your dietary restrictions. Our tour porters were fabulous and did the best they could with a vegetarian and two gluten-free hikers, but by the third day I really noticed how lethargic I was from a steady diet of rice and deep fried eggplant. I ate a lot more trail mix and chocolate covered almonds than I’d intended which helped me get by. But I did not feel great after.

Lunch after completing the Inca Trail was, well, potatoes:

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I managed to find a banana and a coffee in Aguas Calientes, and added Inka Corn to the mix. It wasn’t the most balanced meal I’ve eaten, but to be fair the chips A) came with mayo and B) the mayo was infused with lime which is a fruit!

We went back to Lima for a few days post-Cusco, and I was now armed with more awareness over what Peruvian dishes could actually be vegetarian which made things easier. When looking at menus, watch for:

  • Locro De Zapallo (a stew, traditionally made with meat but in this case replaced with butternut squash. Delicious!)
  • Humitas (small sweet tamales made of corn)
  • Aforementioned mushroom ceviche
  • Rocoto Relleno (stuffed peppers, usually with meat so double-check first!)
  • Quinoa soup (especially in the Sacred Valley)

Also, it’s not the worst idea to scope out a grocery store and pick up some snacks to tide you over. The crackers, cheese and fruit we picked up were lifesavers on a day where I had found it particularly challenging to find foods I could eat and I was feeling very hangry.

 

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Staying Vegetarian in Asia

I’m becoming convinced that it’s next to impossible, unless you eat at westernized joints. One of the lovely Brits on the tour is also a vegetarian, and she and I have been eating plate after plate of veggie fried rice, cashew tofu rice, veggies and rice, etc. I’ve been trying to turn a blind eye to the fact that there is likely something meaty in it because a gal needs to eat! Some days have been okay – we had a great home-cooked meal at a local Laotian family’s place the other night and the food was amazing, and clearly vegetarian.

Last night, however, I think we blatantly ate beef, despite being repeatedly told it was meat-free. No veggie broth looks like that one did. I don’t know whether it was due to the hot, hot heat yesterday, the ridiculous amount of exercise we did (aforementioned scary bike ride, walking everywhere, hiking up a mountain to see the sunset – more on that later), or the beefy dinner, but my stomach finally put its hands up and said “whoa, whoa, enough y’all” and revolted. Now it’s split down the middle in protest – one side wants to eat, the other wants to be a punching bag for the invisible goat kicking me in the side. It’s an interesting combo.

We leave Luang Prabang this morning and have an eight hour drive through the mountains to get to our next destination. In addition to finding a bank machine that will accept my card, I also hope to have a working, happy stomach and some meal options that don’t kill me!