South America is not an easy place to be vegan. However, it’s not impossible to stick to your dietary preferences while travelling on a budget. Sure, it may not be a culinary adventure, but at least you can feel good about sticking to it. Here are a few of the things I figured out as a vegan in Peru.
1. Think fruit, then double it
It’s so easy to think “I’ll just eat fruit,” when you’re not there. I mean, this is South America. If there’s one thing you’re expecting, it’s good-quality and fresh fruit. In reality—that is, if you aren’t already used to eating just fruits, smoothies, or juices for breakfast—you might find you’re a little unsatisfied with it at first.
Luckily, if you stick with it, you’ll crave sweet breakfasts (and that’s saying a lot for me—I’m more of the savoury breakfast set). However, even if you’re craving it, you’re probably going to be hungry again before lunchtime. Why? Because you’re not eating enough. If you’re ordering one juice at a stall or one fruit salad at a beachside restaurant, that’s not enough fruit to be satisfying. Either buy your own to supplement or get another serving mid-morning. Fill up while you can, because if you can manage on fruit breakfasts, this is one meal that won’t have to be complicated by geographical location. And it can get complicated. Trust me.
2. Pack your own lunch
Booking cheap, last-minute tours is one of the perks of being in Peru. Really, no one books anything more than a few days in advance (and if you do, you’re paying a hell of a lot more, so just don’t).
If it’s a full-day or multi-day tour, they will offer lunch or multiple meals (though, not all do, so it’s important to check). Even if they ask if you’re a vegetarian, don’t trust that the meal will be vegan. It will probably contain eggs, or even tuna (this happened to me once).
Play it safe and grab something at a market or grocery store in advance. Even if you’re eating snack foods as meals, at least you’ll be able to stick to veganism without starving.
3. Don’t always avoid the gringo restaurants
I know they feel inauthentic. I know they are vastly more expensive. But, sometimes, you’ve just got to have a good meal.
One of my favourite eating experiences in Peru was at Café Andino in Huaraz. How did I come to learn about this place? From my Lonely Planet guidebook. I know, I know—I usually avoid those places, too. And, yes, no one there was a local. But, I had an amazing sesame tofu salad and I didn’t care that it cost my whole food budget for the day.
Here’s the thing about Peru: it’s not Thailand. Every stall in the market is not offering gourmet-standard meals. Eating local does not mean eating beautiful stir-frys and curries for a dollar. While you will have some good food from time to time, that’s not a guarantee. Tourist-centric restaurants offer meals to suit a wider variety of dietary restrictions. So, live a little and break your budget once in a while.
4. Trust veg restaurants
While they may be hard to find, you can usually trust restaurants that designate themselves as “vegetarian.” This means that your “vegetable soup” won’t mysteriously appear with pieces of bone and pork floating in them. It also means that a big portion of the meals will likely be vegan.
However, if “vegetarian” restaurants are noticeably absent, keep an eye out for a Chifa. Chifas are quite popular in Peru. The food is a Peruvian version of Chinese—meaning Chinese-style vegetables, meats, rice, and noodles. You should be able to get basic veg and noodles or rice. It might get repetitive if you’re relying on it often, but it’s food you can eat (as long as you’re not too concerned about your sodium intake!).
5. Don’t be afraid to ask
Though the set menu is meat, rice, salad, and a soup appetizer, you can make special requests. I’m one of those people that is afraid to be the slightest bit difficult at restaurants (maybe it comes from the years I waitressed during high school). However, you’ll quickly learn that most restaurants will leave out whatever you want, as long as you’re still paying for it.
So, just eat your rice and salad and pay the $2 (or whatever the equivalent in soles is). It may not look that exciting, but neither does the piece of chicken that’s been sitting on the kitchen counter all day, waiting to be reheated (maybe) and served.
Bonus: Don’t say “yes” blindly—repeat yourself instead
People won’t always be sensitive to the fact that you are not 100% (or 90%… or 50%…) confident in your abilities with their language. So, don’t necessarily expect a “Sí” or “No” when you make you request. Instead, you might get a string of words that you kind-of-but-don’t-really understand. Don’t just nod and smile. You might end up with something unexpected added to your plate. You might not, but it’s a risk. Instead, even if you feel like an idiot, just repeat the request that you so diligently translated and practiced beforehand. They will probably pick up on the fact that you’re clueless after that (especially if their followup question had nothing to do with your meal choice).
Bonus Bonus Tip: Make sure your hostel has a kitchen
Cooking for yourself is obviously the best way to keep an eye on your ingredients. However, not every hostel has a communal kitchen. Yes, most will and it usually won’t be an issue, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure before you book.