Dana Roberts discusses experiences that opened her eyes as a vegan traveller in Peru, and provides tips for like-minded vegan adventurers.
When you’re traveling as a vegan, most of the guidebook recommendations aren’t helpful. The stand-out restaurants suggested by Zagat and others will often make you pay a hefty sum for a plain salad, even though you asked them not to include the lobster on top.
However, there is an attractive alternative: use veganism as an opportunity to push yourself away from the well-groomed tourist path. You might just realize that there is still a lot out there to discover.
When my boyfriend Lou and I arrived as fresh-faced vegans in Cusco, Peru, one of the first things we did was explore the local markets. However, we quickly realized that not all markets are created equal. For example, many of the central markets listed in the 'off the beaten path' guidebooks were built to support the huge influx of tourists, and the fruits and vegetables they sold miraculously doubled in price in comparison to other, peripheral markets. When I was chatting with a local chef about this problem he happily suggested I go with his father to the largest market, 20 minutes from the center of Cusco, and discover what a real city market was like. This was the holy grail, the market that all the other markets bought from, and it showed. You could only buy in bulk: a crate of strawberries, or a massive bag of potatoes. It was a vegan paradise of sorts.
This early realisation to get out of the centre and to actually talk to more locals was a turning point in my travels. Empowered to continue exploring the city, I met up for coffee with a local photographer named Wayra. He agreed to take us to a few of his favorite 'chicherias,' small bars usually run by one woman, where the only drink served is a home-brewed fermented corn drink called 'chicha.' After hiking up what felt like 100 flights of stairs, we finally made it to one of these local bars, barely visible from the street. It was marked by a small bouquet of flowers hanging in a pot next to the door with a red flag made of plastic – this combination of flowers and 'bandera' lets you know that you’ve come across a 'chicheria.' As we entered he explained that before we could take our first sip, we must make an offering to 'Pachamama,' or mother earth, as a gift, by pouring out a little of our drinks onto the dirt floor. We sat in a small room with a tin roof as the rain pelted down amongst a group of elderly Cusqueño men. After everyone felt satisfied with the number of toasts that had been made to the earth, and to each other, I took my first sip. The only way I can describe it is a mix between hard apple cider and a very sour, almost cloudy beer. Sitting among the locals, drinking a beverage that has been made this way since Incan times, I was struck by how far my plant-based way of life had taken me. Drinking 'chicha' with new friends in the outskirts of Cusco will forever be one of the most interesting things I’ve done while travelling.
After being on the road for about a month, I could feel myself getting tired of going to restaurants and trying to explain: “no leche, no carne, no mantequila, no huevo, etc…” All that changed the day I was walking through the artsy neighborhood of San Blas and stumbled upon Green Point. It was an entirely vegan restaurant nuzzled away in a side alley that like the 'chicheria' could barely be seen from the street. When I sat down for dinner I couldn’t believe my eyes – an enormous menu with everything from vegan lasagna, vegan ravioli, vegan tofu fried rice, lo mein, etc. There were plates from all around the world—all veganised—and all completely affordable. It was such an amazing and exciting moment to kick back with a vegan menu, to be able to relax when the waiter came by, and to finally get to try a lot of Peruvian dishes that had previously been off limits. The chef, Fabricio, had created a vegan ceviche made with avocado, mango, corn, lime and coconut, which was one of the best dishes I ate in Peru. There was even a vegan version of “lomo saltado” a traditional Peruvian dish normally made with steak and sautéed veggies. Getting to try most of Green Point’s menu and meet the wonderful people who worked there made me start to feel less like a traveller and more like a guest in someone’s home.
Cusco will always remain special to me as the first place we travelled as vegans, and where I gained so much perspective when it comes to getting to know a new city. To my fellow vegan travellers, I would recommend doing a little research before landing. Peruvians are familiar with the term “vegetarian” but many of the waiters think that vegetarians only abstain from red meat, not white meat like chicken. As a vegan traveler, it’s worth memorising all the Spanish words for meat and dairy products, especially butter and cheese. Beyond that, I would also recommend remaining flexible and trying to find accommodations that allow you to cook for yourself once in a while. This way you can shop at the various local markets and begin to explore the unbelievable diversity of fruits and vegetables available in Peru.
By Dana Roberts
Dana and her boyfriend Lou run Plant Based Traveler, a vegan travel show dedicated to demonstrating that while being a vegan backpacker involves more planning, it is infinitely more rewarding.
Check out their trip to Cusco in the video, below.
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