A Desperate Vegetarian Goes to Peru

machuhelen“You can’t be vegetarian in Peru,” said the doctor, as he stabbed me in the arm with six needles. He had a kindly, condescending look on his face. Well, why not. I was paying him to stab me, and he had large plastic bag of medications to give the poor, silly, innocent tourist-to-be.

Stuff to stop diarrhoea, stuff to stop vomiting, stuff to rehydrate the body, iodine to sterilise water. A machete to cut through the jungle. Insect repellent that would possibly kill llamas as well. Another machete. A flame-thrower. A big stick with a sort of lump on the end.

I tell a lie. Because of a pre-existing medical condition, I couldn’t use the iodine.

I would have no room in my suitcase for clothing. I was turning into one of those old ladies who travelled with nothing but medications and a small, ugly dog. All I needed was the dog. Perhaps I’d find a vicuna that would suffice.

“You will have to eat meat,” said the doctor, cheerfully, as though my last twenty years’ vegetarianism meant nothing to him. It didn’t. He was a big strong, healthy meat-eater who could vaccinate himself, and had the strength to hold down and subdue others with tetanus shots.

“Oh, there are ways,” I said, being sage and wise and stupid.

A month later, another doctor looked at test results showing my iron levels.

“Eat meat or die,” he said, ruddy from his last meal of dead animal and running blood. “You simply aren’t getting enough iron any other way.”

“But-“

“I am serious, here. You have to get your iron levels up, and red meat is the easiest way to do that and have it stay in the body.”

I pouted. I argued that iron tablets….no, not absorbable enough. That spinach and broccoli….no, not unless I could eat a bucket of each three times a day.

I went away and wept. How dare my female body betray me like this. How dare it not cope with three physical jobs, and a bunch of stress.

I went to the butcher’s and bought the smallest piece of steak I could find.

“What are you doing, weaning yourself off it?” joked the butcher.

“No, weaning myself onto it,” I said, looking as depressed, white and wan as I could.

machusunHis hearty red hand slapped the counter and he laughed. The first doctor’s prognosis echoed. Get used to eating meat. I was going to Peru, land of ‘no eatie the salads, no drinkie the water, no eatie raw vegetables, peel all fruit, and bathe in hand sanitiser’.

I skulked home with my palm-sized sliver of steak. I cooked it. It shrank to the size of fifty-cent piece. I smothered it with salad. Lots of lovely crunchy lettuce, raw carrot and beetroot, wilted spinach, some snow peas. No disguising it. I ate down through the rabbit food and discovered the grey piece of dead cow. I ate it. It tasted of nothing.

I cannot remember a time I’ve enjoyed eating meat, except for the occasional burnt sausage at a backyard barbecue when I was a kid.

When I announced I was no longer a vegetarian friends rejoiced. I was no longer the difficult pain-in-the-butt dinner guest. I could be given hunks of lamb, cow, horse, camel and kangaroo, with one pea as a nod towards fibre.

I was thus ready to go to Peru.

My meals on the planes were not vegetarian. This was a new experience. In the past I ventured far into the land of lentil and green soggy thing on 4am flights. Now I was treated to roast thing with gravy and peas, to be followed, hours later, by cold croissant and ham with cheese. I got to have ice cream. Vegetarians on many flights did not. They had lentil and green soggy thing, to be followed by water.

I was suddenly a bon vivant who ate ice cream and I can be offered tea, coffee, wine, beer and other things with which to pollute my body. Now that I wasn’t vegetarian, life, as such, opened up to me.

The party ended in Lima. I staggered down to breakfast, where there was no vegetarian choice. Either the cheese and ham on a very white bread roll that bounced when it hit my plate, or I could exist on papaya juice for an identified amount of time.

As I toured Peru, I was presented with many forms of the same mystery soup that tasted of chicken stock. I ate many vegetarian pizzas. Some came with goat, llama, alpaca or guinea pig on them (don’t eat the guinea pig, it’s oily and greasy).

When I brought this to the notice of the Spanish-speaking waiter, I was told: “They vegetarian.”

Yes, I understood that guinea pigs are vegetarian. Me eating them is not. The same pizza went away and came back three times, the guinea pig still on board, but covered with more cheese. I gave up and ate up. This is how I know that guinea pig will sit in your guts for days at a time, making ‘cuy cuy cuy’ noises, and making you make ‘gurgle cuy cuy rumble’ noises.

Goat was heavy and sat in my stomach, making me sleepy for long bus trips. Alpaca needed to be highly seasoned and the only reason I knew I was eating it was that I scraped the dried herbs off it to take a look at the rubbery meat. Ditto llama.

Each meal came with a luscious salad that I could not eat.

“We don’t necessarily know how the vegetables were irrigated and fertilised,” said our tour guide cheerfully. Fine for him. He was tucking into goat at the time and not missing the crunch of vegetables at all.

We toured Arequipa market. Our guide spoke: “Leave your purses in the bus. There will be no time for shopping.”

perufishI was surrounded by fresh vegetables and fruits, a bright myriad of colour. The veggies were right next to the raw meat counter, where there were large haunches of pink and red things. Whole pigs’ heads looked down on me. Across the aisle, fish were piled up neatly, with no ice in sight. I saw the wire where the dried frogs hung.

I thought of Moses looking back over the desert(the meat counter), and then forward to the Promised Land (fruit and veggies) and not being allowed to enter. How come he didn’t throw a great big tantrum, the way I wanted to?

Our guide’s words echoed and I had to leave the crunchies behind. Lunch is pizza with a slight alpaca topping along with the mushrooms.

I staggered through Peru, a desperate vegetarian supposedly off the wagon. “Cuy cuy cuy” said the guinea pigs in an artisan’s village. They were cute and fluffy and I held one. I prayed this is not the equivalent of me selecting my dinner.

Later I worried as I patted some kittens. Surely not….

I drank orange juice to stave off scurvy.

perupizza350I came home to salad I could eat, water I could drink, vegetables that could be consumed raw. Yet, third night home, I craved pizza. I was desperate for a vegetarian pizza that wouldn’t contain wild life. A friend ordered a meat lover’s pizza. I cannot help myself.

“Cuy cuy cuy,” I said softly.

I was back on the wagon. Bring on the iron tablets.

Editor’s note: If your doctor is okay with it, staying vegetarian in South America is not impossible if you have a strategy planned out.

Pizza photo by ksbuehler on Flickr

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  • Coseppi Kitchen said at 2012-03-20T23:39:47+0000: My husband and I are vegetarians and lived in Peru for the last 6 months. We had no problem at all. In our town, Huaraz, there were several vegetarian restaurants, tofu was available in the market, and there was an abundant variety of fresh seasonal produce. We will have The Authentic Peruvian Vegetarian Cookbook out early next year. You can visit our website at www.coseppikitchen.com.
  • Miguel Angel Venancio Romero said at 2011-06-22T00:38:22+0000: Sad story, but is even worse that's true. Here in Peru almost every people I know enjoy eating meat and don't regret about the animal life. And let me you mates that markets dont help with these problems and it's freaking hard to find a vegan food restaurant .
  • Harish Shankar said at 2011-10-20T15:23:57+0000: Loved your article! I've been vegetarian all my life and have lived in Peru for a good month now, not dying of malnutrition. So I guess it can work :)
  • Tanja Syrucek said at 2014-07-20T19:31:52+0000: There is a southamerican cereal called quinoa, which contains twice the iron of beef. Or an other cereal called amaranth which contains triple the iron of beef. You can get both in Peru, it grows there and is a basic food. This could solve both of your problems... I wasn't in Peru, but a friend who is also vegetarian was and had no problem to stay vegetarian. And as a vegan eating quinoa I have a normal iron level, like a meateater... You shouldn't give up that easy. Vegetarians remind meateaters that it is not okay how they treat other species. That's why they criticize us. It's easier than thinking about there own lifestyle or changing it...

Older comments on A Desperate Vegetarian Goes to Peru

Cristina Dima-772
01 September 2009

I’ve been a semi-vegetarian for 3 yrs already and often times it’s challenging to by-pass red meat b/c there are no other options. Thankfully, my blood work is great so my doctor only nags me abt not eating red meat.

Marco Casalino
02 September 2009

Sorry, you must be one of a kind vegetarian, and your guide must have come from the same planet. Peruvian food is good and diverse, and when going to medium class restaurants you have good salads.
Pizza + cuy ??? not funny, never seen it.

Claudius
07 September 2009

You are not alone. I spent 30 years as a vegan. Four years ago I came to Africa and managed to continue my vegan diet, half starved all the time. Three and a half years ago ended up in the hospital for 10 days with dehydration, food poisening and pneumonia, all related to lack of food causing severe lack of immunities in my body. I am still in Africa, I now eat meat, but as rarely as possible, and feel guilty every time I do, trying not to gag at the same time. One day I hope to return to a civilised environment that doesn’t think of an animal only as a meal, and something far more beautiful.

dwilliams80
23 November 2009

After reading this I’m so glad I’m not a vegetarian. I’m an animal lover too, particularly BBQ’d ones. Animals eat other animals too so shouldn’t they be seen as being evil by humorless lefties (that’s redundant). Why aren’t liberals upset about eating vegetables too? They were alive at one point, & did nothing to deserve being eaten. Shouldn’t there be infinitely liberal, holier than thou starvetarians too? We are all animals, get used to it. That doesn’t mean it’s ok to mistreat animals, but you need to relax. It’s this kind of intolerance that makes for crappy travelers.

barbara.ia
29 November 2009

You must have pretty vivid imagination! I’ve lived in Peru for years, I’m a vegan myself and have never had ANY trouble eating healthy vegetarian choices…Pizza with cuy or Alpaca? And then I suppose you fell off you bed right? Your story is plain ridiculous.

GitanaGirasol
18 May 2010

Sad. Sad that that was your experience, that you didn’t seek out alternatives, that you insinuate about eating kittens because cuy is eaten here, and shame on the editors for letting this article in.

There are scores of vegetarian restaurants in Lima, and there are a few in each of the bigger cities. Heck, even Tarapoto has at least one, near the market.

I’m vegan and live in Lima; going out to eat as a vegan is a challenge ( I still do it, I just have to be insistent and ask a lot of questions), but as a vegetarian in Peru you can have an amazing experience. The vegetables here taste better than anywhere I’ve lived (US, France, Jordan) and a lot of omni restaurants will offer PLENTY of veg options: “ensalada cocida” – literally cooked salad with fresh steamed veggies and vinaigrette, if you’re worried about the ick factor of raw veg, tacu tacu, causa, papa rellena…

The veg restaurants I’ve been to don’t blow my mind, but they do decent meals, and ALWAYS have a “menu” for 5-6 soles, just like in an omni restaurant; “Chicken” cordon bleu was on the menu at the veg restaurant around the corner from my office last week. Soy meat, tofu, and TVP are available. Bircher-Benner in Miraflores, off of Parque Kennedy, is featured in most guidebooks, so I’m going to go ahead and say ignorance is no excuse.

Eds: if you want a more factual, accurate article on veganism/vegetarianism in Peru, I would be happy to provide one.

Wicaco
22 January 2011

Actually, it’s not difficult at all to survive as a vegetarian in Peru. You just suffered from the same problem my vegetarian companions suffered when I went to South America: an unwillingness to adapt to the local food. You keep talking about eating Western staples, like pizza and salad, but what about humitas and ocopa? Even if you miss Western tastes, there’s plenty of vegetarian restaurants in the larger cities catering to Western visitors and expats.