Guest article by Gosia Mobbs.
Vegan Peruvian Food in Cusco and Machu Picchu
The Inca ruins of Machu Picchu still hold the same wonder and mystery today as they must have when Hiram Bingham discovered them in 1911.
Along with Iguazu falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina, Machu Picchu is one of the most famous and most visited sights in South America.
For me and my husband, it was the intrigue surrounding Machu Picchu that had placed Peru on our bucket list for a long time. Going there as part of our honeymoon package was a dream come true.
In my research about this country, I read a lot about traditional Peruvian food.
The most famous local dishes in Peruvian cuisine are ‘ceviche’ (fresh raw local fish marinated with a lime juice), ‘cuy chactado’ (roasted guinea pig!) or ‘lomo saltado’ (platter of beef with sautéed onions and tomatoes, served with fries and rice).
None of these sounded very vegan friendly. Luckily, there is a lot more than meets the eye, and finding vegan food in Peru is much easier than you might think.
Most Peruvians in fact eat a predominantly plant-based-diet, especially in small rural communities in the Andean mountains and the jungle. The staple dishes include potatoes, legumes, vegetables and fruits.
Did you know that Peru is the birthplace of the potato? Around 2,500 varieties of this vegetable are native to the Peruvian Andes.
They come in all shapes, sizes and even colours. Potatoes were first brought to the Old World (Europe) by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. It’s hard to believe that they were unknown to my ancestors prior to the discovery of the Americas in 1492.
Most travellers start their journey to the world-famous Machu Picchu Inca ruins from Cusco. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once the capital of the Inca Empire and is now the gateway to the most important Inca sites in the region.
It’s a beautiful city with layers of history. Walking through the streets, I noticed both evidence of Spanish colonial architecture and the vibrant culture of the indigenous Quechua tribe.
Vegan Restaurants Cusco Peru
According to HappyCow, Cusco has 10 vegan restaurants and 12 vegetarian restaurants, and the list just keeps growing. In addition to these, there are also plenty of vegan and vegetarian friendly eateries.
Shaman Vegan Raw Center and Restaurant
Shaman is a 100% vegan restaurant. It is a very unique place, dedicated to ancient shamanic food practices. Hidden away in the narrow Santa Catalina Ancha street, it offers a menu of the day for a very affordable price of just a few dollars.
The food offer is truly impressive and includes many raw and gluten free options, and the dishes are beautifully presented. This is coming directly from our personal experience, as it was the first place where we had lunch when we arrived in Cusco.
We could not resist the temptation of the menu of the day. The waitress spoke little English, but as I speak Spanish fairly fluently, we had no troubles ordering our meal.
First came this colourful and refreshing pineapple and pepper salad with a basket of fresh bread. After a long day of travelling from Lima to Cusco, this was an ideal start to this delicious and nutritious lunch.
Following the appetizer came our starter, green vegetable soup, which was both flavoursome and comforting.
As Cusco is located at 3,400m above sea level, altitude sickness can be a problem. In our case it was mostly lack of sleep, which in fact made us even hungrier.
Having satisfied our tummies a bit, we tucked into the mouth-watering main course: a pyramid of quinoa, served with creamy refried Peruvian white beans and avocado on the side.
We enjoyed it together with a fresh green juice. It was a dream come true on this misty, slightly chilly day in the mountains!
That day, the dessert was a lightly spiced carrot cake. It was a winning combination, which satisfied both myself and a fellow vegan traveller, as well as our non-vegan husbands.
Another place that you should definitely visit in Cusco is Green Point. Even though I didn’t get the chance to enjoy a meal there, it gets such rave reviews and is such an institution among vegan Cusco restaurants that I just had to mention it here.
It’s really amazing to think that, when Green Point opened in 2013, it was the only fully vegan restaurant in Cusco. The vegan scene has grown so much since then!
In addition to the restaurant at the original San Blas location, they now have a second location near Plaza San Francisco.
Green Point also runs two cruelty-free organic food shops and has recently even opened the Green Bear Hostel where travellers can enjoy a restful and 100% vegan stay.
Not wanting to just sell an “exhibition of exotic food”, Green Point also offers cooking classes. Their aim is to teach the basic skills required to maintain a vegan, raw or gluten-free diet that is full of good quality ingredients.
The Green Point restaurants, similarly to the Shaman, offer a very affordable (18 soles) menu of the day consisting of a salad buffet, drink, soup, choice from two main courses and a dessert.
The dinner menu is absolutely stunning with a lot of traditional Peruvian dishes that have been ‘veganised’.
From ceviche trio as a starter, tacu tacu as a main (refried beans and rice patties seasoned with Peruvian spices, accompanied with fried banana and mushrooms in a beer sauce) to a mouth-watering mango dessert, both vegans and non-vegans will get to experience unique and flavoursome dishes.
Vida Vegan Bistro Cusco
Vida Vegan is another top-rated vegan restaurant in Cusco. In addition to serving vegan Peruvian dishes, such as vegan ceviche and vegan causa, they also offer some Italian dishes, including pizza and pasta.
The owner and staff are very friendly and have created a welcoming atmosphere. There’s free Wi-Fi, and you can even play a card game or board game while you’re waiting for your meal.
Chia Vegan Kitchen Cusco
The motto at this restaurant, which became fully vegan in February 2018, is “Eat consciously. Drink happily.”
The set menu offered for lunch is great value and includes a salad bar, soup, main course and dessert for just 15 soles. The menu includes international vegan favourites such as lasagna, falafel burgers and stroganoff.
Apart from the potatoes, Peru is also famous for its chocolate. The Peruvian cocoa beans, often described as being of the highest quality in the world, are very sought after. No trip to Cusco would be complete without trying some Peru chocolate.
Chocolate Museum Cusco
Wandering through the narrow, cobbled streets in the Old Town, we saw a lot of chocolate shops. One in particular caught our attention. Located by the Plaza El Regocijo, ChocoMuseo can be found in an old colonial building.
It offers a small exhibition showcasing the history of chocolate, as well as a café and a shop downstairs. As you enter this place, you get a feeling as if you were stepping into someone’s living room.
And in a truly homely atmosphere, you are offered a number of delicious free samples: Peruvian chocolate bars, chocolate spreads, and even chocolate liqueurs.
Thanks to the concentration and quality of the cocoa, few additives are required, which means that many of the varieties are vegan. All products are clearly labelled, too.
Having sampled a lot of chocolate goodies, we decided to finish our day with a cup of steaming thick Peruvian hot chocolate. We sat down at the little square in front of the museum shop and soaked in the atmosphere of this ancient and diverse city.
Luckily our hotel was a short stroll down the street. We literally rolled into our beds with full tummies and open minds, excited for the next stage of our Peruvian adventure.
A Vegan Machu Picchu Adventure
Many travellers treat Cusco as a short stop on the way to Machu Picchu. Some choose to reach this world-famous site by train from Aguas Calientes. Others, like us, prefer to take up the challenge of hiking for four days and sleeping in tents.
Camping anywhere in the world is often associated with food cooked over bonfires and pretty basic living conditions. But what if you are a vegan traveller? Does this add another level of complexity?
I cannot speak for all the tour operators, but the one we chose, G Adventures, was absolutely fantastic.
After our short visit to Cusco, we embarked on our next adventure. The first stop, still by bus, was the Sacred Valley. The mountainous landscapes of lush green hills and sheep and goats wandering had a somewhat calming effect after the buzz of the city.
We visited a small community with a traditional women’s weaving co-op and a local pottery workshop and stopped for lunch in Huchuy Qosco.
Again, the vegan options did not disappoint. For my starter I got to enjoy a traditional rice and vegetable soup. My artistically served main was a dish of quinoa mixed with vegetables, stuffed pepper and a side of potatoes.
Quinoa is one of the most classic vegan Peruvian dishes. It’s one of the few crops that can grow at the high altitudes of the Andes Mountains, so it’s very popular in both Peru and Bolivia. The fruit salad and a cup of hot coca tea was just a perfect finish to this authentic Peruvian experience.
Trekking the classic Inca Trail as a Vegan
Our last stop before the actual trail was Ollantaytambo. During the Inca Empire, this little town was the royal estate and ceremonial centre of Emperor Pachacuti, who conquered the region.
The Inca Ruins towering over the place offer magnificent views of the Sacred Valley. Nowadays, the town is an important tourist attraction en route to one of the most common starting points for the Inca Trail.
Having departed Ollantaytambo early in the morning, the following day we travelled by van to kilometre 82, which was the starting point for our trek.
We started hiking along the meandering streams, soaking in the stunning Andean scenery and passing by ancient Incan ruins.
The first rest stop was at Tarayoc camp. Despite my pre-trip trepidation, when I was served my first GAdventure meal, the colourful plate exceeded all my expectations.
The avocado tasted like nothing I have ever tried before. The vegetable medley was both flavoursome and elegantly served. And the ball of rice filled me up for the rest of the afternoon.
This was an omen of more good things to come. Along the way I was served a daily hearty breakfast of either oatmeal, pancakes or traditional Andean bread with a selection of spreads. My mid-morning snack was usually a granola bar, a piece of fruit or nuts.
Did someone mention teatime? Yes indeed! Each day, having arrived at the camp and before dinner was ready, we were welcomed with hot tea, coffee, and a selection of crackers, biscuits or popcorn.
The culinary highlight of each day was dinner. It was prepared by a small team of talented local chefs with the help of simple utensils and a flashlight.
The wonderful three-course daily evening meal started with a soup, such as potato soup, rice and vegetable soup or Andean corn chowder.
The main dish in my case was typically spicy soya chunks, vegetables (fried, steamed or fresh) and rice or potatoes. This was then followed by a dessert (often fresh fruit) and a hot cup of coca tea.
The cooks achieved the unimaginable, producing delights on the side of a mountain that you would be happy to eat in a quality restaurant. Including, although not vegan, baking a cake on a campfire!
A special thanks has to go to the porters who carried on their backs all the food, water and camping equipment required to make these culinary feasts possible. Impressive!
With such an array of nutritious and delicious vegan treats, the hike was one of the most unforgettable experiences of our lives!
And what about Peru overall? What is the verdict from the perspective of a vegan traveller? From my personal experience, I can certainly confirm that the country is full of plant-based treasures and hidden gem restaurants and cafés.
But, at least in Peru, that’s certainly not the case. From the many vegan restaurants in Cusco to the authentic vegan Peruvian food served on the Inca Trail, being vegan in Peru was a culinary delight.
There is something for every budget, and many traditional dishes are either vegan or can be easily veganised. Without a doubt, Peru occupies a special place in our hearts now.
GAdventures, the company that organized Mosia's trek to Machu Picchu, offers a number of different tours to Peru. As an example, check out their trekking tour described below.
About the Author
A Girl with a Travel Bug
Gosia Mobbs is an aspiring freelance travel journalist, certified ILM coach and English language teacher. She is passionate about travel, has visited 54 countries and lived in 5 in the past 12 years and speaks 7 languages.
In January 2017, she took part in Veganuary and has been on her vegan journey since then. You can find out more about Gosia and her travel adventures on her blog, A Girl with A Travel Bug, and follow her vegan food inspirations on Instagram.