I mean, sure, you'll eat more cheese empanadas then ever thought possible while sobbing into the invisible tortilla you ignorantly assumed would be everywhere because of your preexisting love for Tex-Mex, but it is possible. In fact, I met a good bit of vegans while traveling, and they seemed pretty alive, so there's that.
Let's start with the basics.
Download HappyCow. It's a crowd-sourcing app spanning over 175 countries around the world. Whether you're vegan, vegetarian, or just looking for veg-friendly spots because that fried guinea pig didn't set well with your stomach (or morals), this app's got it. Also, download MAPS.ME. While you have to download the individual maps ahead of time with WiFi, this insanely helpful app works offline in every city around the world. You can even star places you want to grub at for quick directions later on.
The World Wide Web is also pretty useful with sites like Chowhound, Eat Your World, TripAdvisor, and food blogs upon food blogs (and, cough, The Strange & New). Just don't forget to ask locals themselves for the best veggie options. Their recommendations are consistently more valuable to me than any information found online.
Eat where you sleep.
While, in general, South America isn't an expensive destination, eating out for every meal adds up. If you have a kitchen at your place, go to a local market to buy food for cooking. In Peru, we would buy about $11 USD worth of groceries to feed nine people — nine people, y'all. Plus it's a good way to meet potential foodie friends if you're using a communal kitchen.
That is, unless you suck at cooking. In that case...
Take a cooking class!
Vegetarian or not, if you're in Cusco, take a $40 USD cooking class from Seledonia's Mesa — a restaurant that has meat and non-meat options. She meets you at your place in the morning and walks you to a local market to buy the food. In total, from pickup to when we rolled our quinoa-stuffed selves back to the hostel, we spent about four hours with Seledonia.
She's a talented chef and an incredibly patient teacher who will school you on how to make some bomb cheesy potatoes and quinoa croquettes. Seriously. You'd be screwing up if you didn't pay her a visit — or at least take a cooking class at some point during your travels.
Learn how to say "I'm a vegetarian" in Spanish.
"Soy vegetariana" or "soy vegetariano."
Embrace your vegetarianism.
Technology and local recommendations aside, purposely getting lost in a place while finding veg-friendly spots usually pulls you away from the main tourist strip. While touristy spots often offer at least one vegetarian dish, do you really want to fork out extra money for a plate of food you could get for way cheaper, way more delicious, and with way bigger portions about a 10-minute walk up the street? And while knowing you could be supporting a local business owner instead? Hell nah.
Stay away from salads.
Salads can be hit or miss. I know plenty of backpacking salad enthusiasts who claimed to have had no problem with lettuce. But while one salad I ate in Cusco gave me no issues, another one in Juliaca left me bed-ridden for three days.
The general rule is, all fruits and veggies are safe to eat as long as they're peeled or cooked. Salad is neither. So be careful.
Know you're probably going to eff up at some point.
Whether it be lard in fried foods or animal stock in soups, unless you have the language skills, you're probably going to consume animal products at some point.
Chances are, you probably won't ever know. And if you find out later or during your meal, don't beat yourself up or throw a tantrum to the cook. Just brush it off, move on, and politely ask for something else.
Now, let's go into vegetarian tips by country...
Since it's native to the region, get ready for quinoa. I'm talking quinoa water, quinoa desserts, quinoa salads, quinoa snacks, quinoa everything.
Seriously. That's quinoa water. And it's delicious.
Potatoes, quail's eggs, and mazamorra morada, which is a jelly dessert made from purple corn, are also winning veg-friendly Peruvian grub.
And if you find yourself in Arequipa, be sure to check out Hatunpa, a teeny-tiny spot that specializes in colorful potatoes. The dish I got was a plate of purple, blue, orange, and white potatoes smothered in a spicy cookie and peanut sauce and topped with cheese. How does it get better than cookies, potatoes, and cheese you ask? It one-hundred-percent doesn't.
Yucca. Eat all the yucca. Papa a la Huancaína — a potato and egg dish in a spicy cheese sauce — and choclo con queso — corn with melted cheese — are also delicious.
Can't speak much for Chile since I was only there for about a week. But Valparaiso has tons of veggie options, some of the coolest street art in South America, and the best damn lemon poppy seed cake in the world from Dulce Pols.
Then there's Delicias Express. I told myself I would leave empanadas off the country guide list since they're abundantly everywhere, but I had to include this one. They have over 60 varieties of empanadas with their own section for vegetarians. Way to make us feel special, empanada place!
While it may be a cultural faux pas, you don't actually have to indulge in the (apparently delicious) barbecues of Argentina to eat well. The country has tons of Italian influence, so you can usually find some polenta, pasta, or pizza anywhere you go.
Alternatively, you could just head to the hippie haven of El Bolson where you'll have absolutely no problem finding veg-friendly options, including waffles sent by the gods at the Feria Artesanal — a market every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday starting at 10am.
Alegria is another great option in El Bolson away from the tourist strip for a quiet cafe with delicious gnocchi when you're not stuffing yourself with roasted veggie sandwiches and a dozen alfajores from Almendra.
Arepas, y'all. Eat ALL THE AREPAS. They're fried corn patties stuffed with cheese and topped, usually, with a sweet sauce.
But all around the country you can find massive plates of vegetarian food for less than $5USD. I'm talking plates of spaghetti, beans, rice, eggs, vegetables, fried plantains, bowls of soup, and fresh fruit juices — all for one meal. If anything, I had the easiest time finding veggie food in Colombia. Not to mention, all the cups you can find on every street corner — fruit soaked in lime and salt, papa criolla, and chontaduro drizzled in honey.