Peru’s set-lunch menús are an excellent budget option for shoestring backpackers. You can pay as little as S/.4 (a dollar or two) for a passable lunch including a starter (often soup, salad or a potato dish), main course (you can choose from a few options) and drink. You sometimes get a small dessert, too, often jello/jelly or some other slightly wobbly concoction.
The choices available on the menú vary from region to region, but there are usually some basics that are common throughout Peru (such as arroz con pollo, aji de gallina, lomo saltado etc).
I frequently recommend these lunch menús as an excellent option for budget travelers in Peru. However, I feel the need to write a disclaimer…
The Peruvian Menú: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Horrific
You may well have heard good things about Peruvian cuisine. That wouldn’t be a great surprise, as the nation deserves its growing reputation as a gastronomic force. Quality cuisine, however, is certainly not a sure thing when you’re trying to eat for cheap in Peru.
To put it bluntly: Some of the food is absolutely disgusting, disgraceful and downright horrific.
One of the champions of terrible Peruvian food is the aforementioned set-lunch menú. If you pick a bad one, you may never want to eat again. This applies to menús served in “normal” restaurants and smaller family-run operations (basically the front room of a family home with a blackboard in front of the house advertising the menú and the set price).
Peru’s lunch menús do, however, offer backpackers a great budget option on a daily basis. You just need to pick a good one…
Picking a Good Menú in Peru
Price doesn’t necessarily reflect quality when it comes to menús, but it does give you an idea of what to expect. The very cheapest menús in small towns and outlying city districts cost about S/.4, or about a dollar. Don’t expect much from these. Consider paying two or three soles extra for something that might actually be edible.
Generally speaking, S/.6 to S/.10 is a good price range to aim for; anything less than S/.6 is risky, while more is heading out of the budget bracket (unless you’re in a place like Miraflores, in which case expect to pay more than S/.10 for a standard set lunch).
Price is the first basic indicator of quality, but don’t pick a place to eat based on this alone. Some places are overpriced and awful.
The key to eating lunch in Peru is this: always pick a place that looks popular with the locals. If the place has a bit of a buzz then it’s probably a decent option. If it’s empty, keep on walking.
When to Eat Lunch in Peru
Bear in mind that a place could be empty because you’ve arrived at the wrong time. Menús are generally served between 12.00 pm and 3.00 pm. The best time to eat is between 12 p.m. and 1.30 p.m. – get there too early and things could be slow; arrive late and the food may have been sitting around for ages and options may be limited (some options on the menú will have sold out).
Cheap Food in Peru for Budget Backpackers
There’s no foolproof way to avoid an occasional lunch disaster in Peru, but you can certainly increase your chances of eating something cheap but surprisingly tasty by following the advice above.
By the way, if you don’t speak Spanish then do yourself a favor and try to learn some basic food vocabulary (or carry around a decent phrasebook/dictionary, or a guidebook to Peruvian food). If you don’t know what you’re ordering then you can’t really complain if you don’t like it. Ordering a plate of mondongo (tripe) just because you like the way the name sounds is never a good idea….