A friend recently posted a question on whether this is fact or myth: Avoid drinking water in Mexico. “Not even the ice?” she asked. “I guess I’ll just have to replace water with alcohol! #shitFaced”
Obviously, this made me chuckle, but the question also surprised me a bit. I guess having traveled through so many 3rd world countries, personally encountering the “Bali Belly”, and witnessing so many others suffer the agony of being “stuck” from taking Imodium to alleviate the runs, I just assumed this was common knowledge. I was obviously wrong. So I thought I’d share some learnings I’ve made on food and beverage consumption while traveling. Keep in mind, that while most people assume these tips are only relevant for traveling in third world countries, you really should play it safe in any country as a foreign traveler. You just never know what little micro organisms are crawling around over there in your food and water that your belly won’t like. Better safe than sorry!
Now for your tips!
1. Don’t drink tap water!
Seems obvious right? Water in many third world countries is polluted resulting in all kinds of icky things swimming around in the water. To be safe, avoid drinking tap water, even from your five star hotel room. Instead, buy bottled water.
2. Check the seals on those bottle caps
In many third world countries, the locals will refill used water bottles with tap water and re-sell it to unsuspecting travelers. Be sure to check that the bottle caps have not been tampered with before buying the water. Your best bet is to buy your bottles from larger establishments. Do the same with juices, soda, and even your alcohol. Better yet, buy cans and juice boxes that cannot be tampered with.
3. Skip the ice in your drinks
It’s sweltering outside and all you’re craving is an ice cold beverage to quench that thirst. I’ve been in your shoes and all I can say is: Don’t give in! Oftentimes, the ice is made from tap water so you don’t want it in your beverage. If you’re thinking, “I’ll just chug my drink real fast! The ice won’t even have a chance to melt.” DO NOT DO IT! My friend made that bad choice in Egypt and was stuck to the toilet for two whole days after. Keep this in mind when ordering that Margarita or Pina Colada as well–it’s the same ice! If you’re desperate, you can ask the server if the ice is factory-made, which means it should be made with purified water. But be warned: Not all vendors will be honest.
4. Avoid raw fruits and vegetables
Craving a salad or that bowl of berries? Skip it. The leafy greens and thin-skinned fruits were probably washed with undrinkable and/or unsanitary water. If you really want vegetables, have cooked alternatives. For fruits, eat the ones that have thicker, non-consumable skin like bananas or oranges.
5. Brush your teeth with bottled water
Don’t use tap water to rinse your mouth or toothbrush. The bacteria from the water can easily transfer and stay in your mouth or toothbrush. Use bottled water instead.
6. Avoid dairy products
Avoid unpasteurized dairy products including milk, eggs, cheese, and yogurt. Unpasteurized dairy products can contain bacteria that will typically upset Western stomachs.
7. Skip the buffets
The food in buffets tend to be cooked in large batches early in the day and then sit around waiting to be consumed. Oftentimes, they don’t have proper heating devices resulting in a bacteria breeding ground. I can’t count the number of people I know that have gotten sick from buffets in the U.S. so what makes you think it’ll be safe in a third world country?
8. Eat where there is high turnover
High end hotel restaurant does not equate to safe food. I personally experienced my Bali Belly from a hotel restaurant buffet. I ate the eggs there. So I basically broke rule #6, #7, and #8 all at once! What did I win? Three days straight of having to stay close to a toilet and not being able to get my scuba certification. That being said, are street vendors ok? Personally, I think it’s fine as long as you are careful. Are there a lot of locals coming and going? That tends to mean the food is being cooked fresh and not just sitting around. Just make sure the food you are going to eat has been stored properly and that your food is cooked all the way through. I’ve eaten at dozens upon dozens of street vendors and haven’t gotten sick from them yet (KNOCK ON WOOD).
9. Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat or seafood
Have a craving for sushi? Don’t even think about it! My friend decided to break rule #7 and #9, when she had a craving for sushi in Vietnam. To ease her belly pains she popped a few Imodium’s after. Let’s just say, she was miserably congested for a good 10 days after that. Not a fun way to spend your holiday in Vietnam!