How to Stay Healthy When Traveling
I’m writing this from my beachfront hut, on a remote island, where I lay stricken with the flu. My feet are covered in sand, which has made its way into my bed. I lost my only pair of shoes three days ago.
An intense blend of reggae and trance pounds outside my door emulating the throbbing inside of my head.
In five minutes the Maypole celebration will begin where locals bury a tree in the sand, then cover it in balloons, money, rum bottles, lollypops, and condoms. Participants then destroy the erected tree, ripping the goodies it bears from its every limb. The dancing that follows would be illegal in most US states.
My throat is dry and I can hardly swallow, but the purified water has run out, and the hotel staff cannot be bothered to brew my tea. This island has no pharmacy, no doctor, and no cars.
How do I always end up here?
I’ve had a fever riding camels in the Sahara Desert, seasickness on a boat to Colombia, more intestinal problems that I care to share in Cartagena, various infections in Bocas del Toro, and now a scuba dive induced flu in the Corn Islands.
Moments like this I miss home the most. Clean white sheets and a fluffy down comforter. Hot showers. Warm brothy homemade soup. Unlimited cups of hot ginger lemon tea.
Taking care of yourself on the road is challenging. You are likely staying in less than comfortable quarters, pushing your body beyond its limits, and unable to access your typical healthy standbys. While I may not always succeed, here is how I aim to stay healthy while traveling.
Don’t Push Too Hard
This is often where I slip up. Morning AND afternoon yoga? Yes please. Three hour beach treks? Absolutely. Ten shots of tequila? Well they are only a dollar… Dance party til sunrise? Sign me up!
Yoga. Hike. Beach. Drink. Dance. Blink. Repeat.
I was this way at home too.
I can recall countless times I dragged myself into work with a fever. Worse, stayed home sick and painted my bathroom. Hosted a dinner party, drank too much wine, took a cold morning run, stayed up to finish a project, did one hundred million activities and then just one more thing when all my body wanted was to rest.
Does that sound like you?
Your body is not a vessel to perform your ego’s constant needs. Your body is you. It has limits. It needs nurturing. So listen to it instead of pushing it. If you feel tired, go to sleep. Resist the peer pressure put on you by others to stay out. If you are hungry, eat something. Try not to judge the time or the frequency. If you need to use the restroom, pull over. What could possibly be more important?
Give yourself permission to respect your own limitations.
Ok, I know, duh. So why is it so difficult to put into practice?
Are you so distracted by the business of your day that you forget to give your body precisely what it needs to survive?
Try to hydrate intentionally.
Maybe switch your morning coffee to hot water with lime. Carry a bit bottle in your hand throughout the day. Drink an entire glass before you begin each meal. Keep some by your bed at night. If you’re lucky to be in the tropics, drink the water from a fresh young coconut whenever you get the chance.
Don’t Drink Questionable Water – It’s Not Worth the Risk!
We all want to be savvy, respectful, conservative travelers, but not at the risk of our own health. I’ve drunk from the tap in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Morocco, and Colombia. With mixed results.
If you are ever in doubt please, please, please just buy a bottle. I know it is wasteful. I know it is expensive. But trust me when I say you will regret drinking tap if it is tainted.
I can recall days wasted in Colombia because I could barely get out of bed, confined by the strength of the parasites in my belly. It really, truly, is not worth the risk.
Save money and plastic by refilling your bottle at various tourist centers or restaurants that sell purified water. If you are in a restaurant and do not want to purchase a bottle, first ask “es potable el agua?”
Cook Something Healthy
If you are a budget backpacker you’re likely already doing this. However, when I stay in hotels or am only in a spot for a few days at a time it can feel impossible to assemble a meal. My body takes notice. Where are my veggies? Where are my whole grains? Did you just feed me three fried cornmeal patties and call it lunch?
Right now, on an island with extremely limited provisions in a beach shack with no kitchen, I have eaten every single meal out. White coconut bread and sugar have become my dietary staples. My body is desperate for nutrition.
Are you lucky enough to have a kitchen where you are staying? Take advantage of it! Cook a nice bowl of oatmeal with tropical fruit and raw cashews. Soft boil an egg and drizzle it in olive oil and salt. Assemble a delicious nutritious salad and pack it for lunch. Enjoy your feast on a park bench, a beautiful beach, or at the top of a mountain.
If you don’t have a kitchen, traveling with a pocket knife could change your life. A wholegrain roll, an avocado, a cucumber, and a tomato become lunch on the road. Stock up at roadside fruit stands and open your perfect snack while lazing on the beach.
Keep an Emergency Medical Stash
Alcohol wipes, antibiotics, band aids, you never realize how valuable these supplies are until you find yourself in need, in a place that does not offer them. Stock up in towns that have cheap pharmacies and share your goodies with other desperate travelers.
Take Some Shade
I am a complete sun worshipper. My mother gave me her baby face and baby skin but after one year in Central America I’m starting to resemble a Boca Raton retiree. In fact I have made myself sick from sunburns and heat exhaustion.
Now, listening to my body, I remind myself that it’s ok to sit in the shade. It doesn’t make me lame. I will still be tan. It will keep me from getting dehydrated. It will allow me to relax. It will save me from sun damage. And if I never reach my absolute peak bronze, that is probably a good thing.
Don’t Party Too Hard
When every place is new, every person is unfamiliar, and every day is free of obligations, every night can become a party. Embrace it. It’s fun. But don’t let it become your life. Don’t let it take your day. Don’t let it take your health.
Again, respect your body and its limitations. It does not make you lame to call it a night. Resist peer pressure and do what you and your body know is best.
Stay in bed a little longer. The sun will still be shining. Tuck yourself in a little earlier. You can party tomorrow. Take naps. No one is judging.
Do your best. We are not perfect and neither are our immune systems. If, like me, you’ve found yourself with something nasty, try the elixir that has never failed me.
My Mom’s Famous Ginger Tea Proven to Cure Any Ailment
Large piece of ginger, at least 3”
Two lemons or limes
Raw, local honey
Take a large skillet and smash the ginger so that it is still intact but the peel bursts. Add to a large pot of water. Cut the limes in quarters, squeeze the juice into the pot and throw in the whole pieces. Bring to a boil then reduce it to a simmer. Simmer for at least ten minutes. The longer it sits the stronger it will be. Strain a portion into a mug and stir with a big spoonful of raw honey.