Travel, food, and staying on a budget are my bread and butter. That’s why I’m SO excited to have my dear friend and fellow solo traveler Tiff writing about her recent trip and how a registered dietitian nutritionist manages to keep food costs low on the road.
How I Came to Be
I always knew I wanted to pack up my bags and leave the country one day. I just didn’t know when that time would be. Before my 5-week trip to South America, I hadn’t traveled alone anywhere solo in the country, yet alone in the world. When I reflect back on my whim to quit my job and pack my bags, I think I can attribute some of that tenaciousness to being born and raised in New York City to two immigrant-parents who themselves, were natural risk-takers, because of their ultimate decisions to leave their homelands to come to America, eager for a change in scenery.
My parents first had my older sister, then me, and I guess that’s where my traveling woes first began; because I was in fact in my mother’s literal womb in China when I technically “traveled” for the first time.
As years passed, we would make trips to China and Malaysia to visit our distant relatives. My mom’s entire side of the family (including all her 5 siblings) are sprinkled throughout Malaysia and Singapore, making Southeast Asia a second home to me, as we spent weeks at a time visiting them. The weeks spent bathing in the sun, eating street food and chasing stray dogs was not a foreign concept to me.
Little did I know how much of a full-circle I would be making years later in South America doing the same exact thing.
Packing My Bags and Saying Goodbye to Regimen
As I boarded my first plane to Lima, Peru, I came to the conclusion that I was not only leaving my dearest friends, family and beloved cat, I would leave behind a whole cluster of my extremely regimented life that I created. Just shy of two weeks before my trip, I competed in my 5th powerlifting meet, a meet I was training for 4x a week, 2.5 to 3 hours per session. To ensure I was optimally fueling for my sessions, I was extremely conscious of the foods I was including in my diet.
I’ll be honest, if you asked me to pack my bags and leave the country for a month a few years ago, I would have thought you were insane– not because I was afraid of traveling, but because I was afraid of being without my food scale.
Silly, I know.
But, years of unlearning the rigidity and toxicity of chronic dieting and adopting a more intuitive eating approach prepared me well for my trip, as I felt confident making food decisions that served me well in all aspects of my physical and emotional well-being.
I mean, you’re seeing the world after all.
A Dietitian Never Leaves the House Without a Snack
If you know anybody who has been to South America (especially Peru) you probably have been on the receiving end of the phone reassuring them that the contents of their luggage was sufficient. Seriously– packing for South America is not an easy task. Peru, where I spent the majority of my trip, has a rich biodiversity- which includes glacier mountains, tropical rainforests, surf-friendly beaches, cities and desert oases. Although my confidence level was a bit on the lower end when deciding which outfits to pack, I knew I would get one thing right–which foods to pack.
With limited space in my pack, I only had the means to pack a handful of food items. Although I wish I could have packed a whole bag of Oreos with me, I knew it probably wouldn’t have been the best decision nutrition-wise. My South American trip included a couple multi-day hikes, with probably 5-7 day hikes sprinkled in (P.S. my average daily step count was 18k+ by the end of my trip), which meant I would need proper sustenance to ensure I was covering my bases in the instances I might be without food. Additionally, I had to ensure I was hydrating myself properly because the majority of Peru and Bolivia sits above altitude, and all of my hikes would put me well over 8,000 ft.
Thus, my three food items included:
A whole bag of raw almonds from Trader Joe’s (seriously– an entire bag).
Almonds are one of the best snacks because they are low-volume and (meaning they don’t take up too much space) calorically and nutritionally dense. They are also a great conversation starter, because, let’s be honest, travelers are always down for some free snacks from a fellow traveler.
Nuun Electrolyte Tablets
Nuun is a supplement company that specializes in electrolyte tablets for athletes and the everyday fitness enthusiast. Electrolytes (more specifically potassium and sodium) are essential in staying properly hydrated. My planned hikes, coupled with being in high elevation for an extended period of time made these a no-brainer for me.
Clif Builder’s Protein Bars
As a long-time vegetarian, I knew I would face a bit of adversity when it came to South American Cuisine since their dishes are heavily meat-based. Although I had some of the best plant-based dishes in South America, there were many times I had to skip out on traditional dishes. Protein is the macronutrient responsible for not only repairing your muscles and keeping your cells nice and healthy, but also for keeping you full! Keeping a handful of protein bars at all times as an emergency resort definitely saved me several times!
A Snippet of South American Cuisine
Many South American dishes are actually quite similar to one another because they include staples their agriculturalism excels in. For example, due to the unique climate and elevation of these two countries, Peru is home to over 3,500 different varieties of potatoes and Bolivia has over 140+ types of quinoa!
Peruvians also take their el pan pretty seriously. Bread is a staple for breakfast, usually served with a side of jam and butter. There is no doubt you’ll come across vendors seated next to overflowing bags of bread if you find yourself frolicking in the town’s mercado.
Unlike grain products in America, bread products in other parts of the world are not enriched with vitamins and minerals, which I found to be really fascinating! Fortification of bread products came to be in the late 1940s, when we realized the nutritional status of young men enlisting for World War II was falling low on the spectrum.
On a similar note, the nutritional status of many South Americans are actually quite grim. Most South American countries are considered developing countries, which usually means malnutrition is a widespread problem among their populations. Malnutrition does not equate primarily to having limited access to food that many people believe to be the case. In fact, being malnourished in a developing country often means many individuals face overweight and obesity issues due to a high consumption of calorie-dense foods coupled with a lack of available fortified/enriched food products.
Keeping Food Costs Low During Travels
Although I spent a considerable amount of time dabbling in South American cuisine as much as I could (i.e. a fresh mango juice everyday and a saltena for breakfast every other morning), I did my best to maintain a low-cost budget. Food cost in South America is impressively affordable, which made eating out very convenient, but for the days I was desperate for a home-cooked meal, I made sure to plan a trip out to the mercado as a to-do for the day.
I kept my dishes simple, and focused on including three staples:
- A protein source (i.e. juevos, trucha, etc)
- A starch (i.e. bread, potatoes, quinoa)
- A fat source (i.e., avocados; which are SO cheap in South America)
Unfortunately, the drinking water in South America is considered undrinkable for most Americans since we lack certain microorganisms to fight off the bacteria that’s normally in their water systems. With that being said, I missed out on fresh vegetables during most of my trip since these are washed with tap water just to be safe.
Some other tips to keep food cost low include:
- Staying in a hostel with a working and reliable kitchen so you can make your own meal.
- Staying in a hostel with FREE breakfast!
- Splitting dishes and meals (and cervezas) with travel friends.
- Starting your morning with a run to the mercado or store for snacks.
- Eating street food (cautiously of course).
My trip to Peru, Bolivia and Chile was nothing short of amazing. In addition to developing a habit of eating a mango everyday, I also got to practice my Spanish, hike beautiful mountains with blue lagunas and meet the most incredible people from all over the world.
Tiffany Ma is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist from Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not daydreaming about her next trip, you can find her in the gym lifting or attentively listening to a crime-murder podcast. You can learn more about her at www.tiffanymardn.com or follow her on Instagram at @tiffanyma_rdn.