It is arguable that one of the best parts about traveling anywhere new is experiencing a different food culture. After all, a country’s cuisine is usually a central part of its identity, and there are few better places to meet and connect with new and interesting people than at the table over a delicious and amazing meal.
What to do, then, when you can’t always be sure that you can eat that food without getting sick? Or even drink the water without gastrointestinal distress? Would-be travelers each year are put off from visiting Central America because of the possibility of food and water-borne illnesses, and while these concerns are certainly justified, there are precautions anyone can take to reduce their risk of contracting much-feared traveler’s diarrhea.
Though even the most cautious traveler cannot always guarantee they won’t pick up something nasty, remember that many foreigners visit Guatemala and, through practicing good food and water hygiene, come back completely unscathed. Read further for a good idea of how to do just that:
Can you drink the tap water in Guatemala?
We’ll save you some time: no, the tap water is never safe for foreigners. Some locals do drink the tap water, but this tends to be more necessity than choice. When it comes to your much-needed hydration, heed this advice:
Drink: Sealed, bottled water, sealed carbonated beverages, pasteurized milk, water that has been disinfected.
Do not drink: Tap water, well water, ice made from tap or well water, unpasteurized milk.
Disinfecting tap water may be your only option if you don’t have access to the bottled stuff, or if you want to save a bit of plastic. You can disinfect by boiling the water for 1-3 minutes (depending on your elevation), or there are safe ways to disinfect chemically. Take a look at this page from the CDC for a complete guide to safely disinfecting water when you need it.
While technically, ice in Guatemala should only be made from purified water, it is almost impossible to guarantee this is the case at every restaurant, and even one cube of the stuff can be enough to contaminate your beverage. Your best bet is to avoid drinks with ice in them altogether, make the ice yourself with purified water, or only take ice at upscale restaurants which cater to tourists (like those at your hotel, resorts, etc) and check with them first about their water practices.
In the case of hygiene, it’s best not to risk brushing your teeth with tap water either, even if you don’t swallow any of it. Better to keep a bottle of purified water by the sink, so you can be sure you don’t forget! You don’t need to worry about showering, just make sure to keep your mouth closed during the process.
Is the food in Guatemala safe to eat?
Food in Guatemala is delicious and deserves to be enjoyed to its absolute fullest. When it comes to being cautious to avoid stomach bugs and other nasties, many of the steps you can take involve common sense and basic food safety precautions. And keep in mind, many of the risks involved in eating the food are around how that food interacts with water.
When eating in Guatemalan restaurants, look for those venues which have more business (indicating a good reputation) and try to go during high meal time hours, so you have a greater chance of the food being fresh. Stick to hot food as much as possible (food needs to be thoroughly heated to kill harmful microbes). If something should be hot, but isn’t, don’t hesitate to walk away, as there is a higher risk that bad bacteria will have had time to proliferate in the food.
Street food: is a contentious subject. The more adventurous travel types will tout its merits and glory whereas the more cautious among us tend to steer clear altogether. There are perfectly safe ways to enjoy street food in Guatemala, but the key is to be picky, watch how they make the food, and be discerning about which stalls you visit. In general, here are the best tips for indulging in street food:
- Always make sure you WASH YOUR HANDS. It’s the easiest way to kill the bad stuff. Carry hand sanitizer as well, since you can’t always be sure you’ll have access to hot water and soap.
- Choose stalls which are the most popular. That long line will be worth it if it means proven quality.
- Choose an item off the menu which they will make fresh right before your eyes. Don’t eat the meat that’s been sitting out in the sun – you don’t know how long it’s been there.
- Don’t be afraid to be a lurker to watch how they make the food, and check out how clean the inside of that stand looks.
Salads and fresh fruit: While everyone craves a refreshing or light salad every once in a while, you might be surprised to learn that salads should, in general, be avoided. It’s hard to know whether the greens have been properly washed, and even if they have, it’s always possible that they were washed in tap water – enough of which could still be lurking in the leaves to make you ill. We would still only recommend eating salads at upscale restaurants or venues marketed specifically towards tourist comfort and safety, and then only if you want to take the risk.
Enjoy the fruit, but try only to indulge in fruits which have a peel you can peel yourself (bananas, oranges, etc) to avoid contamination. Otherwise, ensure you can wash and disinfect the produce yourself before consuming.
It may seem like a lot of rules, but don’t let it deter you – once you adopt the practices necessary to keep yourself healthy as a foreigner in Guatemala, you will be able to enjoy the beloved food and beverage of the country to its fullest!