July 23, 2009

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Staying Healthy


A guide to staying healthy while visiting Mexico.

Defensive Eating
A dear friend of mine came here in 2004 all set for the vacation of a lifetime. Four days into her 8-day vacation she and her friends came down with Moctezuma’s revenge. Needless to say it ruined the rest of the trip for all of them. She told me they were still not feeling well after week at home.

Don’t let this happen to you. Getting sick in Mexico is not inevitable. I am a Gringa and have lived here since July 2003 without getting a single stomachache.

Some people I’ve met have said that part of the reason they stay in all-inclusive resorts is because they believe they will not get sick. I think this is pretty silly. Yes, of course the resorts do not want you to get sick, so they are very careful. But you do not need to get stuck eating the same old resort food every night; you can freely eat your way through the restaurants here without getting sick if YOU are careful.

No Leafy Foods
Don’t eat salad, raw leafy vegetables or raw herbs like cilantro. Unless you know for a fact that they’ve been sterilized you need to stay away from leafy foods that have lots of surface area. The reason is that many of the foods grown in Mexico (and other poor countries) are watered with polluted river water so their surfaces become contaminated. If these foods are cooked they stop being dangerous. If you want to prepare your own foods you can purchase an iodine solution in which to soak your leafy foods. Don’t count on restaurants to sterilize your foods for you. It appears to me that the hotels are pretty good about sterilizing food but I know how little the resorts pay people so I wouldn’t count on them either.

Tamales Are (Usually) Safe
Certain foods like tamales are usually safe to eat, even when you buy them from a street vendor. In fact my favorite tamales come from a guy who hangs out on the street next to the Soriana grocery store at the intersection of Coba and Kabah here in Cancun. The reason tamales are safe is that they are wrapped several times in cornhusks or plantain leaves prior to being cooked. Once they have been wrapped the food is not touched again until the you unwrap it. Don’t miss tamales; they are one of the best foods in Mexico. We enjoy them with a tall glass of milk.

Beware of Tacos
Tacos are best with fresh onion, cilantro and limejuice sprinkled over them. If you can live without the cilantro you will make street tacos much safer to eat.

Lime Juice is Your Friend
Mexicans love their limes (limones) they put limes and lime juice in everything. Most meals will be accompanied by lime juice in some form. This is probably not an accident. Lime juice has antiviral, antiseptic and anti-bactericidal properties. Squirting it all over what you eat is probably a very good idea if you want to avoid getting sick. And besides that it’s yummy.

Be Cautious Around Salsa
Salsa uses raw ingredients and because of that you need to be careful with it. My favorite salsa recipe requires fresh cilantro. I will generally use salsas in restaurants if they look fresh and don’t appear to have cilantro in them. Use your judgment and err on the side of caution.

Flies Flies Flies
To be blunt flies will step on anything, including your food. So don’t eat in a place that is full of flies; skip it and find a cleaner place.

Defensive Drinking
Many who come here on vacation will indulge in more alcohol than they do at home. Be careful with juicing it up at your all-inclusive hotel or at one of the bars that offers an open bar (barra libre). The quality of the alcohol served in these places is generally very low. If you don’t want to spend the next day with a nasty hangover you might be better off buying your own high-quality alcohol and mixing your own drinks. Costco, Sam’s club and all the major supermarkets in the area sell brand name liquors and the prices aren’t half bad.

Drinking Water
You should buy drinking water when you come here. Some hotels will provide purified water for drinking; inquire to be sure. In Cancun the tap water is very hard. It is full of calcium. Aguakan, our water company, does purify it but how good a job they do is the subject of some debate. Some of the poor in Cancun do drink the water, but I suspect that the high rate of kidney stones in the area may be connected to drinking the water. As with anything, the more water you buy the cheaper it will be. If you buy it in the Hotel Zone you will pay more than if you come into the city proper.  5-gallon containers of Cristal or Electropura water are about $2.00 USD, and both companies deliver to homes, in downtown Cancun, several times a week.

Sun Care
In Cancun you can tell how close you are to the ocean by how pink the skin of the people you see is. The locals live inland; they don’t let themselves get sunburned. Many foreigners who live here live close to downtown, they don’t let themselves get sunburned either. But when you get out in the hotel zone all the people walking down the street seem to have sunburn. My advice is: don’t act like a typical tourist. Your best defense is to stay under an umbrella when you are at the beach. Most hotels have umbrellas. In a pinch you can buy one, Costco carries a nice one that is around $15 USD; this is much cheaper than skin cancer. You can easily buy sunscreen in one of the major supermarkets in the city; the prices are a bit higher than in the U.S. because the products are imported, but again they are cheaper than skin cancer.  Biodegradable sunscreen is the only type of sunscreen allowed, if you plan to swim in any of the Eco-parks (like Xcaret or Xel-Ha), or in any other protected areas.

Travel Tip:  You can purchase biodegradable sunscreen on our boutique.

Bug Repellent

If you spend any time at all in the jungle you will want to keep the mosquitoes off you. I’ve heard that malaria is present deep in the jungle here, although I have yet to hear of a single case of it. While malaria isn’t common in Cancun, dengue fever is very common.  Like malaria, dengue is carried by mosquitoes and the way to prevent it is to avoid mosquito bites.We also have deer flies and horse flies here that have nasty bites. Generally we only see mosquitoes in the evening in the city of Cancun. For some reason they mostly bite your ankles so if you want to avoid wearing repellant you can wear long pants and they will leave you alone.

You should check with your doctor before coming here for advice on which shots you might need. Generally people don’t get any. Before moving here I got a Hepatitis A shot because Hepatitis A is commonly transmitted via restaurants. I’m not sure I really needed the shot; but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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