Travelling to South America with IBS

Antie on the Salt Flats in Bolivia

Travelling around South America for seven months has been a new challenge for my intrepid but rather unpredictable bowels. Having explored Asia extensively I felt prepared for this new challenge but equally nervous about my stomach’s reaction – how would it cope with the exotic foods, new bugs, altitude complications and unpredictable toilet situations?! There are always reasons to avoid travelling to somewhere new and IBS can trigger crippling anxiety before departure.

My motto has always been just go…and pack enough Imodium to kill a squirrel.

If you have decided to take the plunge and are heading off an adventure to South America, I’ve put together some handy tips on what to expect from each country we’ve visited and how to handle IBS or just tummy problems in general. One of the great things about this continent is the amazing food on offer. Most of the countries also do Western food really well and if you are in need of some home comforts, its easy to get a tasty burger, pizza or salad!

Pete & Antie on the Salt Flats in Bolivia
South America can be hard work, but it’s worth it

One important thing to bear in mind – it is inevitable that if you are travelling for long periods of time you will get sick at some point. Hopefully not often but it will happen. During the past seven months I’ve been ill three times (along with a few other dodgy bowel movements at various other times). Poor Pete has seen me be sick more times than I would have liked (most notably in front of a tour bus of people in Peru) but he’s supported me through it, held my hair back and become an expert at making homemade chicken soup.

IBS medical necessities to pack:

  • Head to Boots and stock up on all of the usual first aid necessities including Paracetamol (not ibuprofen as it isn’t great for sensitive tummies), Pepto-Bismol and Imodium as well as the usual plasters, antiseptic cream etc
  • Buy a supply of Colpermin (peppermint pills that are often subscribed for IBS sufferers to be taken three times a day before every meal). I don’t usually take these in the UK but useful to have whilst travelling just in case you have a flair-up
  • Stock up on some probiotics (the strongest ones you can find) that don’t need to be refrigerated. Start taking these about 5-7 days before you go away and then daily throughout your trip. As our trip to South America has been seven months, it wasn’t possible to take these daily. I therefore saved them for when my tummy was feeling in need of a little extra help

Top tips for each country we visited –

Colombia

I LOVED the food in Colombia. It is great for IBS sufferers as it is simple and not too spicy (Pete was not nearly as enthralled as I was and had to permanently carry spicy sauce wherever we went). The staple food is rice, plantain and grilled meat (normally chicken or pork). The food is fresh and tasty and there are lots of exotic fruits and juices available. I couldn’t get over the size of the mangos and avocados, they are seriously the size of my head!

I’ve always been slightly wary about eating street food (after some bad experiences in Asia) but we found it to be very safe to eat and delicious, not to mention very cheap! Especially in the Plaza de la Trinidad in Cartagena – there are lots of tasty treats to try. South America (in general) is much more hygienic than Asia and therefore buying street food is a wonderful way to eat out as a backpacker on a budget and see a bit more of how the locals live.

Ajiaca and chocolate completo in Bogota
Definitely not a culprit – ajiaca and chocolate completo in Bogota

The first time I got ill on our trip was in Medellin. However, it wasn’t really connected to my tummy troubles as it was a kidney infection. I assume from dehydration, but I’m still not entirely sure how I got it, but the infection also seemed to go straight to my kidneys rather than being an initial urine infection. I spent a hideous night in a dorm room nauseous, feverish and my lower back was causing me serious pain to the point where Pete had to help me get out of bed and get to the toilet. I knew it wasn’t regular food poisoning or gastric flu because of this unusual pain that I’d never experienced before. After some self-diagnosis via google (seriously never do this because you will always come to the same conclusion – I’M GOING TO DIE!), help from a friend of ours who’s a doctor and Pete’s grandpa and mum (doctor and nurse) we established it was a kidney infection. We were lucky to be able to self-diagnose this with help from medical professionals and we were able to go to the pharmacy and buy the correct medication without needing to go to hospital. I really would not recommend doing this unless you are very certain what is wrong and what medication you need, including the correct dosage.

In Colombia, it is possible to buy every medication under the sun over the counter at very cheap prices. This in some ways is great for travelling but also needs to be done with caution!

Luckily, this little bout of illness didn’t put a damper on our time in Colombia and we both agree it is probably our favourite country we have visited in South America so far. Although I spent rather a lot of time gazing out of the window in Medellin and watching Netflix, I still really loved the energy and vibe of the city.

The water situation – we wouldn’t recommend drinking tap water in Colombia.

Peru

The food in Peru is amazing. Probably the best in South America. Lima is a gastronomic haven offering tangy ceviche, delicious fresh seafood all washed down with a Pisco Sour.

Ceviche in Lima
Ceviche… a culprit?

It is the perfect destination for those of you who don’t eat wheat or dairy products and the food is fresh and healthy. They love their soups – especially quinoa – and most restaurants offer great set lunches (menu del dia) for reasonable prices, including a soup to start, a simple main meal and drink. Peru is proudly home to over 3,000 types of potato and therefore potato is served with most meals in some form or other. They love their carbohydrates, which is great to gather energy pre or post trekking.

We had some incredible meals in Cusco and we were also really impressed by the range of veggie restaurants and veggie options on offer. It is a great place to eat really healthily and have a break from eating just meat and potato.

In places with high altitude it is important to bear in mind that it can trigger upset tummies. Unfortunately, it is hard to prepare for this as you never know if you will be affected in this way by altitude (IBS sufferer or not). Luckily both Pete and I were fine and we didn’t have any awkward incidents on the Inca Trail. However, we would recommend giving yourself a few days to acclimatise to the altitude in Cusco before doing any serious trekking. Relax, eat well, but not excessively and don’t drink too much…

Unfortunately, my second nasty bout of illness occurred in Paracas, on the coast. This was more closely related to my tummy as along with a nasty fever I also had severe diarrhoea and sickness (at the same time :() I still don’t really know what caused it. Pete and I share most of our food and he wasn’t ill at all, so I have just put it down to my tummy struggling to adjust to new bugs in food that it isn’t used to.

Sea lions in Paracas
How Antie felt while ill

After nearly a whole day of not being able to keep down any fluids and suffering from severe abdominal cramps, we decided it was time to pay a little trip to the closest hospital in Pisco. We hopped into a taxi (me clutching a plastic bag just in case) and hurried to the local hospital, which we decided to go to rather than the private one. It was a rather a bizarre system as Pete had to go and buy a thermometer for the nurse to use before I was seen by the doctor and was then given another list of the drugs I needed for the drip. The whole process was speedy and the hospital was clean, a blessed relief even in my throes of sickness. In no time I was attached to the machine and felt the cool relief of the fluids and drugs flowing through my body. By the next day, I was on the mend and well enough to start having small amounts of food.

This has (luckily!) been my only experience of hospitals abroad and I was pleasantly surprised at how efficient the process was. The stuff needed for the drip cost around £6 and with our limited Spanish we could get by with the help of me gesturing that I was about to be sick and clutching my stomach and the doctor knowing exactly how to treat what seems to be a fairly common set of symptoms. From this experience, I would definitely recommend visiting a local rather than private hospital to avoid any nasty fees. However, of course, this will completely depend on which country you are visiting.

The water situation – we wouldn’t recommend drinking the tap water in Peru.

*Top Tip* In Peru, there is a bright pink drink called Fruittflex available to buy from any chemist. It is really great to drink if you are recovering from a stomach bug as it replenishes all of the sugars and salts your body needs. For other top tips, check out our Top Tips for Travelling Peru post.

Bolivia

Ah Bolivia, the country I had been most concerned about in terms of potential tummy troubles. Especially in light of my earlier bouts of illness in Colombia and Peru. Bolivia is renowned for being the most unhygienic of countries in South America in terms of food cleanliness and we had heard awful stories about people being infected with salmonella and having nasty incidents on buses. One couple we met in Cusco even named the bus journey from Copacabana to Puno, the trip to Lake Shitty-caca.

We were much more careful in Bolivia than we had been in Peru and Colombia. We avoided eating street food, market food and we were also more careful to avoid salads which might have been washed in contaminated water.

Antie looking out over a lake in Bolivia
Flamingo spotting in Bolivia

We both experienced minor tummy troubles at some points during our three weeks in Bolivia but thankfully avoided contracting anything more serious. Thank goodness – I was beginning to think my body really hated me!

These handy tips might help whilst you’re there –

– Avoid drinking contaminated water – buy bottled water, brush teeth with bottled water, avoid anything that might have been washed in unfiltered water

– Make sure your food is cooked all of the way through and is piping hot

– If it looks like it has been lying around, don’t eat it

– Trust your instinct – if you’re not sure about it, don’t risk it. It isn’t worth it when it might cause a ‘Lake Shitty-Caca’ incident

The water situation – we wouldn’t recommend drinking the tap water in Bolivia or brushing teeth with the tap water.

Curanto on Chiloe
Trust your instincts! This pot of seafood wasn’t fresh and wasn’t worth the risk

Chile/ Argentina

Coming into Chile via the Uyuni salt flats was rather a relief in terms of the food situation. We were suddenly in a country where it felt safe again to try everything and not to have to worry about any consequences.

We loved the market food in Chile and highly recommend tasting some delicious seafood in the seafood market in Santiago. It’s so fresh and very good value.

It’s also very exciting to be able to drink tap water here and definitely helps to save a bit of money. It is quite important to mix up drinking the tap water with bottled water as it is quite mineral rich.

Argentina we found to be very similar to Chile in regards to food. We really enjoyed having some amazing steaks washed down with copious amounts of Malbec.

The food portions are huge and it is often a good idea to share meals, this also helps to keep down costs when eating out.

I was struck down by my final bout of illness at the end of the world in Ushuaia over Easter weekend (sadly no chocolate eggs for me!) I have a sneaky suspicious it was caused by some dodgy ham in a burger or it could have been just a nasty 24 hour bug. Luckily, I avoided getting sick on out boat journey down the Beagle Channel and was safely back at our hotel guesthouse before the nausea started. I eventually managed to get some sleep that night after there was nothing left in my stomach and spent the next day watching Pitch Perfect 2 and Mulan (luckily Pete wasn’t subjected to this). It was quite a good excuse to have a movie day. This bug was short lived and I was back on my rather wobbly feet the following day.

Antie in Ushuaia
Made it to the end of the world!

I hope this breakdown has helped ease any pre-South America trip anxiety for any other IBS sufferers. Have an amazing time and enjoy tasting some incredible food along the way!

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