Five (Cheap) Foods You Should Eat While Backpacking in Central America

Hola! May I express my sincerest apologies for my blog hiatus?

Some of you may know that I just recently finished graduate school (Hello, MS RD!) and traveled a bit in both Central and South America before settling down into the real world. My travel adventures were extended a tad, as I felt that my month in Costa Rica just wasn’t enough.

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I had probably the most wonderful month of my entire life during my 200 HR Yoga Teacher Training, where I learned SO much about myself, yoga, mindful eating, and Central America in general (well, mostly just Costa Rica). However, I felt a bit isolated in the gorgeous town of Santa Teresa, which essentially has one dirt road in and out of the town. Santa Teresa is a paradise for yogis, surfers, and really anyone in general, but I wanted to explore more of the jungle scene in Costa Rica, especially during the “green season” (some refer to this as the “rainy season”, but I prefer the more optimistic term).

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So I suited on my Marmot backpack, and got some firsthand experience of solo backpacking in Latin America. During this time, I was also attempting to make a serious effort at reversing the mild protein deficit I had experienced during teacher training.

Here are five of the foods I ate while backpacking, which require NO cooking and are super cheap. Backpackers are ballin’ on a budget, and while many hostels have kitchens, I found that some lack stoves, ovens, or don’t have kitchens at all.

  • Avocado Toast: Avocado toast maybe #trendyAF right now, but I found this to be my favorite backpacking snack. Not only were avocados very easy to get, but they were actually ripe already! This literally NEVER happens in the States. In fact, I bought three avocados a week ago from the grocery store and they still aren’t totally ripe. Plus, they’re relatively cheap as well. Bread, of course, is always quite cheap unless you’re splurging for the artisan kind. My advice- find the best quality whole wheat bread you can find (make sure “Whole Wheat Flour” is the first ingredient! “Enriched flour” is not the same) and look for the kind that is a bit crusty so that you can keep it in your pack without it getting squished. Keep the avocados at the top of your bag so that they don’t get squished either. When hunger strikes, spread about 1/2 of the avocado on one piece of bread each. For extra flavor, a squeeze of lime or sprinkle of salt and black pepper (grab some of those free packets at the airport) go a long way.
  • DIY Canned Salads: Even when staying in hostels without a full kitchen, most will have at least a bowl and can opener. These are just about the only two things you will need to make a delicious salad made solely from canned ingredients. (Tip: Watch for sodium. Canned products typically have lots of salt for preservative purposes. If the water is safe, rinse and drain the contents of each can 2-3 times to cut back. If not, look for no/reduced sodium products.) My favorite salad is a mix of black beans, pinto beans, corn, tomato, and salmon or tunaALL canned. Very little assembly required- rinse and dump into a bowl. Mix together. That’s it. Bonus points for incorporating fresh ingredients like cilantro or lime- which are pretty accessible in Latin America. These salads are packed with protein and very, very cheap. My go-to equation is: 1-2 cans beans/legumes (chickpeas work too), 1 can corn (for starchiness/carbs), 1-2 cans vegetables, and 1 can fish (omit if vegetarian, the beans have a good amount of protein already) These can be eaten alone,  with crackers, or with the nice crusty bread you already bought for the avo toast 🙂
  • Hardy fruits: Central America produces an insane amount of the fruit we eat in the States, and it’s quite commonplace there to stumble upon a banana or mango tree. While you can grab a fruit straight of the tree and risk the anger of a tico (local), realize that the close proximity typically makes them pretty cheap to buy. Fruits like pineapple, banana, mango, and kiwi (read: things with mostly inedible skins) are very backpack-stable and make for incredibly easy on the go snacks. Grab a couple, and you might even be able to trade a fellow backpacker for whatever they just grabbed at the super.
  • Fish and Crackers: Cracking open a fresh can of tuna on the public bus may not get you the best looks, but this shelf-stable combo makes for a great blend of carbohydrate and protein. Dairy can be quite expensive, so instead of splurging for cheese and crackers, opt for a can of tuna or salmon along with some of your favorite crackers. Get the kind that can satisfy you on their own, as they make great binders in your stomach while waiting for your next meal at the soda. Plus, if (God forbid) you get food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea, many crackers are bland enough for even the most upset stomach.
  • Oats: Oats are incredibly versatile, as granola, oatmeal or overnight oats. I’m fairly positive that three of the girls on my yoga training ate oats literally every day. Oats are digested slowly, so they stave off hunger thanks to their fiber as well as protein content. Many Central American groceries will have shelf-stable milk, which adds even more protein to the equation when compared with water. If you do have a fridge handy, add about 1/2 cup of milk to 1 cup oats (more or less depending on the consistency you like) and leave overnight. In the morning, you’ll have a nice bowl of overnight oats for breakfast that will keep you full and regular.
  • Bonus tip: Leftovers! Do not deny the power of leftovers. While it is essential to save some money whenever possible, you may never get to experience the country’s cuisine again. So go to the local soda (this is where local cooks made typical (tipico) food for the area, usually for a low price) and go crazy! I had gallo pinto (rice and beans, typically with eggs and tico cheese) almost every single day, but the absolute best one I ever had was from Soda Mima in La Fortuna. One of the other nights, we went to a nice restaurant to celebrate our friend’s departure. Instead of stressing about how expensive it would be, I just let go, forked over 6,000 colones (about $12) for some delicious veggie noodles, and (thanks to my hostel’s mini-fridge) ate them for lunch and dinner the next day. Look for ones that don’t need reheating, as microwaves are a luxury. Refrigerators, however, are pretty common in hostels, so utilize them in order to avoid getting sick. And again-  ENJOY yourself! Pura Vida.

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