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Latin America Travel – The Bottled Water Dilemma

Latin America Travel

Latin America Travel – Tap Water – Photo by Diganta Talukdar

Oh, the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge… if you’ve been traveling anywhere in Latin America you have probably heard of it, or worse had it, and if you’re still planning your trip, you definitely need to prepare for it.

Montezuma’s Revenge, also known as Delhi Belly or Mummy’s Tummy or plain old traveler’s diarrhea (TD), has to be right up there at the top of the list of worst travel experiences. Studies estimate that 20-50% of international travelers come down with it every year. While caused by a number of pathogens, the most common cause is ingesting contaminated water or food that has been cooked or washed with contaminated water.

Buying Bottled Water

Latin America Travel

Latin America Travel – Bottled Water Pollution – Photo by

One of the biggest suggestions on how to avoid getting TD is to avoid drinking the tap water when traveling anywhere in Latin America. The solution – buying bottled water.

This might be the “solution” suggested by your doctor and family back home but I want you to consider for a minute the impact of that bottled water and the bigger picture. First of all, if the water in the country you are visiting is not safe to drink, the community probably doesn’t have a very developed waste management system either. Where is your bottle going to end up? Polluting the already polluted waters of the country in many cases. Before you add trash to a system already not designed well to handle it, I want to recommend a few alternatives.

Latin America Travel

Latin America Travel – Bottled Water Pollution – Photo by Horia Varlan

First of all, be 100% sure bottled water is really the solution. News flash – most of the major cities in South America have completely safe tap water. The bottled water you are buying is probably no more than slightly filtered tap water. Watch the locals, not the super wealthy but the middle class. Are they buying all their water? Are the supermarkets filled with water jugs, cheaply priced for locals or is the bottled water hidden in the back and featuring a high (priced for tourists) price?

If the tap water really isn’t safe, before buying bottled water, consider boiling your own. Most hostels have a kitchen and if you are planning on making dinner in the hostel kitchen, it will only take an extra second or two to fill a pot with water and put it on the back burner. Boiling tap water will make it safe and if you bring along a refillable water bottle, you will not only be saving money (bottled water purchases can add up quickly) but you can also feel good about protecting the local environment.

If all else fails and you must buy water, look for the ever popular bagged water. Sold in bags, sized for individual use or enough to last you a couple of days, this water is just as good and you won’t be producing as much trash.

Latin America Travel

Latin America Travel – Boys Sharing Bag of Water – Photo by ccarlstead

Couple Travel Tips

  • If you do get sick, reschedule travel plans, especially bus trips until you are feeling better. There is nothing worse than being stuck on a bus when you are suffering the full wrath of Montezuma’s Revenge.
  • The second most common suggestion for avoiding traveler’s diarrhea – only eating at restaurants that cater to tourists and never eating at food stands. This has to be the worst piece of advice ever given to a traveler. Ignore it, eat the street food, but just be smart about it and only buy items that are/were fully cooked.
  • Studies have shown that it can take up to 7 years before people gain full immunity to a contaminated water source. Your best bet is to ask local expats (who have living in the country less than 7 years) if the water is safe or if it makes them sick.

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