Food and the Basics of Staying Healthy while
Even for the most seasoned of travelers, the tropical climate of Yucatán
can be challenging. The primary challenge is to adapt to the sun and
This means persons must accept that local knowledge about health and wellness is superior your preconceptions of how to maintain healthy diets based on radically different climates. The basic cause of illness during the OSEA summer programs are created by participants who do not follow our OSEA and homestay family's guidelines on wellness through diet. Those participants who impose notions of healthy diets based on their research for the USA tend to get recurring malaise such as heat exhaustion, diarrhea, sun stroke, and more. For example, in the US there is a strong vocalization of the mantra to try water. However, if one only drinks water and refuses to drink beverages that have sugar, then one is going to have recurrent and frequent heat exhaustion, sun intoxication, lethargy, headaches, diarrhea, nausea, and related bodily malaise.
The point here is that participants are required to follow the OSEA staff recommendations on dietary wellness in relation to one's own prescriptions provided by a medical doctor. The OSEA Director has nearly forty years of experience bringing US students to Yucatan and has a depth of knowledge about precautions, causes, and treatments of student unhealth. This knowledge base is based on learning from locals and following homsetay families' indications of how to take care of oneself.
The sun is hot. It is humid. There are endless mosquitos.
You sweat like a dog. The sun burns you and intoxicates your body.
In these conditions one must drink at least a gallon of water a day
— when healthy!!!
But one must be careful to replenish not simply water, but basic vitamins
Potassium, magnesium, sodium, vitamin C, and SUGAR! – the electrolytes.
Without replenishing these, drinking plain water will not be enough.
That’s right: drinking plain water will not be enough.
The normal Yucatec diet has plenty of these, but often newcomers may
not immediately find all elements of the cuisine to be as appealing
as others. Typically what happens is that newcomers do not eat a balanced
meal simply because they opt out, for example, from eating chile.
The components of the Yucatec diet is a balanced meal – beans,
tortillas, meat, onions, tomatoes, chile, lemon, and the condiments.
Vitamin C is consumed for example via fresh slices of lemon served
with every meal and the famously hot habanero chile. Oranges and orange
juice is available everywhere but is not typically consumed in the
high quantities that US residents are accustomed. Over the years,
we have gotten the families who host students to incorporate oranges/orange
juice into breakfast. Drink a few glasses of lemonade for lunch whenever
Nonetheless, it is strongly advised that one bring a stash of these
supplements. For example, “EmergenC” is one product that
is very useful to bring. One might bring enough packets to consume
every 2nd or 3rd day if one is participating in the summer field school
and/or one is especially susceptible to the sun.
WARNING: There is a possibility of overdosing on Vitamin C if you take a daily supplement of 500 mg a day in addition to a normal amount in high-Vitamin C foods. Vitamin C overdose is nothing too serious, it won't kill you! But it will give you very soft, non-explosive near diarrhea like consequences that can last 4-6 days after on-set. Thus, its best to take high quantities of supplemental V-C such as EmergenC on days of sun intoxication, heat stroke, and dehydration.
Potassium is available in bananas, yet one should bring this in high
quality supplemental form as well. Similarly magnesium in powder form
with vitamin C is a high end supplement that can be purchased at speciality
health food stores. It is important to have and to take these supplements
regularly so as to minimize over exhaustion and sun intoxication as
well as during periods of illness involving diarrhea, dysentery, and
In the US, many seek to limit the intake of salt. There are many reasons
why you would want to do that in the USA. However, these reasons do
not operate in Yucatán. You NEED salt! You must replenish salt
in your diet by regularly salting even over salting your food while
There are many commercial beverages in the USA that have electrolytes
added — Gatorade and all the spinoffs. If you can find your
favorite product in large quantities of powder form, it is strongly
recommended that you bring this with you. Although the beverages are
available in Yucatán, you will save money by bringing it with
you. The jars of Gatorade powder mix for example is twice the price
at the Mérida Wal-Mart than the US market price. Some people
do not like these products because of the high sugar content. However…
A word about sugar and sugary beverages such as
soda or local "aguas"
Many will be startled at the amount of Coke and/or sugar that is consumed
by the Maya and Mexicans. Curiously, this is not such an evil thing.
In fact, people will tell you it is medicinal. It is certainly a very
very important commodity for its social uses and significance. Coke,
and this is serious, is an important source of sugar and sodium. So,
if you refuse to drink sodas and pops, you must find another source
of sugar on a daily basis. Unlike the processed foods of the USA,
the daily food of Yucatán does NOT HAVE SUGAR ADDITIVES. Thus,
you must find a source of sugar and sodium. Fruits are not a common
element of the diet; that is fruit does not constitute an element
of a meal since it is something of an extra food, a natural snack,
something eaten on the fly during the day. It is considered a supplementary
food to such an extent that if you were to eat just fruit for a meal,
it would be considered something of a joke because you are not really
“eating” according to cultural norms. But, further, the
sugars of soda/pop and of fresh fruit are different kinds, and you
must be sure to get the variety.
Cokes, sodas, pops, etc. are in the end therefore a good alternative
to many options such as candy bars, cookies, etc. Consider “going
native” :-) while in Yucatán and drink some of the bubbly.
What about the water???!!!
Everyone drinks bottled water. Period. When living in home-stays in
Pisté or elsewhere your family buys water in 20 liter drums.
You can refill your private water bottle from this and on occasions
you will find it necessary to buy water (as when away from home).
Refill your private water bottle that many participants like to carry around at home (not at OSEA!).
Water that is used for cooking is boiled for more than five minutes and
is perfectly healthy. Completely healthy as it kills bacteria and amoebas. Many families in Mérida and foreign researchers, such as archaeologists, living in very small communities
use a product that disinfects water by killing microbiotics &
bacterias. Thus, for example, they wash vegetables for 10 minutes
in water that has a few drops of this stuff and they use this disinfected water to brush their teeth. There are different products,
some are clorine/bleach based others are not; “microdyn”
is one sans bleach and is available in Mérida or your favorite
camping supplies store.
Your family in Pisté are most likely not using these water purifying products as it is not necessary besides being expensive.
Regular bathing, cooking, and cleaning water is pumped up from wells
that are more than 20 meters deep that connect with the underground
water table. The water does not come from a surface source that collects
or stores water. This water in other words comes through the aquafer
and is mostly clean for uses other than direct drinking. In other words it is clean enough to use to brush your teeth, to let the water touch your lips
while taking a bath, and cooking.
What about Ice? In general a majority of experienced travelers use ice from home, which is store bought ice made from purified water, and even at restaurants. You will be told that the ice is made from purified water. This is rarely not the case. However many US leaders of foreign students insist that their students not drink ice from restaurants.
To my taste this is a bit over zealous in precaution: People buy commercially produced purified ice all the time and are aware of the liability to health if they do not serve ice purified water.
Getting Sick and Getting Healthy
The more you know your body the better when living and doing fieldwork
in Yucatán. This is crucial. But this is not enough.
Some OSEA participants might be militantly opposed to western medicine
and the frightening ease with which doctors prescribe drugs. I strongly
support and agree that this is in itself is an illness, a rampant
social illness, that must someday be altered.
You might even be strongly opposed to even seeing or consulting with
an allopathic medical doctor. Or, you might be frightened by the idea
of seeing a traditional Maya health provider (i.e., herbalist, masseuse,
H-méen or “shaman,” curandero). You might be skeptical
and alarmed at the idea of your home-stay “parents” giving
you a concoction from the garden when you are sick. But, you must
shake loose of these preconceptions and worries.
The first thing all participants in field school (winter or summer
programs) must recognize is that health and medicine in the tropics
is not the same as health and medicine in the USA. There are different
illnesses here that do not exist in northern climates. Thus, you must
know what your body “says”, what it feels and does, but
you must also recognize that you do not (necessarily) know the meaning
Nor, do you know the local treatments and cures of the symptoms and
causes of illnesses that are found locally. People here get sick with
the same things that afflict foreigners. A big difference in getting
healthy however is that foreigners do not know the best treatments
while locals do!
Sun Intoxication and heat exhaustion afflict everyone in Yucatan unless you take precautions and treat it early.
The most common afflictions are due to sun intoxication, over exhaustion,
and dehydration. Dehydration can also be caused by diarrhea and vomiting
— regardless of the ultimate source (such as viral infection,
bacteria, amoebas, food poisoning, sun intoxication, etc.) of those
symptoms. Virtually in all cases of illness, you will need to prevent
dehydration. The common prescription is something called “suero”
— suero is a potent form of electrolytes beverage that contains
high quantities of sugar, sodium/salt, potassium, magnesium, and other
Electrolites, Pedialytes, Suero. The common brand of a medicinal grade electrolyte beverage, also found in the USA as well, is Pedialytes. It is sold in the USA in the children section of drugstore section of the grocery store or pharmacy. This is what we must drink when sick with sun intoxcation, dehydration, diarrhea. It seems that many US students do not like the taste of store bought suero. Indeed, I hate the coconut flavor and only drink the grape flavor. There a dozen different flavors to tickle everyone's taste buds. However, regardless of whether you yourself like or dislike the flavor, it must be consumed when sick. The alternative is to stay sicker longer.
Home-Brew Recipe for Electrolyte / SueroA homemade version of suero is a 1/4 or 1/3 cup of honey mixed into juice of 2-3 freshly squeezed límones (in mexico there are no yellow lemons; at OSEA the English word lemon means lí and always refers to the green "lemons"); add a teaspon or large pinch or two of salt and even a crushed and mashed clove or two of garlic. Pour into a glass with ice cubes followed by cold water—preferabley selzter or sparkling water. The garlic is a good addition for colds, coughs, fevers, but for simple dehydration and sun intoxication you can leave it out. This is by the way, for those athelete readers, is an excellent home made electrolyte beverage for post-workout recovery.
If you have diarrhea and vomiting you will go to a local clinic —
the Clinica Promesa, which was created by US based Presbyterian Churches
from the Midwest. If your vomiting is severe, you will receive an
injection to stop the vomiting so that you can consume your medicines.
This is most recommended as you always run the risk of throwing up
the anti-vomiting pills! Among the typical medicines that you will
then be prescribed (depending of course on the illness!) are pills
for pain and fever, antibiotics, and pills or drinkable concoction
for diarrhea (the latter ranges from kaopectate to under-the-counter
Vomiting and diarrhea require the famous BRAT diet: bread, bananas,
rice, apples, BLAND. This means no meats, no eggs, nothing cooked
in oil, no condiments, no coffee, no citric, no irritants. Plus: 4-5
liters of water and a liter or two of suero!
When having diarrhea it is absolutely essential that you keep track
of the color, smell, consistency and frequency of your stools. Your
ability to describe these aspects to your doctor will GREATLY facilitate
the doctors ability to figure out what illness you have! For example,
whether you have simply diarrhea, dysentery, amoebas, or otherwise
can be determined by YOUR description of YOUR stools.
Once at home, your home stay family might give you things such as
“tea” made with orange leaves (this is excellent for settling
the stomach), atole made from maicena, and bananas.
Because of the sun and change in diet, your body will undergo adaptation.
This means that during your fieldwork, participants typically range
from periods of “wild stomach” to constipation. This happens
but it is always exacerbated by taking western medicines for these
discomforts. For example, some people will feel compelled to use a
product called lomotil in fear of diarrhea. This however is precisely
what will cause you to have constipation and thus fluctuate back and
forth between these unfortunate extremes. Eat bananas, especially
the small, reddish platano macho, for wild stomach. And eat papaya
and mango to get your bowels moving. Above all, let your body find
the rhythm by which to adapt and adopt the food.
Malaria, Denge, Rocky Mountain Fever, Dysentery, Amoebas
Yucatán is a major tourism destination. It is one of the most
important tourist markets for the Mexican national economy. These
famously dangerous tropical diseases are extremely rare in Yucatán.
They are controlled. Tourists do not like them and the government
has ensured that they are not prevalent in any degree. One cannot
run a tourist economy with these illnesses floating about. Thus, it
is unnecessary, perhaps a waste of money, to buy and take malaria pills
and related preventative medicine for such tropical diseases.
Snakes, Scorpions, Centipedes, Tarantulas
These critters of the tropics tend to strike wild fear in people from
northern climates. However, the fear is unjustified. First of all
Yucatán is not deep tropical forest as are other parts of South
America, like the Amazon. Yes, there are snakes, but most are not
poisonous. The few that are have been pushed back away from settled
urban centers into the jungle. Yes, there are scorpions, but these
are more a nuisance. They are small and can be easily controlled with
a shoe or sandal. Yes, there are tarantulas. But these too are small.
And, unlike horrifying scenes in an early James Bond movie, they are
relatively harmless. They are actually quite AFRAID of humans! And
you can scare them away with a broom. You must kill them however and
burn them so that children or animals do not play with the dead body,
which still retains some poison. The poison is not lethal and is only
an irritant. But for children tarantula poison is a much more serious
matter. Tarantulas are only common during the summer after heavy rains
bring them out of their homes in the earth.
Centipedes?????!!!! Yes, centipedes are according to everyone quite
dangerous. While everyone laughs if you get frightened by a tarantula
(there is of course a sexual double entendre involved, but nonetheless…)
everyone will immediately tell you that tarantulas are harmless and
the REAL worry is centipedes. Their legs have a poison that is of
significant seriousness both for adults and especially for children.
A Note on Emergen-C and overdosing on Vitamin C
Emergen-C was a product that hit the market. We all should have invested in it when initially created. It is great for illness. However it is awful for daily use. A package contains 1000mg of vitamin C. This is well in excess of normal amounts. If you take this amount everyday for more than 10 days when you are not sick, you will have Vitamin C Overdose.
What is Vitamin C Overdose? Daily diarrhea. Painless diarrhea in terms of the stomach but not so painless at the doorway. Since your stomach is not hurting and since it seems that you are eating normally and healthily, you get perplexed because there is no apparent reason for you to be having diarrhea for a month. That is no reason except when you learn about Vitamin C overdose and that you shouuld not be consuming an EmergenC packet a day. Instead of that supplement make sure you eat normal local diet: lime juice, tomato, chili pepper, and fruits.
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