Pulling the Plug on South America, The Hell of Gluten Free Travel

I can’t eat gluten (wheat, barley and rye). I get really, really sick if I do. I’ve been diagnosed with Celiacs, and diagnosed with no allergies. No idea what is actually wrong with me, I just avoid gluten at all costs.

Not a problem in Boulder, but traveling is sometimes really tough because of this. Generally, there is almost always something on the menu for me to eat at a restaurant (salad, steak or rice as an example). When I’m eating at someones home, I have to kindly explain and ask a ton of questions in order to try and not get sick. Lots of reading of labels, asking what goes into the sauce etc.

In the States this isn’t a problem at all, in South America, it was a major one. Gluten is one of the cheaper fillers there is, so if you are a producer of something like corn meal, and you need to cut costs, you will add a bit of wheat flour.

Cartagena Colombia 2

The result of two months in South America was getting sick about once every six meals. It was like walking in a live minefield with a blindfold on thinking ‘this will be an experience’ and then after stepping on your 15th mine thinking ‘maybe I shouldn’t be walking through this place.’

So I pulled the plug on South America. A lot have asked why, so I wrote this post. South America, I love you, but unless I just eat your fruit, we can’t be friends.

Ordering in my shaky spanish didn’t help the situation, I am sure, nor did the general non awareness of gluten free folks like me. Ordering without bread often got an eye roll from the wait staff. They would then bring the bread, and then prompt me to eat it after I pushed it away. When graciously invited into someones home, I would often have to just skip the meal as everything they had would make me sick. There is no way to properly sign or explain your gratitude to a meal and gensture you are rejecting.

That is really tough, and prohibits quite a bit on the road.

I’m 6’5″ 240 pounds and somehow have to get enough calories to power me through the day. Doing this can be daunting. There were several days where I skipped two meals, finding nothing I could eat. When you are this big, 600 calorie days can really cut into you. A few days of this trip I just had some fruit and a coke or two, then starving, tried something that should be gluten free, only to get really sick for the next few days.

If anyone has tips for gluten free travel, please let me know. I am sick of being sick, and am traveling to places where I can eat some of the food (if that exists).

A move to Thailand for the trip has been quite good. Fish sauce is the base for almost everything you see on a menu, so I have been living in the land of green curry and getting sick far less often (once every ten meals now).

Here is a vegetarian Pai Thai with chicken (ordering that way gets no fish sauce, but includes the chicken, and yes, it is very odd ordering that way every single time):

I’m reading travel books, and the highlight for many is really mingling with locals, being invited into their homes. This has been a highlight for me too, but I have to realize that there is a limit to what I can do.

The style of my travel evolves.

Here is the trip’s map and photos, if you are interested:






14 responses to “Pulling the Plug on South America, The Hell of Gluten Free Travel”

  1. Mark Solon Avatar

    SE Asia should cure your woes pal. I'm G.I. as well (though not as badly as you) and eating there was no problem. Hope you're having a blast pal. Love following you around the world vicariously!

  2. andrewhyde Avatar

    I didn't know that about you!

    Found some amazing spots in Bangkok, heading north soon.

  3. Kristina Avatar

    You and I are traveling inverses! Well, kindofsortofnotreally. Most of Asia is difficult for me, as the peanut allergy is not well-understood or easily-explained. 🙂 I feel you on the whole Russian Roulette style of eating while traveling…not fun at all. Very glad to hear things are working better for you!

  4. Zach Hale Avatar

    That's a bummer you weren't able to make it work down there but I'm glad to hear things are better in Thailand!

  5. karri Avatar

    I am curious as to why you are avoiding the fish sauce? It is usually gluten-free. Normally just fish that ferments and salt. I also can't have wheat, so I feel your pain. It can be very hard to explain to someone who doesn't speak the same language about soy sauce, hoisin, oyster sauce etc. Good luck!

  6. kadavy Avatar

    That really sucks about your experience in South America – looks like I'll have to avoid it as well. Too bad, an extended trip to Buenos Aires sounded really good. It's great that you're not letting it stop you, though.

  7. andrewhyde Avatar

    Generally it is mixed with a soy or oyster sauce that has wheat in it.

    Something I didn't know but got sick twice and found others saying to

    stay away. Going to cooking school in the morning so I will get to

    see first hand!

  8. andrewhyde Avatar

    I think it can be done, but is much tougher than I thought. I've

    heard Buenos Aires is much, much better, I just had to get out quick!

  9. andrewhyde Avatar

    Much better, thanks for checking in!

  10. Tyler Link Avatar
    Tyler Link

    Hmm…I didn't have much of a problem in Colombia, but my symptoms are more subtle than yours. I've been considering a trip to Buenos Aires and from what I've read it's basically a diet of grass-fed beef and pasta. I think it will make a great paleo travel destination. I also wondered about the fish sauce since I know it's gluten free, but you're probably right about mixing it with other sauces.

    Here's a travel tip: use your kindle and google.com/translate to translate your gluten free instructions into the local language. The 3G Worldwide Kindle is the best thing that has happened to celiacs in a while. The translation isn't perfect though, so be sure to translate back to English to see exactly what you're communicating. When I tried to get fitted for a tux in Medellin I found out after the fact that I was asking the tailor to measure me for “chest armor.”

  11. andrewhyde Avatar

    Yeah, the kindle is a savior for me too!

    BA is supposed to be very friendly!

  12. kia Avatar

    I am sorry you got sick so often. That had to be a pain in the ass and painful.

  13. Lou Avatar

    Hi Andrew! I just discovered your blog (from kottke.org) and am taking great pleasure reading some of your past posts.
    I too have food sensitivities– no gluten, no sugar, and I’m vegetarian– and know only too well the frustration of not being able to accept food that is graciously offered by locals. I spend a lot of time in India and it kills me to not be able to eat the “prasad”– blessed sweets (usually wheat + sugar) distributed by a saint or at a ritual– or to share chai (which has tons of sugar in it).

    Have you ever heard of MMS? Miracle Mineral Solution. I initially heard about it from other long-term travellers. It’s a solution that will wipe out any health problem in record speed. It’s been a godsend for me (and it’s the only thing in my medecine cabinet now), and I’ve actually been able to eat some delicious baguette while on my last trip to France without getting sick, just taking a dose of MMS morning and evening. Not that I would do that on a regular basis, but occasionally is ok.
    If you don’t know about MMS, look into it, though you’ll find that there are as many people against it as there are for it (among those against is the dear old USFDA– which only makes me love MMS more, but that’s just me…).
    Good luck to you!

  14. NULL Avatar

    If this works, I’m building you a pyramid of your size choice. Have
    never heard of it!

Leave a Reply