Eating and cooking whilst backpacking – a rough guide

When you’re backpacking for a long time, there are certain luxuries you have to give up on. One of the hardest things for me has been leaving behind my kitchen, with its rice cooker, blender, abundant spices and sauces, and gorgeously sharp Swiss knives. It was hard at first, but we’ve definitely discovered some hacks to make eating on the road easier and more fun, whilst sticking within our backpacking budget! It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but here are our top tips.

  • Clean water. If you’re travelling in a place where tap water isn’t safe to drink, invest a water bottle with a filter. My Lifestraw bottle has been an absolute lifesaver and has made sure I drink my 2 litres a day (at least)! It means I’m not spending £1-3 a day on bottled water (which would add up hugely over the course of 6 months), and also I don’t have to carry giant bottles – I just fill up from a tap once I’ve finished, and the water is perfectly safe to drink. Definitely worth the upfront investment! I got mine for £30 from Amazon. 
  • Hostels with kitchens. Even in cheap countries like Bolivia, where a meal out won’t usually set you back more than £5, it’s nice to cook and eat something homemade. Also, if hostels don’t provide breakfast, it’s useful to make some eggs in the morning, or just cut up some fruits. We make it an essential criteria when we’re booking accommodation.
  • Think local. Having said that, make sure you do eat out and try the local specialities! There was no way we weren’t going to eat the famous steak in Argentina, or seafood in Chile. TripAdvisor is great for sussing out nearby places, and make sure you ask at your hostel or fellow travellers if they’ve eaten anywhere good recently. And if you walk past a small joint that looks like it’s full of locals, try it. It’s usually the most authentic, the cheapest, and will rarely be on TripAdvisor! We’ve also agreed that once a month, we can have a ‘dignity night’, where we spend a little more than usual for a great meal. Having a little luxury now and then never hurt anybody! Our dignity nights thus far we’re Calden del Soho in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Mulato in Santiago (Chile), and Gustu in La Paz (Bolivia, review following soon). 
  • Carry some essentials. If only I could have brought my masala tin and Asian sauces… but no can do. Instead, we carry black pepper and a general spice mix (in Argentina, we picked up a packet of chimichurri, which is good on EVERYTHING) – the hostels always have salt. We also invested in a Tupperware and some cutlery, which is great for long bus rides – we normally make a pasta salad or similar and eat it on the way, rather than relying on their (often quite bad) food. 
  • Shop at markets. In South America, supermarkets are often expensive due to import restrictions, and particularly the fresh produce is nowhere near as good as at the local market. We always buy our fruits and vegetables there – you can usually bargain and the quality is fantastic. It’s never been easier to get our 5 a day! Read more about one of my favourite markets, the one in Sucre, Bolivia, here

  • Embrace the unknown. And on that note, make sure you try the unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. For example, we’ve discovered there’s a version of a zucchini that is round and shaped like a tomato, and we’ve also been enjoying loads of incredibly tasty tropical fruits! Most of the fruit sellers will let you have a taste, so make sure you ask. 
  • Have some fallback, familiar, easy recipes. For us, this is Ferran Adria’s spaghetti carbonara, homemade chunky hummus, and fajitas. Delicious dishes that can be made with minimal effort, even if the hostel kitchen doesn’t have the best equipment. 

  • Make friends! Anyone who reads my blog knows I love sharing food, and it’s so much more fun cooking in a group. We recently picked up two travel companions in Bolivia and took turns cooking every night. Amazing meals were had!
  • Embrace the street food. It’s usually super cheap and really tasty! Choripan is a firm favourite, which is literally chorizo sausage in pan (bread). Be aware of the hygiene standards though, as they vary hugely and can put you out of action for a couple of days if you’re not careful! We loved the avocado sandwiches in the Mercado Lanza in La Paz (they cost 5 Bolivianos – less than £1, and the avocado was oh so ripe!).

    Do you have any more tips to improve eating whilst backpacking and on a budget? Let me know in the comments!

    Follow my South American adventures over on the travel blog, the Backpacking Bailarinas, here!