by Jessie Maguire

Diarrhoea anyone? Not the most delightful of topics, that’s for sure. But it can actually be very difficult to avoid getting sick once you’ve arrived in this lovely country, and literally a pain in the bottom when you do!

After being in Cochabamba for five years, I never get sick, and I can eat almost anything I want without any problems! So you might be wondering what the secrets of digestive success are….

We’ve compiled a list of the best tried and tested tips and tricks especially for you, to help you avoid getting sick in the first place.

We also want to share some health tools and solutions with you – methods that long-term resident expats have used that have really worked, so you can get back on your feet again fast!

How to Avoid Getting Sick

El Agua

Can you just drink any type of water here? Well, Bolivian water isn’t the cleanest water you might have ingested during your life. Studies show that the raw tap water here may be contaminated with fecal matter. Gross, right?

A SODIS study on water in Cochabamba also showed that E. coli was present on two thirds of the water vessels tested in the city. Mm, delicious. We’ll talk about how to clean up your cup in a moment. First, though, let’s look at the cleanest water sources.

Which type of water is safest?

We would say that the water that comes from sealed bottles and large “botellones” is the safest water for sensitive tummies. Those little bags of water you can buy in the street are next on the list, although there is some uncertainty regarding whether this water is really clean or not!

Boiled water is ok, but if you really want to make sure you don’t get sick from any water source, you might want to avoid it. It may be contaminated with heavy metals like arsenic and lead, as lead pipes are still used over here, and environmental and industrial pollution is more of a problem.

If you end up in the campo without clean water of any kind, reach for those handy water purification tablets.

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

If you go with boiled water, it’s recommended that you boil it for at least 3 minutes to make sure the bacteria are no more. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you let the water reach a “rolling boil” or three minutes when you’re above 6,500 feet (Cochabamba is at around 8,300).

Less time may be sufficient in places like Santa Cruz and Chapare, which are much closer to sea level. Others recommend a long 10 minute boiling stint, so set the clock for as long as you think is necessary.

Peckish on the Street

There is some amazing street food available up here in the Andean mountain ranges, especially in Cochabamba, the gastronomic capital of Bolivia.

You will probably agree that the hamburgers, choripanes, sandwiches de huevo, tripas, anticuchos and other foodstuffs prepared on carts around the city smell amazing!

However, the stall owners often don’t have access to clean water, so they use the same bucket of tap water to wash everything for at least a few hours. You’re also there in the street, maybe in the Cancha, where toilet facilities are scarce at best!

Choose places where you’re paying at least 20 bolivianos per meal, and take special care in areas where access to clean water and sanitation facilities might be tricky, and you should be fine.

Salads and Vegetables

Into raw food and smoothies? The plentiful, economically priced array of fruits and vegetables is one of the many things newcomers enjoy about Cochabamba. You can buy several kilos of fruit for 10 dollars.

Fruit should be washed well in clean water before you eat it, even when you can peel off its skin. Try not to snack on anything before washing your hands well, especially fresh produce, which may have come in contact with all types of pathogens on its way to you.

People say that most of the lettuce available in Cochabamba is irrigated with dirty river water. I can believe it, and it’s certainly made me sick a lot of times. Learn how to disinfect all types of veggies below.

Beer, anyone?

Drinking is so much fun in Cochabamba. There are no limits when it comes to staying out all night drinking. However, not all Bolivian beverages are excellent choices!

Buckets of chicha

Chicha is a traditional drink made from maize and fermented to perfection in large barrels. It’s most definitely worth a try while you’re in this beautiful region, but it can contain an amazing mix of bacteria that might not exactly agree with your insides during the first few months. The same goes for guarapo and any other beverage served to you from any unsealed container, for obvious reasons.

Tools for Protection Against Parasites and Bacteria

Don’t worry

Using the following tools can help you create a barrier between you, the E. coli and any other pathogens you might come into contact with, and help you recover from a bout of diarrhea or other digestive issues.

Though all this bacteria business seems like the most gross thing in the world, your body is smart and it will gradually get used to dealing with it. There is bacteria everywhere, including in our home countries – we’re just used to Western muck not South American dirt!

The key to great health in Bolivia

The key is to kill as much bacteria as you can during you time here! Lol! Pull out all the tools you can and eliminate the nasties! You will still become immune to them, but you will be sick for less time, and less often.

The best type of Bolivian alcohol, and bacteria’s worst enemy!

Here’s a tool that’s awesome to have around to stop you from getting sick! Alcohol, in gel format, is great for keeping your hands clean.

For your cup, or any other container, vessel or utensil that will directly or indirectly come into contact with your mouth – clean it with “alcohol Caiman”. You can buy tiny little bottles of this alcohol at almost any corner store.

For veggies and other foods you’d like to disinfect, you can buy a chlorine-based disinfectant called Dg5 in most pharmacies, and it works a treat.

Probiotics and salt

Probiotics can help ward off bad bacteria, by populating your gut with good bacteria. It’s best to start taking them a week or more before you travel, so your body is set up to fend off that E. coli!

Salt also keeps bad bacteria at bay. Pink salt is available in some health food shops around the city and is less processed. It can be used to wash your nasal cavities and/or used as a mouthwash to keep bacteria from entering your body. This is also a great practice for people with rhinitis and upper respiratory problems – as Cochabamba is among the ten most polluted cities in Latin America, it’s a great idea to clean up and support your respiratory system, too.

Parasite protection

No one is immune to parasites, and they can make you feel fatigued, hungry all the time and generally ill, man. There are various natural herbs you can buy here or at home before you come that will have them packing their bags in no time.

Neem is a great Ayurvedic herb to have in your backpack, as it kills both bacteria and parasites of all kinds. Wormwood and black walnut hull also work well. If you’re in Cochabamba and you want to find out more about anti-parasite herbs, Susan Kaiwai sells jars of herbs you can make into a tea that work really well from experience. I’ve put her Facebook page link and telephone number at the bottom of this article.

Grapefruit seed extract is massively popular in the US and Europe now, and it’s a brilliant ally to have in your luggage because it’s a natural anti-bacterial, anti-parasite, anti-viral agent that will protect you and help you recover when you’re sick.

Chequeos & antibiotics

If you’re not feeling well, you’re under the weather and you’re just not feeling yourself, getting a few tests done can’t hurt. For around 5 dollars, you can get a full parasite screening.

(Pardon the directness, but…) You’ll want to take a little fecal matter to a laboratory within two hours of going to the bathroom in a little pot, which you can get at any farmacia. If you’re staying for longer than 3 months, why not go for a check-up every three months? Doing this can really make a difference to how happy and healthy you are while you’re here.

At the end of the day, your results might come back positive and you’ll have to take antibiotics or other medications to get well. They should work, but we all know the dangers of taking too many antibiotics, which is why prevention is so much better than cure.

What to do if you’re a long-term volunteer

Being a long-term volunteer is a wonderful experience, but what if you’re sick the whole time? Having stomach issues for more than a few months takes its toll on your health.

But don’t despair – luckily, your body will begin to adjust to its new environment as soon as you get settled in, and within a couple of months it will start to respond positively to all the changes. As you get stronger, you can begin to take bigger risks and try some tripas, or whatever it is that takes your fancy.

We wish you the healthiest, most enjoyable time in Bolivia!

We’d love to hear what you think.

Have any specific foods made you sick? Or perhaps you have other favorite remedies to add to the list? We’d love to hear about your personal experiences, so please share your ideas and comments in SB’s Facebook group.

Images courtesy of Flikr.

Susan Kaiwai:, Tel: 71440428