Eating Locally While Traveling

Bolivia, Budget Travel, Costa Rica, Dispatches from the Road, Food & Wine, Mexico — By on April 13, 2009 at 8:00 am

It’s part of the unspoken backpacker code: in order to be a real traveler, you need to buy your meals from a street vendor rather than some fancy-schmancy (and expensive) tourist restaurant. But as Shadia Garrison, The Mindful Tourist points out in her post below, your on-the-road dinner choices affect more than just your moneybelt-or your bragging rights at the hostel later. They affect the way that you’ll experience the country you’ve come so far to see. Here, she shares how she gets connected to the local culture through food…and how you can, too.


street Market Khartoum SudanEating Locally While Traveling

by Shadia Garrison, The Mindful Tourist

I love to eat. Just ask my thighs – they’ll corroborate my story.

So it stands to reason that a big part of my travels is finding the best restaurants, tasting local delicacies, and being an adventurous eater. I think food can be one of many windows into a culture. That’s why I feel it’s important to seek out those eateries that will take me beyond most tourist destinations, so I can interact with locals, both those cooking my meal and my fellow diners; and so I can know I’m experiencing and tasting the most authentic food possible.

While in La Paz, Bolivia a few years ago, I came upon a street vendor selling salteñas, a typical Bolivian savory pie-like snack. My travel companions balked at eating food from a stall that may or may not have been subject to health inspections (more than likely not). But I came out the winner. This salteña was the best thing I had eaten on my whole trip. Qué rico! I went back to that stall every day I was in La Paz to get more spicy, potato- and chicken-filled deliciousness.

Sometimes I stumble over good eating possibilities, and sometimes I seek them out. While at an all-inclusive beach resort in Mexico I got a little tired of eating the standard buffets every day. I made friends with the resort’s tennis pro who suggested we go to a local dive with the best fish tacos I ever tasted. Hotel staff are extremely knowledgeable about local (and cheap) places to eat and many are happy to share their inside info with you.

In Costa Rica, my family took a tour of a small, family-owned, organic farm. We spent the whole day with the family, milking cows, making cheese from the milk, walking the fields, petting goats, riding horses, fishing in their lake, and of course, eating. The family kept feeding and feeding and feeding us, much to my delight! We had strong Costa Rican coffee, tortillas and eggs, fried fish and yucca, and the best ceviche I think I’ve ever tasted, served out of a big orange bucket from their refrigerator. Eating in someone’s home is the best way to really experience the food and the culture.

How do you find these out-of-the-way local joints? Many times they are not on the internet or are not known by other tourists posting their trip reports. You might have to do a little more digging, but asking around, sticking your head into side streets, and betting on the street vendors will pay off in the end.

I recently wrote a blog post giving tourists ideas for eating locally in Washington, DC, my own hometown. What are the best local places in your hometowns or that you’ve been to while traveling?

Learn more about socially conscious travel at Shadia’s blog The Mindful Tourist.

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  • Powered by tofu says:

    After a year on the road, I’d say my best food encounters have been through asking locals (although I’m generally wary of asking at hostels/hotels because everyone inevitably has a cousin with a restaurant). Asking the waiter what their favorite dish has also always proved excellent. As for more “beaten path” destinations like Greece and France, it seems like all you have to do is go to the touristy area (coastline etc) and then walk a few streets in to find brilliant food at half the price.


  • Starlight* says:

    I always use the internet (especially to find out about local specialties beforehand. Sometimes eating the best food a place has to offer means eating very differently from the locals… for example in Bolivia the locals seem to eat potatoes with rice and meat, each day and every day. What miserable food ! But in local restaurants we found very interesting food, lots of forgotten local specialties, as well as amazing local fruits…

  • mindfultourist says:

    Starlight – glad you use VT too. I just did a post on how best to use TripAdvisor and included a little on VT, something that has really helped me out in the past:

  • Paulie says:

    hey great post. sampling local (and street!) food is always a lot of fun.

    i’m in rio de janeiro at the moment and found my favorite local dive by following the taxis.

    cabs know their way around a city and if one place draws a whole slew of them, then it’s gotta be either really good or really cheap, and in my case it was both!

    by the way, in asking your waiter for a recommendation, i was wondering…do you think gender has a role in palates or is taste universal?