Food allergies and travel - I could write about this ad nauseum. So here we go!
I just got back from a 10 day vacation to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, with Brandon and his whole family. This included my 2 year-old nephew who also has several severe food allergies.
What I used to communicate my allergies
Before leaving my sister in-law asked me to print copies of her son's allergy sheet since they forgot to do it before they left. I really liked the simplicity of it so I modified it for my own allergies as well. For past vacations to Mexico I've had my cousin's Mexican girlfriend write out a translation for me and just went with that. The chart I used this time had a picture of the allergen, the name, and then a list of common foods to avoid. Very handy and I will use that template again.
I also used Feast Freely Cards (I chose blue) which are handy little business cards that list out your needs. Because I don't speak Spanish and because food allergies are not part of the culture in Mexico like they are in Canada or the US, I felt the additional allergy chart was needed. I would definitely keep Feast Freely cards on hand for use in English-speaking situations where I can accompany with a verbal explanation. They're convenient enough to keep in your pocket for whenever you need them!
What I packed
You know by now that of course I packed half a suitcase full of food! Since we were staying in a condo with a full kitchen I didn't feel the need to pack for famine, but I still brought some key things. Like pocket snacks. You can never have enough pocket snacks.
- 5 boxes of Enjoy Life Cocoa Loco Chewy Bars - I didn't finish them all but they were handy
- 1 jar of Sunbutter
- a pack of 3 small Rice Dream's
- 1 bag of Enjoy Life Seed and Fruit snack mix
- 1 bag of Enjoy Life chocolate chips (to make a birthday dessert one night)
- a few homemade scones for the plane ride
- a jar of yeast so I could make bread, my sister in-law brought the flour
- 4 small tins of tuna packed in olive oil
- 3 Epi Pens
- 1 pack of Benadryl
How we grocery shopped
Unfortunately almost everyone had the flu so we ate at home most nights. There were of course pro's and con's to this - on the one hand I'm much more relaxed eating at home, on the other we didn't get to taste as much local cuisine as we normally would have. Brandon found a fantastic butcher called Old Jack that had actually just opened in December. The founders have their own farm where they raise grass-fed beef and flash freeze it which is important in Mexico's hot climate. Since Brandon is so wonderful he even bought a BBQ from Home Depot so we could cook at home more easily. We also shopped at a local farmer's market called DAQ (see my Instagram page for photos) that had the freshest produce. We bought a box of organic lettuce mix that was probably the tastiest I've ever eaten. We went to DAQ often and thankfully it was open til 10pm. Fresh bananas make an excellent pocket snack!
Where we ate
Breakfast/brunch: This was not our first time in Playa, so we had a routine down already. For breakfast we ate at Chez Celine every day. They make a delicious Americano and a nice fresh fruit salad, though they are known for their bread and pastries which others seemed to really enjoy.
Lunch: We only ate once at the Hyatt, I had a very pretty salad with fresh raw beets, but I would have loved to have eaten there again.
Dinner: We only had a couple dinners out at restaurants and frequented Eldiez, an Argentinian steak house that's full of flavor. Their meats are tender and taste so incredible. I had mine just plain grilled, as it comes anyways, with a simple side salad. The owner assured me that they just use olive oil and salt on their meat.
Coffee: The best coffee I had all week was at Bertoni. Ok, it wasn't Mexican coffee, it was Illy, but damn was it good.
Challenges and experiences
No trip is without its food-related challenges for a person with allergies. There were a few situations where I felt either like a wet blanket, a complainer, or was starving but still put on a nice face because I wanted to participate. And of course there were server miscommunication to contend with which happens no matter what country one is visiting.
New Year's Eve was a bit of a struggle for me (aside from literally falling asleep while sitting upright on a couch at the bar at 4 am). The city of Playa del Carmen is like a constant street party with lots of music, pedestrians, and architectural texture. This is only amplified on new year's eve when people are feeling festive, so while we were dining on the patio of Eldiez at a table of 12 I felt a little overwhelmed. My mind raced as to whether the busy kitchen really did get my allergy sheet, whether they had time to read it, if they used cheap olive oil that is often cut with other suspicious oils. I ended up just picking at my meal and taking it to go so I could have it later in peace. The servers there had a tendency to look at my allergy sheet and say "Ok, it's fine" and not want to take it back to the chef, so I had to be firm about it and repeat the severity. The manager told me they just use oil and salt, but I had to explain about cross-contamination as well since they have a number of other items on the menu.
We met up with some friends from Toronto while there as well. We hung out on the Thompson rooftop patio quite a bit, rented a catamaran and sailed to Ile de la Mujeres for the day, and ate at some like-a-local fast food spots such as El Fogon, a taco joint. As far as food goes I was more of a spectator than a participant. I brought snacks with me everywhere, stuck to drinks I know, and didn't move much outside my comfort zone. While everyone had tacos I enjoyed a cerveza, remembering the time a few years back when I tried to explain my allergies at that restaurant and was immediately dismissed. But I don't mind just hanging out; my purse is always full of food. The thought of having a reaction on an island or a boat is terrifying, and on the island when we stopped for lunch our server didn't speak much English at all so I decided not to chance it. We peacefully sailed back to the coast as the sun set over Cancun and I ate an Enjoy Life bar and banana. Almost everyone got food poisoning that day so it seems like my allergies worked in my favor.
Since we had a kitchen I took full advantage and made 2 batches of bread that I could use throughout the week for sandwiches (tuna or egg) and avocado toast. We bought tons of fresh fruit which is also a perfect travel snack and eggs so that I could get enough protein without overdoing the tuna.
Finally Brandon and I had one blissful day where we drove to an untouched natural beach that was also a turtle sanctuary and just laid there in the sun, with no cares at all.