Sunday, April 27, 2008

Gluten free in Mexico

We just returned from a one week trip to Mexico. We went to Akumal -- a beautiful, laid back beach village about an hour and a half south of Cancun, but a world away in style and ambiance. This was our first international trip since Emily's diagnosis but Mexico turns out to be a pretty reasonable place to eat gluten free. The following were some of our strategies:

1. We stayed at a condo with a kitchen: we had previously been to an all inclusive, and I have read that many people have success eating gluten free at all inclusives, with advance warning to the chef. However, even aside from food issues, we prefer the space and amenities that you get with a condo. Ours had a fantastic location, right on the beach, with a balcony overlooking the sea -- we ate breakfast and lunch on the balcony just about every day. (We rented ours through We ate 3 dinners in, and went out 3 nights plus a lunch -- however, had the dining out not worked out, it was comforting to know that we could eat all our meals in if necessary.

2. We brought some gluten free food with us: Pamela's mix (for pancakes); a gf brownie mix and a gf muffin mix (w/ chocolate chips), as well as disposable foil pans to bake them in; a couple of boxes of nut thins; a couple of bags of corn thins; a jar of peanut butter; small size disposable containers of peanut butter that we were able to carry on to the plane; small packets of salad dressing, ketchup and mayo; some freeze dried fruit packets; a couple of bags of Tinkyada pasta; small packets of lemonade mix; small bags of Ian's gf chocolate chip cookies; Zone bars. We also brought along some basic cooking gear -- we've found that it is hard to predict what condition pots and pans will be in at a rental condo. Sometimes they are stainless that you can clean and use with comfort, other times they might be scratched Teflon. For this trip, we hit upon the perfect set to bring with us-- a nice sized camping set of pots and pans, that all fit into each other and didn't take up that much room in the suitcase. We also have a collapsible colander that folds flat, and also bring a large spoon and spatula. Next time, I'm going to add a set of silicon muffin "tins" and a one cup measuring cup. We did bring most of the gluten free food in our hand luggage -- last time we traveled, the one bag that was lost was the bag with the gluten free food in it, and we didn't want to replay that experience! Although you do need to declare "food" at customs in Mexico, we didn't have any problem bringing the food in; it was all in its original packaging.

Of course, we had to buy additional food in Mexico. We stopped at an enormous, well stocked supermarket in Playa del Carmen, which was very similar to an American supermarket. We bought eggs, butter, yogurt, oil, cheese, milk, some chopped meat, rice, fruit and vegetables, 100% juice and a few other staples, including a couple of bags of corn tortilla chips. Mexico stocks a lot of the same brands and products that you find in the US -- in fact, some of the products are directly imported (you can tell because there is a big sticker listing ingredients in Spanish added to the product.) Although I was not able to verify this 100%, it is my understanding that Mexico does require labeling of major allergens, and we certainly saw allergy statements on many products. However, we tried to be cautious and stuck primarily to brands we were familiar with (such as General Mills and Kraft) and products that were not particularly processed with lots of strange ingredients. Finally, on one of our excursions to the Akumal "pueblo", we bought a big packet of homemade corn tortillas -- there must have been 50! -- for about a dollar. (Note that we did not call manufacturers to verify the gluten free status of the few "processed" items that we bought (jam, tomato sauce, potato chips) -- we felt comfortable with the combination of reading the labels to ensure that ingredients were "safe"and wheat, rye, barley, oats weren't listed, in conjunction with the products being from manufacturers who fully disclosed gluten in the U.S. or who maintained gluten free lists (such as Sabritas, which is the name that Lays products are sold under in Mexico.) If you don't feel comfortable with this, you should bring all processed food with you.)

3. We used a Triumph restaurant card for eating out: we ate at 2 restaurants in Akumal, each of them twice. La Cueva del Pescador is primarily a fish restaurant, although you can also get chicken a steak there. We used the restaurant card there, and the waiter really seemed to get it. One night, Emily had fish; the other night chicken. Both times, her meal was prepared separately, with just lime and salt for seasoning. According to the waiter, the homemade tortilla chips were fried separately from items containing gluten (and this made sense, because the restaurant didn't have any items such as onion rings or chicken nuggets). We also ate at Turtle Bay Cafe -- Emily had the chicken caesar salad (with our own dressing) both times. The owners of the cafe are American and are often on site, so I was able to verify with them that the chicken was not grilled in the same area as items containing gluten. Again, we used the restaurant card with the waitstaff, and sure enough the salad arrived without croutons or dressing, as requested. We also went to Lucys for homemade ice cream (not from a mix) -- I speak some Spanish so I was able to verify what the ingredients were with the person serving. Several times we went out for drinks in the afternoons, and brought our own tortilla chips with, because many times the chips served are fried in the same oil as gluten items such as chicken nuggets.

Do you have strategies for international gluten free travel? Is so, add them to the comments!


TJ said...

Wow - this place sounds beautiful! I've only been out of the country once since my Celiac diagnosis, to London then Paris. I found it so much easier to eat out in both those cities, than here in the US. Two years later I find it much easier here and eventually, I think we'll have a much better time of eating out gluten free in the states. I'll be glad when that day finally arrives!

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A teen and her family's experiences living gluten-free.