My personal Knapsack Pantry. photo © Lorraine Caputo
When you’re traveling on a budget, a Knapsack Pantry can get you through dining emergencies, soothe aches, and add a bit of spice to life on the road.
There may be times when you arrive in a town after a long, grueling bus ride, and discover that all the restaurants and shops are closed. Or perhaps you have a headache or stomach cramps, and an herbal tea can ease your pains. Then there’s that three a.m. bus to catch and you need a quick jolt of caffeine.
And, honestly, there are times when you just yearn for a taste of home – whether it is a Darjeeling or Earl Grey tea … or your favorite bread spread, like peanut butter, marmite or vegemite.
These are the times I am always glad to have my Knapsack Pantry – my emergency stash of foodstuffs that I keep in a drawstring bag (made from an old pant leg!).
Other travelers often comment about the extra pound (half-kilo) I carry in my knapsack – but my Knapsack Pantry has proved to be too handy in so many occasions to discount having it tucked in one corner of my backpack. True, many things can be bought locally – but sometimes I have found myself in situations where having a cache of goods is so helpful, or is not available where I am.
So – what do I consider to be essential supplies and staples to have in my Knapsack Pantry? Let’s take a look at what I pull out of my trusty ol’ road companion, Rocinante.
It is important to keep the items in their original packing, as much as possible. This will help in keeping your pantry staples – like herbs and spices – from being accused by border customs and other officials of being illegal substances.
Also – for countries with strict agricultural customs, like Chile, keep your herb pantry within easy reach so you can show it to custom officials. It is better to be open about the herbs and spices, rather than be heavily fined for “smuggling” prohibited products into the country!
THE MOST BASIC ESSENTIAL ITEMS
My ever-present basic dining gear. photo © Lorraine Caputo
During my trips, most times I stay in an hospedaje (inexpensive inn, often family run) or a hostel. In some countries (especially Argentina, Uruguay and Chile), I’ll camp. To save on my budget, I may prepare simple, no-cook meals (like guacamole, sandwiches or a salad). Or, in places like Argentine where carry-out joints (rotisería) are common, I’ll order something and take it back to my digs. At a campground, I might throw something on the parrilla (grill).
But no matter where I’m staying or what I’m eating, I have found a few items to be absolutely indispensable:
- plate / shallow bowl that will allow me to have a soup, if the occasion arises
- Swiss army knife (Any kind of multi-tool device will do. This should have not only a blade or two and a can opener, but also a corkscrew! After all, there are wonderful wines to try throughout South America – and wineries to visit!)
- cup (a thermal cup is useful to keep things hot on a cold evening – and/or a metal cup in which you can heat water)
Another item I have found useful – especially in the colder climes of the deep Peruvian mountains, the Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego – is an immersible water heater: You fill your cup with water, put the coil into the water, then plug it in. (The coil must always be immersed in water before plugging it in, else the element will burn out.) Be aware that from Mexico to Ecuador, electricity is 110v; and from Peru south, it is 220v.
In the realm of ingredients, first and foremost in my pack is sugar and salt. Not only are these important for food preparation and enjoyment on the road – but in a pinch, they also create an emergency rehydration mix, replenishing electrolytes (body salts) when I have a bout of diarrhea or high fever:
In 1 liter of clean water (boiled, filtered, treated), add 6 teaspoons of sugar and a half-teaspoon of table salt. Stir until sugar dissolves. Sip every five minutes.
Across the patio of the cheap hospedaje in Xela (Quetzaltenango, Guatemala), I see a familiar figure flitting about a room, the door open. I cannot believe it! It’s Wild Thang, a friend of several friends. I met him once upon a time or two. What in the devil is he doing down in these-here parts?
I go over and knock on the door. He recognizes me and gives me a weak bear hug.
“You okay, man?”
“Ah, I’ve got a killer headache.”
“Do you need aspirin or some such?”
“Naw, I don’t take that crap.”
“How about a cup of tea? Mint – or perhaps chamomile?”
He looks at me, his hazel eyes wide open. “You got some?”
“Sure. Meet me in the back patio.”
I am stoking the fire burning in that second patio when he arrives. I have my two cups out, one heating water for our tea. (I always carry two cups – one to heat water, and another to share with a fellow/sister traveler.)
There are times when we kick back with other travelers around the common table or a campfire, to share a drink and tales.
Or perhaps there’s a 3 a.m. bus to catch, and a jolt of caffeine is in order … or after a grueling all-day ride, you just need something to relax you …
For me – all of these are times when I dip into my stash. Another occasion is when I just want to sequester myself away and delve into my writing … and having something to drink helps to keep me going.
These are some of the Caffeinated Goodies you might want to have in your stash. photo © Lorraine Caputo
What caffeinated goods you have on hand depends on your taste. You can restock with local products when you run low – and try some of the regional specialties like yerba mate (which is available as loose herb – or in bags, called yerba cocida).
My Knapsack Pantry always includes:
- Instant coffee
- Black tea
- Green tea
- Flavored teas
I also like to have accompaniments, like:
- Packs of sugar (I grab these when I have a coffee out – just slip it into my pocket)
- Honey in small packets
- Instant milk (This is also useful for preparing meals)
A selection of herbal teas for relief of minor health dis-eases. photo © Lorraine Caputo
If you have a serious or ongoing health problem, go to a health professional or health center. Often, pharmacies can also help prescribe the proper medication.
But for minor or occasional discomforts, it is great to have a selection of herbal teas on hand for what may ail you. In Ecuador and Peru, such teas are called agua aromática. In Bolivia, they are called mate (mate de manzanilla, mate de coca, etc.)
Some useful ones to have on hand are:
- Chamomile / Manzanilla (Matricaria recutita, Chamaemelum nobile) – for headaches, stomachaches (especially due to gas or bloating); to relax; also for menstrual cramps
- Peppermint / Menta (Mentha × piperita) – for indigestion; also soothing nerves
- Oregano / Orégano (Origanum vulgare) – for indigestion, gas; can alleviate cold symptoms and sore throat; sore muscle, toothache
- Lemon Balm / Toronjil (Melissa officinalis) – for stress, anxiety, insomnia; indigestion, nausea; menstrual cramps; headache, toothache
- Lemon Grass / Hierbaluisa (Cymbopogon citratus, Cymbopogon spp.) – for stomachache, body aches, colds
- Ginger / Jengibre, Kion (in Perú) (Zingiber officinale) – to alleviate cold symptoms and sore throat; alleviates motion sickness and seasickness (ginger candies are also good for this); a cold tea is good for burning stomach
Many of these herbs may be bought fresh in the markets.
Also ask locally – the people at the hospedaje (inn) or hostel you’re staying at, or at a local eatery or shop – about local herbal remedies that may help you. You can also check online – like here or aquí – for other common and useful herbal teas.
In the Andes, mate de coca (coca tea) is a common herbal tea for relieving high altitude sickness. However, it is illegal in much of South America – or allowed only in the high-altitude regions of a country. Be informed of local laws about possession of this herb.
Also – mate de coca can cause a drug urine test to come back as positive. Be aware of this if your job back home requires you to take such tests.
My favorite herbs and spices. photo © Lorraine Caputo
HERBS & SPICES
There are some things that you may find always seems to get nicked out of your basket in the hostel pantry – even if the basket is clearly marked with your name and room number.
Oil is at the top of this list. It is very difficult to travel with an open container of this vital liquid. And another? As I discovered from personal experience, herbs.
I come into the kitchen to retrieve another glass of wine from my basket in the pantry. Every guest of this Buenos Aires hostel is given two baskets – one to store dry goods in the pantry and another for the fridge. There is a place to put your name and room / bunk number on the baskets.
As I walk in, two young men are preparing their dinner together.
I fill my glass with red wine and notice my bag of herbs is missing. I glance over to where the young men are and spy one of them reaching into it for some herbs.
I ask if the bag was theirs.
I know, it came out of this basket, correct?
Well, the basket is mine. You could have come to look for me and ask for some, if you needed it.
Oh, but we aren’t stealing, really.
If you don’t mind my suggesting, why don’t you carry a small pouch of your favorite herbs and spices?
Indeed, if you have on hand a small collection of your favorite herbs and spices, you won’t be pinching from other travelers’ supplies at the hostel. One word of caution, however: Always keep these in their original pouches. This will save you from any, ahem, misunderstandings with border customs or other officials.
My standards are:
- oregano / orégano
- basil / albahaca
- chili powder / chili en polvo (Mexico, Central America), ají en polvo (South America) – Note: In Ecuador, the ají para seco is rather bland and used more for coloring.
- red pepper (chili) flakes / hojuelas de chili, hojuelas de ají
- thyme / tomillo
- rosemary / romero
- curry / curry
- black pepper / pimienta
Fresh garlic (ajo) is readily available, so you can just keep a head or two tucked into your Knapsack Pantry. Garlic is also good to use regularly, as it is a traditional natural remedy for keeping gut bugs at bay. Some travelers swear they will also make you less inviting to mosquitos and other bugs.
Some of your favorite herbs and spices may be difficult (if not nigh impossible) to find in some countries, especially good quality chili powder or curry. If you find it, put it into your stash!
I hit Oaxaca with a full-blown case of dengue wracking my body. My temperature soared above 39ºC. Each step I took jarred me from head to foot. Indeed, it deserves its nickname: bone-break fever.
Luckily, my hotel next-door neighbors were also seasonal Alaska workers. She was laid up with a terrific case of Montezuma’s revenge.
Her boyfriend nursed us back to health over the next few days. My stash of instant soups and bouillon cubes came in very handy to help us get through our fevers and dehydration.
An assortment of soups is also useful for adding flavor to rice or sauces. photo © Lorraine Caputo
For those times when you need to warm up – or you risk dehydration and loss or electrolytes – soups are the perfect easy meal to have. This may come in the form of:
- Packets of instant soup
- Bouillon cubes
Bouillon cubes are available in a variety of flavors: chicken, beef, vegetables. They are good for not only making a nourishing broth or soup, but also for making sauces for heartier main dishes like stews or pastas.
Potted protein choices make quick, inexpensive meals. photo © Lorraine Caputo
The times I have had to dip into my Knapsack Pantry for a quick and easy meal … ay, such memories!
Like the time I arrived in Malacatán (Guatemala) so late at night – and no place to grab a meal …
Or being stuck in a traffic jam for eight hours in the Colombian jungle due to an accident … or in southern Peru when a huayco (rushing dry gulch river) cut off the road …
In such unforeseen circumstances, the Knapsack Pantry came to the rescue (again … and again!).
I have one can of some sort of protein tucked away for just such an emergency:
- Tuna / Atún –It is better if it is not self-opening / ring pull top can, for safety issues: The seal can break more easily than old-fashioned kind of can. This is also often available in a pouch (which, unfortunately, is not recyclable).
- Sardines / Sardina – If this will be for only one person, a small can will suffice.
- Peanut Butter / Mantaquilla de cacahuate, pasta de maní – Foreign brands are very expensive in Latin America. In Ecuador pasta de maní – pure ground peanuts with no added sugar or salt – is common. Keep it in a sealed jar in a plastic bag, to contain any seepage of oil. Also, be aware that in the tropics, peanut butter can go rancid quite quickly.
- Marmite / Vegemite – Also a great comfort food and great nutritional source. (Unfortunately, this is unavailable in Latin America.)
Some regional products you may want to try:
- Potted Meat / Carne enlatada – Tins of this is quite common in Argentina.
- Seafood / Mariscos – In Chile, all sorts of seafood is available in tins – even salmon mousse! These are wonderful for preparing pastas or even a chowder.
- Dried Mushrooms / Hongos deshidratados – Common to find in Ecuador, these are wonderful for adding to rice and pasta dishes. Put them in hot water for about 15 minutes to rehydrate them.
Tip: Some road favorites often come in glass containers – like marmite and honey.
But traveling with glass is not advisable. Look for products in non-breakable containers.
What are some of the things you have in your Knapsack Pantry?
Let us know in the comments below!
Safe Journeys … and ¡Buen provecho!