Counterintuitive Travel Tip #6: The Water

The first five tips (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5) had a lot to do with how to plan your trip (or not plan it). Now we’re getting into the more nitty-gritty on-the-ground stuff.

Drink the water.

I had written a righteous screed about how all guidebooks are just covering their asses when they tell you not to drink the water, and of course you can drink it, if normal middle-class people drink it too.

Then I went to Fes, Morocco, where everyone drinks tap water…and I got sick.

But even so, I believe that tap water is often not so horrible. If people who could afford to buy bottled water drink from the tap, you can certainly brush your teeth with it. You can even swig a bit in the night, when you realize you’ve run out of bottled water. You can have a little ice in your drink.

Peter drinking from the (very large, public) tap in Comitan de Dominguez, Mexico. Later we drank the water in Villahermosa too, sin problemas.

It’s with cumulative exposure that your system freaks out (or mine does; yours may be different–that’s my CYA). I didn’t get sick in Fes until about a week in. My threshold for Cairo tap water is about four days.

Contrary to logic, the worse the water is, the better off you are. If all the restaurants use bottled water, this means your ice is almost certainly made from purified water. Basically, there are very few situations in which you have to do that prissy “no ice, please” thing.

The reason I’m even being so macho about tap water is that plastic bottles are the world’s third-largest evil, after plastic bags and Halliburton, and I feel like a failure every time I buy bottled water. If you’re not feeling like risking it, I really recommend a Steripen. I just got one this summer–it’s fantastic. It has cut down on my water-risk-taking and makes me feel like a magician every time I use it. (But I recommend rechargeable batteries–it was due to battery fail that I was in the unfortunate Fes situation.)


  1. cynthia kling says:

    Steripen, great tip! I’d never heard of it.
    Waiting to hear what you’ve got to say about street food.

  2. Ansley says:

    This is an interesting tip — you always hear eat the meal, but not drink the water. I found in Senegal that once I got past the initial system freak out, I could drink the tap water without problems — I guess that means my system had adapted to the different bacteria. I agree that insisting on not drinking tap water in some situations can result in feeling prissy. On the other hand, those few rough days can be really rough.

  3. Zora says:

    Can’t praise the Steripen enough! It really helps. There are some slick newer models that are made for less-rugged settings–I wish I’d bought the one that’s basically a Nalgene bottle with the Steripen light built into the lid. That one has rechargeable batteries too. (But we were going on a hiking trip, and for some reason the basic model seemed like the most sensible at the time.)

    And Ansley, you’re right–it can take some adjustment. And that period is indeed unpleasant! I think it’s worth it if you’re living in a country for a stretch, but a lot of travelers don’t have the time/inclination.

    I really just want to encourage people to cut down on plastic bottles, and not panic quite so much about small doses of tap water.

  4. Tanja says:

    Great post. Such a fundamental like water, when you are travelling can really have a massive impact on health. My body is the opposite to yours. I find I’ve built up resistance to the bacteria in Cuba over time. But wow what a tip on the steripen. I’m going to figure out a way to get it to me in Cuba. It would save me tons of hassle as I have to boil all my water.

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