The great thing about access to grocery stores is the ability to have a hankering for something and then immediately be able to act on it by buying the necessary ingredients.
Unfortunately the Central American jungle is lacking in major markets, so for multi-week stints camping beneath the tropical canopy, meal planning is an absolute necessity.
This summer I spent 14 days sleeping in a jungle hammock in Belize’s Chiquibul Reserve, a tropical rainforest that is home to a huge range of animals, from crocodiles to jaguars to mosquitoes, all of which stole my blood.
Most notably it’s the home of the country’s surviving scarlet macaws, a species whose numbers dwindled to barely more than 200 in recent years. The conservationist group Scarlet 6 Biomonitoring responded to this situation by planting volunteers (like me) beneath the nests of fledgling macaws in order to keep poachers from climbing up the trees and snatching the babies to sell in Guatemala. Five years of this have bumped the macaw population up to 300, which is great news.
Despite the apex predators, bloodthirsty bugs and torrential downpours, the component that intimidated me the most was packing food for the trip. Fourteen breakfasts, 14 lunches, 14 dinners, all of which would depend on a rudimentary campfire for cooking, downpours be damned.
Camping provisions need to be able to survive long periods without proper storage or refrigeration and provide enough energy to accomplish the kinds of tasks nature throws at you, like recovering from caterpillar bites and readjusting a jungle hammock until it’s comfortable enough to sleep in.
So the day prior to my jungle insertion I visited a grocery store in San Ignacio, Belize, to gather everything I would need to not starve, and I ended up with the following:
Six packs of Top Ramen. It turns out three of them were expired, so check dates:
Three packs of dehydrated chicken noodle soup
Two cans of Campbell’s vegetable soup
Nine breakfast bars
One jar of peanut butter
8 snack packs of raisins
One bag of penne
One pack of tomato sauce for the penne
Two boxes of Kraft Mac N’ Cheese (for when I felt homesick)
Two bags of trail mix
One bag of red kidney beans, a popular dish in Belize
Those of you who are quick with math might notice that this is not 42 meals worth of food. While I was not-so-humbly snatching up grocery items for breakfast and dinner, I straight up forgot about lunch. The nice thing about humidity, when you’re not accustomed to it, is that it saps your appetite, but it turns out living in an almost Naked & Afraid-like survival situation makes you hungry.
Not that it mattered. Once camp was made along the banks of the Raspaculo River (that means Drag Ass River for all you non-Spanish speakers), Scarlet 6 employee Louis began making fry jacks, which are essentially puffed-up, fried tortillas that go extremely well with cooked red beans and a dash of Marie Sharp’s fiery habanero hot sauce.
As a veteran of the scarlet-macaw conservation scene, Louis knew far better than I what types of food would work best in the muggy rainforest. For days my pathetic expired ramen sat beneath the makeshift ceiling of the kitchen area while Louis cooked up fry jacks, corn tortillas, empanadas and more, always using a combination of fairly basic ingredients: onions, beans, flour, salt, baking powder, canned meat, tough veggies like carrots and cucumbers and not a whole lot else. Well, except for Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. That makes every meal better, especially when you’re essentially trapped in a jungle with naught but the rations you brought with you. And crocodiles.
At night we could hear the nearby poachers shooting curassow for fresh meat, which was a great reminder that 1) the poachers are armed and 2) the jungle provides. Though killing peaceful jungle creatures wasn’t on the menu, allspice and pacaya were. You can’t take a step in the Chiquibul without encountering a plant that is able to provide nourishment, or for that matter one that will kill you with giant thorns. The jungle is a complicated place, but it has many gifts of the food variety to offer if you know what to look for.
Ultimately I learned that eating during a jungle excursion is totally doable by following local customs and recipes, dehydrated soups notwithstanding. Being able to use basic ingredients like flour to make a range of items keeps things interesting and the packing light, and you don’t have to worry about food spoiling in the humid heat. Lugging around boxes of Kraft Mac N Cheese for the sake of nostalgia has no place in the jungle, especially when you’ve neglected to bring any kind of butter or milk product.
I won’t lie: if I were forced to eat the same thing for the rest of my life’s meals, it would absolutely be jungle fry jacks stuffed with red beans and Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. When all of life’s comforts have been stripped away and you’re left with naught but a single meal, it takes on a special kind of form.
Ali Wunderman is a semi-nomadic travel, food, and wildlife writer. She is founder of The Naturalist and author of the upcoming Moon Travel Guide to San Francisco.