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Sunday, January 16, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Central America -- The Amazing Travel Diet . . .

No "diet foods." Eat what you want. Tour an exotic part of the world and shed pounds effortlessly.

It's true. I recently spent three weeks in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, and I dropped 6 pounds. I didn't intend to diet. In fact, I was on the skinny side before my trip. But when I weighed myself upon my return, I realized that I'd stumbled across a potential commercial bonanza.

The basic components of this diet are simple enough. Spend a few weeks in Central America. Travel by bus. Avoid first-class hotels. Weight loss is inevitable.

The mechanisms of the weight loss are diverse:

-- Long bus rides with infrequent access to food.

-- Bus-station food that causes you to lose your appetite.

-- Intermittent food poisoning during which all you take is liquids, if you're lucky.

After a bout or two of food poisoning, you become paranoid about what you'll eat. No food from street stands. No food from restaurants with flies. You'll decide that a little hunger is better than two days of visiting the bathroom every 15 minutes.

The beauty of this is that you really don't have to diet. Eat what you want. Heck, you couldn't find a diet cola if you wanted one.

Mind you, there may an element of discomfort. In a standard Central American second-class bus, three or more people crowd onto each narrow bench meant for two children. The music is AM drek. Kids holler. People smoke. There are long delays without apparent reason. It is hot.

Not that the buses have no advantages. They are close to free. The drivers are always sober. You rarely have to wait for one going to your destination. As slow as they are, they are faster than Central American trains. And the buses go everywhere. On roads that are more like trails than roads.

In fact, half the problem with Central American buses is that they must travel on Central American roads.

After traveling in the second-class buses, a first-class bus (called a "Pullman" after the American rail car) will seem like an incredible luxury: two big cushy seats to either side of the aisle. The seats recline if you so desire. No music overhead. Adequate legroom . . . You almost feel as if you could call up room service. But you can't. So these are OK to ride if weight loss is your goal.

Your culinary choices will simplify as you leave the urban centers. In large cities, restaurants have menus. In smaller cities, you can ask for dishes by name. They may or may not have what you want. In a smaller village you might ask for "dinner" and you'll get what everyone else is having. In the remotest pueblos, you request "comida": food.

Now, I say, "eat what you want," but what I mean is "eat what you can find." There's often a wide gulf between the two. There is excellent cuisine in Central America, but the powers that be seem to have drawn a Zone of Exclusion around bus stations. For example, one morning after an all night bus ride I ordered "food" at a small restaurant in Guatemala. Food was fish, specifically a small fried perch, served whole. The gaze of the protruding eye in the intact head seemed to follow me however I leaned. The stern, disapproving countenance of the fish, together with the heat, sleep deprivation and my ailing belly combined to reduce my appetite to nil, and I decided that I could get by with half a warm cola.

You see? Better take a belt with a few notches in the tighter direction.

But remember, almost no one ever dies of traveler's diarrhea. (Don't get cholera. That's different.) The scenery in Central America is a thousandfold better than what you'll ever see from atop a Stairmaster. Spectacular jungles and mysterious Maya ruins will keep you distracted and entertained.

Your inevitable weight loss will be the seemingly inadvertent by-product of an exciting and satisfying vacation. Christopher Sanford is a doctor and writer who lives in Arlington, Snohomish County.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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