Tips for traveling to Latvia with diabetes

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For a Type 1 diabetic, traveling to Latvia can be fun and complication-free with just a little preparation and the right attitude. Latvia is a modern country, and shouldn’t present any trouble to the diabetic traveler.

I’ve had diabetes for over thirty years, and I spent six days backpacking through Latvia. I learned about the food, about insulin doses, and about how to adjust my shots for the schedule and the exercise I had in the country. I checked my blood glucose (BG) often, made some good and some bad decisions, and generally had a great time.

If you want to travel to Latvia with diabetes, read this simple guide to what to see and how to handle diabetes in this wonderful Baltic country stuck culturally halfway between Scandinavia and Russia!

Stunning Old Town Rīga, Latvia.

Stunning Old Town Rīga, Latvia.

How to speak Latvian – for T1Ds

A sign hanging in Rīga Hostel. Not diabetes-related, but helpful!

A sign hanging in Rīga Hostel. Not diabetes-related, but helpful!

If you need to actually say diabetes in the Latvian language, the word is diabēts. It’s pronounced something like “dee a bets”.

The entire phrase “Type 1 diabetes” is rendered in Latvian as 1. tipa cukura diabēts, pronounced “vee ents teepa tsukura dee-a-bets”.

If you are in some emergency situation involving diabetes and health professionals, you will get by fine. It shouldn’t be too hard for them to find someone who can speak decent English, and you can just say diabēts and hold up one finger for “Type 1”; they’ll get the picture and take care of you accordingly. But honestly, I can’t imagine any of this being necessary if you watch your BG carefully anyway. Being diabetic as a traveler in Latvia isn’t more perilous than being a diabetic at home.

You should, at any rate, wear a bracelet, necklace, or anklet indicating that you’re diabetic, or at least keep cards in your wallet that you can show people.

“I have Type 1 diabetes” – Man ir 1. tipa cukura diabēts.

#bgnow 152 after dinner in Daugavpils

Traveling in Latvia as a Type 1 diabetic

Latvia is a small country, stuck between Estonia to its north and Lithuania to its south. The capital, Rīga, is the largest city and the hub around which all travel centers. There are shops and kiosks all over, as in most European countries, so deciding on a favorite low BG snack and then consistently locating it is easy. I used juice and various types of cookies that I always carried with me.

Buses are more reliable and numerous than trains, so you’ll probably be in for some lengthy bus rides while traveling around Latvia. Carry enough snacks and food to last the journey. Buses do stop for a while at some stations and you can jump out and go shopping for some quick supplies, but don’t count on it because it’s hard to know when that might happen.

Latvian food in Rīga has everything you need – American fast food, international cuisines like Japanese sushi, pizza (spelled pica), and everything else. Food in smaller towns tends to the Russian side of things – bread and potatoes and meat. Supermarkets and shops and cafés are usually not too hard to find, although even in bigger towns it can be hard to find things open at night. Again, be sure to stock up on low BG snacks and other things you’ll need when you get the chance.

Going to Latvia? Just follow this woman.

Looking for Latvia? Just follow this woman.

My route in Latvia

I crossed into Valka on the Estonian border by bus from Tartu, Estonia. In fact, the international border runs through Valka; the Estonian half of the town is called Valga. You can walk back and forth across the border all you want; there is a guard shack but no guard anymore.

After one night in Valka I took a bus to the capital Rīga and its UNESCO World Heritage Old Town area. After a few days there, I went by bus to the wonderfully named town of Daugavpils, near the Belorussian border. Daugavpils has a lot of Russian culture and people, and it’s a lovely little town with its own tram system.

After Daugavpils I headed for Lithuania.

Latvian food

When traveling in Latvia, foods you buy packaged from a store will probably have nutrition info on them. It may or may not include an English version but you should be able to figure it out. Make sure you understand the package size and the portion size when calculating carbs.

For food with no label (restaurants, food stalls, etc) you’ll have to guess. My advice is to guess high; I was often plagued by high blood glucose levels in Latvia until I learned that most things were thicker than I assumed and needed more insulin than I was injecting. As long as you check your BG often, especially after unknown meals and doses of insulin, you’ll be able to experiment until you get it right.

TGI Friday's with its very own ambulance in Old Town Rīga.

TGI Friday’s with its very own ambulance in Old Town Rīga.

Some of my food experiences in Latvia, and the effects it had on my blood sugar, were:

Humalog shot at the breakfast table, Rīga Hostel.

Humalog shot at the breakfast table, Rīga Hostel.

Buffet at Lido in Rīga, cheap and filling. And high in carbs.

Buffet at Lido Vērmanītis in Rīga, cheap and filling. And high in carbs.

How do you dose for cūkgaļas...?

How do you calculate a Humalog dose for cūkgaļas…?

Heavy rice and bread meal at Gubernators in Daugavpils, Latvia. BG was fine after all this!

Contemplating the heavy rice and bread meal at Gubernators in Daugavpils, Latvia. BG was fine after all this, thanks to my adequate Humalog dose.

Chocolate shortbread and Humalog in cafe in Old Town, Rīga

Rooms and accommodation in Latvia

There are plenty of guesthouses, cheap hotels and hostels, and similar places to stay all over Latvia. I used booking.com to reserve my rooms there because it’s so easy to find exactly what you want in your price range. You can also select things like free breakfast, bicycle rental (or free use), etc. I highly recommend it.

A sampling of accommodation in Latvia based on my experiences:

Otrā Elpa hotel in Valka, Latvia

Elevator full of hostels in Rīga.

Elevator full of hostels in Rīga.

Cute Hotel Biplan, quiet and with a fantastic breakfast buffet.

Cute Hotel Biplan, on a quiet back street. Fantastic breakfast buffet.

Some hotels and guesthouses have refrigerators in the rooms, or somewhere on the property you can use to store your insulin if you wish. In my experience, as long as insulin is kept reasonably cool, there will be no problem. However, when you do have the use of a refrigerator, why not take advantage of it? Just remember not to leave your insulin behind when you check out. (Yes I have done that before. Talk about flexible travel plans – you’ll have to retrace your steps and fetch it!)

Things to see in Latvia

Some of the highlights of my time in Latvia included these sights – of course, your trip will be your own and you will hopefully find new, exciting things that will be near and dear to your memory forever.

Cat guarding the Latvia-Estonia border.

Cat guarding the Latvia-Estonia border.

Accordionist in Rīga park

Music in Old Town Rīga.

Inside the Russian fortress of Cietoksnis – now strong-looking, empty-looking buildings with an uncertain future. See them while you can.

Inside the Russian fortress of Cietoksnis – now strong-looking, empty-looking buildings with an uncertain future. Wander among them while you can.

Blood sugar control in Latvia

You sit down at a meal in a small Latvian restaurant, having ordered something at random from the non-English menu. It arrives, and looks great, but how many carbs does it have? How much insulin do I need for this?

The answer is: who knows? Guess, and see what happens.

That’s about all you can do when traveling in Latvia with diabetes. I found that the foods I was eating had more carbs than I guessed, and I was high quite a few times. It started to get better when I increased my Humalog doses, unit by unit. New foods continued to throw me off but it did improve noticeably during my several days in Latvia.

One day I even managed all BGs under 200!

When choosing food in Latvia, don’t err on the side of “safety” too much. Obviously I’m not a medical professional, but spiritually and philosophically speaking, avoiding something you want to eat because you’re afraid of what it will do to your BG is unnecessary and not desired. Live your life.

The key to traveling in Latvia with diabetes is to check your blood sugar often. At least 4-5 times a day, many more if you feel you should. Knowing your BG is key to enjoying your trip and really experiencing Latvia. Try not to get upset when it’s 40, or when it’s 350. Not too upset, anyway!

A bit low in Daugavpils.

A bit low by the lingerie shop in Daugavpils.

My Latvian blood glucose stats

I kept a thorough record of all my BG checks in Latvia. The stats aren’t great, but the important things are that:

  1. BG control improved the longer I stayed in Latvia, and
  2. I did and ate what I wanted, and didn’t shy away from food or experiences.

Here are my overall blood sugar stats for my time in Latvia:

The numbers make sense, for the way I was handling Humalog doses and food: Usually high after dinner, I’d take a corrective dose before bed and wake up ok. Large breakfasts got inadequate Humalog so I got high around lunch, though often better afterwards.

In Latvia, as elsewhere, diabetics must understand that consistent highs are harder to fix than the occasional one-off. Don’t fret, just keep doing your best. Try to avoid frustration: Latvia is much nicer when you can enjoy it!

Disappointing. But I'd rather be 239 on a bus in Latvia than working in an office.

Disappointing. But I’d rather be 239 on a bus in Latvia than while working in an office.

Have you been to Latvia?

I would love to hear your experiences traveling in Latvia, whether you have diabetes or not. What else did you see or eat? Any interesting stories from your time in this partially-Russian, partially-Scandinavian, all-Baltic country?

There is no other country on Earth quite like Latvia. If you’ve been there, tell me your thoughts on it. If you haven’t – go!

Read more about my travels in Latvia

Come along on the adventure! Follow detailed travelogues about the wondrous sights, fascinating people, and varied diabetes experiences I encountered as a traveling T1D in Latvia:

Day 11: Valga/Valka: A Town With Two Names
Day 12: High BGs For 200 Kilometers On A Latvian Bus
Day 13: The Curious World Of Old Town Rīga
Day 14: Good BGs On The Bus To Daugavpils In Russian Latvia
Day 15: Cietoksnis And The Rickety Trams Of Daugavpils
Day 16: Latvia To Lithuania: An Improvement In Blood Sugar?

Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.

Next page: Tips for traveling to Estonia with diabetes

“Going to Estonia with diabetes? Here's your guide for where to go, what to eat, and how to control your blood sugar in this Baltic country.”

About the author

Jeremy has traveled to over 40 countries, taken several road trips across the United States (and Canada), and lived on and off in Japan for several years. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1982 but doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from exploring the world.

Jeremy writes about his travels with diabetes on 70-130.com as a way of logging his excursions and of inspiring others who might be feeling hesitant to take their own big bite out of life.

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