The most important tip I can give you on Costa Rica local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Costa Rica, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Costa Rica
Costa Rican cuisine can be described as simple but wholesome. The spiciness often associated with Latin America has typically originated in Mexico, most Costa Rican foods are not spicy, but, as they simmer in a large pot, the flavors are blended. Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans with a little cilantro or onion thrown in.
While more common at breakfast, it can also be served at lunch or dinner. Casado, which means married, is the typical lunch in Costa Rica, containing rice and beans with meat, chicken or fish, always served with salad and fried plantain. Plato del dia, is the ‘Plate of the Day’ and is often a Casado, but has the meat or fish selection of the day. Usually around 5.00 USD and includes a natural juice. Good, fresh fruit is abundant in variety and low in cost. Mercados provide an excellent place to sample fruit and other Costa Rican fare, with many including sit-down snack bars.
You are encouraged to experiment because some of the local fruits do not “travel well” as they are bruised easily and or have a short shelf life. The mango found in store in North America are much more fibrous and less sweet than the mangos found in Costa Rica. The fingerling bananas are much more creamy and less tart than the ones found in North America. Be sure to stop off at a rest stop along any of the roads: a Casado and beer will cost ~$3. Don’t forget to try the Salsa Lizano that you will surely find at any restaurant. It is a mild vegetable sauce that has a hint of curry and is slightly sweet. It’s often referred to as Costa Rican ketchup.
It tastes good on just about anything! Bring some home with you! You can find smaller sized bottles at any market. Also as per usual in Central America standard breakfast fare is a ham sandwich, so people averse to eating pork might be advised to check out a grocery market for something else. Many Ticos will go to a local bakery and buy a loaf of white bread. Vegetarians will find it surprisingly easy to eat well in Costa Rica. There are several International cuisine options also. In addition to American style food, Italian, Mexican, Peruvian and Indian are also available. Indian food generally has vegetarian, vegan and gluten free dishes.
Try Indian Naans & Curries dishes. They taste better in Costa Rica because of natural ingredients. Don’t forget to tip tour guides, drivers, bellboys and maids. Restaurant bills include a 10% gratuity but leave an extra tip for good service. North Americans often get better service because they are used to tipping separately, but it’s not necessary. The beef cattle are raised on grass; the meat will taste differently from corn fed cattle. The cuts of meat at the local restaurants are also different. The taste of chicken is not discernibly distinct.
What to Drink in Costa Rica
Most places (such as cities) have potable water, so don’t worry about drinking tap water. Bottled water is also available at low prices. Nevertheless, exercise caution about places with doubtful water sources. These places tend to be away from population centers or near the beach/coast. Refrescos or simply frescos are beverages made from fresh fruit (cas, guayaba/guava, sandia/watermelon, mora/blackberry, fresa/strawberry, piña/pineapple, papaya), sugar and either water or milk (depending on the fruit). All sodas serve these. You can also easily buy the standard international soda pops; ‘Fresca’, ‘Canada Dry’ and the local ‘Fanta Kolita’ (fruit punch) are recommended. Typical “refrescos” include: Agua de Cebada (Barley water) and Horchata de arroz.
A common drink is called “Cacique”, which is made from fermented sugar cane. It is sometimes called “guaro”, which can also refer to alcohol in general. It is similar to vodka, and is usually drunk with water and lemon. It is very inexpensive, however note that it’s not a very “clean” liquor, so exercise caution. There are approximately 8 different national beers available (and most international), which are sold in cans, bottles and even kegs. The most common beers in the country are Pilsen and Imperial: all bars and restaurants serve both. Bavaria, “Bavaria Negra” (dark) and Bavaria Light are considered higher quality but more expensive, Rock Ice and Rock Ice Limón (lemon flavor) has a higher alcohol percentage. Heineken is locally made under license and is more expensive as well.
Coffee in Costa Rica is of very top quality. It is common to have coffee, not only for breakfast, but during the afternoon as a little coffee break. A typical drink here is called Aguadulce, which is a hot drink made of water and Panela (unrefined whole cane sugar). Aguadulce literally means “sweet-water”.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.