One of the best ways to experience a culture, especially on a culinary level, is to approach it like a local – nowhere is this more true than in Costa Rica, where delicious dishes and tasty delights are a key part of any trip. Here’s our short and sweet guide to show you the ropes.
There are several staples that are an integral part of most meals in Costa Rica. The two that more often than not appear on every plate of the day are rice and beans. Corn tortillas and salsa Lizano also make an appearance at most meals too. The three main meals of the day are well-balanced, and often made from scratch with great care and love. It is not uncommon for everyone to come home for lunch, including the children from school. Family is a very important component of Costa Rican culture.
A typical Costa Rican breakfast is a plate of Gallo pinto, eggs, homemade corn tortillas or fresh bread from the bakery, sweet plantains, and natilla (sour cream) or local cheese, such as queso Turrialba.
A typical Costa Rican lunch is a casado – a plate that is a made up of rice, beans, a protein (chicken, pork, beef, or fish), a salad (usually cabbage), and sweet plantains. Plate additions can include tortillas, yucca, avocado, pico de Gallo, and fresh or fried cheese. Other typical lunch options are arroz con pollo (or with shrimp, mixed seafood, pork, or mixed vegetables), ceviche, sopa negra (black bean soup), sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), or olla de carne (beef stew), just to name a few.
A typical Costa Rican dinner is often made up of the same options as at lunchtime. During special occasions, celebrations, or family gatherings, a big barbecue or pig roast might take the place of the every day dinner spread. An invitation to one of these social gatherings is a real treat.
If you are not preparing or eating a home cooked meal, the next best option is eating at a soda. A soda is a traditional (and budget-friendly) Costa Rican restaurant. Most towns will have several sodas to choose from, and each one will be slightly different. This is where you will get a taste of authentic Costa Rican food. Some sodas have a menu while others have a more point-and-choose buffet style set-up. Make sure to try the chilera (pickled vegetables that will likely be in a jar on your table).
The local cantinas are where you will find some of the best local favorites, such as chifrijol, patacones, and chicharrones. Costa Rican “bar food” is so tasty and pairs perfectly with a local brew (Pilsen or Imperial) or some guaro. Dining at a soda or a cantina also provides a true sense of Costa Rican culture and way of life. It is easy to stay in your comfort zone and eat at a place where there are other tourists, but if you really want to dine like a local, these are two amazing options.
Costa Ricans also grab quick eats or snacks from street vendors and the bakery. There are often street vendors around selling homemade empanadas, to-go cups of ceviche, pastries, and sometimes even whole casados or rice dishes. The bakery is also a great place to grab some empanadas, pastries, or bread, as well. Between lunch and dinner, most Costa Ricans take a coffee break, which usually includes a snack such as a sweet or savory pastry.
Shopping at a farmer’s market (most towns have one at least once a week) is a very local way to shop for your produce. It is also at a farmer’s market that you will have the chance to experience some of the exotic fruits and vegetables of Costa Rica.
Jugos frescos or jugos de naturales frescos (natural fruit juices) are a popular daytime and mealtime drink. Homemade juices using native fruits like tamarindo, passionfruit, mango, pineapple, strawberry, lime, and orange are very refreshing. You will have several options when you dine at a soda and can even pick up a to-go juice from a street vendor. Juices are sometimes sold in a plastic bag that is tied with a knot with a straw sticking out of it.
For your sunset and night-time indulgences, drinking like a local is quite easy. The most cost-effective and local way to drink is by drinking what’s made in Costa Rica verses imported alcohol. This includes Imperial, Pilsen, Bavaria, and a pretty impressive selection of craft beers. And of course, guaro – the national liquor of Costa Rica. There are a couple of signature drinks that are a must-try when taking the local drinking route.
Chili guaro is a famous shot in Costa Rica. It kind of tastes like a light Bloody Mary. A basic chili guaro is made with guaro, tomato juice, Tabasco, and lime. Everyone has their own take on this shot recipe though.
Miguelito is a delicious and dangerous shot. It kind of tastes like a strong pina colada. A basic Miguelito shot is made with guaro, coconut milk, and evaporated milk. This is a shot that will make you smile! Everyone has their own take on this shot recipe too.
A guaro sour, meanwhile, is a traditional cocktail that is made with guaro, lime, club soda, and a little raw sugar, and is arguable one the best and most refreshing ways to drink the national liquor of Costa Rica.