Eating Like a Local in Costa Rica
Apr 02, 2013
By: Liz Wylie
Dear WI reader,
I consider myself a ‘foodie’… and that doesn’t just include eating food, I also enjoy cooking and experimenting with new ingredients and recipes.
Anytime I have an opportunity to travel to a new country, the first thing that comes to mind is, “I wonder what the food is going to be like”. This thought process was no different prior to my recent trip to Costa Rica.
Husband in tow, we made the trip from Costa Rica’s International airport in San Jose to the beautiful Nicoya Peninsula. Along the way, we were continually mesmerized by the various fruit stands along the highway. Naturally, a stop was in order… there’s no resisting the massive pineapples, succulent mangos and tons of fresh cashews. And mango civiche! A salty, slightly spicy, semi-sweet treat that I didn’t even know existed until this trip. There was also a lot of fruit we’d never even seen before, but thanks to very friendly and helpful vendors, we tried whatever our hearts desired. With four huge bags of fruit (all for only $14!) we were on our way; mango civiche, spoons and napkins in hand.
By the time we reached our destination, Malpais, near Santa Teresa, on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, we were famished. Between the ferry ride and the incredibly scenic drive down to the coast, we had passed various towns but were determined to reach our destination before dark. Our host directed us a short stroll down the road to the closest soda...
Now, if you’ve never been to Costa Rica, a soda is basically the equivalent of your local diner in North America. But WAY better, as far as I’m concerned. They are typically family-run, with the mother doing the cooking, perhaps an aunt or uncle working the cash and usually a couple of children helping, doing homework or playing in the area. Some sodas are very casual, and you may have to ask if they’re open, while others seem almost to fancy to be considered a soda. The one thing they all have in common though? The food… it’s always simple, nutritious and extremely affordable. The unofficial Costa Rican dish is called a casado or comida tipica (typical food) and always includes rice and black beans, plantain, some kind of salad and a choice of fish, beef, chicken or pork. (By the way, in Spanish, casado means ‘married’, and in this case refers to the marriage of all the items on the plate).
You might read this description and think, “wow, sounds bland and boring”, right? I can assure you that it’s anything but! The flavors blend so well together, and the best part is that no matter where you go… city or country, coast or in-land, every soda adds their own special touch. Like the one I was referring to in Malpais – Caracolas Soda (a spectacular little place, literally on the beach. Beautiful wooden furniture, candles, lanterns and the sound of crashing waves)– they added avocado slices and a bowl of pico de gallo (sort of like a fresh salsa), a fantastic compliment to my fish and all the other typical fixings, for only $6. And not only is it affordable, the portions are extremely generous. We ended up taking half of it back to our flat with us.
Although we enjoyed a few typical breakfasts out as well, for the most part we would hit the local fruit stands, bakery and market and just make our own. Flour tortillas, scrambled eggs, avocado, cheese and of course fresh mango, watermelon and papaya were all staples for our own version of a breakfast casado.
Throughout our tours of the Nicoya Peninsula, and then later down towards the Southern Zone – Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Quepos – it sort of became our mission to sample the delicious goods at the sodas along the way. I will admit, not every one was a hit, however, even when it was a miss, it was still edible and tasty enough. Something else to consider is your choice of beverage… no need to indulge in artificially sweet and sugary soda when the variety of fresh fruit juice is available. When you see piña juice on a menu, that’s actual pineapple blended up with some ice and served fresh and frothy… to die for. If you’re a bit more adventurous, try something a bit more exotic like guanabana, tamarindo or noni – naturally sweet, fabulously refreshing and much more flavorful then a soda. Of course, Costa Rica’s water is also wonderful to drink. It may be the first time I’ve been on a ‘southern’ vacation and been able to drink the water right out of the tap – both my husband and I were excessively giddy about this! No worrying about ice cubes in drinks, how the salad was washed, etc…
If you enjoy good food as much as we do, Costa Rica may not be the first place on your list of ‘foodie’ destinations, it wasn’t the main reason why we choose to visit. But it’s an inevitable part of travelling, and we just happened to score with Costa Rica. I should also mention that although I have a ‘stomach of steel’ – affectionately dubbed by my husband – he does not. Costa Rica was the first country we visited, enjoyed the local food and drink, and he remained in perfect health the entire time, not a single day or moment lost on sick time. That was another huge score for this beautiful country.
Something we discovered very quickly, is that when you choose to eat like a local in Costa Rica, it’s not only your stomach and waistline that will be thankful… your wallet remains a bit more full as well.
Costa Rica, we will be back!
PS – thanks so much to Liz for sharing her food-filled trip to Costa Rica with Where International!
If you’ve been considering Costa Rica for a second home or as a retirement destination, why not visit the Nicoya Peninsula or Southern Zone on a Discovery Weekend? You’ll have an opportunity to experience the local foods, culture and tour the surrounding towns…