The idyllic land of ziplines and sloths has never been famous for its food, until now.
Over the past few decades, Costa Rica has become one of the most universally beloved travel destinations, with everyone from adventure-loving college students to honeymooners to peace-seeking grandparents making their way here to live la pura vida. It’s easy to see why: it’s romantic, it’s adventurous, it’s family-friendly. It can be luxurious, but it can also be affordable. There are beaches, rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, and so very many sloths. And as Central America’s most long-lasting democracy, it’s also a beacon of safety and stability in an otherwise often tumultuous region.
In short, there are many reasons to come here, but for most travelers, one thing rarely makes that list: the food. Despite gastronomy and the foodie taking over the world elsewhere, visitors to Costa Rica still typically think rice and beans (and the ubiquitous gallo pinto) are sufficient ways to experience Costa Rican cuisine. They rarely plan their trips around specific dining experiences the way they do when visiting say, France or Italy.
That’s their first mistake. Here’s our take on why Costa Rica is on the precipice of becoming the next great food destination.
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Costa Rica Has Some of the Best Produce in the Entire World
The secret to Costa Rica’s upcoming culinary takeover is pretty simple: there’s a lot growing here. Thanks to its tropical climate (which means there’s a long rainy season followed by a pleasant sunny season), the Central American country sees an almost unbelievable bounty of fruits and vegetables, many of which you probably haven’t heard of until you tried them in Costa Rica. You will find plenty of the usual suspects of Central American cuisine: the country is the world’s number one producer of pineapples, and number two in bananas and macadamia nuts. There’s also oranges, plantains, avocados, lemons, mangoes, potatoes, coconuts, and cabbage. Lesser known specialties like palmito (heart of palm), elote (roasted corn on the cob), and yucca abound, along with chayote (a type of squash), maracuya (passionfruit), carambola (star fruit), and guanabana (also known as a soursop). You can find these prepared various ways in multiple dishes throughout the country; for the fruits, don’t miss them in fresca (juice) form. And seafood lovers shouldn’t sleep on Costa Rica either; its location between both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea means you’re never too far from the coast and therefore plenty of fresh seafood.
Due to cultural norms and long-held traditions concerning food, it’s taken a long time for Costa Rican chefs and consumers alike to expand their horizons beyond the standard rice and beans, but the time seems to have finally arrived. More and more restaurants and eco-lodges are aiming for a local-only ethos and expanding on just what that means. Even the produce you can find elsewhere still has a very local quality to it. For example, Costa Rica is one of the few avocado-growing regions in the world, but because of the demand within the country, they don’t export them. You can only try Costa Ricans avocados right here at the source.
The Country Also Has the Most Impressive Sustainability Practices
Costa Rica is home to a diverse and stunning array of ecosystems, including beaches, rain forests, cloud forests, volcanoes, mountains, and dry forests. While this has attracted millions of visitors, the country has always been serious about taking steps to offset its carbon footprint and protect its valuable biodiversity. As a result, Costa Rica is one of the, if not the most, sustainable country in the entire world. In early 2019, Costa Rica announced its plan to become the first country to achieve total decarbonization by 2050. That might sound ambitious, but it’s already nearly there. The country is also on track to become the first carbon-neutral nation by 2021. In 2018, Costa Rica was able to power itself on 100% renewable energy for 299 days straight. They are also working to rid the country of plastics completely by 2021. In addition, several tourism initiatives have long promoted environmental conservation, from its Certification for Sustainable Tourism program to the Blue Flag Ecological Program designed to prevent beach pollution.
All of this also means the food you eat here is sustainably sourced, produced, and served. A National Sustainable and Healthy Food Plan has been enacted to specifically promote sustainable gastronomy in the country, ensuring food is ethically sourced every step of the way. On a slightly more selfish level for travelers, this means food that is safe and clean to eat. Costa Rica is the only Latin American country where you can drink water straight from the tap without getting sick, so go ahead and enjoy all those fruits and veggies in grocery stores and farmer’s markets. And yes, this even means you can pick and eat fruits right from the trees and bushes, even in the capital of San Jose.
The Best Way to Get a Taste of Costa Rica is Through Its Fincas and Farmer’s Markets
You’ll find plenty of restaurants where you can get a taste of this new Costa Rican culinary ethos (more on that later), but for a unique look into the world of food, you should absolutely visit where the majority of the dining industry’s produce comes from. There are thousands (yes, thousands) of fincas, or farms, lining Costa Rica’s countryside. These can range from big-scale industrial productions to small patches of private land.
Many are also home to eco-lodges or tourist-friendly restaurants. More and more are opening their properties to visitors who wish to learn about where their food comes from. At places like the Cedrela Ecologe, you can stop by for a tour of the property (which also doubles as an avocado farm) or just dine at their avocado-heavy restaurant. If you’d like to just shop rather than learn, check out San Jose’s largest farmer’s market, Feria Guadalupe. Every Saturday morning, a bevy of farmers from all over the country come to sell their wares to amateur and professional chefs alike; you’re just as likely to see one of the city’s top chefs planning next month’s menu as you are a grandmother planning Sunday’s family dinner. Dozens upon dozens of rows of fruits, vegetables, and juices are spread out, with mariachi bands entertaining shoppers and smaller stores selling hot food on the periphery (try the Salvadoran pupusas at Salvador Pupuseria). Competition to get accepted to be part of the market is tough (and approved by the government) so expect the best of the best.
And Don’t Forget About Coffee Plantations
While Costa Rica’s venture into the world of fine and innovative dining is relatively new, there is one realm where the country has long been king: coffee. Coffee production was the original backbone of Costa Rica’s economy, helping it to become the stable nation it is today. Dozens of coffee plantations are scattered throughout the country and are open for visitors to tour and learn about their facilities (samples included, of course). If you’re a true coffee aficionado, you might recognize the flavors from home; an array of American coffee shops get their Arabica beans from Costa Rica (including Starbucks). Popular plantations to visit include Café Britt in Heredia and Doka Coffee Estate in Alajuela.
For the Absolute Best Restaurants, Spend Time in San Jose
San Jose is both the capital of Costa Rica and the epicenter of fine dining in the country. While visitors tend to simply fly in and out of the city, spending a full day at most exploring it, the restaurant scene alone could keep you happy for a lifetime. Many of those chefs exploring what it means to create excellent, high-quality food with Costa Rican produce live right here in San Jose. The Downtown area still attracts the majority of tourists, and old-school, long-established restaurants like the Grand de Oro Restaurant are great examples of how the food scene here has always had a dog in the fight.
But for a real taste of the new Costa Rica, head to one of the city’s more up-and-coming (read: gentrifying) neighborhoods, like Barrio Amon and Barrio Escalante. At Al Mercat, chef Jose Gonzalez makes use of products from his own farm north of the city and from the city’s weekly farmer’s market, creating cuisine that reimagines Costa Rican food to be whatever you can make with local ingredients; the results are everything from cucumber ceviche to sweet potato gnocchi to smoked 8-hour pork ribs. At Restaurante Silvestre, chef Santiago Fernadez has taken a 1930s mansion and turned it into a sophisticated spot to enjoy multi-course menus (with wine pairings) of local and organic ingredients.
Indigenous Cuisine Is Still Important Too
Aside from the food, another often overlooked aspect of Costa Rican culture is its Indigenous history. Like all of North and South America, there were already people living here when the Spanish arrived in 1502 (although historians say the indigenous population in Costa Rica was at much smaller numbers than neighboring Latin American countries), and the ensuing 500 years saw those indigenous tribes being slowly but surely decimated. Today, about 2.4% of the population identifies as indigenous, coming from eight different ethnic groups who still work hard to keep their cultures and traditions alive.
They rarely interact with tourists (which is probably in their best interest), but one restaurant in San Jose is striving to bring indigenous food and its history to the masses. At the small space Sikwa (which translates roughly to “foreigner”), diners can experience an array of different dishes adapted from indigenous recipes. With each dish, the server also tells the story behind the meal and its ingredients, resulting in a unique, respectful, and delicious dive into Costa Rican history.
The Craft Beer (and Mead!) Scene Is Also Impressive
It’s no secret that most destinations with a serious culinary pedigree also come with some serious winemaking credentials. After all, is there anything more classically indulgent than a wine-paired meal? While you can still get that in Costa Rica, of course, you won’t find any Costa Rican varietals on wine menus. Due to the tropical climate, grapes just don’t grow here, leaving the country bereft of any wine-making culture. However, craft beer is huge: there are dozens of small microbreweries popping up all over the country, San Jose especially. Pale ales and dark lagers have long been the beer of choice for ticos (the most famous beer in Costa Rica is the Imperial; and while it’s considered the national beer of Costa Rica, it’s definitely not a craft beer). The most widely available Costa Rican craft beer company is, fittingly, Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co., which makes several IPAs, golden ales, and red ales popular with locals and visitors alike. Neighborhoods in San Jose like Barrio Escalante are filled with bars selling craft beer.
Mead is also gaining in popularity. At the Costa Rica Meadery, located right outside Heredia north of San Jose, you’ll find an operation creating mead by fermenting local honey gathered from the on-site apiary. The result is a sweet beverage, often flavored with local fruits and florals like passionfruit and hibiscus.
But You Should Still Eat All the Gallo Pinto You Can
From digging in at a traditional soda to chomping down on gallo pinto at breakfast, there are some traditional Costa Rican food experiences you can’t miss. Yes, you should make room on your itinerary for this new breed of Costa Rican cuisine that is sure to impress and dazzle. But honestly, what the country had going on before ain’t too shabby. The equivalent of mom-and-pop shops, sodas are everywhere in Costa Rica, from downtown San Jose to winding countryside roads. At these, you can enjoy some true down-to-earth Costa Rican hospitality and excellent home cooked meals. From gallo pinto to casados, these are the foods that locals are still eating and cooking in droves. And while the new emphasis on fresh, local, and healthy is more appreciated than ever, travelers would be fools to ignore the past. The truth is food has always been a big part of living la pura vida, and it always will be.