Costa Rican landscapes are more than just aesthetically pleasing—they're the source of a wide variety of agricultural products, from citrus fruits to coffee beans and fresh fish. (Into local and organic? You're going to love it here.)
What defines Costa Rican cuisine, exactly? It's functional and down-to-earth, rich and diverse. Simple ingredients like rice and black beans are staples in the local diet, as are fresh fruits and plantains. Here the culinary experiences in Costa Rica you don't want to miss, including traditional breakfasts, irresistible sweets, street food, and bar snacks.
Humble and Hearty Gallo Pinto
It makes sense to kick off the list with Costa Rica's national dish: gallo pinto, a savory combination of rice and black beans with spices. The name means "spotted rooster," and the origin of that name is steeped in regional lore. According to the story, a farmer in a small town outside of San José was fattening up his prized, spotted rooster with the intention of serving it to the town's citizens for Christmas. Needless to say, one rooster wasn't enough—so he created a hearty side dish by frying up some rice and beans. In its finished state, the dish appeared speckled, like his rooster.
In reality, the dish was inspired by Jamaican slaves who mixed beans with rice as a substitute for peas, making gallo pinto part of Costa Rica's important Afro-Caribbean heritage. Today the dish is served everywhere, usually for breakfast along with eggs, fried plantains, a type of sour cream called natilla, and coffee. Enjoy the dish like a local by spiking it with a few drops of Salsa Lizano, a popular Costa Rican condiment that tastes something like Worcestershire sauce.
The Versatile Cacao Bean
All of the rich, creamy, and decadent chocolate confections around the world can be traced back to a single bean: cacao. (Grinding and roasting the beans is the basis for cocoa powder.) The evergreen tree that produces the coffee bean pods is found throughout Latin America, and there's a particularly high concentration in Costa Rica.
There are lots of working cacao plantations throughout the country—especially on the southern Caribbean side—and many offer tours. There are also chocolate museums to visit such as the Museo de Cacao in Cahuita, where local indigenous residents demonstrate cacao processing. But you don't have to limit yourself to refined cocoa: just pop open a ripe cacao pod and feast on the sweet and tangy fruit.
Local Take On Ceviche
Native Costa Ricans (known colloquially as ticos) have created their own version of some popular Latin American dishes. One such example is Costa Rica's ceviche, or ceviche tico. It differs slightly from the more widely known Peruvian and Mexican ceviches by the use of certain ingredients. For example, though Costa Ricans often start with a standard formula for ceviche—using seafood like shrimp and sea bass, diced with onions and marinated in lemon juice—they'll add herbs like cilantro and parsley. Some recipes call for bay leaves and white vinegar. The result is a dish that's as clean and refreshing as any Peruvian ceviche, but with a distinct and interesting twist.
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Chifrijo, the Ideal Bar Snack
Who says you can't have an elevated culinary experience in a local watering hole? Introducing chifrijo, one of Costa Rica's most ubiquitous bar snacks. It's a simple but satisfying blend of rice topped with black beans and fried pork. The addition of pico de gallo salsa (tomatoes, cilantro, and onion), and the fact it's served with crispy tortilla chips, lends it a Mexican feel. But it's generally thought that chifrijo was created in the San José area. Still, ticos can be contentious about chifrijo's actual provenance within the country—especially after they've had a few beers. What's not debatable is this: for a fortifying dish to start you off on a night of bar-hopping, you can do no better.
Regional Coffee Tasting
Why does Costa Rica produce such great coffee beans? The answer lies in the fertile volcanic soil found in the highlands: it imbues a distinct smoky aroma and flavor. There are some major coffee regions in the country, with growers located in provinces like Puntarenas, Heredia, Alajuela, and San José.
Coffee has always been produced here, but with the third-wave movement in full swing, it's become another engine driving the country's economy. As with cacao, many coffee plantations in Costa Rica offer guided tours of their properties, usually including presentations on the harvesting and roasting process, as well as several cups of coffee to sample.
Looking for an itinerary that takes you to a family-run coffee farm—not to mention beaches, volcanoes, and the jungle? Check out this 14-day journey especially suited to families.
Exotic Fruits and Juices
Like Brazil and Colombia, Costa Rica is practically exploding with fruits—some of which you may have never seen before. The abundance of produce is evident at food stalls and street vendors throughout the country. If you enjoy a good street food adventure, be sure to pull up a stool at one of Costa Rica's many vendors and sample a few naturales (fresh fruit juices). The options are almost limitless. Try a mango, watermelon, blackberry, or pineapple juice, or mix and match (opt for a papaya/cantaloupe hybrid).
You also don't want to leave Costa Rica without enjoying a pipa (coconut). As in many countries with tropical climates, vendors sell fresh coconuts from street carts. Your cue is when you hear a vendor shouting "Pipa, pipa!" Approach the cart and he or she will hand you a chilled coconut with a straw, a perfect beach refreshment
Some other must-try fruits in Costa Rica include carambola (star fruit), rambutan (a cousin of the lychee with delicious white fruit inside a red skin), and peach palm fruit. This last one is often boiled and served mashed with honey and has a taste similar to a sweet potato. It's said to be good for the heart, among other health benefits.
Costa Rican Snow Cones
We've all heard of snow cones and shaved ice. Costa Rica's got their own version, too: the copo (the word literally translates to "flake"), sometimes called granizado depending on the region you're in. Served from carts, it's a great way to beat the Central American heat. Be forewarned: the copo is heavy, as refreshments go. Not only is it made with kola (a sweet red syrup), but it's drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, and some vendors throw marshmallows on top for good measure. Overall, this is one of Costa Rica's most famous street foods, and a must-try while you're traveling.