Upon arriving in the capital, I took a taxi to a bus station, and then a bus 6 hours into the rural mountains. I arrived just after dark in the little town of Monteverde. Before the trip, my hosts directed me to get off at the local gas station but I ended up getting off at the bus station a mile away. By small town standards, it was late, and I was stuck a mile from the gas station where my hosts were waiting. There I was, stuck outside, during the rainy season, in a rural town, in the jungles of Costa Rica. And so began our first adventure…
We hitched a ride with a local to the home of Teresita & Eli, our host parents. Eli was the Costa Rican version of a country-boy, handy-man type with a STRONG accent. He built their cabin by hand and made money by traveling to nearby towns, building homes. We hadn’t eaten since our flight around noon, and it was about 7pm. We had no idea that everything would be close but the business hours in Monteverde are around 5am to 3pm. Luckily our hosts had some coffee, bread, queso, and guava sauce to get us through the night. As we ate our first meal, Teresita gave us some brochures she’d grabbed from the hotel where she worked, and told us everything we needed to know about Monteverde.
Up and at em’
With the help of the roosters, we were up at the crack of dawn everyday. The sun rose around 5am and set around 5pm so it actually didn’t seem that early. Teresita would make us a traditional Costa Rican breakfast that consisted of gallo pinto (beans & rice), fresh eggs, plantains, and fruit. Breakfast with our host family was actually one of the best meals we had in Costa Rica, and contrary to popular review, we liked Costa Rican food a lot. Just like everywhere else in the world, there’s nothing like a good home-cooked meal.
Breakfast was generally my favorite meal of the day. Here is a photo of me enjoying breakfast with a local beer. I’m not really a a beer drinker but the it went so well with breakfast. The flavor was similar to a Corona with a citrusy essence and fewer hops. The eggs were prepared with onions, and a mean little Chihuahua would beg for food, then try to bite me if I looked away. Not only did Teresita show me the traditional way of Costa Rican cooking, she also introduced us to Lizano salsa.
Eating Cost Rican TIP #1: Lizano salsa is basically holy water
Lizano is a greenish salsa blend of water, sugar, salt, vegetables (onions, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers), spices, pepper, mustard, and turmeric. You’ll find it everywhere in Costa Rica, used at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A restaurant called Taco Taco served Lizano with everything. I got the nachos with local goat cheese and Lizano salsa, & a vegetarian burrito with roasted eggplant, fried jalepeños, local veggies, and Lizano.
TIP #2: Plan to Eat a lot of Chicken
I was a HUGE Breaking Bad fan and encountered a fast food chain similar to Pollos Hermanos from the show. Let me introduce you to the Lee’s Chicken of Latin America, Pollo Campero. Pollo Campero has a delicious chicken recipe and is really, really cheap. Chicken is plentiful and cheap in general in Costa Rica, however fast food, fried chicken is as cheap as it gets. As a result, the women there are pretty “thick” per the definition of Urban Dictionary. Many stores sell $15 J.Lo booty jeans to accommodate all the fried chicken butts, but that’s another story. Try Pollo Campero next time you’re in Miami (yes, they have a location in Miami), you won’t regret it.
J.Lo Booties & Pickled Onions
Other than Lizano, a popular staple in Costa Rica is the casado. Casado means marriage or union in Spanish, a fitting word for the chicken, beans/rice, and veggie combination. A typical Costa Rican casado will run you a little under $5 and can be found just about anywhere. As usual, the mom and pop restaurants tend to have better casados than the chain restaurants. Casados are also an easy way to fill up on something healthy (for the most part) and cheap. I tried so many different casados all over the country but my favorite was in rural Monteverde at a restaurant called Sabor Tico (top, right). The name literally translates to “Flavor Tico” because the people of Costa Rica refer to themselves as Ticos. This casado was specifically impressive because it came with a host of complimentary flavors like marinated pickled onions.
The side salads were delicious as well. Many tourist guides will tell you not to eat fruits and vegetables that have been handled, but I think an exception should be made for Costa Rica. My least favorite casado was in the more touristic, Jaco Beach. The meat in a casado is usually the star, packed with an incredible amount of flavor. However in Jaco, nothing stood out. The complaint many tourists have about Costa Rican food. I’m beginning to think that the reviews I’ve seen came from typical tourists that never venture off the beaten path.
TIP #3: Venture off the beaten path
I went on two self-guided jungle tours while in Costa Rica. The first one was in Monteverde where I saw an entire troop of monkeys in the treetops above. I was absolutely terrified because I was alone and the monkeys clearly knew I was on the path. The second tour was in Manuel Antonio a short distance from Jaco Beach. There were others on this path but it was still deep in the jungle, fairly isolated. I saw another troop of monkeys but this time they threw fruit at me! I also saw a sloth, several iguanas, and a gorgeous beach.
On the way back from Manuel Antonio, I happened upon a hippie-type that was dancing around the street. He offered me some vegan falafel, and after processing how strange this situation was, I tried it. It was actually delicious. Taking food from people off the street, out of a cooler they brought from home to a fully equipped street vendor cart, is really common in Latin America.
One of my favorite dishes over the entire trip was the Sopa Mariscos in Jaco Beach. It was a seafood soup in some sort of chicken broth packed with mussels, squid, calamari, and lots of shark! I loved it so much I ordered it twice. However I got burnt out after having it the second time. Jaco had an enormous assortment of seafood entrees for under $10, and they gave you A LOT. I also tried the Pasta Mariscos which had a variety of seafood over noodles. I didn’t like this one too much because there was hardly any sauce on the pasta. The fishy flavor was overwhelming and much different than anything I’ve tried in the US.
TIP #4: Steer clear of the Chinese food
There is a lot of speculation around cheap, fast food grade Chinese food, and the meats they use. We’ve all heard that they use rat, cat, dog, and other animals in place of chicken. This is highly unlikely in the US because there is so much regulation in the food service industry. However, in Costa Rica there is far less regulation.
I am aware that Chinese customs are different from American customs, and that you can purchase dog meat at the farmer’s market in China. However, in Costa Rica I’m pretty sure I ate some type of rodent meat. Before you get offended and storm off of my site, just hear me out. On my Ecuador page you’ll see that I tried a local delicacy called cuy, also known as guinea pig. In the wild, guinea pigs are more like rodents and less like pets. Their lifestyles are similar to that of rodents and they have a very distinct taste, modeling after what they themselves have eaten. The chicken I had at a Chinese fast casual restaurant in San Jose, Costa Rica tasted eerily similar. Trust me, pass on the Chinese food.
TIP #5: Eat smaller meals throughout the day
Moving onto a lighter subject, there are very good “snacks” in Costa Rica. If you eat a light breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’ll have room to squeeze in a few snacks, and it’ll be totally worth it. We happened upon a giant flea market, seeking shelter during heavy rainfall. Deep inside we found this life altering beverage. I give you “guanabana.” It’s made from a fruit that tastes like a white cherry slushy. So, so delicious.
Cosechas & Empanadas
My favorite little spot was called Cosechas. The basically severed fresh fruit smoothies & milkshakes. It’s like the Smoothie King of Latin America. They essentially blend whatever fruits you want with fresh coconut water or cows milk.
My favorite combination was avocado-banana-mango-pineapple. There’s nothing too special about this place, but everything is as fresh as it gets. Get me Cosechas and I’m a happy camper! Costa Rica was a beautiful country with beautiful people and wonderful healthy food options. Overall I’d give this eat-cation 5 stars because the food, prices, and service were amazing! Pura Vida!