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18 Things to Eat, Buy and Do in Costa Rica

Photograph: Kenneth Lu

So you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica. With the nationwide mantra of “pura vida,” or “pure life,” you’d have to be a fool to pass up visiting this sprawling paradise of natural life, lush greenery and delicious native food. But with such a massive amount of exploring to do in such a short time, it can be tough to narrow down the best parts of Costa Rica and ensure you get the best experience possible out of your stay. Fortunately, we know all the secrets to maximizing your trip, however long or short it may be. Check out our tips below for top recommendations to eat, buy and do while you’re living the pura vida.

If you’re going to live like the locals live, eat like the locals eat. For Costa Ricans, this means indulging in a few meals that make appearances every day around breakfast, lunch and dinner and peppering in some delicious specialty dishes to mix it up. Here are some of the favorites.

1. Gallo Pinto

It may not be customary to have rice and beans for breakfast in other countries, but in Costa Rica, gallo pinto graces the breakfast table across the country on a daily basis. If you’re looking to truly experience Costa Rica, don’t get on that return flight without at least one helping.

2. Casado

Another staple here, this “marriage” of many foods makes its first appearance around lunchtime and includes rice and beans, flank steak or chicken, salad and sometimes chilies or plantains. Aiming to eat like the locals? This is your best bet. Want to have a truly local expereince? Head over to La Posada de las Brujas in Escazú for a great casado and other Costa Rican favorites, such as Chicharrones, Chifrijo and Pozol. Don’t mind the appearance of this true hole-in-the-wall frequented by locals and some expats, this is the real thing.

18 Things to Eat, Buy and Do in Costa Rica
Photograph: Ted McGrath

3. Ceviche

Before you fill up on rice and beans, leave at least one meal during your visit for ceviche. A popular seafood dish in any Caribbean coastal area, ceviche is fish, or a selection of seafood ‘cooked’ in lime juice, and deliciously spiced with onion, bell peppers and cilantro. Seafood allergies are the only legit excuse for not giving this dish a try. For more on this light, healthy and delicious dish, including a quick recipe check out this post.

Ceviche: Quick, Simple and Healthy Taste of the Tropics

4. Seafood

While we’re on the topic, if your body allows, Costa Rica boasts some of the freshest, most delicious seafood on the planet. Make sure to try fresh Seabass, Mahi Mahi or Yellow Fin Tuna. Healthy, sustainable, delicious. Need we say more?

5. Fresh fruit

Costa Rica produces a massive amount of delectable, juicy fruit straight from the earth. While you’re in the area, branch away from normal fruit choices and opt for a ripe mango, papaya or fresh coconut. You won’t regret it.

6. Refrescos

Speaking of fresh fruit, don’t leave the country without trying Costa Rica’s favorite refreshing beverage. Also called “frescos” for short, Costa Ricans regularly indulge in refrescos, combinations of fresh fruit and either water and sugar or milk. Try any of the fruity flavors the country grows, or branch out and taste some horchata, a mixture including rice flour and extra cinnamon.

 

We’d like to do nothing but eat scrumptious local food, but with a wealth of exciting activities, it’s a difficult task in Costa Rica. From adventure junkies to nature lovers to water babies, Costa Rica has something for everyone. Our top picks?

7. Surf

Any visit to Costa Rica warrants a surf or two. Even if you’ve never hit the waves in your life, the country is brimming with opportunities to learn from the best how to catch a wave so you can sit on top of the world. There are plenty of legendary surf spots, such as Roca Bruja (Witches Rock) on the north pacific coast, all the way to Dominical on the south and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side, with both surf schools and rentals to meet every budget.

8. San Jose

Although not the best representation of the country, San José has some gems which should not be missed. The Gold Museum has one of the best collections of indigenous gould artifacts anywhere in Latin America, definately worth a visit downtown. While there, visit the newly built Jade Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum (located in what used to be the national liquor factory), and make sure you stop for coffee at the National Theater, inspired by the Paris Opera. All these will be within a 4 block radius. Spending a Saturday? If you are willing to get up early and be there by 8:00 (7:00 if you need to park), go for breakfast at the Otoya Organic Farmers Market and get a taste of interesting local fruit and produce, great handcrafted sauces and spices, and specialty street food.

9. Manuel Antonio National Park

If you’re in Costa Rica to answer the call of the wild, Manuel Antonio is an absolute must. From kayaking to rappelling waterfalls to catching the amazing wildlife on film, this national park is sure to keep you busy and feeling energized.

18 Things to Eat, Buy and Do in Costa Rica

10. Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

Another option for natural explorations, Monteverde houses a rare cloud forest, allowing for luscious plant growth and wildlife that only accounts for 1% of global woodland. Talk about a once in a lifetime experience!

11. Visit Arenal Volcano

Until a few years ago, Arenal was an active volcano with plenty of lava and ash plumes to see. It’s sleeping now, but that doesn’t make the view any less magnificent, and if you’re somehow worried about boredom, try hiking, rafting or horseback riding while you peep the massive mountain.

12. Ziplining/Canopy Tours

In fact, consider checking Arenal out via zipline. Costa Rica is well known for these fun adventures, and while you’re flying high, you can see the over 70% of rainforest activity that goes on up in the canopies.

13. Coffee Tours

Costa Rican arabica roast, anyone? Chances are you don’t usually see where that pound of coffee at your local supermarket comes from, but in Costa Rica, there are few reasons not to. Take one of numerous coffee tours and see exactly what the country’s history is all about.

 

At some point you have to leave, and you’ll most likely be aching to take a piece of this paradise with you. So what are your best options?

14. Coffee

Did we mention Starbucks bought their first ever coffee farm in Costa Rica and established their Global Agronomy Research Center there? Need we say more about the quality of coffee in the country? Take the opportunity to get it straight from the source.

15. Lizano

Not an Italian lizard. Lizano is Costa Rica’s very own salsa, and although you can now purchase it online or in North American stores, we both know it’s better with the personal history. You’ll become addicted to this very Costa Rican uber-spice.

16. Handmade jewelry

What better souvenir from a vacation than something handmade by the very people who make the country what it is? From woven bracelets to shell and wooden jewelry, Costa Rican natives make beautiful pieces of wearable art.

17. Handmade wood crafts

Their skill with wood doesn’t stop at jewelry though. Visitors rave over the homemade rocking chairs Costa Rican companies will deliver worldwide, and if you’re really into the cultural aspect, look out for handmade wooden oxcarts.

18. Candies- Fruit candy and chocolate covered coffee beans

It’s difficult to bring fresh fruit across the border from Costa Rica, but the country does take pride in a variety of candied fruits and other sweets, including chocolate covered coffee beans. Regardless of what you choose, it’s bound to be better than airline peanuts.

 

No matter what you eat, buy or do in Costa Rica, you’re in for a treat when you cross into this lush tropical paradise. So even if you don’t take all of our advice here, enjoy your trip and get into the culture. Live la pura vida.

 

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