Costa Rica has made a reputation as the adventurer’s dream with its extreme sports and outdoor exploration opportunities. Athletes and risk takers continue to pour into this Central American country, but recently a different type of adventurer has begun to take notice of our tropical home. Foodies, previously drawn to Europe and Asia, have begun to flock to Costa Rica to study regional produce, tropical seasonings, and the unique combinations of flavors so common to this area. Both chefs and food lovers alike are finding a culinary experience in Costa Rica that features tropical ingredients and health-conscious choices. Costa Rica is a destination that absolutely cannot be missed for foodies, so we’ve compiled a list of must-taste activities to help you eat your way across this tropical paradise.
Learn the Traditional Way
To start off this foodies adventure, you’re going to want to learn the traditional cooking methods of Costa Rica. Traditional foods in this tropical country use only local, natural ingredients and contain nothing that’s been processed, preserved, or artificially flavored. Thanks to year-long harvests and no icy winters, Costa Rica provides top quality produce year-round, so there is absolutely no excuse to reach for a canned version of your favorite local produce. The best way to learn how to use regional foods would be to study Costa Rican cooking. Go to “typical food” restaurants, eat at sodas and public cafeterias, and take advantage of a Costa Rican family dinner whenever an invitation presents itself. Once you become familiar with some of lesser known ingredients, you can start experimenting with flavors and unique combinations.
What to do:
Chef Oscar Castro O’Sullivan is a household name in Costa Rica. His cooking show, loosely translated to “this is how it’s done” (La Vaina es Así), teaches simple methods to create flavorful, traditional meals. Visit the O’Sullivan Culinary School in San Jose for a quick lesson on the Costa Rican staples. You’ll make traditional dishes, have a chance to purchase his best-selling cookbooks, and taste some produce you may never have heard of before. If you won’t be able to visit San Jose during your time in Costa Rica, ask around for traditional cooking lessons and market tours in your city.
You don’t need to be a chef to be a chocolate enthusiast, and if you’re a fan of this sweet treat, you’ve come to the right place. In Costa Rica, chocolate literally grows on trees. Cacao is a pulpy fruit that is both delicious and tastes nothing like chocolate. If you eat the fruit away, all that will be left is a small bean. That bean will eventually be processed into chocolate. Cacao trees are indigenous to the mountainous regions of Costa Rica, where chefs are studying new uses for both the fruit and the bean. You will be hard pressed to find this fruit in your home country, so if you want to learn about the cacao fruit and the roots of chocolate, you’ll need to make the trek to the Costa Rican mountains.
What to do:
One of the best tours you can book for your Costa Rican adventure is the Rainforest Chocolate Tour in La Fortuna. Easily, the Chocolate Tour will please your entire travel group, foodies and non-foodies alike. This beautiful and rustic tour will feature highly knowledgeable guides, interactive workshops, and views of both the rainforest and volcano. The tour from start to finish will be absolutely enjoyable, and you’re sure to pick up a new-found appreciation for this incredible fruit.
Whether you came to Costa Rica for a foodies adventure or not, you aren’t going to want to miss the local coffee scene. There’s a good chance the coffee you drink back home comes from Costa Rica, so don’t miss the opportunity to visit your favorite bean’s birthplace. Coffee is planted, harvested, roasted, and packaged right here in Costa Rica, and usually makes it to your morning mug without any other influences. The coffee you drink during your stay here will be 100% local and totally fresh, and after a couple cups, we know you’ll want to visit the source.
What to do:
If you drink a certain Costa Rican coffee every day, research where it comes from and try to visit the farm. You’ll see how the coffee is planted and the steps it takes to make it to your mug. If you don’t have a certain brand in mind, take a weekend and visit the Finca Rosa Blanca in Heredia. This 12-hectare coffee plantation also serves as a hotel and restaurant, so your visit will not only be educational, but relaxing and delicious. You’ll learn how their coffee is produced and have a tasting right on the farm. If you stay the night, you’ll sleep in style and luxury, enjoying balconies, jacuzzies, and beautiful views. Make sure to try their coffee hummus at the restaurant after your tour.
If you’ve been in Costa Rica since breakfast this morning, you already know that the fruit scene is top notch. Citrus fruits grow in every family’s backyard and mangos, papayas, and coconuts can be bought for just pennies. And those are just the fruits you’ve heard of. You’ll be introduced to some new fruits throughout your trip and while some may be amazing in their raw states, others will have infinite potential for sauces and savory dishes.
What to do:
It’s easy enough to stop by your local market and buy everything you’ve never seen before. This isn’t a bad way to explore Costa Rica’s fruit either. If you have some extra time, however, visit Finca Corsecana in the Arenal region. This is the world’s largest pineapple plantation and employs some of the most interesting agricultural techniques. Take a tour through their geometric fields and learn about the art of pineapple farming. While you’re there, buy some pineapples and take your healthy snack with you on a couple treks around the nearby national parks.
Beef is a major economic factor to Costa Rica and has influenced the local cuisine significantly. While daily meals may not contain beef, special occasions and dinner parties will almost always feature this delicious protein. Almost every culture uses beef in traditional cooking, but Costa Rica uses very specific flavors and combinations in their favorite meals. You may be a barbecue master back home, but you will need to take some classes before you can master the meals every Costa Rican mother already knows by heart.
What to do:
You’ll find street-side grills every night and have a chance to eat churrasco and traditional beef fillets at restaurants, but if you really want to understand Costa Rican beef, you’ll need to learn to make an “olla de carne,” or beef stew. Many culinary schools and traditional restaurants will feature this local favorite once a month or during Christmas time, but if your timing doesn’t match up, visit the El Silencio Lodge in Alajuela province and sign up for a class. They’ll teach you how to make the dish, you’ll try a couple variations, and you’re always welcome to stay on their campus for a relaxing spa weekend.
Artificial vanilla flavors are bland and thought of as “neutral tasting,” but true vanilla never disappoints. Costa Rica is a destination for chefs seeking natural, organic vanilla to use in their restaurants. This is a product that can be very difficult to buy in the United States and, as all foodies know, simply has no substitute. You may be unfamiliar with the taste and use of real vanilla, but after a trip to Costa Rica, you’ll never go back to your artificial brand.
What to do:
You’re probably unfamiliar with using raw vanilla, so a stop at Villa Vanilla by the Manual Antonio National Park is an absolute must. This is a sustainable spice plantation that specializes in vanilla, essential oil plants, cacao, and organic cinnamon. You will learn how to use all these spices in their natural states and learn of their unique histories, flavors, and medicinal uses.
The access to organic produce is one of the reasons Costa Rica remains the healthiest country in Central America. Organic, local produce can be bought on the street for just pennies to the dollar of what you might spend back home. Both the quality and the variety of produce is better in Costa Rica, and a simple stroll around your Costa Rican town will provide sights and smells of produce you may never have heard of. Take advantage of your time in Costa Rica to regain your health and develop ideas to be brought home with you.
What to do:
The San Jose “Mercado Central” is famous for its bounty of fruits and vegetables. You can buy almost any local product at this market and ever ask the vendors for tricks and tips on traditional recipes. If you can’t make it to San Jose, look for the open-aired market in your city, we guarantee you’ll find one. Visit markets and fruit stands in every city you visit, and concentrate on buying local superfoods and anything you don’t recognize. Don’t shy away from asking vendors for names and preparation directions for your purchases. The more you learn about food in Costa Rica, the more information you’ll have to bring back home with you and integrate into your daily cooking. Foodies and their entire travel group will have the vacation of a lifetime here in Costa Rica.