Costa Rica is proud of its meat. Not just the industry, which occupies a large part of the country dedicated to livestock raising and meat exportation, but the culinary arts of meat too. In fact, the entire country smells of meat, wafting from the street-side grills into every corner of this tropical country. This fact alone can be rather intimidating for traveling vegetarians and vegans. Restaurants in every province will boast their barbeque and seafood dishes, but fortunately, the traditional food of Costa Rica goes a lot further than that.
Costa Rica hosts over 4% of the entire worlds biodiversity, so it should come as no surprise that locals have a much more varied diet than does most of the world. Costa Ricans eat a larger variety of fruits and vegetables and include more creativity in their meal preparation. Regardless of this Central American country’s reputation for fine meats, Costa Rica is actually a great country for the traveling vegan. You’ll have to learn how to say basic food words in Spanish if you want to experience all this country has to offer, but it’s a small price to pay for the meals you’re about to experience.
Explore the Produce of Costa Rica
If you’ll be cooking for yourself on this trip, there’s nothing better to do than dedicate an entire afternoon to visiting a local market. These outdoor markets will be filled with the most incredible fruits and vegetables, many of which you won’t even recognize. This produce will all be locally harvested and sold for pennies on the dollar of what you might spend back home. In fact, many of the superfoods sold in the states are exported from this region. You’ll have access to pounds of chia seeds, nuts, exotic fruits, and flax seed for prices that can’t be beat. All your regular weekly groceries will be found at a grocery store, but take the opportunity of traveling Costa Rica to put a tropical flair into your diet. No meal should go unaccompanied by fresh plantains and a squirt of lime juice.
If you don’t plan on cooking for yourself during this trip, you still need to take a stroll through the market. Pick up some delicious fruits along with oats and chia seeds for a mid-morning snack, and grab a bag of local peanuts and raisins for your hiking take-along kit. When you’re done, take another lap through the market with your travel group and buy any and all tropical fruits that you don’t recognize. You can spend your evenings on the beach munching on dragon fruit and rambutans. You may just find a new favorite snack.
Food on the Go
In Costa Rica, the quick street food typically contains barbeque. If you forego the meat, however, you still have an incredible plate of tropical, healthy, high-protein foods. Head to any “soda,” an inexpensive cafeteria style food joint, or hit up your nearest fritanga, a street-side grill. You can still participate in nearly all their foods.
The favorite food of Costa Rica is called “gallo pinto,” or a mixture of rice and beans. Gallo pinto is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and every restaurant will offer it as a side option. Order gallo pinto for your protein. It’s healthy and above all, extremely filling. When being served gallo pinto at an outdoor fritanga, your chef may ask if you’d like the juice of the nearby meat dish to be served over the plate. Give the obvious “no, gracias” and you have the perfect plant-based plate.
When choosing from sides, your options will include nearly everything there. Fried plantains, cabbage salads, grilled potatoes, and fresh tortillas will all be at your disposal. They’ll offer you a plant-based hot sauce made from local chiles, vinegar, and onions, and you’ll be ready to chow down.
Experiment with New Meal Staples
When in Costa Rica, you may be surprised to find out that your vegan diet may include a lot more food options than it does in your home country. You have more access to a wider range of proteins, and the mouth-watering options at every restaurant will inspire you to try new ideas.
You’re in the tropics, so let’s start with some tacos. Try new mixtures of local beans, grains, vegetables, and traditional sauces for your tacos. Better yet, try using jackfruit, the latest craze to veganism. Native to Asia, jackfruit grows prolifically in Central America, so much so that most people have an accidental plant in their backyards. Costa Ricans typically don’t use this ingredient as a main course staple, but you’ll have the perfect ingredients at hand to make a mouthwatering jackfruit meal. You can able to pick one up at your local market, harvest the meaty inside, and make some of the most tropical dishes imaginable. Back home, you’ll probably only have access to this tropical fruit in a canned version, and it will be 10 times as expensive as the whole fruit bought street-side in Costa Rica. You’ll need a good kitchen at your disposal, but this will be a meal worth remembering.
Eating at Restaurants
Eating at restaurants can be a challenge for vegans, especially in a country so proud of its livestock industry. As a rule, avoid restaurants called “parilladas,” or grills, and head to any nearby joint with a great view. You’ll still be able to piece together an incredible meal. If you can’t find anything in the main course section, try creating a meal out of appetizers and sides. You’ll have an incredible selection of salads, plantain based foods, and rice and bean dishes to choose from. All your food will be created fresh as well, so try asking for a vegetarian version of a main-course dish from your waiter. You waiter will let you know what the chef can handle.
Even if you’re not traveling with an all vegan group, your travel group will still understand your dietary restrictions. They’ll also be more than happy to try out some local vegan joints. And believe us, there are many. Look up some vegan and vegetarian restaurants nearby, you’ll have multiple options in every major region of the country. A quick search will give you more than enough options to choose from. Once inside, you’ll finally have the incredible produce of Costa Rica paired with creative, vegan minds. The chefs will create absolutely miraculous meals, and you’ll want to take photos or jot down ideas. These will be creative, tropical, and made of local ingredients, but you may be able to reproduce them back home.
Because vegetarianism and veganism is not very common in Costa Rica, you will need to do a bit more work in explaining your needs. Your trip will be full of delicious, healthy superfoods, but you’ll need to take some precautions to maintain your plant-based diet.
- Explain your diet entirely. Unfortunately, “vegetarian” or “vegan” means very little in Costa Rica. You’ll need to be able to explain exactly what you can’t eat. If you tell someone that you can’t eat any meat, don’t be surprised when they bring you fish. You’ll need to explain precisely what a plant-based meal includes and excludes.
- Chefs can get creative. If you find an incredible dish on a menu, ask the waiter to make it plant-based. Often, they’ll be able to substitute the chicken for a vegetable and the meal will be perfectly crafted for your dietary needs.
- Eat like the locals. Costa Ricans are proud of their meat, but they don’t actually eat as much meat as U.S. Americans do. Breakfasts include mixed fruit and local coffee. Lunches are large servings of gallo pinto, salads, plantains, and tortillas, and dinners will include a mix of any left-over foods from the day. You’ll be able to use all local ingredients and still maintain your diet.
- Take advantage of avocados. You already love them, and now you can eat them at the source. Buy them as often as possible and make a fresh guacamole to bring with you to the beach.
- Don’t sweat your Spanish. Even if your Spanish isn’t up to par, you’ll still be able to communicate. Costa Ricans are famous for their friendly attitudes, and most people will go out of their way to help you. Learn how to say simple words, both produce and meat, and make sure you can understand a menu. The rest will take care of itself.
- Aim for eco-tourism destinations, rainforest lodges, and health spas. Your travel group will have the best possible hiking and adventure paths available to them, your hotel room will have a view that can’t be beat, and you’re more likely to have a veggie-friendly staff at hand.