Chiliguaros are famous in Costa Rica for delivering a good buzz and a bad hangover. They are Costa Rica’s greatest beverage. Here are five reasons why.
A guy I follow on Instagram once posted a photo of himself as a kid, with the caption “before life beat me down like an old mule“.
I don’t know why, but it made me laugh. It also made me think about my own life and what the hell I’m doing with it. My life ain’t too bad. I live in Costa Rica and I edit this website for a living, so it’s not exactly a grind, despite the horrors of the past couple of years or so.
But sometimes it feels like a grind, like I’m sure yours does too. Sometimes.
So what do we do? Well, I guess we need to take time out every now and again to celebrate something. Anything. It doesn’t have to be an “occasion”. We can celebrate life. We can celebrate the fact we woke up this morning.
We can celebrate being in Costa Rica.
And Costa Rica is a perfect place to celebrate something (anything) because in Costa Rica, celebration means chiliguaros. Costa Rica’s chiliguaros are the best celebration drink ever.
What is this chiliguaro?
The chiliguaro is a shot of guaro, which is Costa Rica’s national firewater, mixed with tomato juice, any kind of hot sauce – think tabasco or something like that – and lime juice.
Some people forgo the tomato juice and lime and go all in with a straight hot sauce / guaro mix. Others like to add salt around the rim of the glass, although I personally forgo that.
Every bar in Costa Rica will sell you a chiliguaro, and they’re also easy to make at home. The feeling you get as that shot glass of bright orange madness is set down in front of you can range from dread to exhilaration. But as soon as you lift your glass and knock it down, it’s all exhilaration. A warm feeling spreads through your soul and a stupid grin forms on your face.
And then you order another one.
These things go down easy. Too easy. Easier than you think. Imagine doing shots of Bloody Mary for hours. Except instead of vodka, you have guaro.
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Guaro has a mixed reputation in Costa Rica.
Sure, it’s the national hooch. But unlike, say, Nicaragua or Guatemala, who pride themselves on the quality of their outstanding rums, guaro is a poor man’s drink. It’s the traditional beverage of bums on the street. It’s cheap and comes in little plastic bottles (or even bags). The less salubrious parts of Costa Rica’s cities are filled with empty guaro bottles. Guaro is not a drink for connoisseurs.
On its own, guaro tastes horrible. It tastes exactly like what it is – a cheap, crappy, version of rum. Without going into detail about how they make guaro, know it comes from leftover sugar cane juices. The stuff the rum producers discard.
The one saving grace of guaro is that it’s not as strong as rum. Although its taste suggests otherwise. Upon drinking a shot of neat guaro, you’d think those hairs sprouting on your chest come from the kind of drink that makes you go blind. But it’s not the alcohol, it’s the taste and the poor quality.
It takes an especially foul kind of drink to taste more alcoholic than it actually is.
So, guaro needs something to go with it, to broaden its appeal from alcoholics and street-bums to a wider market. For a long time, people drank guaro with a soft drink like Sprite. When I first came to Costa Rica, that’s how they introduced it to me.
And it’s not too bad with Sprite, either. Or Red Bull. I mean, it’s not something I got into at all, but it was drinkable.
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That was before chiliguaro entered my life.
It’s unclear when chiliguaro was first invented. It wasn’t around at all for at least the first decade or so of my life in Costa Rica. At least not around me, anyway. It would have been around 2013 or 2014 when chiliguaro and I met, but don’t quote me. Chiliguaro makes you forgetful.
I do remember there was a large group of us who had been on a hike in the mountains. After hiking, the custom was to hit a bar, and someone bought a round of chiliguaros for all 15 or 20 of us to celebrate. We never looked back.
Since then, chiliguaro has become a part of my drinking life. I’m not into spirits, I have to say. I don’t particularly even like alcohol if I’m honest (which will surprise everyone who knows me). Whiskey, rum, and vodka all pass me by. I never jumped onto the Jager train. The current Fireball thing everyone is doing makes me feel ill to even think about. I’m not a wine fanatic. Tequila? Hell no.
The only thing I like about alcohol is the social aspect. I like sitting in bars getting a mild buzz on and talking shit with people. Putting the world to rights. And I can do that with a light beer. A few cold Imperial Silvers on a hot afternoon is all I desire, drinking-wise. Anything else…. meh.
Until chiliguaro came along. Chiliguaro was something I could appreciate. If a drink tastes of Tabasco or hot sauce, then it’s easy to miss out on the alcohol aspect of it. Which is perfect for me, and for the hundreds of thousands of Costa Ricans who knock this stuff back like water every time there’s something to celebrate.
Once I discovered chiliguaro it became my celebratory drug of choice. If you’re in a bar with me and we’re tying one on, we will end up doing chiliguaros.
Five reasons why chiliguaros are the best drink ever:
Which brings me back to the celebration theme. We were in a local bar in Escazu, celebrating something which called for chiliguaros. The chiliguaros in this bar are pretty good. Very smooth and deceiving on the alcohol front. Just how I like them. And while we were there, we decided to pay homage to the chiliguaro by thinking of five reasons why you need to start drinking them. Here are those reasons.
- The Taste. Unlike 99 percent of all alcoholic drinks, chiliguaros taste good. Does anyone really like the taste of tequila or Jagermeister? Who can possibly enjoy whiskey? These things do not taste good. That’s why they call them adult beverages. Would a kid like the taste of vodka? But Chiliguaro tastes fantastic. A child would love the taste of chiliguaro (we do not recommend that children drink chiliguaro). That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.
- The Kick. It’s the hot sauce, of course. And the lemon. And the guaro itself. These three ingredients work in harmony with each other to deliver a kick you’ll remember for the rest of your life. The kick from a perfect chiliguaro is a work of art that mixologists in London, New York, and Tokyo work all their lives to perfect. They should stop wasting their time. They should come to Costa Rica and drink chiliguaro.
- The Buzz. The chiliguaro buzz is a subtle one. It creeps up on you. Most of the time you’re pretty buzzed in the first place to even order chiliguaros. In general, it’s about six or seven beers in that chiliguaros make an entrance. Only the most hedonistic will dive straight into the chiliguaros off the bat. So it’s hard to tell exactly where your chiliguaro buzz starts and your beer buzz ends. The most scientific way of gauging it is it starts soon after your first chiliguaro. It makes you feel good enough to order another one. And you will order another one. No-one drinks one chiliguaro and goes home. No-one.
- The Ambiance. There is no nicer feeling than sitting with a group of people and everyone has a chiliguaro in front of them. Everyone trades cheeky glances and grins as if they know they are doing something a little naughty. Things might not end well once the chiliguaros start flowing, but they sure as hell always start well. The other thing about chiliguaros is they are not for drinking alone. If your wife has left you, then whiskey is your friend to keep you company during your solo sojourns at the bar. Chiliguaro is not for you. Chiliguaro is a celebratory drink. Even if there’s nothing to celebrate. It’s a happy drink, not a sad one.
- The Hangover. Hangovers suck, don’t they? Including chiliguaro hangovers. I’m not going to lie, chiliguaro hangovers suck more than most hangovers. When is all said and done, you’re still drinking a poorly-made spirit that is cheap for a reason. But waking up the next morning feeling like your dog has attacked you with a hammer and then shat into your mouth somehow feels more bearable once you remember that it was chiliguaro that caused this. People often say “never again” with a wine hangover, beer hangover, or any other kind of hangover. “I’m never drinking [insert demon beverage] again”. But I’ve never met anyone who has said they’ll never drink chiliguaro again. We know we will and we’re fine with that.
Go forth and drink chiliguaro:
If you needed other reasons to drink chiliguaros, then I’m sure you could think of them. You could pull any madcap excuse out of your head to justify getting a round of chiliguaros in. The world is your oyster.
If you happen to be one of the 99.93 percent of the world’s population that doesn’t live in Costa Rica, and so has no idea what a chiliguaro is, then I’m sorry for you. I hope you can go ahead and add tabasco to something in a shot glass and pretend.
James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.