It’s not easy being a vegetarian in Costa Rica. Here are my tips for avoiding malnourishment, food envy, social awkwardness, and other omnivorous afflictions.
“I hope you like rice and beans”, is what most people say when you tell them you’re going to Central America as a vegetarian.
And when you get to Costa Rica, you’ll get a few surprised reactions from Ticos. “You don’t even eat chicken?” “What about fish?”
But not eating meat in a country where it’s a diet staple doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker.
Here are five tips on how not to miss out on all the fresh and delicious food Costa Rica’s cuisine has to offer.
1. Be spontaneous:
Even in restaurants with a limited vegetarian fare, you can find at least one fail-safe, if not boring, veggie option
Arrabiata pasta and vegetable risotto come to mind as the token done-to-death, meat-free options in North America or Europe.
But in Costa Rica, this is not always the case. On many menus, vegetarian dishes are not even an afterthought but forgotten about altogether.
When this happens, you need to get creative.
One way could be to choose a dish you like the sound of but order it sin carne (without meat). One of the best meals I had in Costa Rica involved a pork taco, without the pork. Instead, the chef salted up a huge variety of vegetables, which I enjoyed with the dish’s usual accompaniments.
Sometimes the chef will be happy to offer you a ‘vegetarian platter’, which might be an assortment of veggies with rice or root vegetables. This requires you to invest a certain degree of trust as you don’t know what you’ll get. But you should be pleasantly surprised.
2. Eat local:
Identify meat-free meals at local restaurants to rule out any confusion, especially when ordering in Spanish. Gallo pinto (rice and beans) or vegetarian casados (typical lunch plate) are good go to’s. Be aware you need to ask for a vegetarian casado as the regular always comes with meat.
Try ordering patacones, a side dish (boca) of fried plantains with toppings like guacamole, cheese, and beans. Portion sizes are generous in Costa Rica, and you’ll often find that a few of these giant hand-sized disks are a meal in themselves.
Let street food be your friend. Cheap and simple, beach sellers often sell meat-free baked goods, like empanadas or pupusas, which hit the spot after a long day surfing or lounging.
Likewise, fruit juices provide a refreshing snack. Found all over, you can blend them with milk, yogurt, or water, to suit your taste.
3. Do your research:
If you can’t live without your meat-free alternatives, there will be some kind of vegetarian or vegan restaurant in the more touristy areas.
Catered to travelers who need their tofu on tap, you can find restaurants that suit all different cuisines and diets. Use sites like happycow.net to track these down. Social media is also useful, with Facebook groups like Vegan Costa Rica out there to lend you a hand.
Outside of the major cities and tourist areas, you’re out of luck, though.
The higher-end supermarket chains like Auto Mercado and Fresh Market also sell dairy-free milk, cheese, and the like. But you need to realize they’re expensive. Very expensive. Much more expensive than their counterparts in the US or Europe.
4. Do it yourself:
If you’re in Costa Rica for a while and have access to a kitchen, then what better way to learn the local cuisine than by cooking for yourself?
On weekends local ferias (markets) take place around the country. Not only are they more than half as cheap as the supermarkets, but the quality is better too. There are even specific vegan ferias in some areas, too.
Among the hustle and bustle of stalls, a universe of food opens to you. Yucca, camote, chayote, mamon chinos, guanabana, the list goes on. You won’t know what most things are to start off, but they’re fun to experiment with all the same.
Keep an eye out: Whole Foods will market them as the latest super-foods within the next few years.
5. Be flexible:
Lastly, keep an open mind. People are laid back in Costa Rica. They won’t take offense if you ask questions or be tricky. I’ve ordered things specifically without meat before to find the bacon has crept its way in by the time it reaches the table. Smile, politely send it back and get a new one. Tranquilo.
As a side note, a part of being flexible is to understand that they prepare many meals in animal fat in Costa Rica, gallo pinto being a prime example. Cheeses in restaurants will not be vegan. Don’t expect the chef to use a pan or griddle for your veggie burger that hasn’t cooked a “real” burger a second before.
Sometimes being flexible means it’s best not to ask and to pretend instead. Or failing that, stick to the Do Your Research and Do It Yourself points above for pure, fail-safe veggie eating.
Born in London, Francesca Adkins has been studying and interning in the USA and Costa Rica since 2017. Her work has appeared in publications including The Student and The Columnist, where she contributes weekly reviews to the Culture Section.