Costa Rica is famed for its incredible wildlife and natural landscapes, but they’re also the kings of comfort food. Traditional Costa Rican food is all about home-cooking, hearty flavours and big portions, from the classic rice and beans to fried pork, fresh ceviche, sweet desserts and all kinds of wonderful fruits and vegetables. Wondering what to eat in Costa Rica first? Read on to discover all the best Costa Rican foods and how to eat and drink like a local in this delicious foodie paradise.
What to eat in Costa Rica
Breakfast will become your favourite meal of the day when in Costa Rica – especially when gallo pinto is on the menu. This heartwarming dish of rice and beans is the local’s favourite morning meal, but you can also eat it later in the day if you just can’t get enough.
Flavoured with herbs and veggies like capsicum, onions, lime and cilantro, and served with eggs, sweet plantains, fried cheese and corn tortillas, this is the superstar of Costa Rican breakfasts.
Fun fact: Gallo pinto translates as ‘spotted rooster’, and you might hear the local saying ‘mas Tico que el gallo pinto’ which means ‘more Costa Rican than spotted rooster’.
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If gallo pinto is the star Costa Rican breakfast, then casado is the ultimate lunch. Casado translates as ‘married man’, and the dish has a few origin stories. Some say it originates from the days when men working in the fields would eat mixed lunches prepared by their wives. Other say it was eaten by newlyweds who wanted to find out each other’s favourite foods by putting a variety of dishes on the plate.
Today, the casado is the perfect dish to order when you just want a taste of everything. It traditionally includes rice and beans, salad, tortillas, fried sweet plantains, and some kind of protein like chicken, pork, beef or fish.
It also can come with a side like French fries, grilled vegetables or a slice of cheese, and you can mix and match with extras like corn, eggs and avocado. Great value and always tasty, you can’t go wrong with casados.
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Arroz con pollo
‘Arroz con’ means ‘rice with…’ and you’ll see this a lot on menus in Costa Rica. Rice is a treasured food of the country and one of our favourite ways to eat it is arroz con pollo, meaning rice with chicken.
It may sound simple, but the locals mix the rice with vegetables like peas, carrots, celery and capsicum and annatto (like saffron), to make fragrant yellow rice. Throw in some juicy grilled chicken and you’ve got a wonderfully flavourful dish.
Tamales are the quintessential festive dish across Latin America – and Costa Rica makes their own special version. It’s made from a rice dough filled with a blend of broth, cornflour, cheese, vegetables and meat (usually chicken, pork or beef). The mix is then wrapped in banana or plantain leaves and steamed or boiled in a pot for hours.
Tamales are traditionally enjoyed during Christmas and a lot of work goes into making this special dish, so families come together to make a big batch. Although it’s a classic holiday dish, you can still eat them as a tasty snack year-round and you’ll find them all over the country.
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If you’re looking for the most indulgent Costa Rican food, you should try chicharrones (pronounced “chee-char-RONE”). They’re basically deep fried pork belly or pork rinds, and they’re typically served at fiestas, bars and any celebration in the country. Salty, greasy and utterly delicious, this is Costa Rican comfort food at its finest.
Originating in Peru, ceviche is a well-loved dish in Latin America – and Costa Rica adds a tangy twist. The ceviche you’ll find here adds chillies and is often served in a cocktail glass with salted crackers on the side.
Known as vuelve a la vida, you can also find variations of this dish that include shrimp, octopus and fish, along with capsicum, cilantro and citrus juice. Do as the locals do and add a splash of Tabasco sauce or ketchup! If you’re dining on the sparkling Caribbean coast, do yourself a favour and order the ceviche.
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Looking for another Costa Rican breakfast heavyweight? You’ve got to try chorreadas. These beloved sweet corn pancakes are made from a mix of flour, milk, sugar, eggs and corn kernels, and are often served with a side of shredded cheese and natilla (sour cream). It’s a sweet and savoury masterpiece!
If you’d love smaller versions of your favourite Costa Rican foods, look for picadillos. These are like tapas or small plates, and they’re often served as a side dish to an entree, but you can also order them as your main.
Picadillos are usually a combination of meat and vegetables, seasoned with onions, garlic, capsicum and oregano, and there’s a huge variety. You can find everything from roast potato and chicken to squash and ground beef. You’ll just have to try them all to find your favourite.
When you think of Costa Rica, you probably picture a hot, tropical climate. But there are plenty of places in Costa Rica where it gets quite chilly, like the Central Valley or the cool afternoons in the cloud forests. When the temperature drops, be sure to reach for a bowl of sopa negra.
This traditional black bean soup is the Costa Rican version of chicken noodle soup. It’s often dished up when people are sick, or just in need of some real comfort food. Served with rice, corn tortillas and hard-boiled eggs, sopa negra is a hug in a bowl.
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If you really want to get into the pura vida lifestyle, you’ve got to try pejibayes (peach palm fruit). This fruit grows on tall palms in giant bunches and has been cultivated by Indigenous groups for centuries. Although you can’t eat raw pejibaye, it transforms into a soft and delicious snack when cooked with salt. The slightly sweet and savoury flavour is something between a chestnut, an artichoke and a sweet potato.
During harvest season, you’ll find street vendors selling cooked pejibayes with a dash of mayonnaise, or cooked into a soup. Be sure to give it a go!
Arroz con leche
Don’t forget about dessert! Costa Rica does sweet treats very well, and one of the all-time favourites is arroz con leche, or rice with milk. It’s enjoyed all over Latin America and in Costa Rica, they make it with either regular milk or condensed milk, and with cinnamon and cloves for extra spice. Sweet and sticky, you’ll quickly fall in love with arroz con leche.
Still craving something sweet? Tres leches is sure to hit the spot. This sponge cake is soaked in three types of milk (heavy cream, condensed milk and evaporated milk), and topped with cream, cherries, cinnamon and sprinkles. The secret ingredient is rum, but you can also find non-alcoholic versions in coffee shops across the cities.
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What to drink in Costa Rica
Naturales or Refrescos
Jugos frescos or jugos de naturales frescos (natural fruit juices) are the go-to drink in Costa Rica. They’re homemade juices made with native fruits like mango, pineapple, strawberry, passionfruit, lychee, orange, lime and tamarindo.
They’re incredibly refreshing and you’re sure to find yourself reaching for a fruit juice every day on your Costa Rica trip. Best of all, you can find them at street stalls on the side of the road almost everywhere.
Café (coffee) is serious business in Costa Rica and you’ll only find the highest quality coffee beans here. Even the most simple bars and cafes have an espresso machine, and you’ll always get fresh coffee made with beans from small farms around the country.
Many locals love to drink café negro, a small mug of coffee without milk or sugar, while others go for café con leche, coffee with a bit of milk and sugar – but it’s nothing like a cappuccino!
There are a few classic drinks that you’ve got to try if you want to drink like the locals in Costa Rica. Chili guaro is a famous shot that tastes like a mild Bloody Mary, while Miguelito is another delicious shot that tastes like a strong pina colada.
If you want to try the national liquor of Costa Rica, order a guaro sour, a traditional cocktail made with guaro, club soda, lime and raw sugar.
Tips for eating like a local in Costa Rica
If you want to get a real local dining experience, head to a soda, a traditional and budget-friendly Costa Rican restaurant. Most towns have a few sodas and each one is slightly different, with some having a menu while others have a buffet set-up. Wherever you go, you’ll get a taste of delicious and authentic Costa Rican food. Be sure to try the chilera, the pickled vegetables in a jar on your table.
If you’re after a snack or smaller meal, visit the local cantinas. You’ll find authentic favourites like chicharrones, patacones (twice-fried plantain), and chifrijo (a bowl of fried pork, rice, beans and tortillas). Dining in a cantina will also give you that true insight into the Costa Rican way of life, and you’ll always come away with a full stomach and a smile.
You can also grab quick snacks from bakeries and street vendors. They sell all kinds of local Costa Rican foods from empanadas to cups of ceviche and takeaway casados. The bakeries are also the perfect place to take a coffee break and indulge in a rich cup of café and a pastry.
If you want to try some of the local fruit and vegetables, be sure to stop by the farmer’s market. You’ll find some of the freshest and most delicious produce in the country.
Have you ever tried Costa Rican food? What are your favourite Costa Rican dishes? Let us know in the comments below!