When studying in Costa Rica, I had the privilege of living with a host family, which meant I ate better in Costa Rican then in the entire rest of my college experience.
Each morning, my host mom would make a delicious breakfast, and I’d spend all day dreaming about what she would make for dinner. When eating out, at sodas (restaurants) I’d always try something new, and I was never disappointed!
History and controversy surround some of the most popular dishes in Costa Rica, but the bottom line is this: the simple assembly of flavors and the hearty meals, prepared for the hard-working farmers of the past, make mealtime enjoyable. Costa Ricans, affectionately called Ticans, love to invite you into their homes, prepare a meal, and enjoy it!
If you decide to study abroad in Costa Rica, which I highly recommend, here are some of the top Costa Rican foods and drinks to try.
The Costa Rican version of rice and beans is quite possibly the best reason to study abroad… (okay, third to your education and the chance to experience a new culture!). My favorite meal was this super simple breakfast my Tican mom made, gallo pinto, plantains, and avocados!
This mixture of rice, beans, and veggies is perfect all day long but is usually enjoyed at breakfast. Gallo pinto is paired with eggs, toast (or tortillas), fried plantains with salt, sausage, and sour cream (natilla). With a rich and simple cup of Costa Rican coffee (also on this list), there can be no argument that this is the best meal of the day.
When looking for an appetizer, or snacking at the bar while drinking an Imperial, the chifrijo is the dish to try. Similar to nachos, this dish has rice, black beans, fried pork and pico de gallo. You’ll also find Costa Rican avocados close by, and it’s served with tortilla chips. It’s perfect as a snack or a full meal, and really screams authentic Costa Rican food.
While rice and beans are a staple in most Central American countries, the Costa Ricans really take it up a notch. Casado is essentially a plate of a little bit of everything. White rice, black beans, vegetable, plantains and a protein are all included on this plate, but the details vary.
The variety of this dish comes in the choice of vegetable, often more like a cole slaw, and the protein, which could be chicken, fish, or pork. When you’re in a traditional restaurant, you’ll also find a fried egg on your casado.
Like most Central American countries, Costa Rica also has an empanada to be proud of. This is a great snack or lunch to have while exploring, as it’s easy to eat on the go. I remember trying these while exploring the markets in San Jose, they were so yummy.
You can order them plain, or stuffed with cabbage. They’re inexpensive, usually around $1 from small, family restaurants. Food, in general costs more closer to the tourist attractions. Empanadas are incredibly tasty and very filling, but they definitely aren’t the healthiest choice!
Crème de Pejibaye
Even when it’s not cold outside, one can appreciate a quality soup. If you want to warm up and see Crème de Pejibaye on the menu while taking a break from studying, be sure to order it!
The Pejibaye, a peach palm, is native to Central America and resembles a coconut. The inside of this fruit is soft and grainy, and tastes more like a sweet potato. The Crema de Pejibaye is a rich, creamy soup that is full of nutrients.
While Americans tend to think of pancakes as a breakfast food, chorredas are the Costa Rican interpretation. These corn pancakes are often paired with coffee for an afternoon snack. Chorredas are excellent when topped with honey, and some even prefer to add cheese to the mix for a more savory flavor. Another perfect snack during a study break!
Arroz con Leche
Yet another great option for an afternoon snack is arroz con leche, a sweet rice dessert. This is one of the most popular and traditional recipes in Costa Rica. It’s so very yummy, and the cinnamon makes it uniquely Costa Rican. My host mom would whip these up for a special snack on those stressful test days, or the days I was feeling homesick.
You will often see fruit vendors in towns around in whichever city you’re studying abroad in Costa Rica, which makes for a perfect snack on a hot afternoon.
Rambutan and cantaloupes are inexpensive and easy to find in season, as well as mammon chino, tamarindo, cas, jocotes, and noni. The weather makes it easy to grow tropical fruit. Fruit smoothies are also very popular, and you can add chia seeds (chan) and almond (horchata).
Costa Rican Coffee
No list of must-try foods and drinks in Costa Rica would be complete without coffee! Costa Rican coffee is one of the best parts about studying here, since you’ll always want more coffee!
Costa Rican coffee is high quality, yet simple. Cafes are not as popular in Costa Rica and most places serve drip coffee only. But there is plenty to enjoy about mainstream Tican coffee, and after a few sips you’ll see why it tops the charts as some of the best in the world. Check out the coffee made in the Central Valley region on plantations, and taste the differences in blends.
Many students use their semester abroad as a chance to try new things. As the national liquor of Costa Rica, you may want to give guaro a shot -- but I recommend you don’t actually take it straight.
Guaro is sweet, as it is derived from sugarcane, and it is powerful. Generally served with a large slice of salted lime when straight, I’d recommend trying it as a Guaro Sour, where it is cut with some lime juice. It packs a punch, so be careful!
Whether you are enjoying a meal at a restaurant or grabbing an empanada from a street vendor, your taste buds will never be the same after eating your way through this list while studying abroad in Costa Rica.