A BIG PART of breaking out of your routine and experiencing someplace new is exploring the local cuisine. In the case of Costa Rica, you can’t really go wrong — but here are some extra special items to keep an eye out for.
Composed of whatever the cook can “run down,” rondon dates back to earlier times of subsistence diets in the Caribbean. Though the only thing consistent is that it changes, there are a few fundamentals to this spicy coconut soup.
Typically, you’ll find a fish head and assorted catches of the day, along with a variety of tubers like sweet potatoes and yucca, simmered in coconut milk for hours over an open wood flame that imparts a smoky depth. Toss in a couple Panamanian chilies for that signature lip singe, and there you have it — rondon. Hands down, this is my favorite Costa Rican dish.
Wherever you are in Costa Rica, you’ll see standalone kiosks dedicated to juicing tropical fruits. Climb on a stool — if you can find an empty one — and take your pick. Mango, pineapple, blackberry, melon, and banana are the usual favorites, though watch out for seasonal offerings like my personal go-to, cas (sour green mango), or horchata (rice, cinnamon, and milk). These delicious beverages also go by the name refrescos.
3. Cacao fresco
When cacao pods ripen, they look like little yellow footballs. Crack them open and you can eat the tender white flesh encasing the cacao beans (from which you get cocoa powder when twice roasted and ground). The fruit’s sweet and tangy taste will give you a whole new outlook on what you thought chocolate was.
Costa Rica has several cacao farms, where you can take tours to learn about the product’s cultural importance in indigenous communities, as well as chocolate’s role in the nation’s history. Try the southern Caribbean — there you’ll find everything from plantation tours to chocolate museums, cooperatives, and local chocolate artisans. On your way through the coastal towns, keep your eyes peeled for roadside stands selling homemade cocoa butter.
A typical Costa Rican side dish, you’ll see picadillo accompany many meals, most notably the casados (see below). Picadillos are diced vegetables, a common one being the chayote squash, that are parboiled and then fried with onions, carrots, garlic, and sometimes a little ground meat. Though versions vary, ask any Tico and they’ll tell you their mom makes the best.
5. Gallo pinto
You can’t set foot in the country without encountering the Costa Rican take on rice and beans. Local lore points to its origin in the tiny town of San Sebastían, where long ago a local resident, Don Bernabe, boasted widely of his prized gallo pinto (spotted hen), which he was saving for the town’s Christmas celebrations. Small-town gossip spread and grew to daunting proportions when Don Bernabe unexpectedly received a crowd of townsfolk eager to try his spotted hen. Being the quick thinker that he was, Don Bernabe decided to pay homage to the appearance of his gallo pinto by frying up copious amounts of white rice and black beans so that everyone had something to eat.
The true Costa Rican twist? A few dashes of Salsa Lizano, the ubiquitous national sauce that’s tangy and smoky with a hint of cumin.
6. Rice ‘n’ beans
Wait, didn’t we just cover this? NO! And you’ll be met with an equal measure of admonition if you call it gallo pinto to someone who grew up with limonense cuisine (from Limón, on the Caribbean coast). This difference exemplifies Costa Rica’s cultural diversity within its own borders. What sets this particular dish apart from gallo pinto is that it incorporates coconut milk, red beans, thyme, and spicy Panamanian chilies.