How to eat in Costa Rica on a backpackers budget

Costa Rica is a strange country. The wages are low (think $2-3 an hour) but the cost of living is comparable to the US in terms of grocery shopping, rent and activities. And we are all looking for ways to make our budget go a little further! So, what is the best way to save money travelling in Costa Rica?

For me, I found a huge expense was food. Admittedly I struggled with the exchange rate when I first arrived, and spent a night spending $14 a pint on Guiness for several rounds, but even with my woefully poor maths skills- it costs a lot to eat the same diet as you would at home here. That doesn’t mean that you can’t eat well though! Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way.

Give up on cheese

No, seriously. You’ll either end up paying $10 a block for some mediocre Feta, or you’ll pay the (still very over-priced) $4 a block for the bland, mushy local cheese. Just don’t bother. If you must, buy a shaker of ready greated Parmesan (around $5) that will at least give you some flavour and last a decent amount of time.

In fact, pretty much eat vegetarian

Meat is another expensive item. And you won’t find any decent beef. Costa Rica is not a country that is well-suited to cattle farming. Stick to things like tinned tuna, mince etc etc- that mix well in recipes, but you wouldn’t necessarily eat on their own. 

Eat lots of fruit and veggies

Don’t be put off- it’s not all doom and gloom! Fruits and veggies are abundant, cheap and delicious here. A typical breakfast is a smoothie of fresh local fruits, and most places you stay will offer a blender to cater to that. So head down to the market, pick up some fresh pineapple, watermelon and papaya, and blend away. A lot of the time, they’ll be so juicy you won’t even need to add water.

Pasta is your friend

I made a lot of pasta and sauce- with the fantastic local veg obviously. Another favourite was scrambled egg with avocado and plaintain. If that combination sounds unfamiliar, don’t worry- speak to a few locals, and you’ll soon get ideas for local recipes and snacks to make.

Gallo Pinto for breakfast

Gallo Pinto is the name for a traditional Costa Rican breakfast- literally rice and beans, but every family and restaurant will have their own twist on it. Served with a choice of eggs, fish, chicken and more. Delicious.

Casados are always a good idea

A ‘casado’ literally means a plate in Spanish. So what is a casado? Every ‘soda’ or cafe you go in will offer one. A casado is a plate of local food, usally with a choice of meat or veggie. It will have rice and beans (the Costa Rican classic ‘Gallo Pinto’), vegetables, sometimes pasta, sometimes chips- but every place will do it differently! This is a must eat to get a taste of what the locals are into.

Visit local favourites, not TripAdvisor’s number 1

This is a big one for me. A lot of the time, I will walk past the place with the nicest sign and flashest decor, and go to a little hole-in-the-wall joint that doesn’t look like much, but is teeming with locals. This is a sign that the food is cheap (awesome!) and yummy (even better!). Plus these are really good places for meeting people and finding out the best things to do in the area- managing to avoid paying for overpriced tours. 

Interestingly, eating out here is often the same price or cheaper as going to the grocery store and cooking for yourself. What better excuse to treat yo’self?!


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