The Best Traditional Foods to Try in Costa Rica

Costa Rican Cuisine: 14 Must-Try Foods and Where to Eat Them

Ask someone what the typical food is in Costa Rica and most of the time you’ll get a shrug. While this spectacular country is well-known for its enigmatic cloud forests, fascinating wildlife, and sprawling coffee plantations, not everyone is aware of the delicious and complex dishes that can be found throughout Costa Rica.

One of the reasons Costa Rican cuisine can be tricky to define is because pretty much anything and everything grows here. The diverse landscape covers everything from tropical jungles and abundant farmland to the Caribbean Sea and lofty mountain plantations. Having such a fantastic variety of places to grow and catch food means there are almost no limits when it comes to how creative you can get with the cuisine. 

Rice and beans are two of the most common ingredients throughout Costa Rica that appear in almost every dish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But there are plenty more exciting elements, too. Rondón (a rich coconut and seafood stew), picadillo (vegetable hash with extras like papaya and chorizo), and ceviche (often made with fresh blood clams) are common dishes you’ll find all over the country. 

With so many tempting dishes to devour and restaurants to visit, you may not know where to begin. To help you out, we’ve put together a list of the absolute best traditional Costa Rican foods and the top places to try them. Add these amazing Costa Rican dishes to your foodie bucket list, and you’re guaranteed to have a fantastic time eating your way through Pura Vida country! 

14 Popular Foods in Costa Rica you Have to Try!

1. Start Your Day with Gallo Pinto

Unique Foods to Try in Costa Rica: Gallo Pinto

Gallo pinto is one of the first dishes you’ll come across in Costa Rica. It’s a regional variation of white rice and black beans commonly served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. To liven up the flavors a little, the rice and beans are lightly seasoned with onions, bell peppers, and cilantro. The result is a hearty and subtle-tasting side dish that works with practically everything.

Gallo pinto translates into English as “spotted rooster” because the black beans are said to look like spots against the white rice that acts as chicken feathers. This staple of Costa Rican cuisine is often served with eggs for breakfast and meat or fish for lunch and dinner. But depending on where you are in the country, you’ll sometimes also find plant-based alternatives, with a selection of stewed vegetables to accompany it. 

Classic Dishes to Try in Costa Rica: Gallo Pinto

“Sodas” are the best places to try gallo pinto. A soda is a type of cheap, casual restaurant that serves typical Costa Rican food. But for something a little more special, try it from Sheriff Rustic at Playa Sámara. This simple restaurant boasts a spectacular coastal location and serves gallo pinto all day.

2. Compare Mexican and Costa Rican Tamales

Best Foods to Try in Costa Rica: Tamales

You’ve almost certainly had Mexican tamales at some point in your life. But have you ever tried Costa Rican tamales? They look pretty similar from the outside, but when you dig in, you’ll find that the flavors are totally different.

Traditionally, Tico families get together in the run-up to Christmas and make one of the most popular Christmas dishes – tamales. But because they’re loved so much throughout the country, this delicious dish is commonly available throughout the year at all kinds of establishments.

Must-try Foods to Try in Costa Rica: Tamales

What makes Costa Rican tamales different from their Mexican counterparts is the ingredients. In Costa Rica, they’re stuffed with stewed meat (typically chicken, beef, or pork), along with white rice and carrots. Another thing that sets them apart is how they’re cooked. The ingredients are wrapped in corn dough and then steamed in a banana leaf – not a corn husk. 

Sabor Tico in Santa Elena (Monteverde) serves up incredible tamales. They’re loaded with whatever meat you choose and are incredibly filling. The rest of the menu is made up of other traditional Costa Rican dishes that are just as tasty and satisfying. 

3. Fill Up on Casado

Local foods to Try in Costa Rica: Casado

It’s impossible to visit Costa Rica without trying casado. You’ll find this authentic Costa Rican dish available for lunch and dinner all over the place, from family-run sodas to fine-dining restaurants. The name translates into English as “marriage” because the ingredients are said to go so well together.

The ingredients in casado often differ depending on the establishment, the season, and the option you choose. It starts with a protein which can be anything from a pork chop or fried chicken to stewed beef or grilled fish. It’s accompanied by white rice and black beans (or gallo pinto), a basic salad, and fried plantains. Some places make it more interesting by adding a fried egg, corn tortillas, tortilla chips, or slices of avocado. 

Soda Viquez in La Fortuna is one of the best places in all of Costa Rica for casado. This super-friendly spot is always spilling over with locals and visitors who descend on the place for the chance to dig into the classic dish. The portions are absolutely huge and include extra seasonal veggies and crispy tortilla chips. Order a fresh fruit smoothie to go with it and you’ve got an amazing lunch!

4. Grab a Pati to Go

Best Foods to Try in Costa Rica: Pati

A pati in Costa Rica is similar to a beef patty in Jamaica, but it’s got a little extra spice. A local type of chili (usually ají chombo or panameño) is added for a delicious kick that really packs a punch. 

In Costa Rica, a pati is an excellent on-the-go snack you can grab from all over the place, such as grocery stores, bakeries, cafes, and sodas. You’ll even spot women throughout the cities and towns selling homemade patties that they made themselves that very morning. 

As well as chili, a Costa Rican pati is also stuffed with beef, onion, potato, and a special spice mixture that differs from place to place. The filling is encased in a dough made of wheat flour or cornmeal, which is then deep-fried until wonderfully crispy and golden brown. There’s nothing like biting through the crunchy exterior to reveal the soft, flavor-packed filling! 

Soda El Patty in Puerto Limón has amazing patties. This casual dining spot is located just steps away from the ocean and serves patties that are absolutely bursting with filling. The pastry is amazingly crispy and the flavor is fantastic. 

5. Snack on Chifrijo

Must-try Foods to Try in Costa Rica: Chifrijo

When you’re hungry, but you’re not quite hungry enough for an entire meal, seek out a bar in Costa Rica that serves chifrijo. This strange-sounding dish is a mash-up of the two main ingredients that make it – chicharrones (pork rind) and frijoles (beans). It’s hugely popular throughout the country and is believed to have originated from the 1970s when Corder’s Bar in Tibás just outside San José dished it up for the very first time.

Chifrijo is made by mixing pork rinds and beans with rice and piling it high in a bowl. To add extra flavor and texture, additional ingredients such as tomatoes, avocados, and cholera (spicy pickled vegetables) are usually added. Typically, chifrijo is served with crunchy tortilla chips. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to nachos in Costa Rica!

La Ventanita in El Castillo is an epic place to try chifrijo. This stunning restaurant boasts spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano and Arenal Lake. If you manage to tear your eyes away from the panorama, you’ll discover a menu packed with international dishes, as well as a handful of local favorites. Avoid the regular nachos and order the chifrijo for a delicious experience you’ll definitely want to repeat.

6. Become Addicted to Sopa de Pejibaye

Costa Rica Foods to Try List: Sopa de Pejibaye

Want to try something you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else? Find a soda or restaurant that serves sopa de pejibaye (peach palm soup) and order yourself a bowl. This one-of-a-kind dish has been a staple throughout Latin America since the 16th century and tastes like a combination of tomato, corn, and sweet potato soup. 

Peach palms are almost unheard of outside Latin America. But in Costa Rica, you’ll find them readily available from street food sellers, farmers’ markets, and grocery stores. Before the vegetable can be eaten, it needs to be boiled in salt water for 1-3 hours. One of the most common ways to eat it is to slice the cooked fruit, dip it in mayonnaise, and dig right in! But you’ll rarely find peach palm served this way in restaurants. 

Restaurante Tierra Mia in La Fortuna is well known for serving some of the best sopa de pejibaye in the area. Here you’ll find an authentic Costa Rican menu, including one of the most vibrant and moreish peach palm soups you’ll ever have in your life. 

7. Get Tropical with Rondón

If you’re a fan of seafood, you’ve absolutely got to try rondón. This tropical delicacy is made by combining rich coconut milk with fresh seafood caught from the Caribbean Sea. The result is a light, yet rich, dish that will instantly make you feel like you’re on vacation.

Rondón doesn’t originate in Costa Rica – it was brought over to Central America by Jamaicans in the late 19th century. This dish isn’t available throughout the country, but if you find yourself in Puerto Limón or Cahuita, you won’t have to search far to find it. 

In these Afro-Costa Rican communities, rondón is often made of sea snails, conch, mussels, red snapper, or clams as the main protein, plus cassava, green plantains, and chilies. To make it a full meal, the dish often comes with a side of breadfruit and coconut rice. 

While it can be tricky to find rondón in many parts of Costa Rica, it’s not impossible. If you’re in San José, swing by Maxi’s by Ricky. This Caribbean-inspired restaurant serves up an amazing version of the seafood stew. Alternatively, head to Alma de Amón for a decadent vegan version lightly spiced with turmeric. 

8. Cool Off with Copo

Local foods to Try in Costa Rica: Copo

If the Costa Rican heat ever gets to be too much for you, find a street cart or kiosk that sells copos. Also known as granizados, these cooling treats are small cones of shaved ice topped with all kinds of weird and wonderful things – from marshmallows and fresh fruit to flavored syrups and condensed milk.

The unusually-named Churchill flavor is one of the most popular. This flavor was named after a man from Puntarenas who looked incredibly similar to Winston Churchill. He always ordered the same flavored copo – one with condensed milk and bright red kola syrup. The man ordered so many copos and was known by so many sellers that it wasn’t long before his flavor combo was named after him! 

It’s almost impossible to recommend the best place for copos in Costa Rica because they’re typically sold from pop-up kiosks and carts that move throughout the cities and towns. Whenever you see a place advertising them, it’s definitely worth trying one. 

9. Experience Pure Comfort with Olla de Carne

Classic Dishes to Try in Costa Rica: Olla de Carne

There are a lot of popular foods in Costa Rica that are lovingly prepared by the whole family and olla de carne is one of the best. This rich beef stew needs multiple family members to get involved because of the long cooking time and the massive amount of vegetables that go into making it.

This typical Costa Rican food is primarily made of short rib and various offcuts of beef which are slowly simmered for 4-8 hours with pretty much every vegetable the family can get their hands on. The most common vegetables include potatoes, yuca, carrots, chayote, plantains, and corn – but any vegetable works. Like most traditional Costa Rican dishes, olla de carne is served with rice and beans on the side. 

Olla de carne isn’t limited to family homes. You can find it in plenty of places throughout the country, from small sodas to big restaurants. Restaurante Rancho del Sapito in Turrialba dishes up an amazing version of the vegetable stew. This farm/restaurant serves huge portions of olla de carne with giant chunks of meat and vegetables. 

10. Indulge Your Sweet Tooth with Miel de Chiverre

When you’re in the mood for a sweet treat, you’ll find plenty of Latin American snacks and desserts throughout Costa Rica. But if you’re looking for something a little different than arroz con leche, tres leches cake, and flan, then you’ll need to find somewhere that sells miel de chiverre. 

This sweet and chunky paste is made from the chiverre vegetable (fig leaf gourd). When the vegetable is whole, it looks a little like a watermelon, but it has a surprisingly sweet and spaghetti-like flesh. When the insides are dried out and cooked with cinnamon and whole cane sugar, it transforms into a decadent and addictive dessert filling that’s so good you can eat it on its own.

Miel de chiverre is most commonly packed inside sweet empanadas, which are enjoyed as a snack or hearty dessert. La Santa Empanadería in Heredia serves all kinds of amazing empanadas – including dessert ones filled with miel de chiverre. You choose the ingredients you want to go inside from a huge selection, and the staff make the empanadas right in front of you! 

11. Eat Your Veggies with Picadillo

Unique Foods to Try in Costa Rica: Picadillo

Picadillo is a traditional food in Costa Rica that’s guaranteed to turn even the most stubborn veggie hater into an adoring fan. This comforting hash is made by taking whatever chopped vegetables are available and sautéing them in fat with stock, onions, and a unique blend of herbs and seasonings. 

Because picadillo can be made with any combination of vegetables, it’s often named according to the primary vegetable, such as picadillo de papa (potato) or picadillo de zapallo (squash). Some places get really creative and even include unusual ingredients like papaya. 

This typical Costa Rican food is often served with white rice and a protein, such as ground beef. To make it even more filling, some restaurants also serve it with tortillas, so you can make gallo – the Costa Rican version of tacos. 

Bahia Azul in Quepos is well-known for serving incredible variations of picadillo. The main ingredient changes depending on what is available that day, so if you don’t like the sound of the dish when you first go, try returning the next day. As well as picadillo, you’ll also find loads of fresh fish and seafood dishes, plus loaded rice plates which are similar to paella in Spain. 

12. Try a Fruit You’ve Never Heard of Before

Best Foods to Try in Costa Rica: Guanabana

Costa Rica boasts a handful of fruit and vegetables that can rarely be found outside Central America, and guanabana is one that you’ve got to try. Known in English as soursop, this unique tropical fruit is almost impossible to describe because biting into it tastes like eating an entire fruit basket in one go!

The flesh of a guanabana tastes like a combination of strawberry, mango, coconut, pineapple, and banana. There’s really no accurate way to describe it – you’ve got to try it for yourself. The texture is creamy and sticky at the same time, making it a great ingredient for ice cream and smoothies – although it’s typically eaten raw with your hands.

You’ll find the freshest and tastiest guanabanas from the farmers’ market in Tamarindo. Known as Tama Market, this fresh produce market takes place every Saturday morning opposite the beach. 

Here you’ll find everything from seasonal fruit and vegetables to baked goods and honey. With several stalls selling handicrafts and artisan jewelry, the Tamarindo farmers’ market is also an excellent place to pick up souvenirs.

13. Dig into Chorreadas for Breakfast

Local foods to Try in Costa Rica: Chorreadas

If you’re looking to try some traditional Costa Rican foods, pass on regular pancakes and treat yourself to a plate of chorreadas for breakfast. In Costa Rica, chorreadas are a type of pancake made from ground yellow or white corn that can be either sweet or savory. You’ll see locals digging into plates of them in the early morning in sodas up and down the country.

Originally, in pre-Columbian times, the corn would be ground by hand to make the pancakes. Although, it’s a lot more common to use a food processor or blender today. The ground corn is combined with flour and eggs to make a thick batter that’s fried like regular pancakes. When they’re served sweet, they’re drizzled with syrup or honey. The savory versions are usually topped with sour cream. 

El Cafe de Chumi in Cachi is a small, family-run cafe that has been serving delicious savory chorreadas for decades. This place is really quaint and has stunning views of the rainforest. If you’re still feeling hungry after your chorreadas, order one of their cheese and plantain empanadas – they’re incredible! 

14. Unleash Your Inner Foodie with Ceviche

Classic Dishes to Try in Costa Rica: Ceviche

Ceviche is hugely popular throughout Peru, but the Costa Rican version is a little different. In Peru, the fish is usually marinated in lime juice for just a few seconds, whereas in Costa Rica, the fish is typically left in the fridge to marinate for at least an hour. This creates a less raw-tasting fish with a more opaque color and more solid texture. 

While the main ingredient varies between restaurants, ceviche in Costa Rica is most often made with a firm white fish such as sea bass or peeled shrimp. When they’re in season, blood clams (known locally as chuchecas) are sometimes used instead. Whatever the main fish or seafood, Costa Rican ceviche is finished off with minced onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro. The result is an incredibly fresh and refreshing dish that makes a perfect light lunch. 

Café Liberia in Liberia is one of the finest places in all of Costa Rica for ceviche. This quirky, welcoming cafe dishes up gigantic portions of different variations of the dish with different kinds of fish and seafood. They also do an amazing seafood platter that differs depending on what was caught that very morning. 

There you have it! The 14 best foods to eat in Costa Rica. What are your favorite traditional Costa Rican dishes?

Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Check out our favorite books and travel guides!



  • Nicola Quinn

    Nicola is a freelance writer with an insatiable hunger for travel. She swapped her home in the UK for the sunny Canary Islands when she was just 11 and she has been based there ever since.

    From crawling on her hands and knees inside pyramids in Egypt to swimming with baby sharks in Bali and searching (fruitlessly!) for the Northern Lights in Iceland, Nicola takes every chance she gets to explore new places.

    The incredible experiences she has around the world fuels her writing and inspires her to plan even more adventures for the future.

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