Ricky and I have been vegetarians for years. I’d love to say that I’m a vegan, but that would be pushing it. I’ve settled for being what I like to call a “vee-ga-tarian” – a half-vegetarian, half-vegan. I no longer consciously prepare and consume meals using products (mainly dairy) that come from animals, however I am still in the process of training my mind to acknowledge and remove all animal-related products from my lifestyle. This means that I am working through the challenges of understanding which food, beauty, and additional life management items either contain animal by-products or have been tested on animals, and I am incorporating my findings into what I consider to be a lifestyle shift from vegetarianism to veganism. Baby steps, I suppose, but as long as they move me in the direction I have chosen to follow, I’m content.
Given that many people around the globe have taken on (or have already underwent) a similar transition, we regularly receive inquiries from travellers regarding opportunities for vegetarian and vegan dining in Costa Rica (for this reason, our team at Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated helps travellers custom design Costa Rica vacations to fit vegetarian and/or vegan dining preferences). Fortunately, Costa Rican cuisine can quite easily accommodate a vegetarian diet. Vegan diets however, face a number of challenges. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan traveller planning to visit Costa Rica, here’s what you need to know.
In general (for all diners – vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike), Costa Rican food is simple and repetitive. The majority of restaurants (with the exception of those catering to worldly cuisines including American and European tastes) offer the same staple dishes. If you’ve travelled to Costa Rica before, you’ve likely already tried these staple dishes (time and time again!) and you know that rice and beans is present with each. Prepared as a rice and beans medley in the morning (called ‘gallo pinto’) and served separately on the plate during lunch and dinner (called ‘casado’), Costa Ricans are accustomed to consuming grains and proteins at multiple times throughout the day. If you’re a fan of rice and beans (served together or separately), you’re in luck as you will be able to access these vegetarian/vegan food choices at any local restaurant in the country at any time of the day.
Starting off the day in Costa Rica is easy. Gallo pinto is a perfectly vegetarian/vegan meal consisting of a rice and beans mix, typically prepared with oil, salt, cilantro, and a hint of Costa Rica’s own Salsa Lizano (prepared with water, sugar, salt, onions, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, spices, pepper, mustard, and turmeric). Not only delicious, the meal is jam-packed with the protein vegetarians/vegans need to have the energy to explore the beautiful country. When ordering, question what the restaurant (or hotel) will serve as a side dish. Gallo pinto is sometimes served with a side of eggs (appropriate for vegetarians, however a big no-no amongst vegans), although this can often be substituted for toast or a bowl of fresh fruit. For lunch and/or dinner, try casado. Most restaurants will provide at least one or two vegetarian ‘add-on’ options (unfortunately and as mentioned above, these can get a bit repetitive). Casado with chicken, beef, pork, fish, or vegetables are the most common five dishes. With either the fish or vegetable selection you will receive a plate of rice and beans at the side of either a fish fillet or a mixture of cooked vegetables. In addition, most menus will also offer a variety of rice dish options typically displayed as “rice with “X”. Similar to casado dishes, diners can select chicken, beef, pork, fish, or vegetables (with these dishes, the meat, fish, or vegetable selection is cut up and mixed in with the rice – similar to an oriental fried rice dish). As with our gallo pinto side dish warning above, ask what the restaurant (or hotel) will serve as a side dish. This is sometimes a prepared side salad (which may or may not be vegetarian or vegan) or else a potato or yucca puree (which is vegetarian, but typically not vegan as the puree regularly contains milk). If you explain to the restaurant staff that you are a vegetarian/vegan, they should be able to substitute any non-vegetarian/vegan side dish for a green salad, half an avocado, additional vegetables, or another appropriate alternative.
When Ricky and I dine out, we tend to stick to the basics and order rice with vegetables or casado vegetariano (vegetarian casado). If all else fails or we are in the mood for something different, we order a vegetarian pizza (ask for a pizza to be prepared without meat if a vegetarian pizza option is not included on the menu). Unfortunately, given that vegan products have not yet made their way to all supermarket shelves in Costa Rica, vegan cheese is hard to come by. For this reason, the majority of restaurants that offer vegetarian pizza options do not have vegan cheese on-hand and therefore cannot offer a vegan pizza option (unless you opt to skip the cheese altogether).
Similarly, given that vegetarian/vegan eating is not nearly as popular in Costa Rica as it is elsewhere in the world, the handy meat and dairy substitutes that vegetarians/vegans in other countries rely on are not readily available in Costa Rica (at least they have not yet made their way into most restaurants’ kitchens). This means that dining options are generally limited to the foods and beverages that naturally do not contain animal products since substitute products are rarely used. Faux-meat products are as hard to come by in Costa Rica as a needle in a haystack, so instead of assuming that there will be access to these alternatives while on vacation, travellers should expect primarily grain and plant-based meal offerings instead. Fortunately, over the past few years products friendly to vegetarian/vegan diets such as quinoa, powdered soy milk, and liquid rice milk have begun popping up in stores here and there, so if you settle on a hotel with an in-room kitchenette and are looking to prepare the majority of your own meals abroad, there are a handful of options to provide you with at least some vegetarian/vegan product variety.
-Fresh fruit is always a good choice. Local and delicious, as well as 100% vegetarian and vegan (try some watermelon – great for iron!). Fresh fruit also makes for some great juice smoothies. Vegans, try a mixing of your favourite fruit with water (we recommend the strawberry water!). Vegetarians, try the same or else mix the fruit with milk for a creamier taste (we recommend the pineapple milk!).
-Nuts are always a great way to pack on the protein (and zinc or omega-3′s, depending on the nuts you choose!) when you need an energy boost. Unfortunately, nuts (including peanut butter) are incredibly expensive in Costa Rica, however they are readily available at local supermarkets.
-Enjoy raw vegetables? Pick-up carrots, broccoli (great for calcium!), cauliflower, or other vegetables at a local supermarket to cut/break into small pieces for snacking on at the hotel or during city-to-city transportation services.
-Think whole grain? Sadly, think again. We recommend that travellers purchase whole grain products whenever they can find them in Costa Rica. Only in the past year or so have we been able to purchase whole wheat bread of a healthier sort than regular white bread at the supermarket. Remember ten years ago when most carb-loaded products were not available in multigrain, whole wheat, whole grain, or spinach varieties? Well, that’s still the case throughout most of Costa Rica (health stores excluded). Most crackers, cereals, and pastas (although widely available and great vegetarian/vegan options) are offered in their ‘enriched white’ state, making it more difficult for vegetarians and vegans to incorporate healthier grains into their vacation diet.
-Be prepared to explain that you are a vegetarian. If vegan, be prepared to go one step further and explain what this means in detail – declaring what you will and will not eat. As the vegan-train hasn’t rolled into Costa Rica at full speed as of yet, not everyone is familiar with the terminology, concept, and ‘rules’, let alone the difference between vegetarianism and veganism.
-If you plan to visit a popular area of Costa Rica, seek out vegetarian and/or vegan-friendly restaurants. The country is not booming with them but they do exist, and although a variety of vegetarian/vegan menu options is not yet offered at all restaurants, there are speciality restaurants and hotels that cater to these specific dietary choices.
SAMPLE TRIP MENU FOR VEGETARIANS & VEGANS
- Gallo Pinto (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Toast (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Fresh Fruit (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Eggs (great for vegetarians)
- Pancakes/French Toast (great for vegetarians)
Lunch or Dinner
- Vegetarian Casado (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Rice with Vegetables (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Vegetarian Sandwich (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Green Salad (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Vegetarian Pizza (great for vegetarians)
- Fish Casado (great for vegetarians)
- Rice with Fish (great for vegetarians)
- Ceviche / Fish Soup (great for vegetarians)
- Fried Plantain (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Arroz Con Leche / Rice Pudding (great for vegetarians)
- Tres Leches / Three Milk Cake (great for vegetarians)
- Flan de Coco / Coconut Flan (great for vegetarians)
- Ice Cream (great for vegetarians)
- Standard Beverages such as Water, Sodas, and Coffee without Milk/Cream (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Fresh Fruit Juice/Smoothies made with Water (great for vegetarians and vegans)
- Coffee with Milk/Cream (great for vegetarians)
- Fresh Fruit Juice/Smoothies made with Milk (great for vegetarians)
Note: the above vegan-friendly options assume that the food is not prepared with butter. To be sure, verify this with the restaurant or hotel staff.
To best assist you throughout your Costa Rica dining adventures, use the following English -> Spanish guide to help you discuss menu options with restaurant and/or hotel staff (if their English is limited):
- I am a vegetarian -> Soy vegetariano/a
- I am a vegan -> Soy vegan
(there is no word for ‘vegan’ in Spanish – vegetarian is commonly used, however to distinguish between vegetarian and vegan you can simply use the word ‘vegan’)
- I do not eat meat -> Yo no como carne
- I do not eat fish -> Yo no como pescado
- I do not eat eggs -> Yo no como huevos
- Is there milk? -> ¿Hay leche?
- Is there butter? -> ¿Hay mantequilla?
- Is there meat? -> ¿Hay carne?
Have another phrase that you need help translating? No problem! Send it to us at email@example.com and we can send you the information you need.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: What are your biggest concerns/challenges when travelling on a vegetarian/vegan diet?