Vegetarian And Vegan Dining In Costa Rica

UPDATED: 2017

Note: Under the “vegetarian” umbrella, we include fish as a possible meal option with the purpose of appealing to “pescatarians”. Although we are aware of the fact that vegetarians (Nikki included) do not consume fish, pescatarians (like Ricky) do. For this reason, although the post below aims to provide meal suggestions for vegetarian and vegan travellers, the occasional mention of fish is offered with pescatarians in mind. Pura vida! 🙂

Homemade Vegetarian Meal... mmmmmmm!

Homemade Vegetarian Meal… mmmmmmm!

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.

Interested in combing a vacation to Costa Rica with culinary classes in veganism? Check out Vegan Gastronomy’s Costa Rica School for class information!

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 their diet preferences – if you are a gluten-free traveller, our related blog post Gluten-Free Dining In Costa Rica can help you too!). 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.

Fresh Fruit Plate

Fresh Fruit Plate

DINING OUT

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.

For unique, vegetarian, Indian cuisine, check out Sol y Tierra in San Jose (3 Rd Avenue, 50 meters west of the Delta Gas Station). The wheat is milled on-site and their organic-filled/whole-wheat flour samosas/sauce are available at the Feria Verde Market (Tuesdays and Saturdays).

Morning meals in Costa Rica are 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 among vegans), although this can often be substituted for toast or a bowl of fresh fruit, as well as a fried plantain and/or a tortilla. 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, with the end product resembling oriental fried rice). As suggested with our gallo pinto side dish warning above, ask what the restaurant (or hotel) will serve as a side. 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.

Gallo Pinto Breakfast Plate

Gallo Pinto Breakfast Plate

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 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.

Pineapple Milk & Strawberry Water

Pineapple Milk & Strawberry Water

GENERAL TIPS

-Fresh fruit is always a good choice. It is 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 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. Hummus (an option for vegetarians and vegans, unless you find a product comprised of more than its usual chickpeas/garbanzo beans, tahini, olive oil, lemon, and salt ingredients) makes a great vegetable dip!

-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 specialty restaurants and hotels that cater to these specific dietary choices.

Banana Pancakes & Fruit Bowl

Banana Pancakes & Fruit Bowl

SAMPLE TRIP MENU FOR VEGETARIAN & VEGAN TRAVELLERS

Breakfast

  • 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 pescatarians)
  • Rice with Fish (great for pescatarians)
  • Ceviche / Fish Soup (great for pescatarians)

Dessert

  • 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)

Beverages

  • 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.

Homemade Nachos

Homemade Nachos

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 your questions to us at questions@puravidaeh.ca and we can answer them for you.

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: What are your biggest concerns/challenges when travelling on a vegetarian/vegan diet?

Pura vida!

38 responses to “Vegetarian And Vegan Dining In Costa Rica

  1. Thank you for your blog. Very helpful and greatly appreciated. I was a bit confused by this last bit, though…

    “Fish Casado (great for vegetarians)
    Rice with Fish (great for vegetarians)
    Ceviche / Fish Soup (great for vegetarians)”.

    Here is a definition of vegetarian by the Vegetarian Society:
    https://www.vegsoc.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=508

    For future reference, may I share that vegetarians don’t eat fish. (People who eat fish but no other animals are called Pescetarians).

    All the best with your transition! I agree – baby steps are best. That’s how I got there in the end!

    • foodforsuperheroes –

      Thanks so much for your comment and support–baby steps it is! 🙂

      My apologies for any confusion–we have a had a few different people comment on the same regarding our Vegan/Vegetarian blog post, so I will add a special note about it at the top of that article for clarification purposes. 🙂 To confirm, that blog post started out as a post for vegans and vegetarians only (I am a vegetarian), however Ricky–who is a pescatarian (i.e., he consumes fish)–thought it would be good to include options for travellers sharing his dining preference. You are correct, however–vegetarians themselves (like me!) do not eat fish. To avoid any doubt on the part of future readers (and to clarify our intent and perspective when writing our past post with such readers), I’ll add a note to our Vegetarian And Vegan Dining In Costa Rica blog post now.

      Pura vida!

  2. How about chicken or beef broth in their rice/ beans/ veg dishes?

    Thanks.

    • Nu –
      Another great question! Meat broth is not typically used (water, oil, and spices are), but of course this would be a good question to ask if/when you plan to dine out. Any chef could opt to create their own recipe using uncommon (non-vegetarian and/or non-vegan) ingredients at anytime, so double-checking the ingredients at each restaurant you visit (even from day to day or night to night if you re-visit an establishment that employs more than one head chef) would be best.
      Pura vida! 😊

    • Nu –
      Thank you for your comment! 😊 As a rule, no. Bean dishes are typically prepared from raw beans (as opposed to canned beans) and cooked with salt, garlic, pepper, and other spices for additional flavouring. Butter would be the biggest challenge facing vegans with respect to vegetable dishes, as vegetables are often drenched in it. Rice, served often with beans (ie. as gallo pinto or casado) or accompanying vegetables (ie. as arroz con vegetales) is almost always prepared with oil.
      Pura vida!

  3. Loved your post, but perhaps rethink the suggestion for flan. Most flan is made with gelatin-unless maybe in CR flan is made differently. Thanks!!

    • kindra –
      Such a great comment! I am proud to say that I don’t make flan with gelatin here. I am not sure if everyone else avoids it, but I learned from my Costa Rican mother-in-law and she uses eggs, milk, coconut milk, evaporated milk, sugar, shredded coconut, and condensed milk. I try to eliminate as much sugar as possible from my day-to-day life so I only make flan once or twice a year given its high sugar content (if that – only for special occasions as my husband LOVES it!). Fingers crossed that most others here use a similar basic recipe too, or if not, at least another non-gelatin variety of it. 🙂
      Pura vida!

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  5. Hi! So glad to hear that CR accommodates vegetarians. I was wondering if you could send me some local “hole in the wall” restaurants that have awesome reviews as well as fun bakeries and patisseries to check out while we are there. The foodie in me thanxs you so so much! 🙂

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  9. Thanks for the post! This really helped put my vegetarian mom’s mind at ease while planning our trip. We were very happy to find so many yummy veggie dishes available. Veggie Casados were the best – well balanced, nutritious and delicious.

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  12. Hi there!

    Are there any vegetarian restaurants that you recommend for us to try? We are vegetarians as well!

    • Rakhee Patel –
      Absolutely! Whereabouts do you plan to visit in Costa Rica (ie. which towns/areas)?
      Pura vida!

  13. Interesting read. Please review the lunch menu options as vegetarians do not eat fish.

  14. My wife and I too are living the meatless life in Costa Rica. The gallo pinto is treating us well, and we are keeping a running record of our favorites… blackbeansnrice.wordpress.com/black-beans-and-rice

  15. Great post, Photos are great, I’m not a vegetarian but I think those foods looks really yummy… 🙂

    • Marian –
      That is a great comment! Vegetarian foods are in no way limited to vegetarians – plenty of meat-eaters find meatless dishes tasty, and vegetarian Costa Rican cuisine is no exception. The staples you see in the photos (ie. rice, beans, fruits, vegetables, eggs, and tortillas) are just some of the delicious items that make up Costa Rican staple meals, served to meat and non-meat-eaters alike on a daily basis! 🙂
      Pura vida!

  16. Whole wheat products are readily available at the Auto Mercado, as are gluten free products. Price Smart have some also, but not as varied.

  17. Great photos! I’m living on the southern Pacific coast of CR now, and just began a gluten free diet. It’s easy with the bevy of fresh fruits and vegetables readily available!

    • lybsta –
      Great to hear it! Whereabouts are you located along the southern pacific coast? We 100% agree – the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables makes healthy eating (vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free) easy – there’s no more excuses NOT to eat healthy anymore! 😉 We look forward to following “La Adventura” with you.
      Pura vida!

    • womanseyeview –
      So true! Costa Rica is definitely progressing in the healthy eating field. At a slower pace than their North American neighbours, however so long as progress is made in the right direction we’re all for it! 🙂
      Pura vida!

    • reversecommuter –
      Thanks so much for the comment (and compliment!)! Are you a Canadian and/or have connections to Canada? Usually Canadian’s pick-up on the ‘eh’ right away. 😉
      Pura vida!

        • reversecommuter –
          Your comment made us smile! Fellow Canadians always spot the “eh” first. All the best to you in the Boston burbs! 🙂
          Pura vida!

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