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Costa Rica (Tico) Food – Traveling with IBS

My Experience with Food in Costa Rica

This is an important topic for me.  I have chronic stomach problems – Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  I’ve learned over the years how to deal with them and how to travel without getting sick – OK at least not sicker.  I can’t eat milk products and have to reduce food additives and fructose.  I also have to avoid certain foods altogether, and limit the amount of spices (even though I LOVE them).  Needless to say this was a concern when visiting Costa Rica for the first time.

In this post I will talk about my food experience in Costa Rica, including:

  • Typical Tico food
  • Drinks

It turns out that I need not have worried about my IBS while in Costa Rica.  I had to be food-conscious, as always, but I’m happy to report that I felt better during the week in Costa Rica, than I feel most days at home.

Here is why:

  • Costa Rica’s food is generally mild but flavorful.
    There are lots of spices used in cooking but typically the food is not spicy.  They are used to add and enhance flavor of the food – not to drown out flavor of what you’re eating.
  • Tico food does not overuse milk products.

    Cheese and milk are usually a problem when I travel (I’m lactose intolerant, which is quite common for folks with IBS).  It was very refreshing to order food and not have it piled with mounds of cheese like some other parts of the world.  In fact, when I asked if there was cheese in some of the dishes, I got kind of odd looks and a NO.

Costa Rican Food

  • Costa Rican dishes use mostly fresh ingredients like fresh fruits and vegetables.
    I loved this.  Fresh fruit and veggie stands are literally scattered around town on every other block.  A typical Tico meal always included a small salad.  The fruit is to-die-for!  Super flavorful and ripe – none of the pick green and sell later stuff.  Oh, and don’t even get me started on the fried plantains – amazing.
  • Rice and beans are staples of Costa Rica’s cuisine

    Rice is very IBS friendly; beans – mmm, it depends.  Many of the traditional Costa Rican meals include rice and beans.  A very common breakfast dish is Gallo Pinto: rice, beans, onion, and bell peppers all mixed together.  Yum.  Also, a typical lunch called casado includes rice and beans as a side to choice of meat or fish and a salad.  It’s not mixed in like in Gallo Pinto but it’s delicious nonetheless.

    • Most Costa Rican food is basic and organic. Update: it turns out that by most accounts food in Costa Rica is not organic but that is for another post….
      Butcher shops and small bakeries are common.  Fresh fish is available everywhere and it’s cheap!  I love fish!  And it usually loves me.  One night while sitting in a local Soda (Tico style tiny diner), we witnessed a truck full of freshly caught fish and seafood pull up and the fishermen making a deal with the owner\manager of the diner.  Now that’s fresh, caught the day it’s delivered!
    • Costa Rica is not plagued by water purification problems like many other Latin American countries.  Tim brushed his teeth with regular tap water; I was not quite so adventurous.  But we did drink ice in most of our drinks with no problems and tried local drink concoctions – a no-no in other countries we’ve visited.
    • Lizano Salsa

      better known as “crack in a bottle” – kidding, of course.
      Honestly, I don’t know what’s in that stuff but it sure is good.  AND it does not seem to bother my stomach.  They have different types of the salsas but I’ve only tried the stuff in the brown bottle.  If you want to try some for yourself, check out this started pack.

    • Ceviche.

      OK, I think this is one of my favorite dishes – ever.  I love, love, love ceviche.  If you don’t know what ceviche is, it is a raw fish and/or seafood dish marinated in lemon or lime with additional veggies and spices.    I’m Polish so of course by default, I love anything “pickled” and that’s essentially what ceviche tastes like – citrus pickled seafood.  There are cevicherias all over Costa Rica that serve freshly made ceviches – and I mean fresh.  I’ve even had ceviche for breakfast.  Yum!

    Drinks:

    • Coffee.

      Coffee is amazing in Costa Rica, especially the mountain varieties.  See my post on Costa Rica’s Coffee. It is normally served with breakfast and then later at mid-afternoon break.  Many of the coffee shops have these huge coffee machines – that look like a vending machine.  I was a little doubtful when I tried coffee out of one (given my experience with vending machines back home) but I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were deliciously brewed.

    • Costa Rican Food - frescosFrescos Naturales – or just frescos.

      These are blended fruit water/ice and sugar drinks.  They are delicious.  Yes, that is Tim in the picture trying to show just how much he liked them.  Once we tried these we were hooked.  We would go back every afternoon for 1-2 of these goodies.  Since I’ve been home I’ve tried making them but they just don’t taste the same.  I think the fresh, ripe fruit is the key.

    • Slush drinks.

      Finely shaved ice and syrup, refreshing on the beach.  Sometimes they are served with condensed evaporated milk on top but of course, I had to skip that.

    • Alcohol.

      Costa Rica’s liquor is Guaro and is quite inexpensive.  It is usually consumed as shots or with soda pop or juice.  Imperial and Pilsen are common beers made locally.  I enjoyed them both in moderation.  As most IBS sufferers would understand, alcohol for me is only an occasional treat.

    All in all, I was truly amazed how well my stomach fared in Costa Rica.  I know that some say that Tico cuisine is boring.  And perhaps to the average person it is but from the IBS sufferer prospective, I’d give it 2 thumbs up.  By the way, I do think that as North Americans we take for granted the variety of foods we have available to us: anything from Italian, Chinese, Mexican, French, etc.  I can only imagine that unless you live near a larger (or touristy) city in Costa Rica, those types of foods are just not common.  So, after a few years of eating rice, veggies, fish, and beans, perhaps I’d be tired of Costa Rican food too.

    But if you’re like me and have a list of stomach problems, or you simply are health-conscious, and you like basic, fresh, wholesome food, you will love Costa Rica.

    PS.  Tim has no stomach issues and he still loved the food.

    Coming soon a post about Costa Rica’s food costs.

    Joanna-

    You may also like our posts on Costa Rica Trip Report, Costa Rica Healthcare Options for Expats, and Truth About Healthcare in Costa Rica.

About Joanna

is a Polish American living in Arizona with her husband Tim. She is a founding partner of JTR Tech and she is proud to be a professional geek. She had dreamt of living abroad for many years. So, she and Tim created AbroadDreams.com to document the process of making their dream of moving abroad come true. They spent 2 years in Puerto Rico and several months in Spain and Poland. Now they are exploring the American Southwest.

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17 comments

  1. Flora made a wonderful comment that is so true — flat-out statements about “how things are” (particularly once the dreaded “never” or “always” creep in) are a good sign to take the information with the proverbial grain of salt. I actually think I read that same blog about the “ham” on the hamburgers and I laughed thinking, “really?!?” I ate plenty of hamburguesas during my years in CR and I did, indeed, have a slice of ham on one of them, along with a crispy fried tortilla in another one once (yes, how weird is that!), but that is VERY much the exception, not the rule.

    (And even my own previous comment — which I would like to think I’d “tempered” by saying *virtually* nothing organic is available — borders on being too strong. Yes, most full-fledged grocery stores of any size will have a small section — usually about a 3 foot wide area of shelf space — of packaged BioLand “natural and organic” products, and the large, fancier supermarkets like AutoMercado will have a bit of organic produce, but overall still very rare to find.)

    It’s so very true that people assume that whatever their experience was (often, ironically, when they only have very limited experience) represents the complete and total “truth” whereas there is very little at all in the country (or, as we keep saying, in probably any of these countries you’re looking at) where there’s one and only one “truth.” I know when I was writing my book I really tried to get that across, both in what *I* was saying and in helping advise folks about how much stock to put in what others were saying. I suspect by the time you’ve completed your multi-year process of investigation you’ll become pretty adept at “filtering” the information you’re given, which will probably serve you well. 😉

    • Thanks so much everyone for all your comments and information. That is too funny: ham on hamburger. In fact, the biggest burger I’ve ever seen was in Costa Rica, a whopping 16oz burger! It was actually called “the big a#$ burger on the menu. Ha ha. You’re quite right about assumptions of course. I too am guilty. Mine was based on the numerous conversations about everything being so fresh and “organic” with the local gringos. And one establishment did in fact claim they had organic goods. But mostly I went by my gut, which tends to be pretty sensitive to all that stuff. So, since it didn’t bother my stomach, I believed the hype. Oh well, you live and you learn. I appreciate all of your input and I think the topic of organic vs. non-organic will likely make it to another post. By the way, I changed the post above.
      Cheers.
      Joanna

  2. Meant to add that recently I read on another ‘newcomers blog’ where it said ‘Ordering a hamburger in Costa Rica. They take the word hamburger literally. When you order one you always get ham on it”.
    Of course, this is not true, but it just takes a comment like that for others to ‘take it as gospel’ rather than the experience someone had, possibly, only one time.’
    So word to the wise: ‘never say never or always…’

  3. Joanna,
    Was the produce you purchased or consumed in sodas/restaurants advertised as organic?
    BTW in the Liberia feria, there are no organic vendors!

  4. Yes, more than a short visit is needed before you apply generalities to what is or is not available here.
    It is very difficult and expensive to go/grow organic produce with the amount of insects that a farmer has to deal with. What is available in one town may not be available anywhere else. You will find this even in the large supermarkets. During the rainy season when the roads in the beach areas may be in a bad way, obtaining ANY fresh produce will take you into ‘celebration mode’.

    • Thanks Flora,
      That makes a lot of sense. I’m going to guess that we will likely find something similar in most of the Latin American countries, we’re looking into. But it’s good to be aware of it upfront.
      Thanks for commenting!
      Joanna-

  5. Just stumbled across your blog and have been enjoying reading. We lived in Costa Rica for almost 6 years and although others have beat me to it I just wanted to also emphasize that most food is NOT organic. Very very little you eat in restaurants (whether big tourist ones or local sodas) will be organic and pesticide use is crazy high in CR, unfortunately. Also, not related to food, you should be aware in your investigations since you’d mentioned medical issues that this could be a biggie for you if you do decide on CR — the CAJA (the government medical plan) is hugely overburdened and will not likely serve you very well. We do have a FEW friends who use it almost exclusively, but almost all gringos end up going private pay and while that’s much less expensive than in the states, you do still need to be prepared to pay. Just a case of “don’t believe everything you read.” Good luck on your travels and search. I’ll look forward to watching your process.

    • Hi Arden,
      Thanks for commenting. I am going to have to do more research into this organic thing, it appears. It seems like another PR thing but at least the food did not give me any trouble. I have also heard similar accounts about insurance. It’s definitely difficult to do research from afar. But as we get closer and visit each country more, and talk to folks like yourself, we hope to have a good picture before we pull the trigger and move.
      Joanna-

      • Hi, Joanna — Yes, you guys are doing a good job by spending some time actually researching the different options and checking out different places. When we had the idea to move to Costa Rica that was the only place we considered although we did later (after we’d already lived in Costa Rica for several years) check out Panama and looked into Ecuador a bit. (Not really because *we* were considering changing, but just out of general curiosity.) Panama has some things that are definitely cheaper — virtually all “consumer goods,” gas, imported foods, for sure — as I think does Ecuador. But, in the end, they are all remarkably similar and more than anything you might just look into which country ends up “feeling” like the right fit for you. Although Panama was cheaper, for instance, we knew we wouldn’t want to live there. Just didn’t “feel” right to us. But obviously other folks are quite happy there. The main thing we found that most people don’t really consider (we certainly didn’t, as I wrote about pretty extensively in my book) is that in the end, they are fairly likely NOT to want to live abroad forever. And that’s just fine — I don’t know quite why we try to make it be a “permanent” thing when we rarely look at a move right within the U.S. as necessarily being forever and ever. I think your plan to make it work to do it while you’re young enough to fully enjoy is a great idea — and recognize that it’s at least a reasonable possibility that it will turn into a 5 or 6 year adventure and that’s great. If you “stay abroad” for the rest of your lives, that’s fine too, just less likely. You guys sound like real “planners” and if you “plan” for the idea that it might not be forever, that could well help you make smarter choices as you go along. Just food for thought.

        all the best,
        –arden–

      • Hi, again, Joana,

        Sorry — I got sidetracked on the “forever” issue in my comment a moment ago and forgot the main thing I was going to say about organic (or not) food in most of these countries. We, too, had the vast mis-information and idea about how “clean” and “pure” the food was in Costa Rica. It IS true that most of it is freshly grown there in country, so in the move to “eat local” that’s a plus. But what it took us literally YEARS to discover is that there is VERY little concept of “organic” outside small pockets of people. There are, indeed, organic farms and some folks doing some cool things, but they are hugely the exception, not the rule. Pesticides are used incredibly extensively and many are ones that have been long banned in the U.S. The Ticos like a “simple approach” and culturally are not big on “planning ahead” so the understanding that a lot of us in the more “developed world” are coming to see that the short-term “benefit” of just slathering chemicals on the food to kill off the pesky things, then slathering more chemicals on the soil to theoretically replace stuff that’s been depleted is not really serving us well or producing good food… well, that’s not an “understanding” that’s very wide-spread yet there in CR (or, I would suggest, in any of the countries you’re considering.) We had a number of experiences of being flat-out told that something was “organic” when it wasn’t — it’s almost as though there’s a lack of true understanding of what the word means. And so many folks who write about Costa Rica (or, again, ANY of these places) are essentially “selling” the place — either literally or at least figuratively, “selling” that this place is wonderful as a means of justifying why they choose to live there — so they just repeat and repeat the misinformation, probably more out of ignorance (and wishful thinking) than maliciousness. And then you run across the occasional people on the other end of the spectrum who are so disillusioned that everything *they* write or say about the place is full of venom and anger, so you’re not getting clear info there either. (Yes, you *do* have a bit of a challenge ahead of you, but still — it’ll be a fun exploration!) In any case, yes it’s possible in CR to BUY organic veggies, but it will take some real effort. Out of the approximately 1800 “linear feet” of vendors (3 long covered area, each the length of a football field, with stalls on both sides) at the lovely weekly “feria” or “farmer’s market” in San Ramon — which is a great small city on the northwestern edge of the central valley — there is ONE organic vendor with maybe 30 linear feet of selling space, if that. And virtually NOTHING in the regular grocery store is organic. Puts it a little bit into perspective. Not trying to be a downer, at all, but as I say — it’s often hard to get accurate information. Just hoping to be helpful.

        all the best,
        –arden–

        • Thanks for all the info and advice. That is exactly the type of feedback we need to get to the “truth” behind all the PR (and as you say, non-intended misinformation).
          Joanna-

  6. The previous poster is correct in that finding organic produce is not always easy here. … and is definitely not what most Ticos and Expats purchase at local markets. Some areas offer organic markets but the choices are less and very basic.

  7. Hey Jo… love reading your blogs!

  8. You have misinformation on two subjects.First is that most Costa Rica food is organic. This is NOT the case
    Secondly, coconut milk is not in a coconut but is ‘man made’ See this website, http://www.ticotimes.net/Weekend/Weekend-Columns/DIY-coconut-milk-simply-delicious_Wednesday-May-01-2013
    What is in the coconut is what ‘Ticos’ call Pipa fria, coconut water, which is said to be very healthy.

    • Thanks for the info Patricia. I was wondering about the coconuts because I don’t think that milk tastes that great but this makes sense.
      Joanna-