Costa Rica is bursting with nature. The capital city, San Jose, lies in the central valley region, surrounded by a volcanic mountain range to the north and the Talamanca mountains to the south. This incredibly fertile soil is a farmer’s dream, with almost every fruit and vegetable imaginable growing with wild abandon, dairy, poultry, and cattle farms, as well as coffee plantations, all sandwiched between two coastlines—the Caribbean and the Pacific— for an endless seafood selection.
With all of this fresh produce, it’s hard to believe that people rarely talk about Costa Rican cuisine. It must be said that in a country famous for its incredible surf, stunning cloud forests, pristine beaches, and eco-lifestyle, food has sometimes been an afterthought. Not anymore. Here are some of the best food tours happening right now to get a true taste of Tico food.
A good place to experience the breadth of fresh Costa Rican produce is to take a tour of the Mercado Centrale in San Jose, a block-long food market smack dab in the center of the city. This gastronomic maze presents stall after stall bursting to the brim with fresh produce, including an array of gorgeous, ripe fruit, vegetables, and herbs like you’ve never seen. And then there are the sodas: box-like food stalls that are tucked into every corner serving all your classic Costa Rican dishes from the hearty casado staple found almost everywhere—fried rice and black beans with fried plantains and eggs or meat, to crisp empanadas (fried pastries stuffed with meat or cheese), stacks of tamales wrapped in banana leaves, crackling pork skin (chicharrón), served on top of pork belly with cassava root and fresh lime, salchichon, a pork sausage served on a corn tortilla with cabbage, and even chile rellenos—eggs in a cast iron pan delicately wrapped around a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese. Don’t forget to bring your appetite.
This country is known for many things, but one of its main sources of pride, as well as an important cash crop, is its coffee. Besides winning numerous international coffee awards and giving the country an economic boost, the government gave financial incentives to coffee farmers after the country gained independence in 1821. This helped make coffee the main crop produced in the Central Valley, often referred to as the golden grain, or el grano de oro.
So what makes this 100% Arabica bean coffee so special? A combination of high altitudes, fertile volcanic soil, cool climates and steady rainfall make beans with superior flavor and distinct aromas. Just outside of San José in the town of Naranjo, take a tour of the Hacienda Espíritu Santo facilities. Discover the coffee making journey, from the very first steps of maintaining coffee crops all the way to the end result, where you’ll see the traditional Costa Rican way of brewing coffee—café chorreado. For something smaller, check out the boutique style coffee operation at Finca Rosa Blanca, less than an hour from San José. With views of the nearby volcanoes and beautiful green surroundings, this is a perfect way to learn how organic coffee is grown, harvested, dried, and processed and during the harvest season (October to January). You can even take part in the picking. Or, take your love for coffee to the next level and learn how experts test and rate gourmet coffee, and even hone your barista skills!
Fertile La Fortuna
To continue your food adventure, head towards the interior and the fertile volcanic soil—and active volcano—that surround the town of La Fortuna. At Vida Campesina, an organic farm and cultural education center that you can tour (and experience firsthand the deliciousness of farm to table cooking), they grow the main crops commonly found in the country: coffee, sugar cane, corn, yucca, cocoa, bananas, and plantains, but also cultivate non-traditional crops such as Chinese potato, yam, and lemongrass, among others. Their restaurant uses only the products they grow on site and their casado, served on a banana leaf filled with chayote, plantain ceviche, cabbage, rice, beans and a deliciously creamy chicken coconut curry is proof that Costa Rican cuisine can really kick it up a notch when done right.
If you enjoy testing out local craft beers, head to the beautiful mountains of Monteverde for a stunning tour of the craft brewery at Cervezas Artesanales Belmar. It’s the only local brewery in Monteverde, and your one-stop-shop to learn about the very popular Costa Rican craft brewing movement. After a brief history of beer, Belmar’s guide will describe how they use natural spring water and organic herbs to create exceptional artisanal ales. Learn about the various styles they make in-house, including their rotating seasonal beers. So what’s the best way to finish any brewery tour? A tasting of any fresh beers you like!
But that’s not the only reason to head to Monteverde, as the Belmar family, who also own a hotel, have a highly developed kitchen garden program and even bought a farm several years ago for their own agriculture production. Take a tour of their Madre Tierra farm and depending on what activities are happening that day, you could be milking cows for the first time, watching the cheese get made, picking coffee beans or straining sugar cane for a sweet post-farm drink. Along the way, you’ll learn how this was the first carbon-neutral farm in the country and all about the Belmar family’s dedication to sustainability and preservation of the environment. Go see the cows, pigs, goats, chickens, and horses, then take a ride on a well-trained horse of your own. “People come to visit the farm, then check out our vegetable garden, do a brewery tour and stay for lunch in the garden,” says owner Pedro Belmar. “You can actually pick your own food and then someone cooks it onsite, along with a glass of our beer, a coffee or even a handcrafted cocktail made with garden ingredients.” This is a once-in-a-lifetime authentic farm experience to learn and explore how the environment sustains this country (and its visitors) every day!
Where to stay in Costa Rica