Since Costa Rica has become a popular eco-friendly destination for nature lovers, I was really looking forward to some down-home native cooking during our time there. How horrified I was to discover no more than 3 vegetables at most of the farmers markets: broccoli, cauliflower and string beans — hardly tropical crops! But it didn’t stop there, trying to find local fats like coconut or palm oil (we stayed 20 minutes away from the palm oil plantations) was impossible. Meats were labeled tenderizado (tenderized) — whatever that meant — butchers didn’t have an answer. Even salt had fluoride added to it.
In fact, I’d say 90% of the food available was highly processed and sold in boxes, cans or bottles.
At first I was under the impression that the unavailability of indigenous foods had to do with the fact that we were staying in a more touristy area. There was a hole in this theory though. The only places where natural foods (not even talking organics or health food here) could be found were in the expat stores. The town of Quepos near Parque Manuel Antonio featured a good smathering of Italian restaurants and delis as well as a great catch-all store called El Super Más across from the bus station. Surprisingly, El Super Más was not outrageously priced. Some items were actually more reasonably priced there than at roadside stands (at least as far as the Gringo prices went).
Even though I was able to get some better produce in Quepos, I was really glad that I packed a few non-perishables in the suitcase. Cans of low mercury, PCB-free canned salmon; spicy Sicilian olives; and a little mineral-rich sea salt. Unfortunately, the only coconut oil I carried with me was scented with Tahitian monoi for my skin and hair.
This is where the beauty of renting a vacation apartment comes in. Up the road, in Esterillos Oeste, a fisherman sold fresh caught pargo (red snapper), pinky shrimp and tiburón (shark) daily. Down the road on the way to Parritas, a pleasant couple from the mountainous regions outside of San José sells farm fresh raw milk Costa Rican cheeses on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays ’til noon.
Quepos has a huge farmers market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. We didn’t get to visit this one (although we drove past it one night thinking we’d have another opportunity), but we were told by an American living there that the variety is much better than at roadside stands. I also met a guy named Reynaldo from the Caribbean side (a distant cousin maybe?) who was selling lobster and enormous pinky shrimp from the back of his refrigerated truck just down the street from the El Super Más.
The highlight was meeting Eliazar, a retired government worker who sells fresh-pressed azucar de caña (sugar cane juice) by the side of the road about 45 minutes north of Esterillos in Puntarenas. He was all too proud to show us his operation and his planation where he had some 26 varieties of fruits and vegetables growing: sugar cane, coconut, avocado, yucca, gandul, star fruit, sweet and sour lemons, oranges (which are actually green in the tropics), bananas, plantains (rhymes with mountain), papaya, cashews, even loofah… you name it, he had it!
As it was getting late at the time of our arrival, Eliazar invited us back for a visit the following Monday. When we got there, he was unable to get away from his juice cart because his help canceled on him at the last minute. That’s when he introduced us to his Nicaraguan neighbor, Guadalupe, who took us on a tour of a huge plantation just up the hill — really off the beaten track. It was really hot that day, but the views from there were spectacular and we learned a lot about local edibles as well as the fact that the plantation was picked clean regularly by Nicaraguans and Panamanians who brought the produce back to their home countries for sale. We still don’t understand why all this variety wasn’t offered locally. It seemed that Eliazar and Guadalupe were a bit of an oddity in their love of agriculture. They admitted that modern Costa Ricans existed mainly on processed foods from any of the local Wal-Mart owned chains.
We not only got to eat some of the best locally grown foods by meeting locals like Eliazar, Guadalupe and Reynaldo, but we met some really wonderful Ticos. We have several invites throughout the country to come back next year. We’re looking forward to it.