Eating Vegan in Costa Rica

I love Costa Rica! This was my second trip out there this year. Last January, my plane was overbooked so twice I ended up staying the night in a hotel paid for by the Airline and a bunch of travel vouchers. This January I went for 17 days with Dan and I checked out other places I didn’t get to go to last time. Sadly my camera was stolen so I am going to try and find other pics in the ‘net to illustrate this post.

I feel that Costa Rica is probably one of the easiest places to travel as a vegan, certainly a lot nicer than the sausage fest that is Eastern Europe. Even as a raw vegan it would be fairly easy since you can always get fruit plates, smoothies, and salads. The best part about Costa Rican food in my opinion is breakfast, specifically the food of my dreams: Gallo Pinto.I have been working of the recipe for awhile and I think I have almost perfected it, will try and post soon. Basically you cook & season the rice and the beans separately then you stir fry them together with more peppers, onions, and celery. In Costa Rica they come with a side on fried plantains (if you are lucky) or eggs or meat. I really want to make some tofu scramble to go with my gallo pinto this weekend because I think it would be really good.

I make Gallo Pinto regularly at home but I have learned during this recent trip to Costa that the missing link is Lizano Salsa which is the key to authentic Costa Rican Gallo Pinto.Tico’s love their gallo pinto as much as I do so you can get it at every single restaurant, even Burger King so it is nice to know that you are always going to find a vegan option. Fruit plates can usually be ordered at any time and are often breakfast if you are staying at a place that includes breakfast.

Another great fruit option is a batido en agua. These shakes are everywhere and can be with milk or water (sometimes even soy milk). Usually they list about 14 different kinds of fruit but then only have a couple available. Pineapple and cantaloupe are my favorite.Mixed drinks with tropical fruits are so yummy too. Horchata, which is a rice milk drink was often available as well. The best part is that they are really cheap and fresh. Usually they are around a dollar. The greatest drink in all of Costa Rica, however, is agua de pipa. If you are lucky while you are lounging on the beach a guy with a machete will wander by and open one up for you.

The common lunch in Costa Rica is called a Casado, which actually means husband. I think it stems from what the wife would pack up for her husband when he went off to work. It always involves rice and beans, often a plantain, and instead of meat you can say Casado Vegetariano and you never know what you will get, usually rice and beans and a salad and either a pasta or vegetable dish.

I had so many good meals. We stayed in Santa Elena first by Monteverde in a wonderful place called Cabinas Vista El Golfo which I highly recommend. They had a full kitchen to use and I was shocked to find tahini at the grocery store so I was able to make hummus! Note that lemons in Costa Rica look exactly like limes. We had to ask. Next time I travel I am going to try to remember to bring some tahini. It keeps well and hummus is so great to have along, especially with some olives on bus rides or hikes. In Monteverde we hiked on hanging suspension bridges in the cloud forest. and we took a boat ride on Lake Arenal. It was so beautiful. I rode a horse named Pinto to the top of a mountain where you could see the entire Pacific coast. He was the most adorable horse. We got to see sugar cane growing and learned how the made it into liquor. They also grew coffee, beans, avocado, bananas, and all sorts of other stuff, you would never need to shop if you lived in the tropics.

After Monteverde we took the bus and then the ferry to Montezuma on the Nicoya peninsula which is a very veg friendly town. The stores had soy milk powder and some other vegan offerings and the restaurants were just wonderful. I had a fantastic sweet potato and spinach curry at a place called “the bakery cafe” that had a full vegetarian menu.

The food at this place was so great! They had the menu divided into sections by country and I wanted to try it all. The cool part is that they put out food and tropical birds and monkeys come by while you are eating. One day we saw a whole family of monkeys including a mama with a baby on her back!

There was also a really cool juice place called Organico that was all organic and had mostly vegan food.they even had vegan literature on their menu! It was a really laid back place but do to the organicness it was rather expensive so I only went once. Maybe the greatest part was the fact that they have an air conditioned chill room where you can hang out on pillows and read magazines and books. It was really nice. I wish I would have noticed it my first day there when I was feeling sickly.

We stayed at a really nice and cheap place on the beach called Hotel Lucy that also had a kitchen. (This is one of my two pictures, you can see hotel lucy on the right)

We also went snorkeling at the Isle of Tortuga, it was so beautiful! I saw so many tropical fish and the water was gorgeous and a psychotic blue. Here we are on the boat!.

After over a week in Montezuma we went to Mal Pais for a couple days and stayed at the Mal Pais Surf School and Resort. It was fabulous because they had a pool and a restaurant with a ping pong table. I beat Dan 7 times in a row at ping pong.  We went to one little restaurant there that was on the beach and it just had the most gorgeous view. We sat eating gallo pinto and fried plantains and discussed the fact that Austin really needs a Costa Rican restaurant. If I perfect my gallo pinto recipe, who knows maybe I will open it 🙂


24 thoughts on “Eating Vegan in Costa Rica

  1. Carrie

    This looks like an awesome trip!!! I’m looking for somewhere tropical to go on my honeymoon where I will be able to eat vegan, perhaps I should be looking into Costa Rica!

  2. Jes

    What a wonderful trip! Except for your camera being stolen–that really stinks. The food and the places sound great. I’ve always wanted to go to Costa Rica, mainly to visit Monteverde and the cloud forest. Hopefully I’ll make it soon. And if I do, I’ll write down all the suggestions! Can’t wait for the gallo pinto recipe!

  3. lazysmurf Post author

    Jes- Monteverde was really pretty, it reminded me so much of the Hoh rain forest in Washington state. If you do go – TAKE THE BUS to Monteverde. We missed the bus and rented a car and it was the craziest, scariest road I have ever been on.

  4. denny

    Oh wow, thanks so much for sharing. Would not have guessed the place was vegan friendly. It’s so beautiful. Food looks good. Company great. A good vaykay I say!

  5. lisa (show me vegan)

    I really appreciate this report!! We want to take a more “exotic” vacation than usual in the next year or so and I also had no idea Costa Rica would be vegan friendly. I’ve bookmarked the places you mentioned for our research!

  6. Sarah

    I’m so excited to see that Costa Rica is vegan friendly. I’m going in April. Any other advice you can give about eating vegan there? And any specific places that i HAVE to travel to? We want to go to a few different towns.


  7. lazysmurf Post author

    Hi Sarah! I have been to Costa Rica twice and have been to most of the major tourist towns. My favorite spots have been Cahuita, Monteverde, Montezuma, and Puerto Viejo. All of these places are more vegan friendly than my hometown in Illinois! I also really liked Bocas Del Toro which is a chain of islands in Panama but are easily accessible from Costa Rica.

    When planning a trip I would recommend just looking at one are of the country unless you are going to be there for more than 2 weeks. Travel by bus is really cheap but takes a really long time. The roads are in mostly really poor condition, like the road to Monteverde is nearly impossible to travel without a 4-wheel drive. On the map it looks like the trip from Monteverde to Montezuma would take an hour and half, I think it took us 7 hours! Or the trip from Tilaran to Monteverde, they look like they are practically the same town and it took us at least an hour to get there. Figure you go about the speed of traveling by bike. There are also tourist buses that are literally 15 times more expensive and although they are faster I found them to be uncomfortable and not as enjoyable as an experience. If you have lots of money you can fly nearly anywhere, but they are really tiny planes and it will cost you around 100 bucks.

    If you are interested in going to Arenal which is the big volcano I would recommend going to monteverde and taking a day trip to La Fortuna via one of the tour companies. They will pick you up and take you there for either a zip line canopy tour, a hanging bridges tour, or a guided hike, and also take you to the hot springs before bringing you back. If you can sleep in a van this is definitely the way to go because in La Fortuna you have to take guided tours anyway wherever you go so you will have to pay regardless. Make sure you get the hot springs included because it is awesome and really expensive otherwise. Lake Arenal looked like a great place to stay too. Monteverde seemed to have better restaurant options than La Fortuna as well, although when we stayed there we had a kitchen. I recommend Cabinas Vista El Golfo very highly, it was our best deal of the trip, the rooms were fantastic, and it had a kitchen. The people there were able to arrange everything and they were super nice. There are lots of places to hike and other things to do in Monteverde.

    As for the coast, I have been to 3 different parts. This last time I went to Montezuma and Mal Paìs on the Nicoya peninsula. I liked Montezuma a lot, there were many great restaurants, the beach was gorgeous, and there are waterfalls that you can hike too. I learned while I was there, though, that soon they are going to be bulldozing most of the adorable town because it isn’t meeting the zoning laws. Mal Paìs had lots of vegan places but we didn’t really like it because you had to walk down this really long really dusty road to get anywhere. It was a gorgeous beach though and a huge surfer destination. We really liked the Surf School and Resort that we stayed at because they had a great hang out spot with dogs and ping pong and a restaurant and bar where you could put everything on your tab but if were to go again I would stay at Casa Zen we went to for dinner, it was a beautiful place, the people were really nice, and the attached thai restaurant was terrific and really nice. I also went to Tamarindo on the peninsula but it was even more touristed then the other places and was more hotel/resort less hippie/funky.

    On Central Pacific coast I have been to Jàco a couple times since it is a major hub, Playa Hermosa next door, Quepos, Manuel Antonio, Dominical, and Uvita. When I went I wasn’t yet vegan so I can’t give you tips there but I would imagine Dominical would be your best bet. I really like Uvita because there were hardly any tourists and it was really cool. We stayed at a hostel called hotel toucan where you could hike to waterfalls and a river or go down to the whale tail shaped beach that actually has whales migrating through it at certain times of the year. Dominical was mostly tourists and expats but good for surfing and that lifestyle. Manuel Antonio national park was one of the most beautiful places I have been too but it was completely packed with people. I would recommend going but not on a weekend.

    Finally, the Caribbean side, it is a totally different animal over here. the coast is less flat where the Pacific is mostly cliffs and rocks. There is a large population of people of African decent that speak English. The influence of Bob Marley is strong. It is more laid back and less Americans which we really liked. It was also cheaper than the Pacific side. Lots of good food. The Rondon made can’t be missed! We liked Cahuita and Puerto Viejo although Cahuita seemed less touristy and expaty. In both places I recomend renting bikes and cruising around. You can live my sister’s ideal day: Wake up, do yoga, have breakfast, have a bloody Mary, go to the beach, take a nap, get dressed, go to dinner, go out. And that is about it. There is a coral reef in a Cahuita and some trails. In Puerto Viejo it is fun to ride your bike all the way down the coast and stop at chocolate farms, and little shops. You can take the bus all the way to Bocas Del Toro which I highly recomend! It was really cool, but don’t drink the water! It is the most tropical place I have ever been. You can stand on a dock and look down and see starfish and crabs and lobster all roaming around. And you can stay in little thatched huts right on the water. It is a chain of islands

    If you are really interested in seeing lots of wildlife, the Osa Peninsula was highly recommended by everyone that I talked to that had been there. Most people who go there are more into active travel as opposed to lounging so it is geared toward that. And most people don’t go there at all.

    Finally, I recommend Let’s Go as a guidebook, and Frommers after that. The Moon is a good one if you have more money and want to stay at nice places. Let’s Go is great because they always tell you the cheapest place and note if a place does NOT have veg options. I hated the Lonely Planet for Costa Rica, everyone has it for one thing and the author has a terrible attitude.

  8. Amanda

    Hey! Thanks so much for this information–I leave for costa rica in a few days and the trip I’m going on does not make accomodations for vegetarians; I thought I was going to live off of just fruit (I see now its fruit plus a teensie bit, haha..)

    Is pinto gallo vegetarian? I was told it was cooked in chicken broth almost unanimously, which is one of the reasons I thought I’d have so little to live off of!

    Do you think I should bring granola bars? We will in theory be fed thrice a day, but again-not sure how much of it I’ll be able to eat.



  9. lazysmurf Post author

    I brought a ton of luna bars because it is just such a cheap way to have a meal, so yes I would recommend it. Lots of people I talked to didn’t seem to use chicken broth, but I was in semi-hippie towns too. The traditional way to make gallo pinto is with the leftover sopa negra which isn’t made with chicken broth, it is just bean soup.

  10. Amanda

    awesome–all I had to go on was websites, which kept repeating “chicken stock”, and I was getting a little worried about what I would eat. I don’t think I get to order my food at all the entire time–I believe our meals are fixed. That being said I’m native Spanish so I’m also counting on my ability to sweet talk the servers. 😛

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  11. Sassy Dancing Blossom

    A note about Rio Clara de Pavones C.R.
    There is a beautiful little vegetarian cafe in the beach town of Pavones.
    It is called Cafe de la suerte. Best food in town.
    Well known for their humus plate and daily special board.
    Bliss for the Belly!

    Sassy Dancing Blossom

  12. lazysmurf Post author

    I went to Puerto Viejo & Cahuita the last time I was in Costa Rica, you are right it is totally amazing!

  13. robin

    Hi there!

    coming across your blog we planned our whole trip based on your tips! My boyfriend and I are vegan cheapsters and ready for this adventure!
    We leave in a few weeks from Chicago and look forward to mal pais and montezuma! we plan on ending in cloud forest and arenal.

    Just a question though…how do you pack? Is there a water shoe/hiking shoe that you can recommend? Should we bring pants to deter bugs in the forest? buy some of those breathable water shirts? Any must haves? I’d love your thoughts!

  14. lazysmurf Post author

    Whoa! If this is your first time I would totally plan a trip to Puerto Viejo & Cahuita on the Carribean side, it was super awesome, vegan friendly, and cheaper than the Pacific side!

    Don’t drive to Monteverde! Especially at night in a non 4 wheel drive car! That is my number one tip. It was so scary. The place we stayed at Cabinas Vista Al Golfo was totally awesome, the best deal in town, and arranged all of our tours for us.

    There is a place in Mal Pais called Casa Zen that I WISHED we could have stayed at, it was really cool and they had a good restaurant. Check it out we liked the place we were at too but it was pretty far away and would have been better if we had been surfing.

    I didn’t worry about bugs or water shirts. I have Keens!twilight as my primary hiking shoe cause they can get wet and it is the jungle! In costa, I totally have done the socks with sandles thing too to stay warm because I hate bringing shoes but it can get pretty cool in the mountains. I also bring cheap flip flops to wear around the hotel & beach.

    Don’t leave your camra on the beach!

    My basic pack is the keens, flops, pants that turn into shorts and are water proof with pockets for hiking, dress, swiming outfit (I like trunks and a tankini for hiking around) tank tops, t shirts, hoodie, yoga shorts, luna bars, hat, day pack, and that is all I can think of right now. If I can think of anything important I will add it.

    Have so much fun! My sister is jetting out of Chicago for Costa too in a couple weeks!

  15. robin

    We decided against Puerto Viejo because we are only going for one week, and really wanted to fit in the Arenal Volcano! We are more into the adventure stuff and horseback riding and hiking than the rasta layed back stuff (maybe another time!) Plus, it’s a dream of mine to learn to surf, so we hope the Mal Pais surf camp will deliver! Zen does look cool, hopefully we’ll be able to travel there for dinner or a night out, but as of now we have booked at Mal Pais.

    I don’t think we will be driving, just relying on bus schedules and taxis to get around! Definitely planning on snorkeling at Tortuga Isle.
    Those keens look great, I’m definitely going to grab a pair! Thanks again for your blogging, great tips all around!

  16. lazysmurf

    Well it sounds perfect! I wish I had my act together to learn to surf but I think I was out of money by that point! I am so jealous! We were just talking about the surf camp yesterday and how much we loved hanging out there watching surf movies, playing ping pong and drinking. It was such a laid back scene.

    We ended up driving to Monteverde because our plane was delayed and we missed the last bus. We should have just stayed in San Jose!

    If you are planning to go to the Volcano don’t do it as a day trip from Monteverde, go one way to La Fortuna and then leave from there to the air port it will be way easier.

    Another thing to maybe look into is canyoning, that is what I want to do next time!

    Have fun!

  17. Fateh Bolivar

    Pura Vida! Costa rica is a haven for raw foodists and Vegans. I own the Waterfall Villas near Dominical Beach, and besides the amazing waterfalls here right next to the balconies in the rainforest canopy, my staff and I create the most incredible exotic cuisine using all organic ingredients from local organic farms. Come check it out! Love & light, Fateh

  18. Nicole

    Thanks so much for this write up! I just stumbled upon it while looking for vegan food options in Costa Rica. My mom and I are headed out very soon. I wrote down a lot of the things you mentioned – def want to check out “the bakery cafe” and/or “organico” in Montezuma, if we get there:) Do you have any veg restaurant preferences for Monteverde? Or Manuel Antonio?

  19. B

    Be careful with gallo pinto in CR. Many places use chicken stock in their pinto, which is certainly not vegan. Many also use manteca de chancho, or pig fat, instead of oil. I live in CR and I’d say the majority of pinto is actually not vegan. Vegans beware!

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