Vegan in Costa Rica

My husband, Ty, and I went on a trip to Costa Rica in early November and had an absolute blast!  When I asked Ty how I should start off my post about maintaining our vegan life in Costa Rica, he said I should make it very clear that “the hardest thing about being vegan in Costa Rica was the layover in Houston.”

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If you ever have to fly into Houston – first of all, I’m sorry, and secondly, there is ONE vegan option, Yia Yia Maria in Terminal 1.  We had some laughs at all the meat options at restaurants there – one taco place had five different meat combos (steak, steak & chicken, shrimp, shrimp & chicken, and chicken) but not a single vegetable. Everyone in that airport looked like they were either recovering from, or about to have, a massive heart attack.

Costa Rica is considered the gem of Central America, and I see why! Known for its spectacular natural beauty and biodiversity, Costa Rica boasts more than 15 different ecosystems with dramatic changes in landscapes, climate, and nature.  Costa Rica is also a very sustainable country – it currently generates more than 99 percent of its electricity using five different renewable sources; hydropower (78%), wind (10%), geothermal (10%), biomass and solar (1%).  Their education system is top-notch – we saw more las escuelas than restaurants in our time there.  Costa Ricans are known for their incredible gregariousness and ability to pamper guests — whether pointing out the right direction or cooking a typical authentic meal, they’ll be full of smiles and warmth.  We definitely felt spoiled while we were there.

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This is a typical Costa Rican meal – rice, beans, pico de gallo, veggies, and plantains. All vegan!

It was extremely easy to eat plant-based foods and avoid meat and dairy while we were there.  This is generally true in a lot of countries who are lower on the GDP per capita index because meat is expensive!  Also, in comparison, America HEAVILY subsidizes its meat and dairy farmers (according to recent data from Metonomics, the American government spends $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, but only 0.04 percent of that – $17 million – each year to subsidize fruits and vegetables). Subsidizing the dairy and meat production will obviously reduce their price.  When the price of something is lower, people tend to consume more of it.  This is one of the reasons why meat and other dairy products become a larger share of our daily consumption.  That’s your tax dollars!.

The story in Costa Rica is different.  Cattle ranching and meat production is obviously hugely resource intensive.  Costa Rica was beginning to notice the incredible toll it was taking on the country’s rainforest habitat and biodiversity.  Costa Rica stopped subsidizing meat and dairy farmers and the rainforest came back stronger than ever.

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Ty’s essentials pictured: beer, chips, hand sanitizer.

I only speak restaurant Spanish, so I was worried we were going to have some messed-up orders.  Ty and I discussed that we would first and foremost enjoy our trip, try our best to communicate our dietary needs, and not beat ourselves up if it didn’t go as planned.  It worked pretty well!  Most folks in the tourist industry will speak English, and you can easily get your point across with the following phrases in Spanish:

  • I’m vegetarian – Soy vegetariano/a (male or female)
  • No meat – Sin carne
  • No cheese – Sin queso
  • No milk – Sin leche
  • No butter – Sin mantequilla
  • No mayonnaise – Sin mayonesa
  • I don’t eat meat – Yo no como carne
  • I don’t eat fish – Yo no como pescado
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All my food pictures are just photos of Ty.

Most dishes in Costa Rica can be easily altered.

For example, gallo pinto is the most beloved Costa Rican dish and is usually enjoyed for breakfast.  The dish is white rice and black beans seasoned with Salsa Lizano which is plant-based (it’s like Costa Rican ketchup).  It’s usually served with eggs, plantains, corn tortilla, cheese, sour cream, and pico de gallo.  Ask if you can swap the animal products for slices of avocado or tomato and request that your plantains are cooked in oil.

Lunch in Costa Rica is typically a casado which comes with white rice, black beans, salad (make sure to ask for no mayonnaise on your salad), corn tortillas, plantains, and an animal protein.  A veg option may not be on the menu so ask for sauteed veggies instead of meat.  Most sodas, the name for local restaurants, will have cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots available.

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One of our best meals was at Soda Mima, a local restaurant in Fortuna.  Sodas are what the Costa Ricans call their local restaurants. They are usually small, open air places that have only traditional Costa Rican food and are normally cheaper than other places. 
One awesome thing about sodas is that many of them are buffet style so you can pick and choose what you want. And they usually have several different salad and veggie options. We had a big meal for only $6, and I personally drank 3 cups of coffee here because I’m insane.
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There were lots of little markets like this all over the place, so grabbing some fresh veggies or fruit for a snack was really easy.
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This was one of our first stops, Organico Fortuna in La Fortuna: Run by a Costa Rican family, they focus on organic ingredients and healthy food with vegetarian and vegan options. It’s not super cheap, salads are around $15 and they also have sandwiches.

I can’t write a blog about veganism in Costa Rica without including some cultural information on the way that Costa Rica, on a whole, treats animals.  This website provides a good overview of animal rights in Costa Rica.

Additionally, I can’t write a blog about veganism in Costa Rica without addressing the palm oil industry’s impact on animals.  Palm oil is often associated with the destruction of rainforests, the decline of orangutan populations, and the displacement of native peoples.  Processed palm oil is used in a variety of products such as lipstick, cosmetics, candies, margarines, industrial lubricants, and soaps. Palm oil is often seen as an environmental evil because it is a driver of deforestation in countries like Malaysia. However, there are regions of Costa Rica, like the Osa Peninsula, where the majority of palm farms are located in areas that long ago cleared for agriculture anyways.  Palm trees are one of only a few species that can thrive in the toxic soil left behind after decades of intensive banana farming.  But this doesn’t erase the fact that palm oil production still impacts the local air and water quality with its effluence and emissions.

I asked a few of our guides what they thought about palm oil’s impact on Costa Rica’s biodiversity.  I learned that many of the palm oil plantations have hundred year contracts! The guides also mentioned that, while the industry isn’t actively clearing rainforest as much of it is protected, emissions and pollution from production still impacts the local wildlife.

All that to say – monoculture sucks! 

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I shit you not, the coffee was honestly the best part of the trip. Even the hotel coffee was good! There was one point on the trip that I tried to sneak out of my room at 8pm without Ty noticing, to get another cup. That was my rock-bottom.

If you are traveling to Costa Rica, I highly recommend looking up restaurants in advance on Happy Cow.  Costa Rica does not have a Yelp presence, so Google and other tools will be your friend.  I saved all of the possible vegan restaurants on “My Maps” in Google for easy access once we were there.

Please feel free to ask questions about Costa Rica!  We loved it and would recommend to anyone.

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