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Costa Rica

Costa Rica has no national drink, perhaps with the exception of horchata, a cinnamon-flavored cornmeal drink, and guaro, the campesino's near-tasteless yet potent drink of choice (see "Alcoholic Drinks," below); friends joke about my predilection for this cheap liquor. And coffee, of course, Costa Rica's grano d'oro (grain of gold). Most of the best coffee is exported, so don't expect consistently good coffee everywhere you go. What you're served may have been made from preground coffee that has been in a percolator for an hour or two. Coffee is traditionally served very strong and mixed with hot milk; it can sometimes be half coffee, half milk. When you order coffee with milk (cafe con leche), you'll generally get fifty-fifty. If you want it black, you want cafe sin leche. Herb teas are widely available. Milk is pasteurized.

The more popular North American soda pops, such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola, as well as sparkling water, called agua mineral or soda, are popular and widely available. The Costa Rican refreshers are refrescos, energizing fruit drinks served with water (con agua) or milk (con leche). They're a great way to taste the local fruits, such as tamarindo (the slightly tart fruit of the tamarind tree), mango, and papaya. They come in cartons, or made to order, in which case ask for sin azucar (no sugar). Some are made from oddities such as pinolillo (roasted corn flour). Refrescos are usually highly sugared.

Sugar finds its way into all kinds of drinks, even water: agua dulce, another popular campesino's drink, is boiled water with brown sugar-energy for field workers. Roadside stalls also sell pipas, green coconuts with the tops chopped off. You drink the refreshing cool milk from a straw.

Alcoholic Drinks

Imported drinks are expensive; stick with the local drinks. Lovers of beer (cerveza) are served locally brewed pilsners and lagers that reflect the early German presence in Costa Rica. Imperial and Bavaria are the two most popular brews. If you're watching your diet, try Tropical, a low-calorie "lite" beer. Heineken is also brewed under license. Cheaper bars charge about 60 cents for a local beer; fancy hotels charge about $2. Most bars charge $1. Even the poorest campesino can afford the native red-eye, guaro, a harsh, clear spirit distilled from fermented sugarcane; a large shot costs about 40 cents. My favorite drink? Guaro mixed with Cafe Rica, a potent coffee liqueur akin to Mexican Kahlua.

The national liquor monopoly also produces vodka and gin (both recommended), rum (so-so), and whiskey (not recommended). A favorite local mix is Cuba libre (rum and coke). Imported whiskeys-Johnnie Walker is very popular-are less expensive than other imported liquors, which are super-expensive (often $8 or more a shot).

Avoid the local wines. The most memorable thing about them is the hangover. Imported wines are expensive with the exception of Chilean and Argentinian wines, of which there are some superb options.

Costa Rica, you'll often hear, is a nation of drinkers. Most nations are. Costa Ricans, by the way, deplore drunks; it goes against the grain of quedar bien (the cultural characteristic that calls for making a good impression). Still, drinking is not restricted to lunch and the evening hours. Don't be surprised to find the Tico at the table next to yours washing his breakfast down with whiskey.

Costa Rica
Costa Rican recipes:
Central American Recipes (in Spanish)
Costa Rican Terrine with Coconut-Date Vinaigrette
Costa Rican Tilapia
Costa Rica: Main Page
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