Eating Cheap?

Supermarkets, Produce Stands and Local Mercados

Buying food in stores is cheaper than going to restaurants but it’s still relatively expensive in Costa Rica.

Comparing the untouristed rural area where we work in Costa Rica with our hometown in Colorado, shopping in the local produce markets, grocery store and butcher then preparing meals in the kitchen came out to be about 50% more expensive in Costa Rica.  Prices are even higher in tourist destinations.

supermarket produce section
Supermarket produce section

Anything processed, packaged or name branded is relatively expensive. Admittedly we didn’t adjust our menus or recipes much in response to local availability so instead of paying $2 a kilo for fresh tomatoes we paid $4 a can for imported Italian ones. This wasn’t simply because we were too lazy to adapt.  Although the local tomatoes were cheap the ripeness varied widely and sometimes we didn’t have three days to wait for them to lose their green.

Another other issue with the local produce is lack of variety. Sticking with the tomato example the only type available (in the supermarket or the local produce stand) were the giant slicers bred to resist bruising in transport and resembling pink styrofoam on the inside. We’re not food snobs, but you have to draw the line somewhere and if you’ve ever tasted marinara made with half green styrofoam tomatoes you know it’s way over the line.

Not all Costa Rican grown produce is cheap either. Transportation costs are high and things that are grown just fifty miles away can be pricey by the time they reach a neighborhood grocery. Gourmet markets in the upscale urban areas of the central valley have more variety of fresh produce, but anything out of the mainstream is priced as a specialty item.

If you have a kitchen, self catering from supermarkets, produce stands and local mercados is going to be the easiest on your budget. If you’re traveling around and hoping to mimic the European picnic plan – grab a loaf of the local bread, hunk of cheese, bottle of wine and sit under a tree in the park eating one of the most delectable meals you’ve ever had for $5 a person or so – you’re not going to do so well.

There is no local wine, the bread is an abomination, and the cheese while locally produced  tends to be bland and expensive.  As mentioned above, prepared and packaged foods are expensive in the supermarket.  If you don’t eat everything you buy immediately it will go bad very quickly without refrigeration or be discovered by an army of ants who will inevitably invade your backpack no matter how tightly sealed you think that ziplock bag is.

If you’re on a budget small sodas and cheap restaurants may be a better option than trying to shop.