We live in the country on the side of a volcano at about 6000 feet, and it is lovely and cool. On clear days we can see the Pacific Ocean from our patio. And in January – why that is the month for earthquakes I don’t know – we get the occasional rumble that let’s us know the Earth is a living thing. We live one kilometer from a village, five kilometers from a town, ten from a city, and twenty from the capital San Jose, the only big city in the country. We have “learned” the city and the country.
For “things you run out of” we shop at the local pulperia - a sort of very tiny general store that seems to be always open. Every village has one or two pulperias, and they are really necessary when you are running low on eggs and you want those that are fresh that day! For the weekly food shopping you will want to make the run to the AutoMercado where they seem to have everything American (more expensive); then to Heredia (or Cartago, Alajuela, Escazu, Santa Ana), any city where there is one of the dozen HiperMas or MasYMenos stores (cheaper).
When I first went in a HyperMas store I said “Just like a Wal-Mart!” (And, of course, two months ago Wal-Mart bought controlling interest in the ‘Grupo’ that owns 200 plus stores throughout Central America, including HyperMas). And there are exotic foods! A sampling would be: mango tierno, limon duke, mansahilla, quanabana, guayaba china, kiwi, purple cauliflower, chayote, ayote, yucca, nampi, tiguisque, name, raiz de choyote, papaya, noni, and five different kinds of bananas!
However, for some really specialty items there is no hope for it but to drive into San Jose. I have never met a person who enjoyed driving into San Jose. More about the big city later on.
Toni is a great cook, and she finds the vegetables and fruits here are exceptional. You don’t know what it’s like to eat vegetables that have never been sprayed by pesticides, and have never had preservatives sprayed or injected. Carrots taste sweet; broccoli, even cauliflower actually taste good! You will also find you will do more shopping if you buy local foods because they will only keep a few days in the fridge – no preservatives, remember?
There is talk that some of the larger farms in the country are starting to use insecticides and probably spraying too much, so we will be rinsing our vegetables when we get them home. Precaution. Last year an article in the Tico Times – the English language weekly that most expats read devotedly (comes out every Friday) – told of a recent lawsuit in neighboring Nicaragua wherein three U.S. companies – Shell Chemical, Dole, and Standard Fruit – lost a suit filed by banana plantation laborers who were sickened by pesticides. (The legal-eagles here have learned something from the U.S. class action suit lawyers). The award was $82.9 million!
There are some food “drawbacks,” to be sure, and meat is one of them. CR does have major beef raising areas in the northwest and the southeast sections of the country but it seems to me that grass-fed cattle do not provide as tender meat as does corn-fed stock. The meat on display in stores has little of the fat marbling that usually means tender beef. The only cut of meat that approaches “tender” is lomita – exactly that word – which is the tenderloin of the finest quality beef, and every now and then we find a really tender piece of lomita. We have tried a regular cut of beef for hamburgers and it is always tough to eat – hamburger! A restaurant owner friend told us that the best meat is always exported. Expats are always discussing where one can find a tender cut of beef. Also, fine cuts of lamb are difficult to find since most of the restaurants get the rib chops, so the shoulder chops are what are available in the meat counter. Veal is very difficult to find, but tender pork is always available. Chicken – pollo (pronounced poyo) – is the staple meat diet of CR. Fish and most seafood is also readily available. The best fish – low cost and delicious – is talapia – although dorado or corvina could take a close second. Also, you can always find octopus and great shrimp, from the tiny bay to the X-tra Large Tiger Shrimp. Some of it is fresh from the shore, and some is frozen, and you really have to question the clerk at the counter. He will, of course, tell you “everything was caught this morning,” so you will have to smell the fish or shrimp you are thinking of buying – really – smell it right there. And question him again. He may relent, look around, and say in a sotto voice, “Si, pero ….” and proceed to say in Spanish that “the fish is a few days old and you can cook it tonight but not tomorrow.” Scallops are also available, but you won’t see much lobster except at the beach.
There really aren’t many foods I had in the U.S. that I miss here. We eat pretty much the same; everything is just fresher and tastes better. There are little things you will learn such as having the bacon you buy cut very thin from the slab – it will be more chewy than you are used to, so have it cut thin. As for eggs, the local ones are always within a few days of immediate! They sell them by the kilo (2.2 lbs) or parts of a kilo, or they come packaged in lots of ten and fifteen and thirty. They do not sell eggs by the dozen – or anything else I have found. Almost all single item foods are sold as five, ten or fifteen, or by weight. Selling by weight means that they mix large, small and medium eggs to get the exact kilo.
The travel books always have a listing of a few restaurants for all areas and in all price ranges. We have eaten in a few of them around San Jose, and found the books were pretty accurate in their quality assessment and cost. The restaurants range from small and special cuisine (French, Chinese, Italian, and North American, etc.) to eateries offering a large variety of meats and fish for entrees. The appetizers, called “bocas,” are usually very good in almost every quality eatery. There are Chinese restaurants everywhere, and the food is really very good and very cheap! The food has a slightly different flavor, and possibly different preparation than American Chinese, but it is excellent all the same.
Now we come to the soda. They are everywhere, on many streets in villages, towns, cities, and on roads in the countryside. The word has nothing to do with the English meaning of soda, but simply means it is a small eatery where you get good basic food at very low prices. These little shops can be just one or two tables in what was the garage or front room of a home, or are an adjunct to a store, or can be larger with five or ten tables with a small kitchen in the back. Sometimes the menu is posted on a piece of wood tacked to the wall with no prices. Sometimes there is no menu and the owner tells you what is available.
In a very small two-table soda in a village where we stopped for lunch, there was no menu. A man having coffee at the other table responded to Toni’s question about having a salad, and he said they were available, so she asked for a simple one when the owner came out of the kitchen to take our order. I ordered a beer along with a simple Tico rice and chicken lunch. A minute later the owner burst out of the kitchen and brushed by us, out the door and disappeared. He returned in five minutes carrying a paper bag. We decided later that he did not have a liquor license, so went and bought the beer at the nearby bar. He was also apparently out of some of the salad ingredients, and bought those for us. Anyway, the salad was gargantuan with everything one could want, and the local beer was cold and delicious. The meal for both of us, with everything, including the tax of 13% was $3.70 Sodas are really fine places to have lunch.
In your first few eating ventures you will find it strange to finish your meal and not be approached by a waiter for more water or anything else. The waiters leave people alone once they are served. They won’t even come around to see if you want dessert and coffee. You always have to signal them. The same when you are ready for the check. They will not present you with the bill unless you ask for it. Polite. But this country is getting more cosmopolitan in that an “eating guide” has been published by the Tico Times that lists over 300 fine restaurants around the country of all different cuisines.
Since I’m a seafood man I do recommend the mariscos (seafood restaurants) in this country. They generally have as good a quality as you will find anywhere. These restaurants, large and small, are in every city and in the countryside. You do have to search them out, so look for a marisco sign. Also, you should know that restaurants usually have two prices on the menu, one before the 13% national tax is added, and the other with the tax – the one you pay. You may also see charges for a small portion and for a large portion. I suggest you ALWAYS take the small portion because it will be enough for even a large appetite. A 10% tip is added to the 13% but it is the custom in this country to also leave three or four hundred ($.60- $.80) colones on the table with a 5,000 colones ($10.00) bill.
You will also see, all along the roadside – any roadside – in the villages and outside them, tables set up with local fruits and vegetables for sale. Anyone can be an entrepreneur here. After trying out the nearby supermarket for a few months we are now back to buying fruits and vegetables at small stores, fish at the fish market, etc. Fresher vegetables, better taste, and lower cost.
I hate to admit it but if there is any area where the food in this country is less than equal to most other places in the world it is in the desserts. They are certainly not the familiar pastries of home, no pies or other regional U.S. deserts, and not the sumptuous delights of European sweets. Most of the cakes and pastries are less sweet than you are used to – the chocolate, especially, is not the sugar-sweet Hershey of the U.S. The cakes and the more flaky pastries are heavier with less-sweet fillings. The reason is, of course, that for centuries Ticos have gotten along with fruit and sugarcane as their sweet, and they really didn’t have much candy and cakes and such. Then America and its soft drink companies came in followed by the fast food giants, and then the candy people, and voila, the population is getting fat and the Health Ministry is concerned! The locals have tried to make good desserts but it just isn’t their expertise. When I need a sweet I dip into our stock of excellent dark chocolate bought by the slab for about $10.00 for 2.2 lbs. (kilo)! It is said that this downtown San Jose factory ships to Godiva.
A note about dining out and staying at that delightful small hotel at the lovely scenic resort you were told about. The Minstery De Ecomonia Industria Y Comercia recently complained that 92.5% of the hotels, and 55.3% of the restaurants do not comply with the law to give customers complete pricing information. This means that when you check out of your hotel at any one of the hundreds of lovely tourist destinations the chances are almost certain you will have added charges on the bill of which you were unaware! The price quoted – as we have found out time after time – was just not the actual price. What to do? When you check in repeat the price to the clerk, write it down in front of her, and then complain with smiling restraint when you are charged more at the end. Then, of course, you pay the bill and “eat” the charge. This fact of “over-charging” hits to a hidden side of the Tico. They will try to get the best of Americans much of the time. A friend recently said that Ticos, smiling or not, are really figuring how to get the better of you. All expats are foreigners, and all are wealthy!
Finally, I’ll say something about shopping “American Style” – which means the PriceMart (owned by Cosco), and Office Depot. There is no difference except American things are more costly here. There is, however, a huge Home Depot type hardware store called EPA (eepah), with home supplies, appliances, and about everything else one needs for the home. This huge EPA has everything else you may need at Tico prices.
And, don’t forget the malls. Before we came here a friend told us about the “huge and modern malls, just like the U.S.,” and indeed they are. Every major area has its large mall, although the best – and most expensive with most American stuff – is the Multiplaza in Escazu, where many Americans live (which means the city has become choked with traffic and people and smog). It is the most expensive place to live in CR. Escazu is soon to have the honor of having the first true Wal-Mart built in CR – the biggest, longest, widest building for a store I have ever seen. They ought to have a moving sidewalk for an old guy to get from one end to the other.