Grocery Shopping and Food Storage in Costa Rica

One of the first things any one who moves to Costa Rica will need to do is buy foods and cooking ingredients. Grocery shopping here won’t be like it was in your home country.

Please remember I promised to tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly, with the intention of giving you the most objective and useful information possible. What if you’re a true foodie and or prefer to eat organically? You will have to make some adjustments. I covered many of those issues in a previous article, by the way, so I’ll just say I find shopping a bit of a challenge sometimes.

Last June, the first stop I made after landing in TN was at “my” grocery store.  I was only picking up a handful of items for my breakfast, but let me tell you, I was practically drooling, oohing, and ahhing at all the things I used to drop into my shopping cart without thinking twice about it. Fresh organic raspberries! Come to me my pretties!! Real honest to goodness cream with no additives to whip up, yes!  And those nice hormone-free, well-marbled rib-eyes for the grill. Tender little Yukon gold fingerling potatoes. Oh, yes! please! It was positively orgasmic! That’s not how it is at the Mas x Menos, let me tell you.

So you understand where I’m coming from. I am a whole foods chef who ate 99% organically before moving back to CR, and I am a foodie who loves to cook and eat a wide variety of foods. I’m that person who visits grocery stores and farmers markets wherever I am just to see what they have. I learned to love food from my tica mother and grandmother, who were both excellent cooks. Eating well is important to me, and if you’re reading this, I’ll assume you don’t intend to eat out all the time.

First, there are dozens of grocery stores to choose from, including Mas x Menos–x means por or “for” so it means More for Less.  My dad liked to call it the Mas o Menos (More or Less) store which still cracks me up. A few other stores are Automercado, Perimercados, Mega Super, Fresh Market, and of course Walmart. Pricesmart is like a Costco. Automercado is a higher end “American style” store and will carry more imported products generally speaking. Pali is the no-frills cheaper store where you pack your own stuff in bags or boxes. The Mas x Menos is the middle ground store that carries most everything at reasonable prices.

Know that there are very few places open 24 hours, and even within the same chain, the hours will vary widely by location. Generally you can assume 8 am to 9 pm. Selection will also vary widely from one store to the other, even within the same chain. The newer or bigger the store, the nicer, and the better the selection, of course. Most of us end up going to several different stores to find everything.

Many malls here have a grocery store within them, which is quite convenient. Also, because traffic is such an issue, some stores like Mas x Menos and Automercado (and even small ones like Ayni’s) will take your order online and deliver to your home.

Walmart has made inroads here, opening not only Walmart stores, but buying out several of the local grocery chains including Pali, Mas x Menos, and Hipermas, so don’t be surprised to see their store brand labels in different stores. Also, be aware that Walmart stores are nothing like those in the US as far as selection or pricing. Same goes for the Fresh Market chain.

There are still a few non-franchised stores but these are few and far between. Since I originally wrote this, Saretto was picked up by Walmart. I haven’t shopped there since, so I can’t say what’s changed.

Ethnic food shops are scattered all over the country depending on the community, and you can find most Mediterranean and Asian ingredients here, for example, once you know where to look. I’m having to do my own reconnaissance again since several stores I shopped at 20 years ago no longer exist. Of course there will be more selection in the Central Valley, but the community in which you live might have some hidden gems that carry goodies I can’t find in San José. More on hard to find items in a moment…

A pet peeve of mine is the residual fragrance left on everything from butter to paper towels, to boxes of crackers. Ticos love their scented cleaning products and grocery store shelves apparently are cleaned often. I wipe many things off with plain white vinegar as soon as I get home. I’ve actually had to throw cheese away because the fragrance permeated it. I try to buy my cheese and packaged products like ham or butter at Saretto because they don’t seem to use scented cleansers.

Neighborhood markets known as pulperias or abastecedores carry an amazing selection of items crammed into a tiny space, and these tend to be within walking distance of most residential areas. You can even buy more cell phone minutes in these little places. Think of them as a small Tico 7-11 store without the gas pumps. They usually open by 6-7 am and will have whatever you might need for a basic meal. Freshly baked bread, a couple of eggs, milk, a papaya, and the morning newspaper? Your corner pulpería’s got you covered.

Yes, you can just buy the number of eggs you need at many of these little places. A single stick of butter, or a single beer? Yes, those too. Prices are slightly higher in these markets, but they make up for it in convenience and friendliness. Once they get to know you, you’ll even have a place to chat and catch up on local gossip. Of course, you’ll also become the topic of gossip when you leave, just so you know!

Every town has its weekly farmers market—usually Saturdays from dawn until noon, and larger cities have a large central market—generally 6 am to 6 pm Monday through Saturday. Verdulerías are produce markets and also tend to be scattered throughout most communities. Several communities have organic farmers markets. I discussed the issues with produce in the Food Quality in Costa Rica article.

Most markets are safe but do take extra precautions with your purse, wallet, and cell phones—a distracted shopper with full hands is an easy mark. Most farmers markets and city markets have FaceBook pages and websites for more information, by the way.

Pastry and bread shops called panaderías are found on practically every corner. You can often follow your nose to these! Some are better than others. The larger farmers markets will all have baked good offerings, as well as hot off the griddle tortillas and cheese tortillas. The Feria Verde has a particularly large selection to choose from, by the way. Again, the aromas will help you locate them.

Gluten intolerance is increasingly common here and gluten-free products are widely available. Automercado makes a baguette with French flour that doesn’t bother me so much, but you have to look carefully for it. Lactose-intolerance is common among Latin Americans in general, so you will also find lactose-free dairy products here.

In the case of pet foods, I strongly suggest you check out what’s available. I made my dogs’ food when I lived here 20+ years ago because pet food simply wasn’t sold here then. I don’t have pets now, but am aware that product selection here is both limited and costly. Same goes for pet shampoos and so forth. Dedicated pet stores might have more to choose from but turnover is likely slow and prices will be higher. Automercado stores could be your best bet. Update: readers’ comments indicate that PriceSmart has the best prices for pet products.

You can eat relatively affordably here if you stick to local foods, farmers markets, little to no packaged foods, and don’t care about additives or pesticides. However, be aware that food is more expensive here than you probably expect; you won’t want to waste it.

Your biggest hurdles will be learning to do without your preferred brands and convenience foods (I really miss frozen spinach!), and learning to shop more often and buy much less. Also, anytime you are in a different town and can conveniently stop at a local store, it might be worth it to walk the aisles quickly. You never know what you might find.

You will become more resourceful! I learned how to make practically anything from scratch when I moved here to live in 1974. There were no packaged soups, salad dressings, doughnuts, bagels, English muffins, or canned products. I learned to make it all. I currently buy bags of local peanuts to toss into my food processor because peanut butter is both limited in selection and outrageously expensive here. I can make 2-3 jars for what a single small jar would cost me. Ticos did not grow up eating PB and have no idea why we like it so much, by the way.

Read seasoning blend labels (look them up on line) to see what’s in them, and recreate your own. Ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity. I still make my own chili powder, for example. A big bag of Ancho chile powder is crucial for this and even in the US you have to order it most of the time. (Penzey’s Spices or Mountain Rose Herbs–within the US only) Some of the images above show the spices I saw at the Automercado today, so you have an idea of what’s available here. Note: I have never had spices or herbs taken from me upon entering CR, but others have. Luck of the draw I suppose, but foods within original sealed containers should be allowed.

Stores now carry most of the things I mentioned, of course. But you won’t find everything. And you won’t find it consistently. If you see it and can use it, buy it; it might not be there next week, or ever again! If there is a specialty food you are particularly fond of, you might consider bringing packages of it. Pine nuts, almonds, dried porcini mushrooms, and several spices are on my regular “bring it” list, for example, due to price, quality concerns, or lack of availability.

I can buy organic tahini paste here, but can’t find ketchup without high fructose corn syrup in it.  You can buy dried fruits like raisins, dates, plums, and so forth, but don’t expect anything more than a single brand of selection, and forget organic. It’s hard to find dry figs that aren’t candied. And I’ve had little luck finding quality candied ginger. I bring some dried beans like pinto and cannellini not found here. Every kind of pasta is found here, including made in Italy and organic options, and you can find several jarred tomato sauce brands. A few canned soups are always available too. Just understand that anything that comes in a jar, box, or can will cost you quite a bit. I keep a few things on hand for last minute meal options, but I use packaged items sparingly.

You will learn that Polenta is just an Italian version of grits, and prosciutto or Serrano ham can stand in for southern country ham, for example. On the other hand, you will discover products from all over the world that never appear in US grocery stores.

A word about meats: The best beef is exported, and aged beef is practically unheard of. If you’re a steak lover, you probably will not be happy with CR beef. Ground meat is too lean for good grilled hamburgers. I am adding an update here: ten days after posting this article I learned about Hacienda Sur which is producing local artisan beef. Since I have now tried some of their beef I can confidently assure you that they are producing the finest aged beef you can find anywhere, and they are doing it sustainably and beyond organically.  They are a pleasure to work with and I highly recommend them.  I’ve added a link to their site below.

Pork is also now too lean, but is affordable. Local bacon is ho hum and filled with nitrates. Hormel Black Label bacon is found here, but it too is nitrate treated and costly. If you like southern style sausage, you are probably totally out of luck. However, I’ve seen other types in all the stores. Canadian bacon can usually be found at Saretto. Lamb is particularly expensive and cuts are usually poorly done. Chicken is the most popular meat of all and many parts are available separately. Pastured chicken and eggs are widely available–how “clean” they are is another thing entirely. Turkey is sold here, especially in November and December. (On a side note, most other Thanksgiving fixin’s will also appear in Nov.)

I try to buy my meats from local small farms that raise their animals sustainably and as GMO-free as possible, but am becoming more vegetarian by the day simply because I don’t have a lot of confidence in the meats. Having said that, Saretto is my preferred source of store bought meats because they are better quality cuts and not all plastic wrapped. The butchers there are more knowledgeable and helpful most of the time.

I moved back to CR last year with 5 suitcases, of which two were filled with kitchen and food items. When I made my dry-run stay in 2015, I checked out availability and prices. This is something you must do! Everything that went into my suitcases was considered– “is this worth the space and weight?” or is this a “can’t live without it” or “can it wait?”. Repackaging when possible can make a huge difference in space, by the way, and two small packages may be more easily packed than one large one.

I initially brought an entire spice rack complete with 28 jars of my favorite herbs and spices. I brought candied ginger, tomato paste, and chocolate chips. On recent trips I’ve brought organic flour and organic cornstarch because I have yet to see them here, and since I don’t bake much anymore, they last me a long time.

For over 20 years my mom had a list of what to bring me when she visited Costa Rica, and then when I returned to the US I had a short list of what to buy when visiting CR, and now my list is back to what to buy when visiting the US. Sigh….

Just so you know…Storage

Your unsealed sugar bowls or salt shakers won’t work here. Ants will love the first, and humidity and moisture will make the second useless within days. Libby makes some nice little sealed jars that are cheaper in the US, but are available here. My cork top jars are my original 1974 jars, still working fine–I set them on top of my warm toaster oven from time to time to dry both cork and salt out when it’s been raining for days on end. That rice in the salt trick doesn’t really work, by the way.

Ants will eventually find anything sweet or sticky. I keep sweet liqueurs and flavorings in the refrigerator.

Eggs here will keep longer in the ‘fridge, but won’t kill you if left out. The natural protective coating that is removed in the US is left intact here, so refrigeration is not actually necessary. Most of the world consumes non-refrigerated eggs and have fewer issues with “bad” eggs than the US does.

High temperature treated milk is often sold in boxes that do not require refrigeration until opened. They are very handy for keeping on hand. Milk is also sold in plastic bags so you can just pour into a pitcher at home. Saves space, plastic, and shipping weight.

You will be fighting tropical heat, humidity, and pests. Don’t buy more fresh produce than you can use in a few days. Even in the refrigerator, fruits and veggies just don’t keep as long. They’re usually picked within a day or two of ripeness, which is why many people continue to shop almost every day.

Don’t buy large amounts of much of anything, actually. Crackers, chips, cookies, nuts, cereal—they can become stale or soft literally in a few hours, and they are tremendous critter magnets. Same goes for flours and grains including rice, beans, pasta and so forth.

Invest in containers you can seal up—glass jars are best. Zip top bags will also be important. When you get home from the store put all pasta, crackers, grains, flours, etc. separately and immediately into zip top bags or sealed containers. Sooner or later you will find the tiny beetles/bugs/pantry moths crawling or flying all over as they hatch out of a package of something. It doesn’t matter if it’s imported or local food. Check packages carefully before buying—the stores will not take them back because you found bugs in them! It’s a common problem here.

Keeping items separately contained will prevent you from having to toss everything in a cabinet. And those little critters (as well as cockroaches and ants) can, and will, eat through cardboard or plastic bags to search for other goodies close by, which is why I have preferred clear glass jars my whole life. Just store them so that a tremor doesn’t bring them crashing down.

I buy the quart size Ball mason jars at Automercado, and bring one-piece plastic lids with me from the US for convenience. Tops can be labeled with markers and the jars can be stacked on their sides to save space if necessary. FYI: glass storage jars at Pequeño Mundo are often flawed seconds that break very easily.

Use your refrigerator and freezer to store dried fruits like raisins or apricots, as well as packages of seeds and nuts, or even flour and breads. Doing this will save you hundreds of dollars a year; I promise. I set aside one of my produce drawers for that kind of stuff, since I rarely buy large amounts of veggies.

I also keep some herbs and spices in the ‘fridge—paprika, bay leaves, etc. They stay fresher and keep longer there.

This article turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, but people who are preparing to move here have so many questions, I was trying to address as many as I could. My hope is to save you from having those “I wish I’d known” moments. Your comments are always welcomed!

Pura vida!