Travel Costa Rica like a local – Top 10 unique things to do
Wondering how to experience Costa Rica like a local? If you’re the kind of traveler that tends to go off the beaten path or if maybe you’ve done the Costa Rica thing before, this article is for you. Here are the top 10 unique things to do in Costa Rica.
As a Costa Rican native who’s lived internationally most of my life, I understand the allure of Costa Rica’s natural beauty. Our entire tourism industry is built around it and deservedly so.
But here we’re going to cover some of the local favorite experiences that typically won’t make it to the list of the standard itinerary. Let’s dive in.
Travelling like a local
If you’re visiting Costa Rica you’re probably wondering how to maximize your time there. You might spend some time at the famous Manuel Antonio Nature Preserve followed by a few days on the beach near Tamarindo or you might even catch a glimpse of the Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna. That’s great, you’re well on your way to having an amazing time in Costa Rica … like a tourist.
The good news is that there are a ton of unique and less touristy activities to enjoy. Here’s a collection of some of our favorites.
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The coffee culture
1 – Visit a Coffee Plantation
If there’s one thing to know about Costa Rica it is that it makes some of the world’s best coffee. The unique variety of climates and volcanic rich soils produce some pretty amazing flavors. While Costa Rican coffee is known across the globe, the average Tico will also enjoy a brew of their local roast.
There are many cooperatives around the country that sell locally-sourced coffee and support the local farmers.
One of the best ways to discover more about the famous coffee culture is to visit an actual coffee plantation. This is a fun experience that gives you a great appreciation of the hard work and care taken into producing some of the worlds best roasts.
You can find one such tour at the Espiritu Santo Coffee Plantation in Naranjo. This area of Costa Rica is famous for its Naranjo Coffee. Naranjo Coffee is produced in one of the coffee growing areas of Costa Rica known as West Valley which brings unique flavors to each roast. The unique flavors include citrus fruit notes, chocolate and sweet notes.
This tour will take you from coffee seed planting, through crop growing all the way to final pour. The tour features all local guides with deep knowledge of the coffee growing process and how to best bring out the flavors from the beans.
You’ll even be treated to a freshly brewed cup of coffee using all the traditional techniques and methods.
As part of the tour you might even be able to pick some fresh coffee buds. Strap on a basket and imagine doing that job all day long!
This is an expansive plantation tour so plan for a solid hour or two. You’ll see the entire coffee bean drying and grinding process. How the beans are stripped, cleaned and prepared for roasting. You’ll also be introduced to the art of coffee bean roasting and the different packaging and storage options for shipping around the world.
At the conclusion of the tour you’ll be able to sample a range of coffees from the region. You’ll also be able to enjoy a whole variety of coffee-flavored products like chocolates, oils and baked goods.
This is definitely one of the most unique and worthwhile experiences to add to the list. If you’re looking to learn more about the different coffee plantation tours available, here’s a list of the 7 best coffee plantation tours compiled by our friends at Costa Rica Experts. Coffee aficionados unite!
The local food
You cannot leave costa rica without trying some of the local foods. They’re usually pretty simple stables of rice, beans and various meats. One of the basics that all locals love are the standard “casados”.
Casados with Gallo Pinto, what is it? Translated literally, casado means “married.” The “casado” is the typical costarican lunch and you can have it anywhere in the country. It usually has: white rice, beans, some type of salad and vegetables, plantains and meat of your choice (beef, pork, chicken or fish).
You might find them served on a large banana leaf which is super authentic. Banana leaves are plentiful and served as natural food serving materials for farmers and workers in the fields.
3) Granizados – “Churchills”
Another local favorite are the granizados “shaved ice” in Puntarenas. “Churchills” as they are also commonly known, evolved in the port city of Puntarenas. It is a refreshing dessert featuring shaved ice with syrup, sweetened condensed milk or even with powdered milk, wafers or ice cream.
According to popular legend, in the 1940s, local shopkeeper Joaquín Aguilar Esquivel became known at local restaurants and food stalls for always requesting the same concoction of shaved ice, syrup, condensed milk and other sweet toppings. The locals thought the shopkeeper looked like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and started calling his frosty beverage a Churchill.
Today, Churchills are a symbol of Puntarenas and are available from small vendors along the beach as well as big restaurants and hotels, and their smaller cousin, the copo, is available in most any Costa Rican park on a sunny day. What’s more, many businesses of all sizes are cashing in on Costa Rica’s Churchill love with new Churchill-inspired products including popsicles, milkshakes, gelato, cake and waffles.
4) Salsa Lizano
Developed in 1920 by the Lizano Company, the condiment is often referred to as the “Worcestershire sauce” of Latin America. It is a thin, smooth, light brown sauce (akin to such condiments as A1 Sauce or Worcestershire sauce). Meant to be used while cooking or at the tableside to flavor one’s food when serving. It is slightly sweet and acidic, with a hint of spiciness lent by black pepper and cumin.
Many Costa Rican dishes are prepared with Salsa Lizano, and it is ubiquitous on restaurant tables in its country of origin. It is commonly used with gallo pinto and tamales, and is also considered particularly complementary with eggs, rice, beans, fish, cheese, curries, and as a marinade for meat.
For years, visitors to Costa Rica have been carrying it home by the gallon jug, as it was not sold outside of Central America. I make a point to bring home a large bottle of salsa Lizano every time I visit.
Salsa Lizano is increasingly available commercially throughout North America through online retailers. The first USA importer was Costa Rican Store in 2003. Lizano and Costa Rican Store worked together to bring containers of Lizano to the USA.
Ingredients: water, sugar, iodized salt, onions, carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, molasses, mustard, celery, spicy chiles, spices such as black pepper and cumin, corn starch, acetic acid, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein.
5) The “Tope” Horse Parade
Tope is the word Costa Ricans use for equestrian parades and the one in San Jose is the most popular and the largest in the country. It is worth noting that “topes” are a tradition in almost every municipality and town across the country.
The Tope is celebrated every year on December 26th, the Day of the Costa Rican Horse Rider in the main streets of downtown San José.
This tradition goes back to the 20th century in which the United Fruit Company imported the cattle that they used in the banana plantations.
Horseback riders herded up the animals and lead them to the plantations.
Today the Tope is a parade where the riders and rancher from across the country show their best horses. The first Tope took place in 1958 and since then it has become a tradition in Costa Rica.
6) Toros – Bullfighting (“ bull running”)
Unlike the Spanish form, Costa Rican bullfighting does not aim to kill the bull, but only to dodge it. In this way, it resembles Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls more than a classic corrida.
Instead of happening on the streets with hundreds of bulls at a time, however, there’s only one bull in the ring arena.
Many prefer this humane variation. It is like a game of evasion where participants enter the ring only to run from the animal. I guess you could say the event’s name is a bit misleading, but the event itself is still plenty exhilarating for adrenaline buffs.
In recent years, the event has drawn internationally known bull “acrobats”. The specialists entertain the crowd by jumping, flipping and “supermanning” over the bulls. The event has turned into quite the multi-day spectacle.
7) Festival of lights – Festival de luces
Held every year on the second Saturday in December, the parade is held around Las Sabanas, the cusp of old and new San Jose on Avenida Segunda (Second Avenue). It is celebrated to mark the beginning of the festival season of Christmas and New Year.
The carnival draws to a close with spectacular fireworks evoking much excitement from the crowd. To get a good view of the procession, locals start gathering as early as noon and settling down with picnic and mattresses, so you may want to be there much earlier than the actual procession starts.
Started in 1996, the Festival de la Luz is in its 20th year in 2016. Other celebrations and carnivals that you may want to participate in are the one that happens in Limon at the Atlantic coast, celebrated in October; Puntarenas celebrates the carnival somewhere between the last week of February to the beginning of March.
8) Football (Soccer) in Costa Rica – Liga and Saprissa
Ticos love to play sports, and there’s no more popular game in Costa Rica than soccer – although the locals call it football! Nothing rivals Ticos’ passion for soccer, and the fans here are some of the most devoted in the world. Without fail you will be able to strike up a conversation about this topic. You will find their passions come out at the mention of either of Costa Rica’s most popular local teams – Liga and Saprissa
Liga Deportiva Alajuelense, known locally as Liga and nicknamed the Manudos, is one of Costa Rica’s most beloved squads, playing in the Primera Division de Costa Rica. If you ask me, they’re the best – but I’m biased as my family has a long history in Alajuela. The club is more than 80 years old and is based out of downtown Alajuela. They play their home games at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto Scotiabank stadium.
Deportivo Saprissa S.A.D., known to Ticos simply as Saprissa or the Morados, is another popular Costa Rican soccer club. Based in San Juan de Tibas in the province of San Jose, Saprissa’s home stadium is Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma, one of the largest sporting venues in the country with a capacity of 24,000 spectators.
Saprissa is widely considered to be the most successful Costa Rican soccer team in history. The team has won the Primera Division de Costa Rica 29 times. Also, Saprissa became the only CONCACAF club to ever compete in the Mundial de Clubes back in 2006, they placed 3rd making them the 3rd best club team in the world. The team is nicknamed “The Purple Monster” due to the color of their uniforms and the loyalty of their fans.
The local products
9) Mercado Central
The Central Market, best known as Mercado Central, was founded in 1882. Built by the city of San Jose, on Avenida Central, and has been a thriving market ever since. It has been remodeled several times through the years.
It is only one square block, and one story high. Yet it contains a maze of crowded narrow walkways, that wind their way between hundreds of small stalls and alcoves jam-packed into this teeming marketplace.
Typical Costa Rican food restaurants are the Central Market’s treasures. Delicious, steaming food is served into big pots for your delight. It is absolutely delicious, with many of the tasty foods following old local family recipes mixed in with a touch of modern creativeness and innovation.
Mercado Central is often visited by tourists and public employees whose office buildings are located in the surrounding areas. However, many people from other provinces, such as Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago, visit the Central Market as well, and enjoy the legendary delicacies at this wonderful place.
10) Visit a Trapiche (Sugar Mill) Tour
Although Costa Rica’s sugar cane production is much smaller than places like Brazil or India it remains a vital part of Costa Rica’s economy. Many of the old sugar mills have also diversified into additional crops such as coffee and bananas.
Sufficient rainfall, moderately warm temperatures, and rich soil fed by numerous volcanoes help make Costa Rica sugar cane exceptional. Sugar cane has, in some minds, a history and reputation similar to that of coffee, gold, and other precious natural resources.
As with other indigenous crops, sugar cane was transported to dozens of locations around the globe from its native origins in south Asia and India. Today it is planted and harvested in more than 100 countries, including Costa Rica.
Visiting one of the many family-owned sugar mills (“Trapiches”) is another unique window into traditional Costa Rican culture. The interplay between farming, land ownership, industry and culture is evident when you spend time at a Trapiche. You’ll be transported back to a time when ox-drawn carts and ox-powered mills were a mainstay of the farming industry.
The El Trapiche tour is perfect for those looking to learn a bit of Costa Rican culture. Get your hiking boots on and prepare for a long but easy-going hike, exploring all of the exotic treats grown here in Costa Rica. As you walk through you will see a variety of crops.
A highlight of these tours is the ability to get up close and personal with the sugar cane pressing process. You will also be able to pour your own naturally filtered molasses to make sugar cane candy. And don’t miss out on trying the freshly-pressed sugarcane juice, lemonade and picadillo de arracache that helps the sugar cane go down!