When we travel, our strange diet is both good and bad. It’s bad because we can’t eat in most restaurants and it’s sometimes hard to find food that won’t make us sick. It’s good, however, in that our finicky eating often keeps us from foodborne illnesses when we’re traveling abroad. If there’s one situation where I want to feel healthy and peppy it’s when we’re in a foreign country.
Generally speaking, we try to eat only vegetarian food in restaurants. We bent that rule in Morocco and John ended up with cyclosporiasis after eating a chicken thing that was rewarmed. Cyclosporiasis is transmitted when people poop and then don’t wash their hands before preparing your food. While John was sick and we couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, I bought the CDC’s Yellow Book (a very helpful tool that all travels should carry with them abroad) that details illnesses that travelers commonly encounter. I read it cover to cover and let me just say, there are many illnesses transmitted via the “fecal-oral” route. Needless to say, we like to avoid those.
This is why we tend to get most of our food from grocery stores in foreign countries. And Costa Rica has quite a diversity of different grocery stores to choose from. There are abastecedores or small convenience-type stores that are located in residential areas. These have been helpful to us for certain items, but by no means could we survive off of the food at our local abastecedores eating vegetarian. Costa Rica also has a number of bigger chains too such as Pali and Maxi Pali. According to Francisco, the driver who picked us up at the airport in Alajuela, Walmart is the most expensive place to buy groceries in Costa Rica and Pali is the cheapest. There’s a Pali on the corner at the main bus station in Alajuela along with several fruit and vegetable stands. We buy a lot of our food there.
We’ve been to the Walmart in Alajuela as well as MegaSuper and though in the United States a lot of the same food items can be found in all of the different grocery stores, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Even the MegaSuper in La Fortuna carried a different set of grocery items than the MegaSuper in Alajuela. But we’ve scoped out some basic items and go get a stash of them to get us through a period of a few days at a time at each of the grocery stores in Alajuela. Below are basic necessities that we’ve scoped out at each of the grocery stores here. For a Costa Rica vegetarian or vegan, it is possible to eat well, but you have to work at it to make it happen.
1) At the Pali we buy all the basics like rice and beans as well as our produce. It is the cheapest grocery store where you can buy basic vegetarian or vegan foods in Costa Rica. They also sell some “BioLand” cookies in the cookie aisle. These are free of refined sugars and trans fats. We sort of live off of them when our other snacks get low.
2) We go to MegaSuper for soy proteins. There’s a small display of BioLand products at MegaSuper that even has soy milk powder (which is much cheaper than the regular soy milk that comes in liquid form in a box…soy milk costs $6 USD per box here in Alajuela!). MegaSuper also has dark chocolate free from milk though it does contain some refined sugar. If you like chocolate chip cookies (made with oil rather than butter, of course), then MegaSuper has dark chocolate bars that can be chopped up into “chips” for cookies (Lydian’s oil-based chocolate chip cookie recipe found here).
3) We go to a Macrobiotica El Mano store in downtown Alajuela for bread and some soy hamburger-type patties. There are also some soy “sausages” and “hot dogs”, though the sausages need to be fried or they taste awful. The Macrobiotica place has a number of medicinal herbs and other fun, earthy things as well. The place is located near the MindBody Zone within walking distance from the bus stations. The women there were very friendly and helpful to us though they spoke no English at all. I had them write down the directions to their store which goes as follows: de la Esquina Sur Easte del parque del cementario 10 mts Sur.
Using Costa Rican foods, a vegetarian in Costa Rica can do pretty well, but there’s no Whole Foods here to simplify that sort of lifestyle. We’ve definitely had to shop around to find Costa Rican food that will keep us healthy while we’re here for three months. Overall the food costs in Costa Rica have been very affordable if we shop in the right places (like Pali, for example), but unless you’re used to eating rice and Tabasco sauce for every meal, you’ll have to make a grocery store circuit to keep making interesting dishes that are also vegetarian/vegan and healthy.