Over the winter I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with the custom-tour company *Costa Rica Family Holidays. The goal was to get a taste –literally– of how founding spouses Stephanie Sheehy and Emilio Zuñiga show their country to families with kids of all ages.
With all the made-for-tourists adventure activities in Costa Rica it’s easy to forget to take time to appreciate its culture and history, too.
Finding Costa Rica Culture Through Its Food
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Kid-Friendly Costa Rica
One thing that CR Family Holidays does well is weaving plenty of authentic experiences in between the morning zip-line and the afternoon at the hotel pool.
In particular, they know where to find good, authentic kid-friendly Costa Rican food. And they can offer options that are as truly local or modified for tourists as you’re comfortable with.
I of course, wanted to know where the locals eat and what kids like to eat.
I learned quickly that food is one of the things that make Costa Rica an attractive place to visit with kids. Costa Rica has a lot of kid-friendly food, and not just the desserts (though there are plenty of those).
Here are some of the foods you’ll encounter and food experiences you shouldn’t miss on your family vacation to this Central American Country.
Tip: If you want to try making some Costa Rica foods at home, Pura Vida Moms has tons of great authentic recipes.
What Do They Eat in Costa Rica?
• Rice, beans, plantains, corn, fruit, root vegetables and meat are the most common ingredients in Costa Rican meals, including breakfast. Aside from salad you won’t come across many leafy greens on your visit.
You’ll see a lot of foods you know from other Latin and Central American cuisines. Costa Ricans have their own arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), pozolé (hominy stew), fried plantains, empanadas, thin flour and thick corn tortillas, crispy tacos and arepas, which are wide, flat flour pancakes here.
• Despite growing sugar cane Costa Rica isn’t known for rum. Locals seem to stick to soft drinks, fruit juices and beer.
• They grow Arabica coffee beans up in the hills; some are top quality. Expect to find warm milk for your café con leche at breakfast.
Top Kid-Friendly Costa Rica Foods
• Most kids eat corn and you can count on corn-based tortillas and bread (pan elote) popping upat meals fairly often.
• You’ll see rice and beans at virtually every meal; usually white rice and black beans. They are sometimes separate and sometimes mixed together and a little soupy.
If you don’t mind your kids eating the same food for your entire vacation this is a good mealtime failsafe.
• Most of the Costa Rican meat dishes we had were stews or cooked in sauce, which kids can be suspicious of, especially away from home. But keep your eyes peeled for roast chicken, and grilled chicken and beef.
Arroz con pollo is easy to find and kids seem to eat it, despite stuff being mixed together (Tween Traveler still hates stuff mixed together). It really is mostly just rice and chicken.
Slim, rolled up chicken tacos are mostly meat without a lot of “stuff” (Tween Traveler also hates “stuff”) and also a good bet for kids.
Make a point of eating fruit and salad on your Costa Rica vacation. It will help to counter the plethora of meat and starch and scarcity of green vegetables.
Fruit is everywhere and in many forms.
• Costa Rica is a big producer of strawberries and also grows blueberries and blackberries. I’m pretty sure they’re mostly for export, but look for them in desserts and smoothies, especially in the higher altitude region where they’re grown (higher altitudes).
• Our tour guide had our driver pull over to a roadside fruit stand one morning and the array of colors and flavors was amazing. He challenged everyone to choose something for the group to try, ideally something we’d never had before.
I recognized dragonfruit and rambutans. Our guide pointed out guanabana, passion fruit, star fruit, loquats, guava and more.
Recognizable fruit included papayas, pineapples and coconut. You’ll also find bunches of tiny “finger” bananas that are much sweeter than you’ll find in the U.S. and that little kids love.
Some of these fruits are intimidating (and awkward) to cut up and eat, but you can find batidos(smoothies) on most menus. Mostly they’re fruit, water and ice, maybe a little sugar with tart fruit. Sometimes they’ll use milk instead of water. A strawberry batidois one of the easiest ways to get some fruit in to your kids.
Desserts & Sweets
• Paletas are another handy way to sneak fruit into your kids’ day.
They’re ice pops made from pureed fruits and sugar (sometimes milk or condensed mild). You’ll see bright colored rows of them in freezer cases at cafés and ice cream stands. If they’re offered they’re usually made in-house.
They’re a refreshing, semi-healthy afternoon treat. I ate them almost daily on my trip and never had the same flavor twice.
• Tres leches cake is the most ubiquitous Costa Rica dessert. followed by flan and rice pudding. It’s a vanilla sheet cake soaked with milk or cream, condensed milk and evaporated milk, giving it a consistency somewhere between cake and a dense pudding.
Have it enough times over that your group can debate which version was the best.
Pura Vida Moms has a tres leche cake recipe for families that want to sample it before they go or who crave it when they return.
• A member of our group who’d lived in Costa Rica went out of her way to make sure we tried a copo, a made-for-Instagram shave-ice concoction that’s sold from street carts.
Most copos layer the shaved ice with condensed milk, powdered milk and brightly colored (usually red) syrup. Sometimes they have a layer of fruit or tiny marshmallows, too.
They look fairly ghastly. But they’re actually a tasty combination of cold, creamy and sweet. If you see a copo cart, buy some shaved ice with everything on it and make everyone in your family try it.
• In addition to fruit, the roadside stand we stopped at had a good variety of hand-made candy.
Most of it was contained some combination of condensed milk, sugar, vanilla, caramelized milk, shredded coconut or nuts.
Some items you’ll only see for Christmas, Easter or around certain saints’ days. I bought some crunchy vanilla-custard flavored natilla candy in December, for example.
Most of the candy I tried was achingly sweet but it was also way more interesting than the mass-produced candy your kids as used to.
These treats are generally inexpensive ($1 or so for a small bag) so if you see them around try a few and see what you like.
Farm To Table Eating
A Dairy Farm
If you drive into the hills north of San Jose to visit the strawberry farms, coffee plantations, or the town of Sarchi, make a detour to Corso Dairy Farm, where a Corsican family has been raising Jersey cows for a few generations. The cows produce milk that is very high in fat, perfect for making ice cream.
You can take a farm tour, which ends with an opportunity to sample the mostly mild semi-firm cheeses they make from their milk.
Or you can just stop for lunch and to let your kids romp in the 2 playgrounds outside the restaurant, next to a field of grazing cows.
Don’t leave (or even drive by) without buying everyone in your family a scoop of ice cream made from the farm’s own cream and eggs. This is full-fat, full-flavor ice cream.
The strawberry is made with Corso fruit, the blackberry and seasonal blueberry with fruit grown nearby. The vanilla and coffee are both quite rich. They offer samples and I tried enough of them to assure you there isn’t a bad flavor in the bunch.
Corso’s website is in Spanish but you can see photos and glean some information.
A Produce Farm
If you spend time around the town of La Fortuna (probably to visit Arenal region), schedule an evening at Arenal Vida Campesinafarm and restaurant.
We got a tour of the gardens so we could see the herbs and produce used in the kitchen and in traditional medicine.
Then we headed into the restaurant where we divided into two groups. My group made tortillas by hand and the other group chopped vegetables for a side dish.
It was a challenge to get the tortillas really flat and round without tearing them, and it was fun to slap them on the hot stove and hear them sizzle.
We explored the farmhouse and it’s antique details while the staff finished cooking, then we sat down to salad, chicken, stewed beef, sautéed vegetables, rice and beans and, of course, excellent fresh tortillas.
The Vida Campesina website doesn’t have information on how to book this dining experience. But it seems that you can book it through several tour companies around Arenal. And of course Stephanie and Emilio can arrange it for your group.
Do You Need A Tour Company?
Costa Rica is tourist friendly. A lot of people speak English; most places take U.S. dollars. You can drink the water and they have first-world medical services if you need them.
But there are still advantages to working with a tour company. There are several distinct regions to visit in this small country. Because of its geography (volcanoes, mountains, rain forests) and limits on development, traveling between different areas isn’t easy or quick.
It’s not a bad idea to having someone to tell you whether to drive or fly between destiantions and to advise on how much you can realistically see in the time you have and how to group different regions together.
Moreover, the geography makes the roads are challenging and the signage isn’t the best outside of San Jose. So having someone who knows those winding mountain roads and easy-to-miss side roads really takes a lot of stress out of your trip.
Moreover, Internet and phone access are not super reliable outside of San Jose. Hotels often don’t have in-room Wi-Fi and the Wi-Fi they have can be spotty. Even if you pay for mobile roaming ($10 per day with Verizon) there will be remote places with no service.
This can make it difficult to research activities and to make or change reservations. So it’s handy to have a local guide to handle all those details.
Stephanie and Emilio make a point of knowing the handful of animal preserves (out of more than 100) that do everything legally and ethically.
They also know which adventure parks have high safety standards, which hotels families will like and which regions are the best fit for kids of different ages.
If you ask, they’ll tell you where to get their favorite Tres Leches cake, too. And probably take you there.
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*We traveled to Costa Rica with the Family Travel Association as guests of Costa Rica Family Holidays. We did not promise any particular coverage in exchange for the travel. Our opinions are always our own.
Photos by FamiliesGo!©