How to Grocery Shop in Costa Rica (as a Gringa)
Grocery shopping in Costa Rica is a daily thing. Bread from the bakery in the morning and fresh produce were always on the list along with a few small things from local grocers. You do not WANT to stock up too much because the ants will get to your food before you do! Fresh is better!
The property we stayed at was 10 minutes out of Nuevo Arenal, and we drove into town most days for these necessities and often for lunch as well. We had a baby that needed formula and diapers along with our three boys. Our daily "bring everywhere" bag was a combination diaper bag, purse and jungle essentials that could get wet AND still be lightweight. This is the bag that you ALWAYS bring along no matter what. This is the grocery store trip bag.
The essentials: HAND SANITIZER. I cannot stress enough how much you will appreciate having a little bottle of hand sanitizer along while traveling. Germs are foreign when you are travling and can wreak havoc on tiny stomachs (As well as large ones!) PACK SEVERAL SMALL BOTTLES instead of large ones and keep TWO at all times in your everwhere bag.
3 diapers and a half pack of wipes. A whole pack of wipes is too heavy. Keep the full pack at home and pack the half pack or travel pack. I have found 3 diapers to be the magic number for keeping bulk to a minimum, but not risking a run out on supplies.
Mints. When your mouth is dry, a mint helps. When you can't brush your teeth, a mint will stand in temporarily. When you need to bribe the kids with "candy", a mint does the trick. Mints don't stick to surfaces as ridiculously as gum will. Always keep mints.
Hairties, Tylenol, 1 pair of underwear and Sunglasses -- the Mommy Pocket of Happiness.
Spray Sunscreen and Backup hats
Let's start with coffee, shall we?
I had high (HIGH) hopes for coffee in Costa Rica as it is one of their highest grossing national products. Perhaps it was the coffeemaker at the place we were staying or my bad coffee skills, but it tasted like tar EVERY TIME. I picked up three types at the local grocery store and NONE of them turned out well. Let me dial back a bit and start at the beginning... Costa Rican coffee at the grocery store runs the gamut of prices, but a normal bag (above) costs about $2 or 900 some colognes.
Goats and cows are VERY skinny in Costa Rica and dairy products are not in abundance as they are in America. i.e. NO GOOD CREAMER. None. No half and half. No coffeemate. Nothing but little packets of dried milk kind-of stuff - UGH. It was not good. Black, the coffee was OK, but very, very dark. I like coffee dark, but really love a little creamer. Needless to say, one of my best culinary moments on vacation this year was our first meal back in the US (Cracker Barrel!) after not eating all day. 9:00 PM and a cup of American decaf was DIVINE. I am still imagining it...yummo.
Back to Costa Rica groceries though...
These little packs of spaghetti sauce were surprisingly good. You need at least 2 for a normal sized box of spaghetti or pasta.
Squeeze, heat and serve. They cost about $1 each.
Same goes for the baby squeeze bottles. Easier than American baby food actually!
Did I mention almost everything comes in bags? Everything.
I liked these Frijoles (Beans), but Alex did not. The red was my favorite and they are just beans mixed with a green sauce that is the "salsa of Costa Rica". It is a nice condiment (not too spicy) that every restaurant will have, and you should ask for it because the food tends to e a little dry. A small bag of beans like the ones below is about $1 and the larger is $2.
Most spices come in bags, which is great as a visitor because you only get a little bit and you most likely only need that much.
Typical spices are under $1 and you can find almost any typical pantry spice in a decent grocery.
(Our favorite grocery in Arenal is the "Super Christian" down by the football field. There are 2 others in town as well)
Back to baby items...
It is possible to find everything you need, but you might end up paying an absorbent amount of money for it. Case in point -- after 2 hours of driving looking for the WalMart in San Jose, we spent $150 (yes, DOLLARS) on a cheap pack and play. Baby items are EXPENSIVE. We stuck with the Nestle brand most of the time, along with Huggies. They were middle of the road in price and standard quality. They certainly were not luxury items, but everything baby costs about twice what it does in America.
Moving onto chips and salsa. As mentioned above, "salsa" as we know it in the states doesn't exist in Costa Rica, which seemed strange. They make KILLER guacamole with giant avocados and have a green sauce that is a nice compliment to any Costa Rican meal. The chips are terrible though. They are typically round, from a bag (not fresh, even in restaurants) and always taste a bit stale. We were very excited when we found this product:
The only chips we found that tasted decent. They are worth seeking out.
A few more notes:
1. Most grocery stores took credit cards, but the smaller ones only take colognes.
2. Shop only where there are prices. Otherwise, you will get the "white price" for your items.
3. Soft Drinks are quite expensive in restaurants, but good smoothies can be had for a little over $1. Make sure they are fresh juice, not just flavored water.
4. Learn to love guacamole -- it is great in Costa Rica and you can always find it.
5. Buy fruit along the road and not in the grocery store. Pineapples are 3 for $2, as are mangoes and other delicious, fresh cut items. The most stands were on the road from San Jose to Arenal.
6. Drink bottled water, even though Costa Rican water is "safe".
7. Ants will find anything -- even closed plastic bags of food (never opened!) Buy what you need for 2-3 days and grocery shop often. Otherwise, you will throw a lot of food away or eat a lot of ants.
8. The casada is the typical lunch meal of Costa Ricans and includes white rice, black beans, meat, fried plantains and typically some little sides. we had a couple fabulous ones, a few good ones and 1 or 2 not-so-great ones. 2500 colognes is a good price and stick with chicken. The beef is VERY lean and chewy.
9. Ice cream is ok. Haldarias are in most little towns and you can samples interesting (weird!) fruit flavors for a dollar or two.
10. ANYTHING at the "eco lake restaurant" in Nuevo Arenal (look for the signs) is fabulous, inexpensive comparatively and there is free wifi. Alex also liked Iguanas in town and Toad Hall is ridiculous, but the food was tasty. I wouldn't stay there though.