I’d only been in San Jose, Costa Rica for ten minutes when I sat down for my first meal. My group pulled up a chair at RostiPollos, a chain restaurant (but locally-loved) for coffee bean-roasted chicken. The restaurant offered a feast that included yucca, plantain, rice, beans, and fresh pineapple juice. It was an excellent first food experience, but I was itching to hop on the plane for a taste of Limón, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. As we arrived at the domestic airport, our driver Diego waved us goodbye into the terminal.
“You’re going to love Limón,” he said, bolstering my excitement even more. “It’s like being in Jamaica.”
Diego was right. Eating your way through Limón is a blended feast of Caribbean, indigenous, and Costa Rican flavors that made me think about moving to the country. Here’s a rundown of the best ways to experience indigenous and Afro-Caribbean food in Costa Rica, plus the best dishes to try in between snorkeling and sunbathing on this stunning tropical island.
Eat with Costa Rica’s indigenous community
The best way to experience indigenous plates in Limón, Costa Rica, is to go straight to the source: The BriBri. They’re an indigenous group of people who live in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains. Thousands of BriBri people call the region home, and it’s here that they remain connected to many plants and traditional ways of life.
The Watsi Reservation, where the BriBri community lives, takes visitors through their garden to smell, taste, and feel various plants used in BriBri dishes and the chocolate-making process. After experiencing the park, the family at the reservation serves up a medley of yucca, banana, squash, and chicken stewed in onions and garlic and eaten out of a banana leaf. The meal ends with sips of Cas, a Costa Rican guava, that can also be found in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
The Afro-Caribbean influence on Costa Rican food
There are over 200 miles of coastline on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and many Afro-Costa Ricans have called the Limón region home for years. In the 15th and 16th centuries, enslaved Africans were transported to colonies all over the Americas, including Costa Rica, and were forced to live and work there. Another wave of migration to Costa Rica happened in the 19th century, this time voluntary, when many Black folks arrived in Costa Rica from neighboring Caribbean countries like Jamaica in hopes of economic opportunity. Instead they worked on banana plantations throughout Limón, where they were subject to harsh working conditions and Jim-Crow like segregation that forced them to settle near the plantations because they weren’t allowed to move freely around the country.
Though that shameful history of enslavement and forced labor is painful to look back on, generations of Afro-Caribbean people have shaped the cuisine of Costa Rica, influencing the ingredients and flavors that have made their way into the country’s many traditional dishes over the years. In fact, Afro-Caribbean culture looms large in the region, from music to fashion, but food might be one of the easiest (and best) ways to experience this meshing of many worlds. It’s not uncommon to find bananas and plantains in most meals and other spices well-loved in Caribbean nations like ginger and coconut. An authentic taste of Limón is a delicious ode to the Caribbean and West African influences that show up on every plate.
Afro-Caribbean food to try in Costa Rica
Mornings in Limón start with a Caribbean twist on one of Costa Rica’s beloved dishes, gallo pinto. Breakfast consists of a spread of eggs, local halloumi-like cheese, coconut milk-cooked rice and black beans, and a handmade corn tortilla. It’s a hearty breakfast that’s filling for but still light enough to not weigh you down for the day. Gallo pinto parallels one of the most popular breakfasts in Ghana, featuring rice, beans, eggs, plantain, meat, and more. Both are often wrapped and served in banana leaves.
Another version of gallo pinto can be found on Costa Rica’s0. Caribbean coast. At Selva Bananito Lodge—a sustainable eco-lodge tucked in the jungle of the Muchilla Mountains serves their gallo pinto with all the standard fixings, however instead of a tortilla, they serve the dish with fresh baked bread. And in Puerto Viejo, Boutique jungle hotel Aguas Claras’ Papaya Restaurant serves a more traditional version of the dish but with a hint of spice in the rice and beans, which is only right on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
If anything is a taste of the Caribbean, it’s patí. The Costa Rican beef turnover is similar to Jamaican beef patties and empanadas found throughout Latin America. However in Costa Rica, these patties are made using Panamanian chiles for a bit of a spicy kick. Aguas Claras serves delicious patí, but street food lovers can easily find roadside vendors selling them in Puerto Viejo and other popular areas of Limón.
With Jamaican and Tobagonians roots, rondón (Jamaican Patois for ‘run down’) is a coconut milk soup that lands somewhere between chowder and curry stew. It’s a medley of fresh seafood like fish and crab, plantain, yucca, yam, and other vegetables tied together with seasonings like thyme and cilantro. Like gallo pinto, the dishes from this area typically have a bit of spice thanks to one of the region’s most essential ingredients, the Panamanian chile.
If you’re making a pit stop in San José, a visit to Maxi’s by Ricky is a necessity. Located in the San Ana neighborhood and frequented by locals, the homey, outdoor dining restaurant serves up a great bowl of rondón. You’ll find a similar style soup in Limón: rich in seafood from crab to octopus with cassava, taro, plantain, and chiles. You can find other popular Caribbean dishes here, too, like ceviche, Jamaican oxtail, and gallo pinto served with shrimp.