By Barbi Lazarus, Donor and Volunteer Resources Coordinator
Before I went to Costa Rica, I was told vegan food might be relatively easy to come by but that it would be bland and repetitive. I was expecting to subsist on rice and beans and fruit for breakfast, and a standard pasta dish at our hotel restaurant for dinner. So I did a bit of research on potential restaurants before we went away, but not nearly to the extent that I normally do when planning a vacation. I had just accepted this fate and reminded myself, this trip isn’t about the food.
So imagine my surprise and delight to find vegan options around every corner and right in my face, without any effort at all. Here are some of the places vegan food just showed up on our doorstep. I encourage you to take notes and make them part of your Costa Rican itinerary when you venture to this spectacular country!
P.S If you want to skip the small talk, scroll to the end of this post for a quick list of vegetarian options in Arenal, Manuel Antonio and Alajuela.
Day 1: We arrive at our hotel in the Arenal area, Volcano Lodge and Springs, and settle in for our first night’s dinner at their restaurant, Sura. On the menu we see three vegetarian dishes: pasta primavera with olives, cauliflower and mushrooms, a Greek salad that could easily be veganized by asking “sin queso” (without cheese), and a grilled vegetable salad. Every dinner starts with a complimentary basket of white buns that would bring either of the salads to a comfortable size for a full meal.
But wait – there’s more! The waiter comes over and starts describing the evening’s special, where he begins listing off various animal products. We politely interrupt and tell him not to worry about finishing as we are vegetarian. He says “Oh! Well let me bring you our sushi menu then.” It turns out, they have an additional menu which includes two vegetarian sushis (classic cucumber and avocado, and a unique plantain sushi too!), as well as edamame and an udon noodle vegetable stir fry.
Day 2: We arrive back at the same restaurant for breakfast and wander over to the buffet, expecting to find just meat and eggs under those shiny silver warming trays. Instead, all but two were vegetarian! Every day there were plantains, gallo pinto (wonderfully flavoured rice and black beans) and a rotating vegetable dish. One day we were treated to cooked green beans and carrots, one day a plantain hash, and one day battered and fried yucca which to me was reminiscent of KFC popcorn chicken. In addition to the hot items, every day there was also a selection of fresh fruit, toast with the most delicious pineapple and strawberry jellies, and rotating flavours of agua fruta (“fruit water”).
That afternoon and each day after we ventured into the nearby town of La Fortuna for lunch. The town is full of “sodas”, traditional Costa Rican restaurants, where the most common dish is a casado: a plate of rice and beans, plantains, a salad and your choice of meat. However, virtually all sodas have a vegetarian casado where the meat is replaced with cooked vegetables. So go ahead and walk into any soda and order a “casado vegetariano.” However, make sure to very clearly state “sin leche, sin queso, sin mantaquilla, sin huevos” if you are vegan, which means, without milk, without cheese, without butter, without eggs, as many sodas will otherwise top their casados with mayonnaise, or give you a side of creamy coleslaw.
We particularly enjoyed Soda Mima whose vegetarian casado also came with french fries!
Day 3: This was our most fabulous day in the Arenal area, hiking the hanging bridges trail at Sky Tram Park. When we got to the end of the trail and walked into the visitor centre, we wished we had planned to have lunch at Chill Out Restaurant because it turned out they had a whole vegetarian section of their menu!
Day 4: After getting bored of casados, we stopped by Chifa La Familia Feliz in La Fortuna for lunch. This Peruvian-Asian fusion restaurant uses a green leaf to denote vegetarian dishes, of which there were plenty. We enjoyed a fresh vegan ceviche and some sort of tofu dish which was sweet, spicy and gooey. A couple of the vegetarian dishes had dairy but the chef was familiar with veganism and let us know which dishes could be modified.
Skip ahead to day 7: We arrive at the glorious Hotel San Bada in the beach town of Manuel Antonio. That night we go to their restaurant Congo for dinner, again not quite sure what to expect, and what do we find but an entirely separate vegetarian section of their menu! In our four nights there we enjoyed pasta, vegetable tempura, fresh rolls, an incredibly delicious vegetable soup topped with french fries (yes), and once again were also treated nightly to a complimentary basket of fresh dinner rolls.
Day 8: A short 5 minute cab or bus ride up the road took us to Falafel Bar, on a hilltop overlooking the ocean. They had clearly labelled vegan items on their menu, including a falafel sandwich with french fries in it (we had started to notice an odd french fry theme by this point, which is nothing to complain about in my books).
Day 9: Manuel Antonio was full of taco joints so it wasn’t difficult to find vegetarian options in general. But we settled on the Hawg and Bill for lunch because they explicitly had several green leaf-labelled vegetarian items as well. We enjoyed gigantic crunchy tacos filled with plenty of veggies, once again all the while overlooking the ocean and beach.
Day 10: Unfortunately every vacation must come to a close but we made the most of our last night in the airport city Alajuela dining at the completely vegetarian restaurant El Chante Vegano. Eager to check out a local vegetarian restaurant in Costa Rica, we went for both lunch and dinner! This gave us the opportunity to try plenty of dishes including “cheesy” nachos, a veggie burger, pizza, falafel and a super decadent brownie for dessert.
Hotels with Good Vegan Options on Site
- Volcano Lodge and Springs: In the Arenal/La Fortuna area. Breakfast buffet included has gallo pinto, plantains, toast with jam and fresh fruit daily, as well as an additional rotating vegetarian dish every day. On site restaurant for lunch and dinner has several vegetarian options including two kinds of vegetarian sushi, edemame, pasta, Greek salad, grilled veggie salad and udon noodle stir fry. Ask for the Sushi menu for the Asian options.
- Hotel San Bada: In the Manuel Antonio area. Breakfast buffet included has gallo pinto, plantains, toast with jam and fresh fruit daily, and most days an additional rotating vegetarian dish like potatoes or hash browns. On site restaurant for lunch and dinner has a separate vegetarian menu.
Check out Marco’s guide to traveling in Central America which includes a handy glossary of terms that will make ordering in restaurants easier.
- Sura: This restaurant is on the property of Volcano Lodge and Springs. See above.
- Chifa La Familia Feliz: Peruvian-Asian fusion with many explicitly labelled vegetarian options.
- Sodas: Go to any local soda and ask for a “vegetariano casado” to receive a meal of rice and beans, cooked veggies, plantains, salad and sometimes french fries. Make sure to ask for it “sin queso, sin leche, sin mayonesa, sin huevos” if you are vegan. We liked Soda Mima best of the places we went to.
- Chill Out Restaurant: This is the restaurant at the visitor centre at Sky Tram Park, and it has a separate vegetarian menu. Note: this is recommended as a great lunch spot if you are going to Sky Tram Park for their great hiking trails, tram or zip lining. It is NOT in downtown La Fortuna.
- Flying Tomato: La Fortuna’s only all vegetarian restaurant.
- Organico: A tiny health food shop. There isn’t actually a lot of food products sold there but they do have a small in house cafe that serves smoothies and juices, as well as sandwiches including a few vegetarian options.
- Congo: This restaurant is on the property of San Bada Hotel and has a separate vegetarian menu.
- The Hawg and Bill: Mexican-style restaurant with explicitly labelled vegetarian options.
- Falafel Bar: Middle Eastern cafe with explicitly labelled vegan options.
- El Chante Vegano: Full vegetarian restaurant. Note: the restaurant does serve dairy in some items, despite it’s name, so be sure to check out Marco’s guide to traveling in Central America for his handy glossary of terms to order without dairy and eggs.