I am writing this on my final flight home from Costa Rica, Houston to Minneapolis. I am seriously dreading stepping off the plane when we land, since we left CR in 80 degree weather, and its apparently NEGATIVE FREAKING 15 with wind chill in Minnesota. It’s supposed to be -28 on Sunday. Can someone please remind me why I live in this state? Why anyone does? Are we all just clinically insane, or gluttons for punishment and discomfort?
I’ve also got a raging headache because despite my best efforts this trip, I ate something I’m seriously allergic to (for the second time). Which is why I decided I needed to write this post, because eating gluten free and dairy free in Costa Rica was a damn nightmare. When traveling, I usually don’t eat strictly paleo, since it’s so difficult. I’ll usually eat some rice, potatoes, corn, and maybe some beans (although legumes and I are not friends). Before going to Costa Rica, as I do before going to any new place, I researched gluten free options and came across some really useless information. I read multiple blogs talking about how easy it was to eat gluten free in Costa Rica, since most of their traditional food (comida típica) is naturally gluten free – rice, beans, meat, etc. After this trip I am led to believe that the people who wrote these posts could not have possibly had Celiac Disease or any noticeable degree of gluten intolerance or they would have been on their a** their entire trip. So let me clear the air here – if you are diagnosed with Celiac Disease or have a gluten intolerance which produces undesirable side effects, DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT assume that the food in Costa Rica is gluten free simply because it should be naturally. ALWAYS check with the staff/chef about the ingredients, because 90% of the time we asked, the food that should have been gluten free was not. Half the places we checked had gluten in the rice – usually from soy sauce (especially around Poas Volcano for some reason). The beans often had gluten in them, and if you’re avoiding dairy, the re-fried beans will almost definitely have dairy in them. The other issue with food here is that they pre-make everything in big batches and serve it throughout the day. This means you cannot just ask them to make you rice/beans/meat without gluten or dairy, because the food is already made. If you have the option of cooking for yourself in CR, this is going to be your best option. The combination of all of this made eating on our trip incredibly stressful, and I ended up accidently eating something I shouldn’t have on two separate occasions. Which really sucks when you’re on vacation and trying to enjoy your time.
So I’d like to give you some tips for eating gluten free (and dairy free) in Costa Rica.
- Learn how to ask for gluten free food in Spanish! I was extremely fortunate to be traveling with my boyfriend, who speaks Spanish and was able to communicate my dietary needs. I would suggest even creating a travel card you could laminate and bring around with you, that says in Spanish everything you cannot eat. Here are a few helpful phrases:
Gluten Free = “Libre de gluten” or “sin gluten”
Milk = “leche” and Butter = “mantequilla”, so Milk and Butter free = “Sin leche y mantequilla”
Soy sauce = “salsa de soya”
Does the (rice) contain gluten? = “(El arroz) tiene con gluten de trigo?” ***You can replace rice with whatever food you’re asking about, and gluten with butter/milk/soy sauce etc
- It was also beneficial to specify that you cannot have wheat gluten (gluten de trigo), since technically corn has gluten as well, and some people assumed I could not at corn as well if we did not specify.
- CHECK FOR SOY SAUCE (salsa de soya)!!!!! Many people would tell me there was no wheat/gluten in something, but there was actually soy sauce in it. Most people did not understand that soy sauce contains wheat 99% of the time, and they will not mention it to you if you don’t ask.
- Most of the fried items (chicharonnes, plantains, patacones) will be fried in shared fryers with breaded items. If you’re highly sensitive to gluten, or have celiac, avoid fried foods.
- The tortillas, even if they say corn, almost always contain traces of wheat. We rarely found corn tortillas, and when we did they were still not gluten free. The only exception is if the tortillas are handmade corn tortillas made by the restaurant, which we only found twice in 2 ½ weeks. To be safe, just don’t eat tortillas here and that goes for the tortilla chips too.
- If you are avoiding dairy as well, make sure you check that there isn’t butter as an ingredient, and also that your food isn’t cooked in butter. There was butter in nearly all of the refried beans I encountered, and most of the fish and plantains were cooked in butter too. Even some of the rice had butter in it. If the food is not premade, some places will accommodate you and cook your food in oil if you ask, but double check when you receive your food. I ordered a meal yesterday (fish, potatoes, and veggies cooked without butter or breading) and I’m 99.99999% sure it was still cooked in butter, because I’ve been horribly sick ever since I ate it. Not fun.
- Again with dairy – check for butter in all of the sauces (even fruit sauces like passion fruit), or just avoid sauces all together. I did not find a single sauce on this trip that was both dairy and gluten free.
- Do not eat at any of the sodas or restauantes around Poas, or even going up to it. Literally every single place was stopped at on the way down had soy sauce in the food. We tried again yesterday and ate at on a place near the bottom (called Mirador Valle), and their food made me super sick despite being assured they would make it gluten and dairy free. I’m not sure what’s up with this area but their food is not safe, go elsewhere.
- Buy a cooler, find a grocery store, and prepare as many of your own meals as you can. I made my own breakfasts 90% of the trip here. We usually only ate out once per day max, and that one time was stressful enough. Some of the cheap cabinas even have stoves and fridges in them so you can cook. Gluten free was pretty nonexistent in little supermarkets (aside from fruit/veggies), but Auto Mercado and Mas Por Menos are larger grocery stores that both had gluten free sections. (Side note: there is no coconut milk here, only almond, soy, and rice milk, and it’s crazy expensive. Like $6 for a quart.)
- Bring food and snacks with you in your luggage! I brought protein powder, some grain-free granola, and a ton of Larabars and RX Bars with me. And it seriously saved me a few times. Having food and snacks with you that you know are safe to eat is super helpful when you’re struggling to find an allergen-free meal.
- Batidos! I drank so many batidos (smoothies). Ask which fruits are fresh, then be sure to order in water (en agua) if avoiding dairy. I also always ordered mine without added sugar (sin azucar) too.
There were some places we were able to eat, but often it required a lot of conversation about ingredients, so it’s super important that you learn how to communicate your needs before your trip. Here are some places we ate safely:
Taco Bar (Alajuela) – This place did not have any GF items marked, but I was able to get a gluten free and dairy free meal by communicating my needs. I ordered the grilled trout meal without butter, since they normally cooked the fish in butter. Your meal comes with a free salad bar, which I would suggest staying away from since it was unclear what the ingredients were in any of the dishes.
TaconTento (Alajuela) – Again, no GF items on the menu but you can speak with the staff about what you cannot eat. The cuisine was Mexican inspired. I had the Hawaii chicken tacos on corn tortillas (the tortillas here were actually corn but you had to ask for them!) without any cheese or sauce (just chicken, pineapple, and bacon). They also had 2 for 1 sangria which was tasty.
Hacienda Guachepelin (Guanacaste) – This was a hotel we stayed at in Guanacaste, near Rincon de la Vieja National Park. A breakfast buffet was included each morning, but again we needed to check on the ingredients of everything before eating. However, they did have an omelette/egg bar where you could build your own omelettes which was totally safe, and they were cooked with oil, not butter. The gallo pinto (rice and beans) was also gluten and dairy free. Plus fresh fruit each morning. I usually ate scrambled eggs with veggies and some fruit. We also ate at the lunch/dinner buffet a few times, but you MUST check with the staff about ingredients. They also have an a la carte menu that has GF pasta on it, but I have no idea about the contents of the pasta sauces.
Citron (Playas del Coco) – A fancier restaurant in Playas del Coco. Again, GF options were not on the menu, but the staff was very accommodating. Many of the items could be gluten free, but still contained dairy, so if you’re only avoiding gluten you’ll be golden here. I ended up ordering the Bangkok Shrimp Curry since it was gluten and dairy free. I also had this bomb watermelon martini.
The Wave (Manuel Antonio) – This was a little restaurant tucked away behind a hotel. It was directly across the street from our hotel, Hotel Coco Beach. The staff cooks everything fresh here so you’re able to order your meal without gluten/dairy. The sauces, however, all had butter in them. I ordered the fish of the day, which was tilapia, cooked without butter and no sauce. I had it with vegetables and rosemary potatoes, again cooked without butter. The food was fantastic and reasonably priced. My boyfriend had the Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), which was also gluten free. They also have coffee and espresso here, which I would grab in the mornings before heading into the park.
Café Milagro (Manuel Antonio) – This was the only restaurant we visited with clearly marked GF menu items! They also clearly mark vegan items which was awesome. Make sure to check for dairy, though, as there was butter in many of the GF dishes. We shared a plate of patacones to start, and for my meal I had the Lomito de Cerdo Criollo. Everything was super tasty and they have live music every night, which was fun. Definitely stop by here if you’re in Manuel Antonio!
Punta Leona Resort (Punta Leona) – We only stayed her one night since we were trying to travel cheap, but treated ourselves to one night in a nicer resort. They have a breakfast buffet that was pretty heavy on dairy, and I didn’t even bother asking about gluten in the other buffet dishes. They had an egg bar here too, so I just had 2 eggs scrambled with some veggies, and some fresh fruit. We also ate dinner here and the staff was SUPER accommodating and seemed to understand my allergies. They made me a fish filet with veggies, cooked in olive oil instead of butter. They chef was so awesome he even made us bananas flambe without the butter (and ice cream on the side)!!
Mirador Tiquicia (Escazu) – This was such a beautiful dinner. This restaurant is high on a mountain top, overlooking San Jose in the valley. Definitely go for dinner so you can admire all the sparkling lights below. The staff here wanting to remind me they are not a GF kitchen, ad cross contamination was a definite possibility, so keep that in mind. I ordered a chicken casado, and everything was gluten and dairy free, but I would suggest still reminding them not to use butter. We also shared a plate of fried sweet plantains, which normally came with cheese on top but they put it on the side for me. These were in a shared fryer, though, so I only ate a couple.
Restaurante Chirinquitos del Rio (Grecia) – The staff here has a friend with Celiac Disease, so they actually knew what I was talking about when I said I have Celiac!! Awesome!! They were also very friendly and happy to leave out dairy when they could (but again the refried beans had butter). I has another casado, which was quickly becoming my staple here, with everything cooked without butter. This is a safe place to eat for Celiacs.