Aside from the fact that very few of the dozens of hotels here claiming to be on the beach (and have ‘beach’ in their title!) are actually on the beach, Costa Rica is not a cheap destination. We’d expected prices to be more on par with Mexico than the United States, but were astonished to find that when it came to shopping for groceries it was the latter, while restaurant prices were equivalent to the USA.
Susan, our concierge at Casa Elsa, suggested we get our driver to stop at the Auto Mercado supermarket on the outskirts of the town of Jaco on our way from San Jose airport to Manuel Antonio, and do a big shop there. It proved to be a brilliant idea. Doing so should be compulsory.
While we thought we’d bought a tonne of groceries at the time, we wished we’d got even more – not only did the selection at the smaller supermarkets like Super Joseth in Manuel Antonio and Pali in the nearby (larger) town of Quepos turn out to be poor, but prices were way higher than they were at Jaco.
The range of groceries and quality of fresh produce was disappointing compared to Mexico, where until then we hadn’t seen such perfectly formed fruit and vegetables since Austin’s Whole Foods or Venice’s Rialto Markets.
In Costa Rica, the quality of fresh fruit and vegetables was fantastic at the Auto Mercado at Jaco, while the stuff on the shelves at the Super Joseth stores looked like it had been pulled out of a garbage dumpster. Even more off-putting were the fridges, which in both stores we shopped at on Playa Espadilla and up the hill in Manuel Antonio, contained the staff’s mouldy week-old lunches and various outdated and unsealed products. Very depressing for foodies, but a gold mine for food inspectors. Let’s put it this way, if chef Gordon Ramsay inspected these fridges on his Kitchen Nightmares program, he’d put crime scene tape across the front of the shops and call the police.
On the bright side, in Quepos, accessible in fifteen minutes by public bus, there is a farmer’s market on Friday nights and Saturday mornings with stalls laden with superb fresh fruit and veg, as well as dairy products, bread and pastries, and a few expat-operated stalls selling American favourites like cookies, brownies and the like.
Our advice is to plan your meals on the plane, have your grocery list ready in case you’re a tad jet-lagged, and do a massive shop at Jaco, where great buys include local salsas, like the ones above, and Costa Rica’s famous coffee beans (check ahead to make sure your holiday rental has an Italian espresso machine and not one of those dreadful filter things) and buy your fruit and veg at the farmer’s market in Quepos.
We visited almost all the supermarkets and grocery stores in Quepos and Manuel Antonio, but ultimately shopped at four different supermarkets belonging to three different chains: two supermarkets in Manuel Antonio (both Super Josefs as they have the widest range of products in Manuel Antonio); Pali in Quepos (which again has the widest range of products at the cheapest prices for Quepos); and Auto Mercado in Jaco (which had the best range of products and the lowest prices of all three supermarket chains). We chose these because they had the best prices and the best range and quality of products.
Our view reflects our reality (over two weeks we spent 246,168 colones (US$493/UK£312) on 164 items in nine shopping trips) and the reality of people who stay at Manuel Antonio and Quepos. We cannot speak for the whole of Costa Rica, only our experiences in Manuel Antonio, Quepos and Jaco.
Below, in the first column you’ll find prices in the local currency and in the second and third columns the conversion to UK£ and US$.
Price Check: a Costa Rica Shopping List
|2 litre water||₡850||£1.06||US$1.68|
|1 litre milk||₡1,000||£1.25||US$1.98|
|Bottle of local wine||₡7,200||£8.98||US$14.24|
|250g local coffee beans||₡4,200||£5.24||US$8.31|
|50 tea bags||₡2,100||£2.62||US$4.15|
|1 kg sugar||₡625||£0.78||US$1.24|
|Jar of jam||₡1,750||£2.18||US$3.46|
|1 loaf of bread||₡1,150||£1.43||US$2.27|
|250g quality butter||₡3,125||£3.90||US$6.18|
|500 ml oil||₡2,765||£3.45||US$5.47|
|1 doz organic eggs||₡1,582||£1.97||US$3.13|
|1 kilo tomatoes||₡1,100||£1.37||US$2.18|
|1 kilo onions||₡2,325||£2.90||US$4.60|
|1 kilo oranges||₡1,255||£1.56||US$2.48|
|250 g pistachios||₡3,850||£4.80||US$7.61|
|1 bottle local salsa||₡2,740||£3.42||US$5.42|
Price Check is a series of posts from every destination we visit where we settle in for a while, that could serve as a shopping list for you to stock the kitchen at the start of your stay, as well as a cost of living index, giving you an idea as to what things cost in that place. We include some basic items to get you started, plus a local specialty or two from the place.