Though it’s not that common for locals to be vegetarian in Costa Rica, there’s plenty of options available to visitors who choose to follow a meat-free diet. From the country’s national dish to vegetarian versions of others, finding vegetarian food in Costa Rica is actually easier than you think!
In this post, I’ll share my top picks of what to eat, as well as the best vegetarian-friendly restaurants and cafes across Costa Rica.
Vegan and Vegetarian Costa Rican Dishes
Costa Rican cuisine isn’t widely known outside of the country, but flavours tend to be quite mild, with the focus being on fresh ingredients and wholesome, hearty dishes. I’ve listed out the typical Costa Rican food that is most suitable for vegetarians, or could at least be adapted if you ask for them ‘sin carne’ (without meat).
One of the most famous Costa Rican dishes, Gallo pinto is a simple blend of black beans and white rice with spices, peppers, onions and a sauce called Salsa Lizano. It’s traditionally served at breakfast and is one of the most popular dishes in Costa Rica. Beans make up a good proportion of a Costa Rican diet and are an excellent source of protein, making this a nutritious dish for vegetarians. Gallo pinto means ‘spotted rooster’ in Spanish, and probably gets its name from the speckled colour variations created when the beans and rice are mixed together.
If you choose to have a traditional Costa Rican breakfast with gallo pinto, look out for hidden ingredients not suitable for vegetarians. At one hotel in San Jose, I found bacon in the gallo pinto served at the buffet, which was very disappointing!
Casado is another of the most popular foods in Costa Rican, usually served at lunch or dinner in traditional Costa Rican canteens called sodas. The name casado literally translates as ‘married man’ and is said to get its name from wives serving their husbands at home.
A traditional casado is a full plate of food, combining salad, rice, black beans, corn tortillas and fried plantain. There’s usually a choice of meat or fish to go with those ingredients, but most places will substitute the meat for extra helpings of everything else if you ask.
Another Costa Rican vegetarian dish based on protein-rich black beans, sopa negra is a black bean soup flavoured with onions and spices. It’s most often served with hard-boiled eggs cooked in the soup as well as warm corn tortillas on the side, making it a pretty filling dish. You’ll find it in cafes and restaurants across the country as a hearty lunchtime dish or a starter for dinner. But please be warned: some places make it with chicken stock so make sure you ask before you order.
Patacones are fried green plantain chips served as a snack or a side dish for bigger meals. They are made by frying thick chunks of plantain that are then crushed and re-fried to make them extra crispy. Patacones can be topped with cheese or dipped in salsa, beans or anything else you fancy!
Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants in San Jose
Being the capital, San Jose has a good variety of restaurants that cater to meat-free diets. Here are just a few of my favourites.
La Tortilleria de San Jose Centro
For a really local meal, head to La Tortillería de San José Centro. The menu contains dishes made up of white rice, black beans and corn tortillas with fried plantain, salad, vegetables and cheese. Most dishes also contain meat, but there are a few truly vegetarian options to choose from, or you can simply say ‘sin carne’ if you fancy a particular dish without the meat.
Though it can seem confusing at first, you place your order when you arrive at the front desk and then take a table number to your table while you wait for your food. After your meal, pay at the till in the centre when you’re ready to leave.
Cafe Rojo is a Vietnamese cafe in the heart of the city. Though it’s not fully vegetarian, there are plenty of vegetarian options on the menu and most things can be made vegan too. The salads, sandwiches and noodle dishes are made with the best ingredients, making them all fresh, local and delicious. The cafe is set in a beautiful colonial-style building, giving it a rustic but very welcoming and comfortable atmosphere to eat in.
If you’re still craving vegetarian Asian food, try Tin Jo. Though the main menu features meat, their dedicated vegetarian menu offers a huge selection of Chinese, Japanese and Indian dishes. The food can also be adjusted to omit eggs, cheese or fish sauce to make them vegan. The interior of the restaurant makes you feel like you’re in Asia, thanks to the bamboo furniture and ornaments featured throughout.
Arbol de Seda
This vegetarian cafe in the east of the city serves up a fusion of different international cuisines, including Japanese, Italian, American and Middle Eastern. The food here is widely regarded as some of the best vegetarian food in Costa Rica, but they have been known to serve fish and other meat dishes on ‘special occasions’. Try to pick something off the main menu if you’re not sure.
Tournant serves a variety of food from various different cuisines, including pasta, curries and rice dishes. Though vegetarian options are limited, the chefs might be able to adjust other dishes on the menu if there’s something you really want to try. The restaurant also doubles as an art gallery and event space, with paintings and drawings on the walls as well as in the exhibition space downstairs. Tournant also hosts live music from local musicians on Fridays, so don’t be surprised if you see a guitarist tuning up on stage while you tuck into your food.
Vegetarian food in Tortuguero
Tortuguero is a popular stop for visitors to Costa Rica, thanks to its resident population of green sea turtles that use the beaches to lay eggs. As a small town, there might be fewer places to eat, but vegetarians still have plenty of choices here.
Budda Cafe is located right next to the river in Tortuguero, giving you a beautiful view and a great chance of spotting wildlife as you eat. Despite its name, Budda Cafe serves Mediterranean inspired cuisine, from pasta and pizzas to salads and a great selection of desserts too. Though they serve meat on-site, there are plenty of vegetarian options and a few gluten-free dishes too.
Donde Richard is a rustic cafe set in a beach shack along the main street in Tortuguero. It has a very relaxed and welcoming vibe thanks to its decor and Caribbean inspired menu. Vegetarian options include patacones (deep-fried green plantain) and veggie burgers, but you can also ask for vegan versions of these dishes too.
Restaurante Mi Niño
Mi Niño is on the main street in Tortuguero and offers a good variety of food for decent prices. There are both vegetarian and vegan options here, from burritos to patacones. The cocktails are also delicious! Like Donde Richard, the restaurant is very relaxed and a great place to eat if you’re after a bit of atmosphere too.
Vegetarian Restaurants in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
La Fortuna is a small town, best known as the gateway to Arenal volcano. Despite its size, there is a good amount of vegetarian food to be found here, from markets to cafes.
Organico Fortuna is a health food market and cafe that serves food that is ultimately good for you. There’s a huge amount of choice for vegetarians and vegans, from salads and sandwiches to falafel and buddha bowls. Don’t leave without trying one of their fresh smoothies! The decor here was made for the grid, with wicker chairs, leafy green plants and beautifully presented plates of food.
Nanku is a great option for vegetarians in La Fortuna. They serve international cuisine and their vegetarian menu includes veggies with rice, pasta and quesadillas. The restaurant is designed like a tiki hut, with a thatched roof and staff dressed in Hawaiian shirts. It’s a friendly place to go with a great atmosphere, especially when the sun goes down and the drinks start to flow.
The sign outside Yellow Bark in Tortuguero proudly promises ‘veggie options’ and veggie options there are! You can choose from vegetarian sandwiches and burgers, vegetarian rice and casado, and the portions are as big as they are delicious. The juices are fresh and well worth trying too. At the end of your meal, you can leave a message on the wall in chalk and have fun reading the messages left by others.
At the top of the town and set back from the main road is Rancho Perla. It is a little more expensive than other places in La Fortuna, but the food is good and plentiful. Due to it being one of the largest restaurants in town, it’s often frequented by coach tours and large groups. However, it’s big enough that there will be a quiet corner somewhere for you.
Vegetarian food in Monteverde and Santa Elena
Santa Elena and Monteverde are must-visits on any itinerary, but especially for vegetarians. Some of the best vegetarian food in Costa Rica can be found here!
Amy’s is a lovely restaurant in Monteverde that has a dedicated vegetarian section on the menu. Choices range from veggie rice and fajitas to vegetable skewers and wraps. The restaurant itself is cosy and welcoming, and the food is always beautifully presented with carved vegetables and ‘painted’ plates. It’s located in the centre of Santa Elena so is well-placed for all the area has to offer.
Taco Taco is my favourite place to eat in Santa Elena. Having been unable to meet demand from their small taco truck, the owners opened a permanent restaurant specialising in delicious Mexican food and drinks. Vegetarian options are plentiful but the battered avocado tacos, in particular, are a real treat.
Another fantastic place to eat in Santa Elena is Orchid Cafe, so-called because of its orchid garden set behind the cafe. There are plenty of options for people on a meat-free diet here. If you’re just here for a drink, the coffee and juices are excellent, but for something more substantial, there is an incredible selection of healthy salads, toasted paninis and the best cheesecake in all of Costa Rica. Trust me – it’s amazing.
A little further out of Santa Elena you’ll find Tramonti – an authentic pizzeria and Italian restaurant up in the hills. The menu is huge and gives vegetarians a wide choice of pasta, salads and pizzas cooked fresh in a wood-burning oven. The food is all delicious and served by the friendly wait staff, including the wonderful Italian owner who greets guests as they arrive.
Vegetarian restaurants in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is another popular spot for tourists in Costa Rica, with plentiful options for those following meat-free and plant-based diets.
El Avion is named after the real cargo plane in the centre of the restaurant (yes, really!) The plane is best known from the plot of the movie American Made, making for some great photo opportunities while you eat. The food here is good and the portions are massive; I’d recommend sharing if you’re not too hungry! Though vegetarian options are limited compared to non-vegetarian options, there’s still enough to pick from.
Baldi’s Fresh is a cute cafe opposite the beach near Manuel Antonio National Park, giving you a great view while you eat. Living up to its name, Baldi’s offers great food made from the freshest ingredients. Vegetarians will have lots to choose from, including salads, burritos and nachos, but like most places in Costa Rica, the fresh juices are the stars here!
On the bus route from the beach into the hills, you’ll find Barba Roja. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurant has a variety of veggie options including some incredible vegetarian sushi. But the best thing about this place is the view. As the restaurant is perched high up in the hills, you can see the sea during the day and catch a beautiful sunset over dinner.
Also in the hills, try the Falafel Bar for a fantastic vegetarian lunch or dinner. We were lucky enough to be staying just a few minutes’ walk away and ate here twice because it was just that good.
They serve fresh falafel (no surprise there) with homemade hummus, self-serve salads, fries and warm pitta bread. It’s all absolutely delicious. Menu options do include meat so make sure you select the right thing for you. Tables are laid out in the cafe’s courtyard making it a really relaxing but wonderful place to eat in Manuel Antonio.
Vegetarians really can’t go wrong in Costa Rica. There are plenty of things to eat and a huge variety of vegetarian-friendly restaurants that go much further than the cliched Costa Rican rice and beans. Pura Vida!