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Making plans to visit Costa Rica is a huge deal! Many people want to spend Spring Break in Costa Rica, but it can line up with Holy Week, which is maybe not the best time to visit Costa Rica because it is one of the busiest tourist seasons. This post will give you tips and tricks for visiting during Semana Santa, and a list of some of the delicious foods you can expect to try during the season.
Learn About Holy Week In Costa Rica
Like many countries in Latin America, Costa Rica is a primarily Catholic country. The two biggest Catholic holidays are Christmas (when Christ was born) and Easter (when Christ was crucified and died). While during Christmas in Costa Rica, ticos tend to spend time at home, Holy Week means lots of traveling.
Holy Week in Costa Rica is the week leading up to Easter and it’s a very special time. The main religious days for this time of year are Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Many people fast during this time, and abstain from eating chicken, beef, or pork.
Schools and businesses are closed usually Wednesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday. During this time, bus schedules are greatly reduced, and beer, wine, and liquor are prohibited from sale.
Plus, the weather is gorgeous. Semana Santa usually falls at the tail end of Costa Rican summer. Add that to the fact that Semana Santa also generally falls during Spring Break around the world- so some of the top places to stay in Costa Rica are sold out for months in advance.
Because both Costa Ricans and tourists are traveling during Holy Week in Costa Rica, you need to make sure that you have your accommodations and rental car booked well in advance. If you are like me and like to make reservations at the last minute, then Holy Week is not the week for you to visit.
You’ll also need to know that rates for accommodations are much higher during this week because there is higher competition for rooms and AirBnbs. You’ll expect to pay about 25% more for accommodations during this week.
Then there’s the traffic. Heading out of San Jose and well into Guanacaste you’ll find traffic backed up for miles. If you need to take a trip on the ferry, plan to arrive at least 6 hours in advance to secure a spot.
Want to drink alcohol on your trip? Stock up on Wednesday of Holy Week, and liquor sales are completely prohibited. (Yes, even in restaurants, and yes, even for tourists.) Plan to find businesses and shops closed too.
The best advice I can give you? Either skip this week altogether or plan your trip way in advance. I can definitely help you with that if you need it.
Personally? Since I have lived in Costa Rica for so many Holy Weeks, I associate them with long, lazy days spent visiting friends and family and walking through the park before and after processions.
Also in Costa Rica during the week before Easter, a lot of cooking happens. That’s because most Costa Rica Easter traditions center around food- and sharing holiday dishes with family and friends.
So in this post, I thought I’d round up the most popular Costa Rican Semana Santa food recipes for Holy Week in the hopes that you can recreate some of the most popular Costa Rican traditional foods in your home during this Lenten season.
Make Traditional Costa Rican Holy Week Foods
These are the most traditional and popular Costa Rican Holy Week foods, in no particular order. My favorite? Empanadas de chiverre.
Tamal de masa
Tamal de masa is a gluten-free Costa Rican dessert. It’s also known as tamal asado as many Costa Rican homes will make it over a fire instead of in the oven. It’s slightly sweet with a unique texture- sort of like a solid pudding.
It’s served at breakfast or with afternoon coffee. I love to eat it with a steaming cup of agua dulce. If you are celebrating Holy Week in Costa Rica, you can usually find this in bread stores near the cash register.
This Costa Rican tamal mudo essentially translates to a “mute tamal” because it is totally vegetarian, if not vegan. It’s made from a traditional tamal corn dough and filled with either mashed potatoes or pureed black beans, wrapped in plantain leaves, and boiled.
This tamal doesn’t have a ton of flavor or panache and is usually eaten by staunch Catholics who are fasting on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
Homemade bread, or pan casero, is a treat in Costa Rica any time of the year, but people especially make it during Holy Week as they have more time to slow down and take the time to make fresh bread.
Much like the tamal asado mentioned above, many people bake the bread in wood ovens or over a fire, giving it a unique taste. You can find pan casero at many restaurants serving traditional Costa Rican food, and occasionally at bread stores too. It tends to be a bit more dense and sweet than the baguettes that are popular throughout Costa Rica.
Empanadas de Chiverre
These empanadas de chiverre are practically synonymous with Holy Week in Costa Rica because the chiverre squash harvest happens just before Semana Santa.
The squash is broken open and the inside is boiled with a tapa de dulce to make a sweet, thick marmalade. They are unlike anything you have ever tasted, so prepare to have your tastebuds delighted.
You can find these everywhere during Holy Week, but especially in large grocery stores such as Pali and Wal-Mart.
When you can’t get chiverre, pineapple empanadas are the next best thing! These slightly sweet baked empanadas will disappear in seconds.
Dulce de Leche Empanadas
These baked dulce de leche empanadas are made with flour dough and filled with sweet caramel sauce before being baked in the oven. A traditional Costa Rican dessert recipe and the perfect food to pair with coffee.
Miel de coco
Miel de coco is a very traditional Costa Rican dessert most often found in homes as opposed to in stores. You’ll take shredded coconut and add sweetened condensed milk until the entire mixture becomes warm and gooey.
We eat it alone or in empanadas. It’s super rich and delicious.
Sweet empanadas filled with miel de coco? Yes please! Coconut empanadas are easier to find around Costa Rica, and are worth every single calorie.
A twist on dulce de leche empanadas using homemade cajeta. Cajeta, if you don’t know, is just like dulce de leche except uses goat milk instead of sweetened condensed milk. It’s delicious!
Suspiros, which means breath, are traditional meringues. While not unique to Costa Rica, it’s a traditional food you can find at Holy Week.
We’ve been through the desserts, now it’s time for some savory snacks. These savory cheese empanadas are beyond delicious. You’ll use queso fresco in the States, as Costa Rican cheese is impossible to find elsewhere.
This Costa Rican potato empanada recipe combines freshly mashed potatoes stir-fried in white onion, red bell pepper, cilantro and garlic and then placed inside a freshly made corn dough and fried into a golden half-moon shape. A delightful snack or appetizer.
Black Bean Empanada
These black bean empanadas take our hugely popular black bean dip and stuff it inside masa and fry until golden brown. There is nothing better!
Bean and Cheese Empanadas
Bean and cheese empanadas basically combine the last two recipes for an empanada combo that’s sure to please!
Picadillo de Chayote
Picadillo de chayote is a traditional vegetarian dish for Holy Week- the chayote squash is cheap, easy to come by and delicious. This recipe is super low-calorie and absolutely packed with flavor.
Meatless Picadillo de Vainica
Shrimp and Rice
Catholics abstain from chicken, pork and beef on Fridays during Lent, making this shrimp and rice recipe a favorite for Lent and Holy Week. Truth be told, this is one of Costa Rica’s most popular recipes year-round, and Holy Week is no exception.
Fresh fish and veggies marinated in lime juice? I’ll take it!
Black Bean Soup
Should I visit Costa Rica during Holy Week?
Avoid it if you can as large crowds tend to be in tourist areas, and prices on tours and accommodations tend to be higher. If you are visiting, plan to stay in smaller towns or a more off-the-beaten-path location.
What does Costa Rica do for Holy Week celebrations?
You’ll find spectacular religious processions re-enacting Jesus’ crucifixion. Additionally, you’ll be able to sample some of the country’s best foods as listed above.
What is Easter week called in Costa Rica?
Like all Latin American countries, Easter week is referred to in Spanish as Semana Santa.
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Welcome! I’m Christa, a former high school teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. I love all things Spanish and bi-cultural, (especially travel and food!) and you’ll find my observations on life here. Thanks for stopping by