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If you have gluten sensitivity or are Celiac, Costa Rica is a relatively easy place to eat out if you know what to order. This post outlines what to order, how to order, and a few gluten-free restaurant options.
No one wants to get sick on vacation, and especially not in Costa Rica. While many gluten free individuals have learned how to cope with their preference or illness at home, going abroad can cause some nervousness. I totally get it!
So many of my clients ask me about traveling gluten-free in Costa Rica, so I decided to write this post as a guide. I’ll talk a bit about gluten and Celiac disease, give you a list with links to some of the best gluten-free dishes in Costa Rica, and even link to a handy printable in Spanish that will help you advocate with a chef or waiter. Finally, I’ll provide a few Spanish phrases you can try on your own if you want.
The best news? All of Costa Rica’s most popular foods are gluten-free. Salsa Lizano, made of vegetables and spices, is 100% gluten-free. Gallo pinto, a popular side dish featuring rice, beans and Salsa Lizano is also totally gluten-free. And olla de carne, the vegetable beef soup, boasts no gluten.
What is gluten-free?
If you are reading this article, you probably already know about gluten-free. But just in case, or if you want to provide this guide to a clueless friend, I’ll talk a bit about it here.
Gluten is a naturally occurring substance in wheat. It’s two proteins mixed together that provides elasticity in bread- and also makes people with Celiac disease (one of the more common food allergies) very sick.
Some people choose to avoid gluten because they have noticed it makes their stomachs upset or causes bloating. However, there is a class of people with Celiac disease who are unable to digest gluten, and can become very ill when ingesting gluten.
It is important to note the difference between gluten intolerant and Celiac disease. If you are one or the other you know!
Today, the conversation about gluten is becoming more common in Costa Rica, but gluten allergies are not commonly diagnosed right now. There is a fairly good chance that if you are not in the capital of San Jose or in a pretty touristy area then you will need to let your waiter and chef know what gluten is and what you can and cannot eat.
Since the staple of every meal in Costa Rica is rice, beans, and corn tortillas, you know you will always have something to eat no matter where you go. Add in the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables and you will find lots of options!
I do recommend using a gluten sensor such as the Nima sensor when you are in Costa Rica if you are highly sensitive to gluten, or if you are traveling quite off the beaten path. Parents with young children also will appreciate the sensor.
Here is a gluten-free card in Spanish you can print and show to waiters and chefs as well.
Gluten-free dishes in Costa Rica
Gluten-free travelers can find an abundance of gluten-free meals in Costa Rica, and below I have linked to the recipes for many gluten-free options so you can preview what is in each dish before you travel.
Bakeries are very popular in Costa Rica, and they are a gluten nightmare. Cross-contamination would be rampant there, so avoided bakeries if possible. Also, breakfast is often served with toast instead of tortillas, so make sure to let your host know that you cannot have toast on the plate.
Finally, it is traditional to eat bread and pastries as part of the afternoon coffee tradition. Make sure to let your host know that you would need corn empanadas with your coffee as they are gluten-free. They are fried, so make sure that oil is not used for items with gluten in them.
- Gallo Pinto
- Costa Rican Casado
- Chicken Garbanzo Bean Soup
- Arroz con pollo – Chicken and rice
- Shrimp and Rice
- Black Bean Soup
- Sopa Azteca – Chicken Tortilla Soup
- Olla Carne – Vegetable Beef Soup/Sancocho
- Estofado – Ox Tail
- Sustancia de Carne – Beef soup
- Arroz Cantones – Cantonese Rice
- Carne en salsa – shredded beef in red sauce
- Chicken with Achiote
- Caribbean Chicken
- Chayote and White Bean Soup
- Picadillo de chayote
- Picadillo de vainica
- Rice and Beans (Caribbean dish)
- Arroz con palmito
- Arroz arreglado (white rice with vegetables)
These will generally be options with your Costa Rican casado plate, and all are gluten-free.
- Picadillo de Chayote
- Frijol Molido -Black Bean Dip
- White Rice
- Black Beans
- Arroz Arreglado – Rice with sofrito
- Gallo Pinto
- Beef Picadillo de Chayote
- Vegan Picadillo de Vainica con Zanahoria
- Picadillo de papa
- Homemade corn tortillas
- Picadillo de vainica con zanahoria
- Platanos maduros
- Rice and Beans – Caribbean style
Please note that tacos in Costa Rica are prepared with flour tortillas, and not suitable for gluten-free patrons. Fried empanadas in Costa Rica are made from corn masa, but baked empanadas are made with a wheat flour base.
There are so many appetizers that are gluten-free until fried in a fryer that also fries items with gluten in them. Please please ask (Spanish guide below).
- Frijol Molido
- Salsa Rosada (Pink Sauce dip)
- Chicharron (Fried pork belly)
- Yucca Fries
- Beef Empanadas
- Cheese Empanadas
- Potato Empanada
- Black Bean Empanadas
- Black Bean Soup
- Sopa Azteca – Chicken Tortilla Soup
- Shrimp Ceviche
- Empanada Arreglada
- Fish Ceviche
- Avocado and Shrimp Ceviche
- Tortilla chips (if not fried with cross-contaminated oil)
Most all of your drinks will be gluten-free. And of course cocktails are too! Just avoid the beer.
- Blackberry Juice
- Passion Fruit Juice
- Pineapple Juice
- Mango Juice
- Tamarindo Juice
- Traditional Costa Rican Coffee
- Agua Dulce
- Pina Colada
- Agua de Sapo
- Blackberry Smoothie
- Hot Chocolate
Rice pudding is your friend in Costa Rica! It’s a highly popular dessert and gluten-free. A great menu option for Celiacs with a sweet tooth.
- Starfruit Popsicle
- Melcochas de natilla – Sour cream candies
- Suspiros – Divinity candy
- Miel de coco – Coconut Honey
- Guava Ginger Popsicle
- Blackberry Popsicle
- Creamy Blackberry Popsicle
- Dulce de Leche
- Homemade Cajeta
- Copos – Costa Rican Snow Cone
- Arroz con leche – Rice pudding
- Fruit Salad
Related post: Guide To Costa Rican Fruit
If you are reading this, I need help! Please write in the comments or message me your best gluten-free experiences in Costa Rica. Since it’s relatively new, I have not found a lot of options so far. A reader did write me to say that Haciend Guachepelin had gluten free bread and really good gluten free food, and that they were very aware of what Celiacs need.
How To Order Gluten-Free Food in Costa Rica
With the rise in awareness about the potentially harmful effects of gluten in certain people, you will likely find many people who understand your diet. However, if you are off the beaten path or in very rural areas, be prepared to explain what gluten is.
Here are a few helpful phrases when explaining your diet or ordering off of a menu. Here is a gluten-free card in Spanish you can print and show to waiters and chefs as well.
|I’m gluten intolerant||Soy intolerante al gluten.|
|I am Celiac||Soy celiaco/a.|
|Does this contain wheat?||Esto contiene harina de trigo?|
|Is this food fried in a separate fryer?||Esta comida se prepare en una freidora distinta?|
|May I have this without….||Puedo pedir esto sin…|
If you would like to talk to me about a customized itinerary or specific Costa Rica travel advice for your family, (zero sales- just advice!) check out my “Ask Christa” page for more information on custom Costa Rica trip planning geared towards families.
You’ll like these other restaurant guides from Pura Vida Moms:
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