I loved Costa Rica and in this guide you will find my gluten free Costa Rica top tips. This tiny country in Central America has so much to offer: from volcano trekking and white water rafting, to sandy palm-fringed paradise beaches and lush tropical rainforest teeming with wildlife. I had no idea how I would get on as a coeliac in the country, but with a suitcase full of gluten free snacks we set off for a two week adventure. Here are my top tips on how to THRIVE as a coeliac in Costa Rica, along with some gluten free restaurant suggestions and travel recommendations.
Gluten Free Costa Rica
Overview – being coeliac or gluten free in Costa Rica
Generally it is very easy to stick to a gluten free diet in Costa Rica. Many meals centre around rice, beans, meat, vegetable and fresh fruit, all of which are naturally gluten free. It often helps at breakfast to stress that you don’t want any toast with your meal, as they sometimes add it on even if not on the menu. I had no problem at all as a coeliac travelling around Costa Rica and I would go back in a flash.
Take some Spanish language restaurant card print outs
Despite my husband’s reassurance that he speaks Spanish, it quickly transpired that he had over exaggerated somewhat and we stumbled our way through the language with the help of my trusty coeliac gluten free restaurant cards from Celiac Travel. I rely heavily on these when abroad and it’s very useful to have a few with you to give to restaurant staff when you don’t speak the local language. Having print outs, rather than just displaying the text on your phone, makes life a lot easier as staff can take a copy back to the chefs in the kitchen.
Brilliant gluten free breakfasts
Gluten free bread is not readily available in many parts of Costa Rica, but that’s not a problem as the traditional Costa Rican breakfast is rice-based and is delicious. Asking for “desayuno tico sin pan o tortilla” (traditional breakfast without bread or flour tortillas) gets you gallo pinto (rice and beans stirfried with various spices), scrambled eggs (“huevos revueltos“) and fried plantain, often with a side serving of fresh fruit. Give staff your gluten free restaurant card to make sure there’s nothing gluteny going in with the rice and beans, but I had this every single day and didn’t get glutened at all. It’s a very filling breakfast and would keep me going long into the afternoon. I genuinely missed it when we left!
Photo credit: http://blognubevoladora.com/
Car hire – just do it
Costa Rica has much better infrastructure than the guide books give it credit for, however we wanted to pack a lot into our two weeks so we hired a 4×4 jeep to drive ourselves around (we hired from Sixt San Jose – they were brilliant, even when our incoming flight was delayed by 4 hours they stayed open late for us on a Sunday night). Having our own transport made everything much easier and meant we could stock up on some gluten free Costa Rica adventure essentials from supermarkets and keep them in the back of the car.
If you decide to self drive (which I recommend, we had a great experience) definitely rent a sat nav too. We never usually bother, however phone internet coverage in Costa Rica is almost non-existent and you cannot connect to maps on your handset. Equally, there are no road names, very few signs and generally lots of surprises along the way – best to be prepared and everything will then be much smoother.
Also, definitely hire a 4×4. It is pricier than a regular car, but Costa Rica has very few regular roads…when you are driving up a steep hillside on a newly-flattened dirt road, you will be glad for that extra traction!
San Jose – the capital
We didn’t spend much time in the city, but we stayed our first and last nights here.
Villa San Ignacio in Tambor on the outskirts of the city is a nice place to stay. It has really sweet rooms, a kind American owner (who helped us with directions when we got lost at midnight) and a fab pool for cooling off. They sorted me out with a very good gluten free Costa Rica local breakfast here.
On our last night we stayed at the Sheraton in San Jose itself. We did some last afternoon exploring and discovered lots of gluten free food on sale in the supermarket at the nearby Multiplaza shopping mall. For dinner, we ate at The Market restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel next door to the mall – they had gluten free pasta and quite a few other gluten free options so I was happy!
La Fortuna, Arenal Volcano – spas, volcanos and good gluten free grub
An easy drive from Tambor up to La Fortuna and we were rewarded with lush green hills and an impressive volcano looming over us. We ate at various little places in La Fortuna – all family-run and without names, but I gave them my gluten free restaurant card each time and never had any problems with their homemade “casado” meals.
Exploring the Arenal national park on foot, we hiked on a circuit from the ranger station. There are clearly marked trails for some good small hikes past the old lava flows and the pathway winds its way through the enormous Ceibo trees to the volcano viewpoint. If you look closely along the way you’ll be rewarded with plenty of wildlife.
For something more strenuous, hike the Cerro Chato trail (picture below) – it’s quite tough but was awesome. The start of trail is from a hotel/lodge with a proper car park and helpful receptionist who will show you the start of the trail and give you information, and you ascend a dormant volcano covered in cloud forest to reach a crater lake. Pick up a big stick on the ascent if you can spot one and it’s very helpful for hiking up and down. We spotted a few cheeky monkeys on our way up, as well as hummingbirds and amazing flora. There are spectacular views across the plains around the volcano. Take a stash of gluten free snacks or a picnic with you to eat at the top and plenty of water.
It gets sweaty on that walk so cool off afterwards in the waterfall pools near the end of the trail (you’ll see a signpost on the road when you start the drive back down). The waterfall is accessed via a flight of steps and it’s a very beautiful setting, surrounded by jungle. You may even have some zipliners zooming past overhead!
For hike recovery, head to one of La Fortuna’s natural volcanic spas – you can either find the wild ones or branch out and go to one of the spa resorts if you like your volcanic spring to come with a fresh pina colada. We visited the Eco Termales (a bit posher, but busier) and Paradise (more romantic, chilled vibe) spas during our stay and lounged in their lovely, hot spa pools to ease our muscles. We opted for the dinner packages as they were very good value and there was plenty of gluten free food I could eat. The dinners typical consist of decent casado (gluten free choices) with soft drinks – give them your coeliac restaurant card as always, to be on the safe side.
Tamarindo – surfs up, foodie paradise
The draw in Tamarindo is the beach and the sea and the resort is quite well developed (but not in an horrible, over-touristy way, it still felt low key enough). As a coeliac, I had a very very good experience in finding gluten free food here as there are lots of resident American ex pats and English is widely spoken.
First up, we stayed at the Beach Bungalows and we loved that place. Hosted by American Trish, the bungalows are beautiful wooden houses on stilts and they are very comfortable. There’s a nice pool, it’s in a good location and the friendly staff will make you a great gluten free breakfast each day. If you are a dog lover, the icing on the cake are the resident pooches Parker and Stella.
Restaurant Recommendations for Gluten Free in Tamarindo
Sit on swings and eat tacos for lunch! They had gluten free soft tacos and the fish and shrimp tacos were brilliant. We ate here a couple of times for lunch as we enjoyed it so much (pictured).
A sushi restaurant that is very popular with the locals. They have a number of gluten free options and I found it easy to eat here.
We had a lovely meal at the Dragonfly Bar and Grill – they were really helpful when I mentioned I was coeliac and could make nearly everything on the menu gluten free.
A BBQ place that has lots of gluten free options or dishes that can be made gluten free if you ask.
An upmarket restaurant with gluten free options marked on the menu.
Gluten free sandwiches made with Udis bread and good awareness of cross-contamination.
I can’t personally attest to it as it opened after we visited, but I have spotted a few reviews by coeliacs saying that you can get coeliac friendly gluten free waffles here – I need to go back to try this place!
Manuel Antonio – aaaall the animals and tropical rainforest
Manuel Antonio is much more of a tourist spot that any other destinations we went to in Costa Rica – the big draw is the tropical rainforest national park. We had a flying visit, two nights in a brilliant tree house we found on airbnb (we saw more wildlife from our balcony that in the national park, include a troop of monkeys with babies who came to visit one day) and it was definitely worth visiting but the resort lacks personality.
The national park has paved trails and there are beaches you can swim at midway through your walk. Take gluten free snacks and water with you though, as we couldn’t find much in the park itself.
Restaurant Recommendations for Gluten Free in Manuel Antonio
A fancy dinner spot with good food – they were so helpful with coeliac requirements and I had a few gluten free options to chose from.
Book ahead as we didn’t and weren’t able to get a table, but I have seen numerous reviews from coeliacs and celiacs stating that this place is great for gluten free dining.
The menu is marked up with gluten free options – there’s quite a selection to choose from at dinner time.
It’s a bar in an airplane – my husband was very exited about this one…we just had drinks but they do food here too.
Turrialba – white water
Set in the middle of the country, this mountainous town is the place to visit if you like adventure sports. We only stayed here one night for white water rafting and I actually struggled finding gluten free food here in the evening. However, we were pushed for time so I am sure you could find a gluten free place if you could wander around. We did a brilliant white water rafting trip on the Rio Pacuare with Roberto from Tico’s River Adventures – a really professional outfit with excellent consideration for safety and good equipment. They put on a picnic lunch half way down the river and there was plenty of naturally gluten free food that I could eat.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca – Carribbean vibes and GLUTEN FREE BREAD
Beautiful tropical beaches and palm trees galore, plus a relaxed Carribbean vibe to top it all off. We loved the place we stayed at in Puerto Viejo – Banana Azul. They were awesome for catering gluten free in a coeliac safe way and had gluten free bread available for breakfast and lots of options on their menu at the Azul Beach Club.
While you are in Puerto Viejo, I highly recommend a visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center. This animal sanctuary does amazing work in helping to rehabilitate injured, orphaned and displaced wildlife – your entrance fee goes finances this work and you will be up close and personal with some of Costa Rica’s best furry and feathered inhabitants.
Restaurant Recommendations for Gluten Free in Puerto Viejo
The ladies here were great at answering my gluten free questions and we had really good food. Like many places in CR it has a very chilled out vibe, but they really knew their stuff when it came to exactly what was in the food. Good cocktails too.
As above – very helpful chefs who can adapt dishes and brief you fully on which of the gluten free options are safe for coeliacs. I ate there for breakfast, lunch and dinner and felt like I was in very safe hands!
Coeliac friendly, this bakery can make you home baked gluten free bread if you order the day before or long life gluten free bread if you don’t preorder. They also typically have a couple of types of gluten free cake on sale. Good for breakfast and lunch.
Not tried and tested by me, but they have gluten free options on their menu (and dairy free choices too).
Another place with gluten free options on the menu.
Tortuguero – mini amazon, village life
The colourful village of Tortuguero is perched on the banks of a wide river and can only be accessed by boat. Nicknamed the mini amazon, the surrounding jungle is teeming with wildlife and staying here is a remarkable experience, however a lot of other tourists have the same idea so you certainly won’t be the only village visitors. You can either stay in the village itself or at one of the lodge on the outskirts. If you stay at one of the lodges, you can book tours directly with them but we preferred to come into the village and book at the tourist office as then the money goes straight back into the village economy rather than a third party in the capital city. I would highly recommend the kayaking tour – you paddle up the river and through the jungle on small inlets and tributaries – you are more likely to see wildlife this way that on a motorized boat with a noisy engine.
Restaurant Tips for Gluten Free in Tortuguero
I won’t name the lodge we stayed in as I wouldn’t recommend it (rude staff, they were also very intense at trying to get us to pay for all sorts of extras), but the staff at the lodges do all speak good English and are largely a safe bet for getting some sort of gluten free meal.
You can sit on a jetty over the water at this sweet little café, watching the birds swooping over the water as dusk sets in. We had good food here and they have gluten free pasta available, which is great when you want an alternative to rice!
Very helpful with gluten free and aware of cross-contamination risks, plus everything is made from scratch so no worries about ready made mixes containing gluten.
Home-cooked fare – make sure you give her your restaurant card as the menu descriptions might not be entirely accurate. The food was good and I had a good experience, but if you are a nervous coeliac then you’d be better off steering clear.
Once again, this trip taught me that being a coeliac shouldn’t restrict you from getting out there and exploring the world – gluten free is always possible, as long as you are willing to be flexible and have some back up supplies to hand for emergencies. If any of you have further tips on having a gluten free Costa Rica adventure, I would love to hear them :).