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In my Eating Gluten-free in Disneyworld posts I mentioned that I don’t eat Paleo when on vacation. While I don’t completely let myself go, I like the take the stress of being on a restricitive diet out of vacation as much as possible and honestly, it’s already stressful enough just eating strictly gluten-free. And plus, we only go on a handful of vacations each year so I’m not worried about it as long as I don’t suffer any long term negative ramifications from it (Hashimoto’s flareup or cortisol regulation issues, etc). And add in the whole no-stress thing and some things I just can’t seem to successfully eat at home are perfectly fine for me on vacation. (ah, don’t you love how stress affects us??).
Anyway – so we recently had the pleasure of being able to go to Costa Rica on a family vacation. Yep, that meant me, the husband and our 2 kids. I have been asked many times “Was there a lot to do there for a 3 and 5 year old?” and YES, there is. Costa Rica is a fabulous vacation spot and definitely not one to be counted out because you have young kids. It’s like vacationing in a large, beautiful, tropical zoo with all the wildlife we had around us. Monkeys running over our beach towels, swinging in the trees above me as I read on the hotel balcony, and running across the roof of a nearby house. Iguanas (some larger than my 3 year old) everywhere. We saw sea turtles, sloths, raccoons, crocodiles, butterflies, macaws, toucans, lizards, large scary spiders (though to be honest a spider the size of a pin head scares me), hermit crabs, and all sorts of tropical fish. It’s just pretty incredible. About the only thing I didn’t like was the humidity which seemed to be in the 177% range at all times and prevented me from wanting to wear any clothes. Luckily we were near the beach though so walking around in a bathing suit wasn’t too strange.
The locals are all extremely friendly and most of them speak at least a little English so we had no problems in that regard. Our trip consisted of a few days in the Manuel Antonio National Park area on the Central Pacific coast and then we moved up to the Punta Leona Resort where some good friends of ours had their beautiful wedding. We flew in and out of the San Jose airport which was only a 4 hour flight from Dallas, so it wasn't too bad.
Since both my husband and I are Celiacs (and as a result we assume our children are) we are strictly gluten-free. That can definitely add a lot of stress to travel, and sometimes makes you want to just run and hide under a nearby rock instead of go see the world. But as it turns out, eating gluten-free in a place like Costa Rica is really not too difficult as long as you know a few things:
- Do your research before you go to your destination (or at the very least, while you are there) to find out if there are any gluten-free friendly restaurants nearby
My husband found Café Milagro on Trip Advisor (it’s in the Manuel Antonio Park area) since it had such good ratings for quality food and people mentioned that the menu says whether something is gluten-free or not. Well, glad he found it because this place was FANTASTIC. Not only did it serve the best food we tried all trip but the menu did indeed clearly indicate if a dish was gluten-free or not. It’s owned by Adrienne and Lance, a friendly ex-pat couple who are passionate about good food and producing an amazing cup of coffee. They roast locally grown beans and holy moly are they good. We brought some coffee home and I’m honestly kind of addicted. So much so that I had to ask my functional medicine practitioner what the long term effects for me of drinking caffeinated coffee will be since I can’t stop drinking it – this coffee is THAT good! The restaurant itself has a lovely little patio out back in a garden and regularly features live music too. Just the perfect vacation vibe here. If I could go to this restaurant every day I would (and we did 3 times while we were there!) So glad that my husband did his research though and found it instead of us getting stuck eating some limited meal at another restaurant.
We also heard that the Arenas del Mar resort is supposed to have several great restaurants also serving gluten-free meals but we never did get to try them out. Kind of regret that now, but it's a reason for us to go back!
- Print out a gluten-free/Celiac restaurant card or save it to your phone so you can show your servers what you can and cannot eat
The majority of people we came across spoke pretty decent English but many still didn’t know what we meant by “gluten” or “flour” or “wheat” or “celiac”. Those words just don’t seem to be part of their vocabulary or even if they were, I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable that they truly understood and knew whether it was in their sauces, etc. So these restaurant cards explain completely what you cannot eat and go into detail that it is very important that you do not have any food prepared with it.
- Learn the Spanish for flour and wheat
Sometimes you don’t want to break out the restaurant cards or you just want to double check with a different person (perhaps a different server delivers your food) that your food isn’t prepared with flour. Like I mentioned above, we learned that saying “gluten” or “celiac” pretty much meant nothing to people but if we said “harina” (which is Spanish for flour and is pronounced ah-REE-nah) or “harina de trigo” (Spanish for wheat flour – pronounced ah-REE-nah day TREE-go), the servers would get a total look of recognition on their face. I think their exposure to people with gluten allergies are more common than it seemed but until you speak their language they don’t understand what you mean. But as soon as we’d say that they’d either run back to the chef to confirm and come back and say “si, yes, harina” or “no harina” or they’d point to something else we could eat. It would be helpful also to emphasize this so they take you seriously, like “Muy importante, NO harina de trigo” (Very important, no wheat flour – pronounced moy im-poor-tahn-tay, no ah-REE-nah day TREE-go).
- Know what the safe things are
Most Costa Rican food is inherently gluten-free. They eat a lot of fresh fish, plantains, vegetables, beans, and rice. The most touristy places seemed to have more flour-based options than the smaller, out of the way places. But when ordering something like fresh fish I still found it important to ask for it “a la plancha” (a lah plahn-cha) since that meant grilled and not breaded. (Still also making sure to ask about the “harina” too). Same thing with chicken – “pollo asado” (poy-yo ah-sah-doh) means roasted chicken. Something like Patacones(fried plantains served with guacamole and salsa) are a delicious meal in themselves, ceviche (fresh, raw marinated fish) is typically a safe bet, and Gallo Pinto(rice and beans – pronounced guy-yo pin-toe) is as well. Every morning I would have Gallo Pinto along with 2 fried eggs at the hotel buffets along with some fruit and it was a satisfying meal.
Fresh tropical fruit to snack on is everywhere! (Mangoes on the left, Rambutan on the right)
- The San Jose Airport looks like an American mall foodcourt
This cracked me up. There is a Cinnabon, KFC, Quiznos, TCBY, and Smashburger. We ate at the Smashburger for breakfast on our departure and instead of the hashbrowns in our quite freakin delicious “egg, bacon, and tomatoes over hashbrown meal” got French fries since those don’t have any gluten-coating on them. They unfortunately cook the French fries in the same frier as the gluten products at this particular location (Smashburgers in the US many times try to use different friers) but guess I was feeling lucky because I took the chance. Fortunately, no ill effects for me this time (and I am usually the type who can tell if the same grill was used for my chicken and some breaded chicken, etc).
- Bring your own food for planes!!
We learned this one via our American Airlines flight. We had requested the allergy meal coming out of San Jose (which American Airlines said, “Ok”) and when it came time to get food they didn’t have anything for us. The flight attendants quite rudely said “we don’t do that on these flights, you can eat when you get to Dallas in 3 hours”. Really disappointing but luckily not an emergency because we had brought our own food. It’s just super important to have your own source of food and not to rely on anyone for it. We personally brought a huge bag of non-perishable snacks like Larabars, Epic Bars, etc, half of which we packed in our checked baggage on the way out, used as snacks throughout the whole trip, and then had for the trip home.
Have you been to Costa Rica and have had success eating gluten-free? I'd love to hear from you below in the comments so that others can hear where to go and any tips you might have!
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I am traveling to Costa Rica in three weeks and would love some more information about places you went and where you stayed. I will be in San Jose, Tortuguero, Sarapiqui, Arenal region, and Guanacaste. Please let me know of places that you might of ate at close to any of those! Thanks.
Wow – that sounds like that will be an amazing trip! Unfortunately I wasn’t in any of those places (except in San Jose, where we ate at a strip mall near the Marriott Courtyard by the airport), so i can’t offer any advice on where exactly to eat. We just went to the Manuel Antonio area and then Punta Leonas. But the same tips I offer above should still apply to wherever you go. Enjoy your time! You will see some incredible things!
You really shouldn’t advocate that it is Ok for Celiacs to eat something that has been fried with gluten items. Even if you don’t have a reaction you are doing damage internally. Many people don’t understand Celiac and will take your comment as a licence to eat food fried in a NON dedicated frier. It is important to put accurate info out on the web.
Thanks for your comment Kathleen. While I agree that it is important to put out accurate information, this blog is an account of what I personally did. I seek not to hide behind fake facades and pretend I didn’t eat from a frier that also cooks gluten. That being said, I can understand how someone (like you) might misconstrue what I said so I will update the wording.
YES! I am glad you found eating success in Costa Rica! 🙂 I recently went to Taiwan and was able to slip by ALL of my food allergies while there – which I believe to be a CRAZYYYY feat! ha ah!
Wow, Taiwan sounds like it would be hard to travel to! But I’m glad you had a good experience too. Makes me want to travel MORE!