Food Ain't Cheap In Costa Rica...

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When people move to Costa Rica, they hear stories of how much money they will be saving.  Well that's not all together true.  There are some things you buy here that are insanely expensive and will blow anybody's budget except for (maybe) Bill Gates.

For starters, gasoline is at least twice what you pay in the States but a hell of a lot less than what the Brits pay back in the UK.  It's all relative.  Anything manufactured outside of Costa Rica costs more here because of Costa Rica's excessively high tariffs on all imported goods. However, this month we focus on the cost of food.

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Despite everything you read and hear, when you go to a "supermercado" in Costa Rica, be prepared to spend at least the same as you spent living back in the United States. 

Our food budget in North Carolina, averaged $125 a week.  Since we track every bloody colone spent in Costa Rica on a ridiculously complex Excel spreadsheet, I can say (without a doubt) our Costa Rican grocery bill runs the same as it did in the U.S.  That came as a bit of a shock to us.

The good news is we have stopped buying the "all-American" branded foods and all those fast and easy "processed dinners in a box." We (Andy mostly) now prepares virtually everything from scratch.  No more Hamburger Helper, Shake and Bake, Kraft Mac and Cheese, Lean Cuisine and DiGiorno Pizzas.  We also have stopped eating such (heavenly unhealthy) comfort foods like Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia Ice Cream ($7.00 a pint in Costa Rica).  But that's a good thing, because not only are we saving money, we are eating healthier and our waistlines show it.

Supporting Local Farmers

Another fantastic way to save money on food is to buy your fruits and veggies direct from the people who grow them. 

During our first year in country, we frequented the local "feria" (farmers market) in San Ramon.  There, every Thursday and Friday all the local farmers were selling (just harvested) "frutas y vegetales" in small 10x20 foot stalls.  We would roam the three long isles looking for anything that struck our fancy. 

Now that we live at the beach, things are no different.  Just a short 30 minutes away, in the town of Liberia, we frequent a huge feria with more than a hundred farmers and vendors selling not just fruits and veggies but fresh fish (filleted on the spot) as well as anything else that one can legally sell. 

If we are too lazy to make the trip into town, at 7am on Friday mornings, Carlos drives right up to our front door blowing his horn to the tune of "La Cucaracha."  With his truck overflowing with fresh fruits and veggies, he hangs his scale on a wooden cross bar at the back of the truck and I proceed to pick up our next week's order.   For between 6-10 thousand colones (12-20 dollars), I walk away with enough food to make a couple gallons of fresh spaghetti sauce, a half gallon of salsa, as well as mangos, watermelons and pineapples.  What I especially like about this method of buying is that it is at least half the price of what you pay in the store and it cannot get any fresher.

Comparing Prices

What really blows me away about the area in which we live are the amount of high quality supermarkets serving our community.  Back in San Ramon, a town of about 50-60,000, we had (maybe) three large markets in which to shop.  Here at the beach, with a transient population considerably less than San Ramon, we have no less than SIX major food retailers.  Ironically, we have only one gas station.  Rule #1: DON'T ASK WHY!

For several weeks, Fran and I have been visiting each of these markets and building a data sheet which contains product description, units of measure and prices.  This way we are able to validate, not just the availability of the products but their comparative prices. 

The stores ranged from the perceived low-end market (Pali) up to the super gringo AutoMercado.  Our assumption was that AutoMercado was (across the board) way more more expensive than everybody else, but as the survey will reveal, all is not so.

I Got Tossed For Comparing...

While researching this article, a friend of mine told me that I should check out the local "MegaSuper" store in Playas del Coco for he saves (on average) 30% shopping at that store.  Well, with shopping cart and clipboard in hand, we proceeded to begin buying a few items and writing down prices.  It was at that time I was approached by the store manager and his trusty interpreter.  They informed me that it was illegal and against store policy to write down prices.  I kept my cool while thinking to myself that this guy is being one major asshole.  I explained to him (via the interpreter) what I was doing but he would not hear of it.  Realizing that I was talking to a stone wall, I told him...

"No voy a comprar alimentos en su tienda!

I am not going to buy groceries at your store!  

He looked at me and he smiled as if he didn't give a rats ass... and he didn't.  However, I think I know the reason for his actions... what few prices I was able to check were extraordinarily high... even higher than the super gringo AutoMercado.  Needless to say, I've scratched SuperMega from my list of places to shop.

My Spreadsheet

What made comparing prices so difficult is that not all the stores carried the same items.  And when they did, in many instances the package counts were different.   One store would sell sweet peppers by the "each" while some sold them by the kilo.  One store sold pasta in a 250 gram bag while another store sold the same product in a 370 gram bag.  It makes no sense, but hey... this is Costa Rica.  See Rule #1 above!

Here are stores we visited.  All are located within Guanacaste province and in Playa del Coco.
Pali Maxi Bodega Super Luperon AutoMercado


So What's The Bottom Line?

I am attaching for download, the most current spreadsheet containing comparative prices.  Periodically I will try to update the list, but truth be told, this may be a one-time only thing.

As you can see, the Walmart owned Pali, which I suspected to be the least expensive (across the board), was not. Pali was the most difficult to get direct price comparisons because of all the off brands they carry.  I hope to have a more detailed listing of Pali's products in the next newsletter.  

Conversly, I assumed AutoMercado would be the highest price store but they were not.  If there was one clear winner in this assessment, the edge would go to Maxi Bodega (also owned by Walmart).  They seemed to have items found in most other stores.

Fresh vegetables and fruits are all more expensive at all the big markets by a factor of 300% or more.  In just one example, a single pineapple can cost between ˘705 and ˘895.  However, at the local farmers market, I can buy three pineapples for ˘1000!

The same thing can be said for fresh fish.  If I want to save huge bucks, we'll do a day trip south to the town of Puntarenas.  Sure its a 2 hour drive but we tie it into other things like visiting our friends Deb and Rob in Esparza.  At the fishing docks in Puntarenas, I can buy enormous jumbo shrimp for ˘8500 per kilo.  Here in the stores, it will run ˘17,000 to 21,000 per kilo.  The same can be said for other fresh fishes such as Pargo (Red Snapper), Mahi Mahi (Dolphin) and Tuna.  See related story on the Foodsaver.

I think it really boils down to quality and convenience.  To traipse all over town just to save a few colones makes no sense.  For me and Fran, the most convenient store is Super Luperon.  Their prices are almost equal to Maxi Bodega and their supply of items are more than adequate.  Maxi Bodega is our second choice but it is located in Liberia, a 30 minute drive away. 

Shopping at Pali is interesting, especially at check out.  You better bring your own bags or be prepared to pay for "nuevas bolsas de plástico" (new plastic bags).

Now, if you are jonesing (craving) for traditional gringo food items available nowhere else, then AutoMercado is the place for you.  AutoMercado is virtually indistinguishable from any "typical" super market you find back in North America, but be prepared to pay for this shopping experience.  While some items, mostly a few cleaning supplies, can be lower, as a rule AutoMercado will hit your wallet the hardest of all the stores reviewed.

So there ya have it.  Please don't accept my data as being definitive.  My resources are small and the energy needed to maintain this commitment is even smaller. 

If you have information that either supports or contradicts my data, I'd like to hear about it.  Email me here.


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