Traditionally, the Central Market was the place for every type of trade and purchase in Costa Rican communities. Although they are not the ONLY place any more, Central markets in Costa Rica are still alive and well. They continue to buzz with commerce and social exchanges today. They are like the old time country stores where you can find nearly anything you might be looking for and even stuff you were not! It is not only a place to shop and save money, but also a place to experience the living Costa Rican culture.
There is a difference between Farmers’ Markets and Central markets. Farmers’ markets usually happen only 1-2 days a week and typically only for a few hours. They are hosted by the growers or producers themselves or members of their family. Central markets, on the other hand, are established and centralized places with vendor stalls. They are open every day on a typical 6am to 6pm schedule and have a very different atmosphere. Central markets sell much more than produce. No doubt you will be surprised at the variety of items, ranging from spices to leather goods, you will find there.
The central markets (mercados centrales) are different from farmers’ markets in several other ways. In the central market the sellers are independent merchants whose place of business or shop is the booth in the central market. They are like many small businesses all in one central place. Some central markets are run by the municipalities of each city and many are located in enclosed buildings, usually located near the central park.
What can you see in the central market? Well, just about anything! In a central market you can find spices and condiments; fresh produce, meats and fish; leather goods from shoes to belts to saddles; livestock feed; aquarium fish; clothing including school uniforms; cooking utensils; hammocks; jewelry and watch stores or repairmen; medicinal herbs and herbal specialists; and much, much more. Visiting a city's central market while you are in Costa Rica is a “must do”. It is a fun experience for tourists and a chance to experience another aspect of Costa Rican culture. If you are looking for a soccer jersey of one of the Costa Rican teams or Keylor Navas, you can even find these at the central market.
Every town or community in Costa Rica has a central market. With high eco-tourism in Costa Rica, the markets are increasingly a popular shopping spots for both locals and foreign tourists and residents. As such, it is increasingly common for central markets to include a variety of souvenirs.
Unlike farmers’ markets that are open only for a few hours a couple of days a week, central markets are open and dynamic with activity, aromas and amusing commotion 6 days a week. Most central markets are open from 6am-6pm, Mondays through Saturdays. This makes it convenient for people to stop by either on their way to or from work.
Within the central market itself, prices are not usually too competitive. Nonetheless the prices are certainly better than in the retail grocery stores or the small community supermarkets. Without a doubt the quality and freshness is the best. It is likely that you will be amazed at how cheap many items are compared to back home.
There are several added bonuses of shopping at central markets. First, you can examine and pick out the items that you want to purchase. In fact, checking something over carefully is kind of expected. Another thing is that you can usually negotiate the price a little, but do not overdo it. Often foreigners try to negotiate prices way below value (and their ability to pay), which tends to reflect poorly on the buyers. The idea behind negotiating is to come to a win-win price that is satisfying to both.
Another plus are the delicious samples. Vendors are happy for you to taste the freshness, flavor, or quality of their products. They are delighted to introduce you to new things like tropical fruits or local cheeses that you may have never tasted before. Finally, vendors are happy to chat and answer questions you may have about organic farming, the region where their produce is grown, or how to prepare it.
The central market in any community is an excellent introduction into local life and culture in any country and this is also true about Costa Rican cities and towns. For a foreigner it is fascinating to see not only the diversity of products from foods to handicrafts to greenhouse plants; but also to observe the exchanges, hear the sales calls as vendors shout out their daily offers, smell the aromas, and be part of what is the routine hustle and bustle of local life.
If you plan to stay in Costa Rica for an extended period of time, shopping at the local central market is a great first step into transitioning into Costa Rican society and tradition. For example, it is a perfect place to practice speaking Spanish and to meet people, maybe even neighbors or expats from your homeland. Finally, you get to go home with lots of organic or handcrafted items!
Below are some of the main municipal markets that can be found in some of the major metropolitan areas.
El Mercado Central of San José: Is over 100 years old and the oldest enclosed markets of Costa Rica. With over 200 shops, this market takes up an entire city block. It is open every day with fruit, vegetables, fresh fish, herbal remedies, crafts, cowboy boots, and other items for sale at low prices. It is also where Soda Tapia got its start. One of the oldest sodas (local cafe) is in this market, Soda Tapia and this is where you can try traditional Costa Rican dishes like soups, rice, and meat. A number of sodas (food stalls) offer cooked meals within the market. At Avenida Central, San José.
Mercado de Mayoreo: Wholesale produce market, which is open every day except Sunday. The market takes place at Avenida 10, San José.
Mercado Borbón: Selling fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and other produce. Open every day, the market takes place at Calle 3 and Calle 8, Borbón, San José.
Mercado Municipal de Perez Zeledon: This is a large enclosed market selling fruit, vegetables and meat, with food shops and restaurants. Open every day.
Mercado Central de Cartago: A large, recently remodeled, enclosed market. A variety of products including food and clothes are sold. Open every day. The market is held on the corner of Avenida 1 and Calle 4, Cartago.
Mercado de Paraiso: Located in Paraiso, this market offers food and other products.
Mercado de Turrialba: Offering produce and food from the farmers of the region. Open every day.
Mercado Central de Alajuela: This enclosed market offers a variety of food products including fruit, vegetables and meat. Additionally, other products such as clothes, leather goods, soccer balls, and spices are sold. On Calles 4 and 6, between Avenida 1 and Central, Alajuela.
The Mercado Central de Heredia is located at Domingo F. Sarmiento, this large market sells fresh produce, coffee, flowers and more. It is open 6am-6pm, Mondays-Saturdays.
Mercado Municipal de Liberia: This is an enclosed market selling local produce and food. Open every day, the market takes place between Avenida 7 and Calle 8, 9 and 10, Liberia, Guanacaste.
Mercado Municipal de Nicoya: This is an enclosed market selling local produce and food. Open every day.
If you've never been to a Costa Rican central market, I highly recommend making time to visit one near where you are staying. Plan to go for an hour or two and stroll pass the rows of booths. Take advantage to experience local living culture by interacting with the locals, learning a little, and getting into Costa Rica’s famous “pura vida” (tranquil, laid back) rhythm. Enjoy a very different shopping experience while also saving money! As you go, enjoy savory fruits and vegetables and look for souvenirs. If you really think something is priced higher than you want to pay, it is okay to barter but make a fair offer. Your purchases directly support local merchant families. These kinds of purchases are eco-tourism in Costa Rica at its best. My challenge to you is to buy at least 1 souvenir and try at least 2 new things during your visit. It is part of the traveling and culture experience!
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