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Shopping in Costa Rica, for just about anything and everything, is a change from what you are used to in North America.
The shopping environment in Costa Rica is much more similar to what I experienced in Europe about 40 years ago. By that I mean, chain stores are here and successful. But the native population still depends primarily on the local merchant owners of small stores and markets.
The larger cities in the Central Valley such as San Jose, and Alajuela and ex-pat centers like Escazu and Santa Ana have no shortage of large stores and chains. These carry domestic brands and imported brands (some you will be familiar with from North America and some you will not).
Even with brands familiar to North Americans, the packaging, size, and design vary here to appeal to local necessities and buying customs. You will often find that familiar brands are twice or more what you’d expect to pay for them in the States. So, go native, try the local brands and save some dinero.
I can’t find
And, we have discovered there are things you may never be able to find for sale in Costa Rica.
Diverse examples immediately come to mind:
- Above-the-oven microwave-venting range-hoods,
- Real heavy whipping cream (you’ll need to get friendly with the neighborhood cow or use something from an aerosol can),
- door sweeps,
- weather stripping,
- Crest brand toothpaste (get used to Colgate as they have a near-monopoly here),
- satin-finish oil-based paints (matte and high gloss-si, “satinado”-no),
- paint-trim guides,
- unsweetened shredded wheat cereal,
- in-oven thermometers,
- 12” windshield wiper blades (every size except the one I need for the rear windshield),
- some types of vitamins,
- economy-sized packages of band-aids or aspirin,
- and rennet (used for making cheese).
For fresh fruit, vegetable, and meat items, Costa Ricans rely on the weekly feria (or farmer’s market) held in virtually every community each Friday (and sometimes on Saturday). Many towns also have central markets located near the bus station that is open six days a week carrying many of the same items found on Fridays in the feria in addition to other merchants. For other grocery items, they head for the independent or local chain neighborhood markets.
Every town has several and since many Costa Ricans don’t have their own transportation, I have observed two things:
1) there are always even more local “mini-super” with one, two or three located within walking distance in every neighborhood typically carrying dry goods, some sundries, canned and packaged dairy products, food, snacks, and drinks; and
2) a “queue” of licensed and unlicensed pirate taxis in front of or very near every town’s shopping areas and “supermarket(s)” ferrying locals from home to store and back.
Mom and pop stores
In addition to ferias, central markets and supermarkets, most towns of any size will have a few mom and pop stores. Some stores like “carnicerías” (butcher shops) sell fresh and packaged meats. Some also carry local cheeses. There will also be a “librería” typically providing stationery, sundry items and copying services. I will get into the other types of stores you are likely to find and certain peculiarities related to shopping in the next two blogs.
Costa Rica doesn’t have many “discount purchase” opportunities. Paying cash in many instances (but not all—such as at most chain stores and supermarkets that accept credit cards) will get you your best and perhaps only discount. A word or two is offered here about a couple of specific “discount” chains. Pequeno Mundo is a Costa Rican chain that sells a wide variety of items at comparative discounts. It is a bit like a combination of Woolworths, Michaels, the Dollar Store, and Goodwill rolled into one.
The merchandise is new and 90% of what is for sale comes from China. Many of the items are well-made or of reasonably good quality. However, be on your toes. Many items are not worth the reduced price, but we have found some good bargains there including American items like Shasta-brand sodas and Wheat Thins. Another chain, El Rey, is similar to Pequeno Mundo just a bit more upscale.
PriceSmart is the first cousin of Costco (similar to Sam’s Club) and I have been to three of them here. The merchandising is the same as Costco. They even have some of the same products and brands (including “Kirkland”) there. The prices are usually about twice what you’d expect to pay in the States, but the quality is great and your discount will come from the quantity of packaging sold there. It’s a great bit of home, too, as the walk-up fast food station at each store is taken right out of the Costco manual. Even the pizza is the same.
I’ll get quite specific for a moment. Costa Rica exports most of the premium-grade produced coffee. Hence, we always have a devil of a time finding a local brand with the quality to which we were accustomed in the States. The best brand we have found here is Café Britt. Café Britt does not have a bargain price, but you’ll probably find the best deal at PriceSmart.
I have lots more about shopping in Costa Rica and I’ll lay it all out in my next two blogs.
The author of this blog, Ticonuevo, is a US expat who moved to Costa Rica. Ticonuevo used the services of GoDutch Realty to purchase a property in Costa Rica. Ticonuevo describes his own experiences of taking the step of moving to Costa Rica in his blogs.
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