Eating healthy on a budget isn’t easy, especially in touristy cities. Find out how we eat healthy for less in Tamarindo!
Growing up in uber expensive NYC, I’m rarely surprised by overpriced meals and often floored by even moderately good value. Since becoming permanent travelers however, we’ve become a lot more conscious about our food budget. By now we’ve developed such a wealth of tips and tricks that I definitely foresee eating healthy on a budget becoming a whole series!
For now, we’ll just start with Tamarindo! Let’s face it, eating in a touristy Costa Rican town can sometimes feel like shopping on Rodeo Drive. It’s way too expensive, and you likely won’t get a lot for what you’ll spend. Here are our best tips and tricks for getting the most bang out of your buck while eating healthy on a budget in Tamarindo.
Tips for Eating Healthy on a Budget in Tamarindo
What We Focus On
My boyfriend is a lifelong athlete, gymnast, and Crossfitter while I spent 4 years as a fitness and swimsuit model (now just surf and hike for exercise) so we both eat a lot. Volume of food is a big deal for us, so we like to focus on getting the most value (in terms of taste, amount, and nutrition) out of every meal. This is the strategy we’ve developed for surviving in Tamarindo.
Eat Like a Costa Rican
What astounds me about touristy towns like Tamarindo is how expensive things can be even as most locals are living in poverty. Take a page from them on eating economically by buying freshly caught fish to cook yourself, and eating at small local restaurants serving traditional meals like casado and gallo pinto (usually 2-3k colones, compared to the sometimes 5-6k colones you might pay for these simple rice and bean dishes at a Western-style restaurant!).
Sometimes you may see women selling casados out of the back of a car, or empanadas on the street around lunchtime. Most of their business comes from locals working in town, but don’t be afraid to try them as a tourist! They’ll probably be the cheapest meal you’ll find in Tamarindo, or any part of Costa Rica.
MAKE YOUR OWN CASADO
A commonly-made dish in Costa Rican homes is the “Casado.” Usually, this means a scoop each of rice, beans, plantains, salad, and sometimes egg, cheese, or another protein. Rice and beans are usually the cheapest things you will find in any Super. (They’re a great combination of carbs and protein to refuel after a morning surf session!) However, we’ve found that staying in hostels makes cooking in large batches difficult, so this might work better if you have your own apartment.
As a general rule, anytime you’re willing to buy and cook your own food you’ll save some money over eating out in restaurant. However, that gap narrows a lot in Tamarindo. Grocery store prices are so marked up that eating out in Tamarindo doesn’t cost much more than cooking for yourself.
Saving Money on Groceries
To get the best prices on groceries, you’ll have to go to one of the larger supers like the Automercado or Megasuper outside of town. Unfortunately, the cost of the taxi, car or bike rental there may wipe out any savings you get for going!
Within town, there are some (but small) price differences between the supers. For example, the Super 2001 and the Super Compro are just a few minutes walk from each other in the center of town. The Compro is cheaper on almost everything (even the same products!). However, the Super 2001 has things like tofu which the Compro doesn’t.
Don’t Buy Bottled Water
Bottled water isn’t super expensive but is unnecessary unless you have a sensitive stomach. I went through Asia drinking exclusively bottled water, but refilled my bottles from the tap in Costa Rica with no issue. It costs about $2 for a 2 liter bottle, or you can pay $4 for a 6 liter to keep at home and refill smaller bottles from that.
Forget the Brand Names
A key component of eating healthy on a budget is not being obsessed with brands. For example, the supers in Costa Rica stock both Tostitos and a local brand called Mejitos. They basically taste the same, but one costs $5 (3k CRC) while the other costs $2 (1k CRC).
Most American snacks or products have a local equivalent here which will be cheaper than than the imported version. The Costa Rican version of Cheetos is called Quesitos. Jake disagrees, but I think it tastes even better because it doesn’t have that strong artificial cheese flavor!
Eating Healthy On A Budget While Staying in Hostels
Our Typical Grocery List
Avocados – Most Supers we’ve been to are well-stocked with ripe avocados that they sell by weight. They usually come out to about $1 each. It isn’t cheap per se, but a great value in terms of nutrition and calories. Plus it can be a tasty addition to homemade casado!
Chips and Dip – Local brand salsa (~$2) and jumbo Mejitos tortilla chips (~$2) are a cheap snack we can have any time of day without guilt. Mashing a half cup of store-bought salsa with half of a chopped-up avocado is also a quick and dirty way to make what we call “easy guac.”
Bread – By this I mean the bagged loaves of bread, because the baguettes I’ve bought from the Super 2001 were not good. Bread is cheap (about $3 for a grande bag) and serves many purposes from avocado or peanut butter on toast for breakfast, to grilled cheese lunches.
Nuts – We brought an economy-size bag of unsalted mixed nuts from home, and went through it in a week! We questioned whether to replenish our stock because it’s so much more expensive here. In the end, the benefits outweighed the cost. Nuts are rich in protein and calories, and are easy to snack on throughout the day. In other words, it has high relative value compared to other foods. The cheapest we’ve found it for is ~$4 for 9 oz. (a 3-pack of 3-oz/85g bags) at the Super Compro near the Sunset Hostel.
Eating Salads for Volume
There’s just something about being in the tropics though that makes me crave light refreshing meals like salads and smoothies. Salads in restaurants average about 3-4k colones ($6-8) which is expensive, but probably the most cost-efficient way to get your greens if you don’t have a kitchen to cook.
Unfortunately the fresh produce in supers always seem to cost way more than the ugly-looking ones. Without a kitchen, fridge space, and storage containers, it’s also a lot more work and not be much cheaper to make a salad yourself.
Most restaurant’s interpretation of salads are a mix of vegetables and meat swimming in sauce and shredded cheese. To make it healthier, remember to specify dressing on the side, no olives, etc. I usually prefer plain salads so I can save the junk calories for a couple tablespoons of creamy dressing.
Get Farther Away from the Beach When Eating Out
It’s not a perfect system, but the closer you get to the beach strip, the higher prices generally will be. Call it the premium of convenience and prime beach real estate! But if you can walk up a few blocks to get something for less, why wouldn’t you?
One exception to this rule are the “sodas” which are traditional (usually hole-in-the-wall) Costa Rican restaurants that locals eat at. They serve authentic local cuisine at lower prices than anything you would find in a restaurant catering to tourists. The drawback is they probably aren’t as clean, and the people you order from may not speak any English.
Have you found these tips helpful for eating healthy on a budget? Do you know of any tricks or tips we might have missed? Let us know in the comment section!
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Best Places to Eat for Every Meal in Tamarindo