Rice and beans are the bases of most Central American meals -- all three of them. At breakfast, they're called gallo pinto and come with everything from eggs to steak to seafood. At lunch or dinner, rice and beans are an integral part of a casado (which translates as "married" and is the name for the local version of a blue-plate special). A casado usually consists of cabbage-and-tomato salad, fried plantains (a starchy, banana-like fruit), and a chicken, fish, or meat dish of some sort. On the Caribbean coast, rice and beans are called rice 'n' beans, and are cooked in coconut milk.
However, you don't have to look too far to see that the region boasts an abundant variety of other local dishes to sample, which incorporate unique vegetables, fruits, and grains. Though rice and beans will be on almost all menus, in coastal areas, you'll also come across an incredible amount of seafood, especially lobster and shrimp. There is a growing controversy around eating lobster, due to overfishing and the extreme danger lobster pickers are put through for very little money. Avoid eating huevos de paslama (turtle eggs), since turtles are an endangered species.
In the highlands, you'll find more beef on the menu in the form of caldos (stews) served with yucca (manioc root or cassava in English), along with chicken dishes -- just don't be too surprised if your chicken comes with the feet still attached. Everywhere you will find corn-based treats like tamales (stuffed cornmeal patties wrapped and steamed inside banana leaves), along with patacones (fried green plantain chips), often served streetside.
On the whole, you'll find vegetables surprisingly lacking in the meals you're served throughout Central America -- usually nothing more than a little pile of shredded cabbage topped with a slice or two of tomato. For a much more satisfying and filling salad, order a palmito (hearts of palm salad). The heart (actually the stalk or trunk of these small palms) is first boiled and then chopped into circular pieces and served with other fresh vegetables, with a salad dressing on top. If you want something more than this, you'll have to order a side dish such as picadillo, a stew or purée of vegetables with a bit of meat in it.
Central America has a wealth of delicious tropical fruits. The most common are mangoes, papayas, pineapples, melons, and bananas. Other fruits include marañón, which is the fruit of the cashew tree and has orange or yellow glossy skin; granadilla or maracuyá (passion fruit); mamón chino, which Asian travelers will recognize as rambutan; and carambola (star fruit).
Fruit is often served as dessert throughout this region, but there are some other options for sweets. Queque seco, literally "dry cake," is the same as pound cake. Tres leches cake, on the other hand, is so moist that you almost need to eat it with a spoon. Flan is a typical custard dessert. It often comes as either flan de caramelo (caramel) or flan de coco (coconut). Numerous other sweets are available, many of which are made with condensed milk and raw sugar. Cajetas are popular handmade candies, made from sugar and various mixes of evaporated, condensed, and powdered milk. They are sold in differing-size bits and chunks at most pulperías (general stores) and streetside food stands.
Central America produces some of the best rum in the world, especially Nicaragua and Belize. The best Nicaraguan rum is called Flor de Caña, and the best Belize version is One Barrel. Zacapo Centenario is generally regarded as the best rum from Guatemala, with Ron Botrán Añejo coming a close second. The national alcoholic drink in Panama is called seco. Like rum, it is made from sugar cane but has milk and ice added to the mix. The whole region is known for chicha, a sweet, fermented corn beverage, and an even stronger variation known as chicha brava. La cususa, a crude cane liquor that's often combined with a soft drink or tonic, is popular in Nicaragua; a guaro is the Costa Rican version of this same drink.
You can find imported wines at reasonable prices in the better restaurants throughout the region. You can usually save money by ordering a Chilean wine over a Californian or European one. Cashew wine is popular in Belize, though you may find it to be too strong and vinegary. Cerveza (beer) can be found everywhere, and every country has its most popular native brands.
Popular nonalcoholic drinks include pinol, which is toasted, ground corn with water, and tiste, a variation made with cocoa beans and corn. Soda in the form of gaseosa is everywhere, as are vendors selling small bags of ice-cold mineral water -- much more environmentally friendly than bottles. Look out for excellent fruit juices called liquadas that can be served with milk or water. Among the more common fruits used in these shakes are mangoes, papayas, blackberries, and pineapples. Order un fresco con leche sin hielo (a fresco with milk but without ice) if you're avoiding untreated water.
If you're a coffee drinker, you might be disappointed here. Most of the best coffee has traditionally been targeted for export, and Central Americans tend to prefer theirs weak and sugary. Better hotels and restaurants are starting to cater to American and European tastes and are serving superior blends. If you want black coffee, ask for café negro; if you want it with milk, order café con leche. For something different, ask for agua dulce, a warm drink made from melted sugar cane and served with either milk or lemon, or straight.
Although water in parts of the region is safe to drink, bottled water is readily available and is a good option if you're worried about an upset stomach. If you like your water without bubbles, request aqua mineral sin gas, or agua en botella.
The region's capital cities have the best choices regarding restaurants, with everything from Italian, Brazilian, and Chinese eateries to chains like T.G.I. Friday's. For cheap meals, buffet-style restaurants are very popular, as are street grills on the side of the road. Every country has a different term for these informal types of restaurants.
Outside the region's major tourist destinations, your options get very limited very fast. In fact, many beach destinations are so remote that you have no choice but to eat in the hotel's dining room. Even on the more accessible beaches, the only choices aside from the hotel dining rooms are often cheap local places or overpriced tourist traps serving indifferent meals. At remote jungle lodges, the food is usually served buffet or family style and can range from bland to inspired, depending on who's doing the cooking, and turnover is high.
Throughout Central America, people sit down to eat lunch at midday and dinner at 7pm. Some downtown restaurants in big cities are open 24 hours; however, expensive restaurants tend to be open for lunch between 11am and 3pm and for dinner between 6 and 11pm. At even the more expensive restaurants in the region, it's hard to spend more than $50 (£25) per person unless you really splurge on drinks.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.