Costa Rica is not known as a shopping paradise, as most of what you’ll find for sale is pretty run-of-the-mill, mass-produced souvenir fare. So scant are its handicraft offerings that most tourist shops sell Guatemalan clothing, Panamanian appliquéd textiles, Salvadoran painted wood souvenirs, and Nicaraguan rocking chairs. Still, Costa Rica does have a few locally produced arts and handicrafts to look out for, and a couple of towns and villages with well-deserved reputations for their unique works.
Perhaps the most famous of all towns for shopping is Sarchí ★, a Central Valley town filled with handicraft shops. Sarchí is best known as the citadel of the colorfully painted Costa Rican oxcart, reproductions of which are manufactured in various scaled-down sizes. These make excellent gifts. (Larger oxcarts can be easily disassembled and shipped to your home.) A lot of furniture is also made in Sarchí.
In Guanacaste, the small town of Guaitíl ★ is famous for its pottery. A host of small workshops, studios, and storefronts ring the town’s central park (which is actually a soccer field). Many of the low-fired ceramic wares here carry ancient local indigenous motifs, while others get quirky modern treatments. You can find examples of this low-fired simple ceramic work in many gift shops around the country, and at roadside stands all across Guanacaste.
You might also run across carved masks ★★★ made by the indigenous Boruca people of southern Costa Rica. The small Boruca villages where these masks are carved are off the beaten path, but you will find them for sale at some of the better gift shops around the country. These wooden masks come in a variety of sizes and styles, both painted and unpainted, and run anywhere from $20 to $150, depending on the quality of workmanship. But don’t be fooled. You’ll see scores of mass-produced wooden masks at souvenir and gift shops around Costa Rica. Many are imported from Mexico, Guatemala, and Indonesia. Real Boruca masks are unique indigenous art works, often signed by their carvers.
Much of the Costa Rican woodwork for sale is mass-produced. A couple of notable exceptions include the work of Barry Biesanz ★★, whose excellent hardwood creations are sold at better gift shops around the country, and the unique, large-scale sculptures created and sold at the Original Grand Gallery in La Fortuna.
A few other items worth keeping an eye out for include reproductions of pre-Columbian gold jewelry and carved-stone figurines. The former are available as either solid gold, silver, or gold-plated. The latter, although interesting, can be extremely heavy.
Across the country you’ll see hammocks for sale, though you may find them crude and unstable. The same vendors usually have single-person hanging chairs, which are strung similarly to the full-size hammocks and are a better bet.
It's especially hard to capture the subtle shades and colors of the rainforests and cloud forests, and many a traveler has gone home thinking that his or her digital camera contained the full beauty of the jungle, only to see dozens of bright-green and random blurs when viewing the photos on a larger screen. To avoid this heartache, you might want to pick up a good coffee-table book or at least some postcards of the sights you want to remember forever and send them to yourself.
Contemporary and classic Costa Rican art is another great option, both for discerning collectors and those looking for a unique reminder of their time in the country. San José has the greatest number of galleries and shops, but you will find good, well-stocked galleries in some of the more booming tourist destinations, including Liberia, Manuel Antonio, Jacó, and Monteverde.
Finally, one item that you'll see at gift shops around the country is Cuban cigars. Although these are illegal to bring into the United States, they are perfectly legal and readily available in Costa Rica.
Stop! Be Careful of What You Buy! International laws prohibit trade in endangered wildlife, so don't buy any plants or animals, even if they're readily for sale. Do not buy any kind of sea-turtle products (including jewelry); wild birds; lizards, snakes, or cat skins; corals; or orchids (except those grown commercially). No matter how unique, beautiful, insignificant, or inexpensive it might seem, your purchase will directly contribute to the further hunting of these species.
In addition, be careful when buying wood products. Costa Rica's rainforest hardwoods are a finite and rapidly disappearing resource. Try to buy sustainably harvested woods, if at all possible.
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.