Serious shoppers may be disappointed in San José, because aside from oxcarts and indigenous masks, there isn’t much that’s distinctly Costa Rican. To compensate for its relative lack of goods, Costa Rica does a brisk business in selling crafts and clothes imported from Guatemala, Panama, and Ecuador.
San José’s central shopping corridor is bounded by avenidas 1 and 2, from about Calle 14 in the west to Calle 13 in the east. For several blocks west of the Plaza de la Cultura, Avenida Central is a pedestrian-only street mall where you’ll find store after store of inexpensive clothes for men, women, and children. Depending on the mood of the police that day, you might find a lot of street vendors as well. Most shops in the downtown district are open Monday through Saturday from about 8am to 6pm. Some shops close for lunch, while others remain open. You’ll be happy to find that sales and import taxes have already been figured into display prices.
Two words of advice: Buy coffee.
Coffee is the best shopping deal in all of Costa Rica. Although the best Costa Rican coffee is allegedly shipped off to North American and European markets, it’s hard to beat the coffee that’s roasted right in front of you here. Best of all is the price: One pound of coffee sells for around $4 to $7. It makes a great gift and truly is a local product.
Café Britt is the big commercial name in Costa Rican coffee. It has the largest export business in the country, and, although high-priced, its blends are very dependable. Café Britt is widely available at gift shops around the country, and at both international airports. Also good are the coffees roasted and packaged in Manuel Antonio and Monteverde, by Café Milagro and Café Monteverde, respectively. If you visit either of these places, definitely pick up their beans.
In general, the best place to buy coffee is in any supermarket. Why pay more at a gift or specialty shop? If you buy prepackaged coffee in a supermarket in Costa Rica, the whole beans will be marked either grano (grain) or grano entero (whole bean). If you opt for ground varieties (molido), be sure the package is marked puro; otherwise, it may be mixed with a good amount of sugar, the way Ticos like it.
One good coffee-related gift to bring home is a coffee sock and stand. This is the most common mechanism for brewing coffee beans in Costa Rica. It consists of a simple circular stand, made out of wood or wire, which holds a “sock.” Put the ground beans in the sock, place a pot or cup below it, and pour boiling water through. You can find the socks and stands at most supermarkets and in the Mercado Central. In fancier crafts shops, you’ll find them made out of ceramic. A stand will cost you between $1.50 and $15; socks run around 30[ce], so buy a few spares.
Several markets are near downtown, but by far the largest is the Mercado Central ★, located between avenidas Central and 1 and calles 6 and 8.
With globalization and modernization taking hold in Costa Rica, much of the local shopping scene has shifted to large megamalls. Modern multilevel affairs with cineplexes, food courts, and international brand-name stores are becoming ubiquitous. The biggest and most modern of these malls include the Mall San Pedro, Multiplaza (one each in Escazú and the eastern suburb of Zapote), and Terra Mall (on the outskirts of downtown on the road to Cartago). Although they lack the charm of small shops found around San José, they are a reasonable option for one-stop shopping; most contain at least one or two local galleries and crafts shops, along with a large supermarket, which is always the best place to stock up on local coffee, hot sauces, liquors, and other nonperishable foodstuffs.
The range and quality of craftworks for sale here has improved greatly in recent years. You might want to check out the works of Lil Mena, a local artist who specializes in painting on handmade papers and rough fibers, and Cecilia “Pefi” Figueres, who specializes in brightly colored abstract and figurative ceramic bowls, pitchers, coffee mugs, and more. Both Mena and Figueres are sold at some of the better gift shops around the city. Another artist to look out for is Barry Biesanz, whose bowls and boxes are works of art. Biesanz’s works are also carried at fine gift shops around San José, as well as in his workshop and gallery in the hills above Escazú. Vendors at the Plaza de la Democracia market also sell handicrafts.
The best prices I’ve seen for liquor are at the city’s large supermarkets, such as Más [ts] Menos. A Más [ts] Menos store is on Paseo Colón and Calle 26, and another is on Avenida Central at the east end of town, just below the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.