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Shopping in Costa Rica
 
 
 

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 (it's just the luck of the draw for shoppers). When you do purchase something, you'll be happy to find that the sales and import taxes have already been figured into the display price.

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 jewellery); wild birds; lizard, snake, 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 endangered species.

It's especially hard to capture the subtle shades and colours of the rain- and cloud forests, and many a traveller has gone home thinking that his or her undeveloped film contained the full beauty of the jungle, only to return from the photo developer with 36 bright-green blurs. To avoid this heartache, you might want to pick up some postcards of the sights you want to remember forever and send them to yourself.

Coffee is the best shopping deal in all of Costa Rica. Although the best Costa Rican coffee is supposedly 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 US$ 3. It makes a great gift and truly is a local product. Café Britt is the big name in Costa Rican coffee and it has the largest export business in the country, and, although high-priced, its blends are very dependable.

The best place to buy coffee is in any supermarket. Why pay more at a gift or specialty shop? You can also try Café Trébol, on Calle 8 between Avenidas Central and 1 (on the western side of the Central Market; tel. 221-8363). It's open Monday through Saturday from 7am to 6:30pm and Sunday from 8:30am to 12:30pm.
Be sure to ask for whole beans; Costa Rican grinds are often too fine for standard coffee filters. The store will pack the beans for you in whatever size bag you want. 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 will likely 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, that 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. Depending on its construction, a stand will cost you between US$ 1.50 and US$ 15; socks run around US 0.30¢, so buy a few spares.

There are several markets near downtown, but by far the largest is the Mercado Central, located between Avenidas Central and 1, and Calles 6 and 8. Although this dark maze of stalls is primarily a food market, inside you'll find all manner of vendors, including a few selling Costa Rican souvenirs, crude leather goods, and musical instruments. Be especially careful about your wallet or purse and any prominent jewellery because very skilled pickpockets frequent this area. All the streets surrounding the Mercado Central are jammed with produce vendors selling from small carts or loading and unloading trucks. It's always a hive of activity, with crowds of people jostling for space on the streets. Your best bet is to visit on Sunday or on weekdays; Saturday is particularly busy. In the hot days of the dry season, the aromas can get quite heady. If you have a delicate constitution, don't eat any fruit that you don't peel yourself (oranges, bananas, mangoes, and so on).


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