Costa Rica: San Jose's Mercado Central

Courtesy of Andres Madrigal/CRTraveler.com

Most visitors to Costa Rica zip through the capital city, San Jose, on their way to beaches or jungles. But I like to linger there, if only to spend a morning at Mercado Central, a block-long covered market built in 1880 that contains a warren of produce stalls, sodas (small, family-run eateries), bric-a-brac counters, and cafes.

After ogling the spiky red mamon (rambutan) and giant green guanabana (soursop) at the fruit stands, I slake my thirst with a refresco at Soda Los Angeles (506/2223-2606), on the market's southwest side, where freshly squeezed juices such as cas (sour guava), and mora (raspberries) are mixed with water or milk and sugar.

If I'm hungry, I go for olla de carne (the local pot-au-feu, made with beef short ribs) or a casado (a heaping plate of rice, beans, fried plantains, and salad, with chicken, meat, or seafood), dishes that emerge from the upstairs kitchen at Soda Cristal (506/2223-5002), in the market's center.

For dessert, there's La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora (506/2256-5000), near the main entrance. This 111-year-old ice cream parlor makes one flavor only: a heady mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and vanilla with a granita-like texture.

I top off the roving meal on the market's northeast end at Cafeteria y Cafe Central (506/2222-1769). The local arabica variety here—brewed using mild peaberry beans—is prepared as a cafe chorreado; hot water is poured into a coffee-filled sock that's set over an aluminum pot called a chorreador, resulting in a fresh, bright cup. Sometimes I stop by Souvenirs Midey (506/2233-4660), at the southeast end, to pick up one of these cute pots to take to someone back home.

For a potent end to my visit, there's El Gran Vicio (506/2223-5976). At this 130-year-old cantina, shots of Costa Rican sugarcane brandy are spiked with red sirope de kola (kola nut syrup)—a bittersweet San Jose tradition.