markets in costa rica

El Mercado Central de San José: The Heart of the City.  There is nothing that touches the pulse of a Latin American community like its markets. That’s where you can feel an energy unlike any other. The Central Market of San José is a vibrant example. In the heart of Costa Rica’s capital city, it has an unmistakable rhythm and feel. Tight corridors brim with colorful products, the intermingled smells of fresh fish and meats, cooked tamales and brewing coffee beans wafting through the open space above. This is the place to be.

The Central Market of San José has been an urban commercial hub for more than a century, not only a place for people to sell their wares but also a social space. In the beginning, the city of San José was built around its market site. At conception, it was simply an open space where people gathered to purchase their weekly needs, have a bite to eat and mingle with the community. It wasn’t until 1880 that a permanent building was erected, which a century later was named a National Treasure. This 1990 designation saved the building from demolition and much needed repairs were made. 

markets in costa rica

No one should miss taking
this walk back into
Costa Rica’s history.

Today the flea market-style building houses restaurants, butchers, fishmongers and shops that sell anything you can imagine. It’s a loud place, where people bustle from stand to stand calling out orders and haggling prices to the soundtrack of tinkling radios weaving salsa music through the crowd. It is a visceral experience, unique to this San José attraction. 

The market is set up with a peripheral spread of enclosed spaces selling any number of Costa Rican-made products at lower prices than anywhere else in the city. It is a great place to buy freshly roasted nuts, for example, and also souvenirs that are a bit more original. It is truly difficult to describe the magnitude of shopping variety.

Navigating your way through the labyrinth of stalls with products hanging from every space, you ultimately reach the middle of the market. That’s where you will find a number of restaurants that have been there for as long as anyone can remember, serving dishes that have been passed down through generations for just as long. This dim space may not look appetizing at first, but it is a mecca for traditional Costa Rican cuisine.

With a sense of timelessness, the Central Market beats at the center of the city. For this writer, a trip to the market includes finding the stall where Tito (Grandpa) worked as a young man and eyed Tita (Grandma) for the first time while she was eating lunch. No one should miss taking this walk back into Costa Rica’s history, when the city grew and lived off the central market. Unlike a museum, this space is still alive, holding on to the past but still a vital part of modern city life.

General information

Hours: Mon-Sat, 6:30am-6pm, Closed Sun

Location: Between Central and First Avenues and 6th and 8th Streets, 250 meters northwest of Parque Central, San José