First time visitors to Costa Rica have a lot to see and check off their bucket list - volcanoes, waterfalls, beaches, monkeys - among all the other amazing wildlife the country is home to. But if you plan on waiting until the end of your trip to pick up souvenirs at the airport - don't. Allow yourself some extra time when you're back in San Jose from wherever you were exploring to visit the Mercado Central in San Jose, or the Central Market. Take a cab to the market, and do your shopping here. The market makes a fun destination on its own to see an authentic slice of everyday Costa Rica life, and it's the perfect place to grab some local food and pick up last minute souvenirs.
Mercado Central San Jose
The Mercado Central is located at the heart of Costa Rica's capital city of San Jose. Since 1880, it's been the center of activity, socializing, and daily shopping - the largest marketplace in San Jose, and by extension all of Costa Rica. Situated between Avenidas Central and 1 and Calles 6 and 8 in Barrió La Merced, the market is a sight to see.
Mercado Central shouldn't be confused with the National Craft Market (Mercado Nacional de Artesanías), another nice place for souvenirs. But while the Craft Market is also fun, Central Market feels much more real and authentic rather than a busy tourist trap.
The Mercado Central is the main market in San Jose and a bustling atmosphere for locals, with fewer tourists than the artisan Craft Market. It's also a great place to people watch, browse, and eat your way through - there are several good and very casual places to eat. The organic fruit here is wonderful!
Take a Taxi
If you've been to Costa Rica before, but haven't visited the Mercado because of the traffic and congestion, or maybe you're a little intimidated about the hordes of people, you really have nothing to fear.
Like any market, you'll find the peak times are generally in the morning hours until around 10am, and late afternoon rush hour as people are on the way home from work. But even at these times, the market and streets are easily navigated. Parking a rental car may be challenging but not impossible. If you can, avoid this by taking a taxi.
- First - BEFORE you get in a cab, agree on a price from your starting point to the Central Market.
- Second - there are a dozen entry points into the market due to its size which takes up several city blocks. You'll see vendors just outside the market and people bustling about from your taxi and should exit when you do - don't let the driver run up your fare by keeping you in the taxi longer than necessary, or tell you he has to go around the block to drop you off.
What to Buy at Mercado Central
You'll find all sorts of goodies at the Central Market from fresh produce, meats and the freshest catch of fish, to leather goods, textiles, handmade guitars, livestock, and flea market finds. They had a nice assortment of tropical fruit, and I even saw mangosteen, which I hadn't seen since we were in Bali.
Some of the livestock is of the cuter variety like bunnies, peeps, and ducklings, so if you bring the kids along, they may ask why they're in cages. Some of them may end up as dinner, while others will end up producing more dinners for their owners with eggs and more bunnies!
A Few Words on Safety
If you're concerned about theft at the market, I would offer the same advice as if you were visiting a crowded market in ANY city in the world: leave your valuables or fine jewelry at home, and keep your money stowed away in a backpack or shoulder bag. Use Common Sense.
Theft is rare, and most locals seem too busy to give your presence a second thought. We've always found them to be welcoming, but busy, especially during peak times of day, but always willing to explain things and help out.