Traditional Market vs Modern Supermarket

Heredia has a mix of the old and the new. And as such, you’ll be faced with a choice, the supermarket, or the traditional market.
By Ben Espinola

By Ben Espinola

Ben is a traveling educator, writer, and musician originally from Greensboro, NC. He has done a wide variety of teaching, youth work, freelance writing and tourism temp jobs across numerous countries on four continents. He can usually be found struggling to learn a new skill or down at a nearby watering hole sharing a drink with local characters.

A cacophony of sounds welcomes you as you round another corner, lost; a wall of smells, both appetizing and revolting assaults the senses, blending together, overwhelming, confusing. Grandmas and working class stiffs jostle against you, you dodge a child, someone steps on your foot. Whatever your heart desires can be found here, and more; everything is negotiable, nothing off limits. Winding alleyways, fish heads, souvenirs, unfamiliar fruits, shoes. There doesn’t appear to be rhyme or reason to the market’s layout, items hanging from the ceiling, strewn across the floor, displayed with care on countertops. What am I looking for? You wonder, and what is the strategy here?

Muzak, piped in through the soundsystem, mostly covers the beeping of the scanners, cashiers, some dead eyed, some friendly performing their sisyphean task. Fluorescent lights bathe the aisles in an artificial glow as you perouse the brands, some familiar, some foreign, looking for that taste of home, or maybe just something to snack on. It’s both familiar and new, this place. Not unlike the supermarkets at home, aisles are clearly labeled, Fruta, Verdura, cereales, cosmeticos, cerveza. Here you can probably find what you need, it’s just a question of finding its spot.

Despite the fact that in Heredia, you’ll most likely be staying at a homestay, breakfast and dinner provided, you will eventually need to pick up some groceries, either for lunch or for snacking, or for more affordable meals while on a trip to another part of the country. And as such, you’ll be faced with a choice, supermarket, or traditional market. This is a choice I’ve been presented with innumerable times while traveling and I can tell you each have their merits and depending what you’re looking for, both in terms of products and experience, both have something to offer.

The Traditional Market

The traditional market offers you above all else, an experience. Every market is different, some indoors, some outdoors, some one long street, some many winding alleys. What they share is the presence of merchants lining the way, peddling their wares. Even if you don’t need anything when you first arrive to a new city, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the market, to get the lay of the land, so that you know where to go when your needs inevitably arise. If nothing else, it’s a fantastic way to take in the sights, sounds and smells of a new place while rubbing shoulders with local people.

From a thrifty backpacker’s perspective, the greatest aspect of the traditional market is its lower price point. Generally speaking, markets will have the best prices in town and you can often get better deals by haggling, using the local language. For the aspiring language learner, the market is an invaluable resource. Vocabulary words abound, presenting not only opportunities but incentives, to practice speaking. Without Spanish, you’re much more likely to get ripped off. Every trip to the market is a potential lesson in not only commerce, but language.

The local market in Heredia is indoors in a unimposing building in the center of town. A handful paths connect the various areas of the market, meat of any variety, chicken, pork, beef fresh from the farm, fish from the sea rest under glass in refrigerated display counters, a welcome sight from the unrefrigerated whole chickens or entire pieces of animals hanging from the hooks that you sometimes see in other countries. Produce, easily the freshest and cheapest in town, has its alleyway as do stalls for clothes and souvenirs. Somewhat calm by Latin American standards, save for Saturday morning, the market expands from the center out, sort of like a square onion. The central path is lined with sodas, eateries serving traditional food. A casado, a towering plate of meat, rice and beans, various salads and plantains, often accompanied by a glass of fresh juice can be bought for just a couple bucks. The traditional market is best for getting fresh food at cheap prices, as well as souvenirs and random other knickknacks. For prepackaged goods, a supermarket or other store might be a safer choice.


Supermarkets in Costa Rica, not unlike other countries, run the gamut from budget to boutique, ratty to bougie. Generally speaking you’ll have to bring your own bag unless you want to pay for one, and no one will be there to bag your groceries for you, that’s a U.S. American thing. The supermarket is good for finding certain packaged goods or American brands/foreign knockoffs. You can find shampoo, cosmetics, soap, and things of that sort, as well as Doritos, Oreos or whatever taste of home you might be craving. This is also a good spot for Nonperishables like canned vegetables or cans of tuna if you’re in need of those. Additionally, if you have dietary restrictions, this is where you have a better chance of finding vegan/gluten free items other than just fresh fruits and veggies.

We haven’t even gotten into the potential other places you could shop: weekly farmer’s markets, bakeries, dessert and cake shops, specialty butchers, corner stores, the possibilities are endless. Walking through the neighborhood, you see all kinds of shops, some bustling, some empty. What awaits you on your journey to finding that which you seek is, most importantly, an adventure.

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