Farmers' Market in Alajuela
I took the bus into downtown Alajuela and got off near the old train station, where many buses stop before fanning out into the suburbs. It was a sunny November morning, perfect for a brisk stroll through Alajuela's grid of narrow streets. I popped into a small bakery and gobbled down a lemon pastry before heading off for Plaza Ferias, home to the Alajuela Farmers' Market. On the way, I passed by the town's central park and the Alajuela Cathedral, two of my favorite places.
Located two blocks east of the Alajuela Pricesmart, Plaza Ferias is the largest farmer's market in Costa Rica. The entire area is covered -- a welcome amenity during the wet season -- and flanked by towering Central Valley mountains. My first sight of the market was impressive: as big as a warehouse, it was filled from end to end with fresh food, merchandise and, most exciting, row after row of colorful fruits and vegetables. Vendors called out to potential customers -- "Fresh bread!" "Quality tomatoes!" "Ripe papaya!" -- and shoppers milled about, pushing carts full of farm-fresh goods.
This was my first visit to the Alajuela market; eyes wide and camera ready, I began at the north end where vendors hawked everything from intimate wear to pirated movies and music. Around the market's outer edges, sellers proffered fresh pastries, empanadas (turnovers), and other delectable goodies. My stomach growled, but I decided to hold out for the rainbow of fruits in the next aisle.
When I rounded the corner, I was greeted by succulent cantaloupes, watermelons, and sweet pineapples. The farmer had cut open several fruits to show their quality, and the stand was surrounded by eager customers. Though I wanted to line up with them, I knew that the entire market awaited -- it may be tempting to load up early, but it's better to wait and buy only what you really want.
November is a transitional month in Costa Rica -- the green season makes way for the dry season -- and the country's produce reflects this change. A little bit of everything is available, including cas (Costa Rican guava), a tart cousin of the pink guava that peaks during the dry season. Today, the fruit and vegetable stalls overflowed with November's harvest: magenta radish, spiky mamon chino (rambutan), tender chayote (squash), Haas avocado, brilliant orange tomatoes, and so much more.
If you've never been to a Costa Rican farmer's market, you'll first notice the huge variety of goods available and then the remarkable prices. When you're accustomed to paying $5 per pineapple and $3 for a mango, it may surprise you to discover pineapples for $0.50 and mangoes at $0.80/lb. As a general rule, I take 6,000 CRC (about $10.50) to my local market each week for the "necessities": tomatoes, onions, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, plantains, celery, sweet pepper, basil, coriander, and two pounds of whatever fruit strikes my fancy. In Costa Rica, every town has a feria (farmer's market), so fruits and vegetables are always fresh, available, and economical.
Sample Prices from the Farmer's Market:
- Avocado: $0.44 each
- Broccoli: $1.32/head
- Cabbage: $0.20/lb.
- Carrots: $0.24/lb.
- Celery: $0.35/bunch
- Cucumber: $0.35/small bag (2-3 cucumbers per bag)
- Onion: $0.26/lb.
- Eggplant: $0.35 each
- Red-leaf Lettuce: $0.35/head
- Oranges: $0.88/mesh bag (8-10 oranges per bag)
- Plantains: $0.17 each
- Potatoes: $0.31/lb.
- Sweet Pepper: $0.35/bag of three
- Tomatoes: $0.28/lb.
- Watermelon: $0.40/lb.
- Yucca/Cassava: $0.32/lb.
Since most towns have a farmer's market, goods are almost always locally grown. I spoke with several vendors, asking them where they were from and how they farmed. They were very friendly, offering smiles and proudly discussing their fruits and vegetables. Everyone I spoke with was from the province of Alajuela; the longest drive had taken less than an hour. None of the farmers I spoke to had certified organic produce, but they tried to minimize or eliminate pesticide use on resilient crops (for example, lettuce and carrots). They explained that organic certification is an arduous and expensive process, one that many small farmers cannot afford. However, there are several all-organic farmer's markets dotted throughout Costa Rica -- western San Jose and San Rafael de Heredia are home to two of the largest.
Of course, Alajuela's farmer's market, like many ferias, offers much more than fruits and vegetables. Several stands sold fresh-cut, colorful flowers; meats and cheeses lined the southern end of the market; pipa stands offered young coconut as a refreshing drink. I found a small stand lined with garlic -- at least four different types -- and colorful bags labeled with homemade powdered drinks. Healthy offerings like barley, maize, and oatmeal joined indulgent drinks like cream, chocolate, and strawberry, but my eyes were drawn to the chan (chia). The small, black seeds don't look like much, but they produce a tasty, lemonade-like drink said to calm the stomach and lower blood pressure. For $0.53, I bought myself 15 servings and instructions on how to prepare it -- I'd only had chan in restaurants before -- and headed home to experiment.
Fresco de Chan (Chia Seed Drink):
- 2 tablespoons chan (chia) seeds
- 5 cups water
- Fresh lemon juice, to taste
- Sugar or honey (optional)
Take two tablespoons of chan seed and add to five cups of water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for one minute. Take off heat and let sit until cool. Blend for four seconds and add fresh lemon juice and honey or sugar to taste. Let cool for several hours.