Tamarindo Street Food
Call them Hawkers, Street Vendors, or Higglers. Selling things on the street is a time-honored tradition, around much longer than today’s food trucks. People have been buying food from street vendors since the invention of the street, practically. It’s true, the ruins of Pompeii show that the city was abundant with food vendors. As far back as Greece, we have evidence of food being sold for cheap on the streets.
Despite the potential for food contamination, which is really about the same as more traditional eateries, people have been buying, and continue to buy street food en masse every day. In fact, according to a 2007 study performed by the Food and Agriculture Organization, 2.5 billion people eat street food every day. If you’re keeping track, that’s about 35% of us on the planet.
Costa Rica and Tamarindo are no exception. This piece from Wikipedia pretty well captures the market in Tamarindo:
Street vendors in Latin America are known in local Spanish and Portuguese variously as vendedoresambulantes (“mobile vendors”) or simply ambulantes, a term also used in Italy. In Argentina they are known as manteros. Some ambulantes set up in a fixed location while others are mobile. Some ambulantes sell their goods door-to-door.Puestos are market stalls or stands.
Street vendors face various regulations and fees.
There are sometimes disputes between established merchants and ambulantes. Bribes are also a problem. Many vendors operate illegally. In order to avoid overwhelming tourists or shoppers, ambulantes are known to establish territories and limit their numbers. Thieves stealing their goods can be a problem.
It would be fair to say there have been escalations between brick and mortar owners and their leaner counterparts. You would be hard-pressed to find an ambulante who is operating “above board” in Tamarindo. How do you know? When word gets out that the Municipality is making rounds in Tamarindo the vendors scatter. Outside of certain exceptions, selling food on public property is forbidden in Costa Rica, so any food truck you find is either on private property or is operating outside the law.
Here’s a short list of just a few of the current underground players. Before you continue, it deserves to be said that this article in no way is intended to condone operating a business outside the law. It should also be said that there are plenty of established eateries which deserve your money as much as anybody. All that said, as long as we’ve had ambulantes, it seems we will continue to have them. This is merely an examination of the hottest local options.
The Same Spot Every Day Ambulantes
With food, consistency is key. These vendors have figured out a place and time that they can operate without ill repute. You will likely find them in the same locations like clockwork.
The Juice guy on the main corner with the red truck. The first info I heard about this ambulante was from the former owner of The Sno Shack, which is the flavored ice standing legitimately behind where The Old Man” parks his truck. That was what he called him, The Old Man, so that’s how I know him, but it’s not a very nice name in English. Let’s call him The Juice Guy. The Juice Guy sells freshly squeezed orange juice most mornings in front of Plaza Conchal II, in front of the aforementioned. You can’t miss the red truck and the polite man standing there with his wife. How do you know it’s fresh? He makes it in front of you. Ask him for a cup, not a bottle. He re-uses bottles if you don’t state your preference.
The Pipa Truck. There are pipa (coconut water) vendors up and down the beaches of every beach in Costa Rica. They sell it cold, in the coconut, and in a bag. Pipa water is the water from inside the coconut. Here it’s naturally occurring, so you know it’s good. It’s super for hydrating in case you spent too much time at Sharky’s the night before. The truck is parked out in front of the public parking lot south of Vaquero, or Witch’s Rock Surf Camp Monday through Wednesday, and some Thursdays. These guys have the best prices and best stock of coconuts.
The Station Wagon Lady. This woman is single-handedly causing the most pain to local restaurants, by single-handedly serving the largest portion of food for around $4. Her little wagon pulls up in the street in front of Papaya Con Leche, near Patagonia. With a few large pots of rice, beans, chicken, and yucca, she loads plates up with a mountain of food for an unbeatable price. She also sells drinks for about $1-2, so you can eat a meal for under $5. Don’t be surprised if you can’t find her as she does get chased out by the authorities from time to time, although it’s rare anymore.
Mari, the “Very Good” meat selling lady. You will find Mari outside Aqua, across the street, and you will know it’s her by the telltale “very gooood” she calls out to passing cars. Most of them parrot back the same thing. For $5 Mari will load smokey grilled meat onto a skewer along with a corn tortilla for you to stuff. She is friendly, and usually there, but sometimes employs her family to cover for her.
The General Area Ambulantes
You’ll find these vendors generally in the same place around the same time. Don’t be surprised if you don’t though. When tracking them down you can try asking local businesses if they’ve seen them. Somebody may have the update.
The Empanada Woman. There are actually two empanada women that are known above the fray around these parts, but only one that walks the strip of Calle Central, the main road, between Economy Car Rental, and Vaquero. She has the delicious $1.00 empanadas. She’s out early, like around 6 and 8 am, so you have to catch her after your morning surf of jog. You won’t get a tastier $1 meal, and she is very, very friendly. Look for the baseball cap and prescription glasses.
Veronica, the chuleta chick. Chuleta means cutlet, so you can guess whence comes this cut of meat. It’s the cut just above the rib, and in this case, we are talking pork. It’s not kosher, so don’t ask, but it may be worth it anyway. Veronica makes appearances at Kelly’s Surf Shop, across from Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, around lunchtime.
The Wanderer Ambulantes
For some, location can be a burden. There is value in flowing with the crowd when you can take your ambulante really mobile, like one that hangs around your neck. Information is limited, but here you go…
The Ceviche Brothers. There are two brothers who look so much alike you may think they are twins. The both walk from Villarreal to the far end of Tamarindo, separately selling the best ceviche in town. For $5 they will set you up with a generous portion of fish, shrimp or mixed ceviche, with a packet of saltines, a spoon, and hot sauce if you like. Be warned though; you’ll be spoiled by this ceviche.
The Candied Coconut Guy. This one I have yet to see, but there is reportedly a guy who sells candies from a box that hangs from his neck. The one he is known for is the candied coconut pieces, but he usually has other things. He can be found wandering the beach.
The Churros Dude. This guy can be anywhere, and he sometimes employs others to sell for him. His churros are either plain or stuffed with Dulce De Leche. Yum.
Dennis the Pipa Guy. Stay in Tamarindo for more than 24 hours and you will hear the call of Dennis the Pipa Guy. His prices are higher than the rest of pipa vendors, but he’s here all year and he sells t-shirts, loudly. A piercing call of “Pipa!” is his unmistakeable sales pitch, occasionally throwing in an earsplitting “Hey!” to get your attention. He seems to have no volume control. Many would try to imitate him, but nobody can bring his friendly interactive style of selling coconuts and t-shirts. He’s everywhere.
Of course, there are ambulantes who did not make this list for one reason or another. You can certainly go out and discover your own corner of Tamarindo. The last thing we’ll say about this is Caveat Emptor, or buyer beware. You can get a good deal on the street, but you can also bring home a souvenir you didn’t intend.
Horizon Pacific Management & Rentals is located in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Horizon Pacific offers vacation rentals, property management, long-term rentals, as well as a complete concierge service. Providing you with a local contact during your stay, Horizon Pacific is a company you can trust, with the experience you need.