Central America – from the San Blas Islands in Caribbean Panama to El Salvador on the Pacific Side, by way of Galapagos, Costa Rica and Nicaragua – gave us some of the most memorable experiences of our travels to date….but few of them were culinary! On the whole the cuisine throughout the region is very similar. Ceviche – bits of fish, shrimp, octopus or “mixto” “cooked” in lime juice with onion and cilantro– is available everywhere no matter how far from the seashore you are! Meat or poultry comes grilled “a la plancha”, “pargo” (snapper) is deep fried whole, octopus is stewed with butter and garlic and everything is served with a big pile of starch: “platacones” in Panama, french fries in the Ecuador, or rice and black beans in Costa Rica. Even when vegetables are parsimoniously presented, one is uncertain about eating them, as they are notorious villains in the travelers’ ongoing battle with the tourista!
This obviously is a huge oversimplification, and we certainly enjoyed the fact that plenty of food could be had for very reasonable prices. In Ecuador, we could enjoy a “comida corriente” lunch with soup, main course, and a bite of dessert for a couple of dollars apiece, not to mention splitting a grande Pilsener beer for $.65
As for memorable meals, the first would have to the stewed octopus I enjoyed at the little restaurant associated with the “marina” at José Pobre, a few mile northeast of Portobello, Panama. We stopped there to meet up with German friends Benno and Marlene, whom we’d first met in the Aves and who were now joining up with another boat heading to the Marquesas. I am embarrassed to confess I actually got the recipe, which I have since lost…probably a good thing, as it had to have been made with pounds of butter. The trick with octopus, as I understand it, is to either cook it very little or cook it for a long time!
In Panama the Latin motif shows some American influence, and in the cities, at least, fried chicken, pizza, burgers, and club sandwiches had a strong presence. On the other hand, fabulous vegetables and fruits could be bought, and there was the joy of US-scale supermarkets and Price Smarts, etc. for American cruiser bulk provisioning. The foodstuff that was most unusual to us was platacones. Platacones are slices of starchy plantains, smashed flat and deep-fried. Our introduction to these was in a San Blas restaurant associated with a political party headquarters on the island of Ustupu. Dinner was a small fried chicken leg with a huge great pile of platacones apiece. There wasn’t enough ketchup in the restaurant for us to get through half! Later, in Puerto Mutis on the Pacific side of Panama we actually found ourselves enjoying the platacones made by Gladys in her cantina there to accompany the huge platefuls of giant shrimp in a yummy glutinous sauce (served with heads, tails and shells intact!)
In Ecuador, which of course is technically South America, we enjoyed most of our meals, even though they were all simple and even though we battled the tourista on and off. The ceviche there, however, was the best of any of the countries in our tour.
Costa Rica, on the other hand, was overall a real disappointment in the food department. Every meal, including breakfast, is served with rice and black beans! Now we like rice and beans,…but every meal?????!!! There was little enticement to eat out at all! Our best meals in Costa Rica were in Golfito at “Mike’s” Hungarian restaurant (where you can order homemade breakfast and Italian sausage patties for your freezer) and in the village at Bahia Ballena at the “Yacht Club”, which brings in a shipment of organic vegetables once a week that cruisers can buy.
The boring cuisine of Costa Rica actually was well-timed as during our two months in the States Don and I woke up to the fact that we’d gradually gotten quite overweight in the half year since transiting the canal. So instead of rice and beans ad infinitum, we put ourselves on a Slim Fast regime. Slim Fast shakes mix perfectly with tropical fruits like papaya, mango, cantaloupe and banana and these shakes sustained us for two meals of three for the next six months…..I lost 30 pounds and Don lost 25!
The Two Captains Diet
For Vanilla-based Fruit Shakes (per person)
For Chocolate-based Shakes
Snack on fresh fruit,
Slimfast bars (the oatmeal raisin is the most tolerable), bouillon
and raw vegies, as per the inserts in the Slimfast
packaging. For dinner have 4-6 oz protein, three vegetables and small
amount of rice or ½ potato. Interestingly, in Spanish “Slimfast” package
programs, the “dinner” is scheduled for midday!