No political unrest. No terrorist activity. No kidnapping. No standing army. You might think that’s pretty cool for a country in these times of sporadic unrest across the world. Either the news is not out there or popular media has sent the wrong signals with their portrayals of drug cartels, people are clueless about the safety aspect. Hence these queries to Google:
Fair enough. If you’re a first-timer, you’d want to know what you are getting yourself into. Or you’d want to know if things have changed since you last visited. That’s what sensible travelers do.
So, without much ado, let’s get to the burning question:
“Is Costa Rica safe?”
Quiz anyone who’s been to the country, and you’ll hear this echoed. A brush with something unsavory could fetch a more guarded answer (instead of our resounding “yes”), but do they regret going to Costa Rica? Not at all! If given a chance, they’d do it all over again.
The numbers bear this out. About three million tourists flock to Costa Rica each year. Around 70,000 Americans, including retirees and business owners, call it their home.
Need more affirmation? Costa Rica is ranked Level One by the US Department of State. Level One means you need to exercise only normal precautions in that country. That puts Costa Rica on par with some of its Latin American neighbors, Japan, and Ireland. Wow!
Level 1 Countries: Costa Rica, Argentina, Australia, Bhutan, Japan, UAE, Thailand.
Level 2 Countries: Belgium, UK, The Bahamas, Spain, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kenya.
Level 3 Countries: Turkey, Russia, Sudan, Honduras, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala.
Level 4 Countries: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Central African Republic.
The advisory does single out a few places in Costa Rica where you should exercise increased caution. A quick look will tell you it’s just a few areas and a volcanic field. The rider is in place for two reasons: (1) proclivity for crime (2) potential for natural disaster. There’s no reason why your trip should intersect those places. There’s plenty of other stuff to get you going and all gung-ho about Costa Rica.
None of these mean that you should throw caution to the wind and go footloose in Costa Rica. We’d advise you to take the same sensible steps you’d take in LA or Europe or anywhere away from home. The gritty underbelly is a reality for most countries, be it the North, Central, or South America. At the same time, there’s an elected government and the rule of law, however slow it seems to catch up by American standards. Tourism, being the mainstay of the economy, is not something the country wants to relinquish.
Fortunately, the crimes that concern tourists in Costa Rica are usually petty – more opportunistic than preplanned. If it’s of any comfort, more serious crimes occur between rival gangs; tourists are seldom the targets.
If you’re a seasoned traveler, you’d know that the discussion below applies to anywhere in the world. It is NOT PECULIAR to Costa Rica. You could have a vacation in Costa Rica without a single unpleasant incident. At the same time, you should not be blindsided by actions that, with a little bit of awareness, you could have averted in the first place.
The ancient art of pickpocketing never goes out of style in touristy places. Vacationers can be trusted to let down their guard at the slightest excitement, and in Costa Rica, there’s plenty to steal your attention. Smooth operating pickpockets, meanwhile, keep their eyes peeled at all times, and can be gone with your wallet faster than you say Pura Vida.
Solution: Leave all your valuables back home. If you can’t stay parted, keep them locked in a safe at your rental – not in the car. If you must carry them around, watch over them like a hawk.
You’re damned if you carry them, you’re damned if you don’t (especially if you are involved in a motor accident). Lose them, and you’ll be splitting your vacation time between the police and the US embassy until fresh papers are issued. Poof!
Solution: Keep the original documents in a safe locker (a car with a lock doesn’t count as one). Carry only copies of your papers around.
If not your credit cards, unscrupulous people could steal your credit card information. Of course, with everything else discussed above and below, it doesn’t happen to everybody, every time. Just another thing that could go wrong.
Solution: Carry change and pay cash wherever you can. Keep just one card in hand, if at all you need one. Leave the rest in a safe locker. Keep copies of the credit cards. If you fear your data was stolen, report at once to the bank and the police.
Some tourists fancy renting a car and driving around themselves. “Tachas” might mean nothing to them. But if by mischance they parked in a deserted area before they strolled off to the beach or bar, and “Tachas” it is, then woe to them! By the time they’re back, the car would have been broken into (that’s “Tachas”), ransacked, and all valuables whisked away. Tsk tsk.
Solution: Leaving valuables in full sight of passersby is foolhardy at best! So don’t! Keep car windows rolled up and doors locked. Park your vehicle in well-lit and secure areas. If you’re not up to the machismo of petty thugs, go for a chauffeured car.
This scam’s been retold so many times, it’s now almost folklore. You could be driving around in Costa Rica in a rented car and then, just like that, you blow a tire. Folks you don’t know come up proffering help. If they are the devious type, they could denude you of all your belongings. But this trick is now so jaded that it well may have fallen by the wayside.
Solution: Never stop to fix the tire in the middle of nowhere. Keep driving till you reach a gas station, fire station, or any well-lit place with people around. Better still, hire a chauffeured car. It will keep you rolling in high spirits throughout your vacation.
Some needs are pretty straightforward. You want to soak in the sun, scuba dive, go snorkeling, fishing, or surfing. There are clearly designated areas to have enough of them. But for some, it takes more: freewheeling hikes, adventures, and spots farthest from human civilization.
Solution: Agreed, you’ve got to go where you’ve got to go. There’s strength in numbers; don’t go solo. Hire concierge services from a reputed agency. They can tell if your plans are ill-advised or if it’s a course worth pursuing. They will accompany you and get you to your hotel safe after the long haul.
Water in Costa Rica is safe to drink, but the same cannot be said of the water you get in rural interiors. Lots of people swear by the tap water. Others play it safe with bottled water. Whatever your choice, staying hydrated is paramount in the tropics, whether you are spending time on the beach or in the forests.
Solution: Carry sufficient bottled water for the road and long hikes. If you’re worried about traveler’s diarrhea, carry Imodium with you. For symptoms that persist beyond 72 hours, it’s best to see a local doc.
Bugs love the sunny climate much as you do. Put it down to the biodiversity (something that drew you to the country in the first place). Most offending are the mosquitoes because they actively seek you out unlike other creatures with whom run-ins are rare.
Solution: Outwit the mosquitoes with multiple layers of protection: wear long-sleeved clothes, apply mosquito repellents on exposed body parts, and if sleeping in the open, use insect-treated nets. Concerned about Zika? Check out the advisory on CDC Website.
The ABCs of vacationing anywhere is the same: (Be) Aware, (Follow) Best Practices, (Apply) Common Sense. You don’t want to be taken by surprise by something that is common knowledge. Read up the consular advisory; it covers pretty much everything that as a first timer you should know. Then you’ve got us! Then you’ve got us! Give us a shout, if there’s a question about safety or some tidbit you’re not sure of.