A common question we get asked is: “is Costa Rica safe?” We feel confident in saying that yes, Costa Rica is safe — safe enough that we recommend it to tourists of all types (families, solo or first-time travelers, etc.). Yet it can risky to make blanket statements for the entirety of the country. Despite it’s small size on a map, Costa Rica is larger and more diverse than it may look. While not technically considered a developing nation (it hovers somewhere around second), it does have its issues. It is important that every traveler be aware of them prior to their trip lest they think that Costa Rica is a paradisiacal shangri-la. However, we sincerely believe that with planning, awareness, and good old fashioned common sense, you are unlikely to have any trouble while on vacation in Costa Rica.
So what are some of the common dangers, and how can they be avoided?
The most ubiquitous issue that tourists in Costa Rica experience is petty theft. Travelers often come with large amounts of cash and expensive items such as cell phones, cameras, and computers on their vacations to Costa Rica. Instances of petty theft include the following:
- When items are left unattended, for example at the beach or near other bodies of water while their owners otherwise occupied
- When items are left in unguarded vehicles
- In more rare cases, items may be taken via pickpocketing or purse-snatching
How can this be avoided?
The issue of petty theft in Costa Rica can be avoided in the following ways:
- Leave it at home. For every high-value (either monetary or otherwise important item) ask yourself, will I really need/use this Costa Rica? If not, don’t bring it!
- Leave it at your hotel or rental. Bring no more than what you will absolutely need in cash. Also, challenge yourself to go without your phone or camera — you may find that the memories may actually be more vivid than the pictures you take!
- Be discrete. If you choose to bring valuables out with you, don’t flash your them around.
- Don’t leave your items unattended. Even if it’s for just a few minutes on what looks like a fairly empty beach while you go for a quick swim. It’s as simple as that.
- Practice vigilance. Don’t stray too far off the beaten path, especially if you are in an unfamiliar place. Avoid being out and about, especially alone and/or with valuables, after dark. Keep an eye out for people who seem to be watching and/or following you. In short: always be aware of your surroundings.
Costa Rica has nearly 1,300km of ocean coastline as well as countless rivers, lakes, and pools. There are very few places that have lifeguards on duty, so it is very important that each person practice discretion based on their own confidence in the water as well as potential risks at each unique place. Unfortunately, every year there are all-too-many drownings and near-drownings of tourists and locals alike. Anyone with familiarity of water safety knows that the majority of these incidents could be easily avoided.
How can this be avoided?
Water incidents in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) can be avoided in the following ways:
- Stay sober. Don’t ever consume alcohol or drugs and then go swimming (or participate in any other water-based activity). The risk of drowning skyrockets with the introduction of any conscious-altering substance.
- Ask around. If you can, talk to a local waterperson (lifeguard, surfer, fisherman, etc.) about rip currents, tides, waves, and other potential hazards at the place you intend to submerge yourself.
- Don’t get in over your head. Sometimes that means metaphorically, sometimes literally. Metaphorically: don’t get yourself into a sticky situation that you may not be ready for — like if the waves are big, wait for another day when they are smaller to swim or surf; or if you don’t know how to swim very well, don’t go on a snorkel tour. Literally: sometimes, if the seas are rough, the swell is big, or the river is full, you may just want to go in to your legs or waist.
- When in doubt, don’t risk it! Long story short, don’t put yourself in a bad position. You know better than anyone how comfortable you are and how much experience you have in the water. If it’s not much, then don’t put yourself in a situation where things could go from fine to bad in a split second — it’s just not worth it.
Car accidents can happen anywhere in the world, but there is an increased incidence of them when you drive in a country that you are unfamiliar with. Laws and customs may be different and the language may be unfamiliar. In Costa Rica, roads are often windy, single-lane, pothole-ridden affairs. Also, the country can see heavy rains for at least half the year and it gets dark annually at about 6pm. So what’s the best way to get around safely?
How can this be avoided?
For our vacation guests at Bodhi Surf + Yoga, we provide transportation to and from the San Jose international airport with a very reputable company. That way, upon arrival, guests can literally sit back and enjoy the ride without having to worry about navigating the roads of Costa Rica. Generally, here’s what we recommend to others:
- If you feel the need to rent a car, take the appropriate measures. Familiarize yourself with the local laws and customs (specifically if there are any major differences to your home country — you can ask your rental agent about that). Make sure you have a very good navigation tool (such as a GPS or an app like Waze) that you have set to your mother tongue. Avoid driving after dark, and between May and November, do your best to plan your drives for the earlier portion of the day when there’s less chance of rain.
- Otherwise, get yourself a reputable driver. That could mean a shared or private shuttle that takes you from A to B, there are a great many of throughout the country. Or, if you are touring around the country, it may be worthwhile to hire a driver for the entirety of your trip. Do some research to make sure you are getting someone who is good, safe, and friendly! Not only will they know the local customs, but they may also be a very good resource for taking you to places off the beaten trail and explaining a bit about Costa Rica.
Other risk factors
In Costa Rica has there is potential for any of the following natural disasters to occur: earthquake, volcano eruption, tsunami, hurricanes and tropical storms (as well as the flooding, landslides, and winds that could be associated with them). These are all low-grade risks which have affected very few tourists historically. Ultimately, and like with anywhere else in the world, it just comes down to chance.
Costa Rica is a country with a vast amount of wild animals, most of which are not dangerous (think monkeys, toucans, and dolphins) and a few which are (like venomous snakes, spiders, and crocodiles). It’s best to always ask a local about animal threats and concerns, and to do jungle treks with a trained guide.
Domestic air travel
Recently there have been several light aircraft crashes on domestic flights in Costa Rica, some with fatalities. In one case, wind was a factor. In others, it is unknown what caused the incident. While taking domestic flights can indeed save time, especially if you are visiting multiple places in one trip, there are obvious risks associated with it, and opting for traditional road travel may seem more appealing to many.
Though this list may seem daunting and have you thinking holy smokes… that place sounds terrifying!, most of Costa Rica (and the more visited places) are probably just as safe as your own home country. The point of this post was to inform so that you can make an educated decision about where you want to go, plan and prepare for it accordingly, and have your wits about you when you are there! Don’t forget, the best moments in life usually happen when you’re outside your comfort zone!
For further reading, check out these 5 Safety Tips for Travelers in Costa Rica!