A common concern that many travelers have when considering where to take their vacation is, “how clean is _______?” This is obviously a worry because if you only have a week or two to spend in a place, you don’t want to risk having any of that time wasted by falling ill.
We get a lot of questions about this theme regarding our home, Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica:
- “Can you drink the water?”
- “What’s the litter situation?”
- “Is it very polluted?”
- “Is the ocean clean to swim in?”
The big question is actually: “What is the likelihood that I will get sick on my vacation?”
In most of Costa Rica, the tap water is potable, something that sets it apart from the rest of Latin America. I personally believe this a characteristsic to which this country owes its reputation for cleanliness.
As someone who has spent a significant amount of time living in and traveling throughout Latin America, I can offer a comparative perspective about Costa Rica’s cleanliness.
Let’s face it — things grow in tropical climates!
People love to vacation in tropical countries. Especially for those who live in cooler climates, the idea of breaking up winter with the promise of sunshine and beaches is what keeps many going through those cold, dark months. However, warm, tropical climates often come with a host of little problems. Conditions are ideal for the incubation of germs (bacteria, viruses, and parasites).
Now, I am writing this blog while taking my very own vacation in Mexico, a place that I love. I have been visiting for most of my life. Mexico a very popular tourist destination and with good reason. However, every time I visit the beach in Mexico, which has been once or twice a year for the past eight years, I get sick. From colds to mild unease of the tummy to full-on food poisoning to parasites and beyond (I’ll spare you the gory details).
I’ve had health issues in beach towns that I simply have not experienced anywhere else in the world. Not only that — every single person I know who has visited Mexico, specifically any tropical beach towns, seems to have had a similar experience. I’ve heard horror stories of weddings in Mexico where the entire wedding party and all the guests spend the day after the wedding being violently ill. A story where the bride herself spends her wedding day being violently ill. It just seems to be a fact of visiting Mexico that you should expect and even plan for!
A comparative perspective
This is not designed to bash Mexico or deter you from visiting the country, but rather to put things in perspective. Living in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica, a small coastal town, has simply got me thinking just how clean it feels in comparison.
In my five years of living in Bahia Ballena, not once have I gotten sick from (what I perceive to be) questionable cleanliness. The times I’ve gotten sick have been your standard colds/flus, mostly due to being run down. In fact, from what I have heard from my fellow community members and what I have gleaned from working with tourists who visit the area, getting sick for lack of hygiene just doesn’t seem to be that common in our area. And as a potential visitor yourself, cleanliness is an important point whose benefit cannot be overstated.
Why does Bahia Ballena feel so clean?
Costa Rica in general is known to be very clean, but talking specifically about the Costa Ballena area, there are a two main contributing factors.
The water source
When the water that comes out of the tap is not safe to drink, everything that water comes into contact with is at risk of being contaminated. In Mexico, it is recommended that you disinfect every fruit and vegetable buy using iodine drops, and there’s always a risk of cross-contamination with the tap water during the cooking process. The water used for bathing and brushing one’s teeth is not safe to drink, and most of the time it’s fine — but on that rare occasion it’s not.
The water is known to be good in most parts of Costa Rica, but regardless, it’s always good to check with locals to make sure the water is okay to drink.
In Bahia Ballena, we get our water from a very pure, mineral-rich source. Due to high rainfall and little development in the area, our tap water is of excellent quality. Sometimes, heavy rains do cause pipes to burst, and in those moments we do resort to bottled water, just to be safe. But overall we are privileged with clean and safe water which has an overall positive effect on the health of the area and its inhabitants.
Bahia Ballena is a small town in an area that has thus far been untouched by large scale development. Our area does not have large human populations, huge or abundant structures, or the problems that often accompany those conditions. Pollution, trash, and runoff are all minimal. Most importantly, nature is in harmonious equilibrium, which means you’ll see way more green space than infrastructure.
Many people who visit us express their surprise at the lack of flying critters — mosquitoes, flies, and gnats. One theory that I’ve heard is that when there is an imbalance in nature, that’s when you start to see large populations of things like bugs. As it stands, we still have other creatures that eat the flying bugs — geckos, spiders, birds, bats, frogs, toads. One can only hope that this balance persists so local residents and visitors alike continue to enjoy the many benefits of having clean water and few bugs.
A place you can feel secure visiting
The fact of the matter is that Costa Rica, compared to most every other country in Latin America (and maybe even every other country located in the tropics) is very, very healthy and clean. While neither I nor anyone else can guarantee that you won’t experience any issues during your visit here — it is still the tropics, so the germs are going to be very different than the ones you are used to at home – the likelihood of you experiencing a hygiene-related illness is much lower compared to other tropical destinations.
I can say that from my experience having traveled significantly in Latin America, that Costa Rica lives up to its reputation as being one of the cleanest countries in the Americas.