Stay Safe in Costa Rica
Travel to Costa Rica is widespread: 1.9 million travellers visit the country every year, more than any other country in Latin America. Nevertheless, travellers to Costa Rica should exercise caution. The emergency number in Costa Rica is 911.
- Traffic in Costa Rica is dangerous, so be careful. Pedestrians generally do not have the right of way. Roads in rural areas also tend to have many potholes. Driving at night is not recommended.
- Use your common sense. Don’t leave valuables open in the car or leave your wallet on the beach when you go into the water. Close car windows and lock them, or do other things you might not do in your own country.
- In the cities, robberies with knives are not uncommon.
- Buses and bus stops – especially those going to San Jose – are common places for theft. Any bus rider who falls asleep has a good chance of waking up to find their luggage missing. Don’t trust anyone on the bus to look after your belongings, especially near San Jose.
- As with any other tourist destination, beware of pickpockets.
- Handbag thefts, armed robberies and car thefts are on the rise lately. Stay alert and protect your valuables at all times, especially in the San Jose area.
- “Car window thefts are very common throughout the country. Do not leave valuables in your vehicle.
- Another common theft trick is to slash your tyres. Then, when you stop to fix the puncture, one or two “friendly” people stop to help you and instead grab all the valuables they can find.
- If someone signals you to stop, do not do so until you are in a safe, well-lit area.
- Use the hostel or hotel safes if they are really safe – this is great if you want to swim or relax and not worry.
- On a longer trip, it is advisable to make backup CDs (or DVDs) of your digital photos and send a copy home. In case of theft, you will be glad you did!
- When you come across a new currency, find out the exchange rate from a reliable source (preferably online in advance or at a local bank) and make a small checklist to convert it into US dollars or another Central American currency you are familiar with. Travel with small US dollar denominations (1, 5, 10) as a reserve…. You can usually use these if you run out of local currency.
- Go to a bank to change money whenever it is possible and convenient. If you have to use the services of a money changer (e.g. at the border on Sunday morning), make sure you have your own calculator. Do not trust money changers and their fake calculators, change as little money as possible and look closely at the notes – there are many fakes. Always insist that your change is in small notes – you’ll lose more than a penny if a large note is counterfeit, and large notes are difficult to change (even the equivalent of $20 in Costa Rica or $5 in Nicaragua can be difficult in some small towns, believe it or not!) Money changers don’t use the official exchange rate – it’s best to go to a government bank to change your currency for free. It is also not possible to change Brazilian reals, although there are many Brazilian tourists in Costa Rica.
- Do not change money when you arrive at San José airport. The exchange rate used there is not the official rate and you will get far less colones. However, there is a BCR bank in the departure hall on the top floor with normal exchange rates. It is right next to the departure tax payment office. Buy as soon as you arrive to avoid the queue at departure.
- Travelling alone in Costa Rica is fine and generally safe, but think carefully about what risks you are willing to take (if any). Always hike with others and try to explore a new city with others. If you feel uncomfortable, find a group of other people (men and women). A well-lit place with people you trust is always an advantage. A busy restaurant or hostel is a good source of local information as well as a great place to relax and recharge.
Trade, distribution and sale of marijuana are illegal in Costa Rica. There are no penalties for carrying marijuana for personal use only (up to 3 joints). The police may try to take money from you or detain you for 12 hours at the local commissary. The US Drug Enforcement Agency is also present in Costa Rica and has been known to impersonate tourists. There is also a Costa Rican equivalent of the DEA. It is not advisable to use illegal drugs in Costa Rica. It is also not advisable to bribe a police officer. You do so at your own risk.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica and can be a destination for those looking for more than sun and surf on their holiday. San Jose and Jaco are hotspots for this activity. Prostitution with minors (under 18) is a criminal offence in Costa Rica. The majority of sex tourists in Costa Rica are from the United States, and if they engage in prostitution with a minor, they can be prosecuted under the Protect Act of 2003. This law gives the US government the power to prosecute US citizens who travel abroad to engage in sex tourism with children under 18. Several other countries, including France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia, have similar laws. Arrests, warrants and prosecutions are made under these laws.
Tips for travelling by bus
Below is a list of suggestions for bus tours in Costa Rica and neighbouring countries. These are over-cautious tips, but the bottom line is that they can help you avoid getting ripped off. Almost all bus robberies are preventable!
- If possible, travel with another person. Of course, it’s best if you have a trusted friend – not just someone you met at the hostel last night, but he or she will do if needed. (Trust your instincts about your new friends – most are great, but some can be scammers). Travelling with a friend makes the trip more fun and entertaining…. You can chat and swap travel stories and each of you can take turns sleeping on the long bus rides. Also, “two heads are better than one” and it is always good to be able to brainstorm if you are unsure of the answer to your travel question or concern.
- Be sure to take a money belt with you that contains your passport, cash, credit/debit cards and your ticket (bus or plane). Even if all your other belongings are stolen, you can still get to your next destination. Waist belts are best; a neck pouch can be pulled up while you sleep. A thief would have to really disturb you and your personal space to get hold of a waist belt.
- On all buses (1st, 2nd, 3rd class, whatever!) try to sit above the luggage compartment so you can watch your bag not escape when other people get off the bus. Costa Rican buses usually have one compartment for those going to the main destination and another for those getting off en route to avoid problems. Be careful if the “destination” compartment is opened during the journey!
- For trips that end in San Jose, for example from Quepos, the bus driver will ask you if you are going to the airport when he sees that you have large luggage with you. Answer no, because he is asking you this so that he can call his taxi friends to pick you up at a stop outside San Jose and take you to the airport. Firstly, you cannot be sure that this friend is an official taxi driver and secondly, he will charge you several times the normal amount for the bus driver’s share. If you are going to the airport, plan your trip in advance so you know exactly how to get from San Jose to the airport, don’t leave it to chance.
- Try not to fall asleep or take turns with a travel partner (if you are lucky enough to have one). The best way to fall asleep alone is to put your bag on your lap and clasp your hands together. Do not leave valuables in the outside compartments.
- Talk to the locals on the bus so they see that you know Spanish and feel comfortable in the Spanish-speaking environment. (They will have fun and maybe it will make them friendlier to you and more likely to alert you if someone is going through your things. Or it might make them aware that if they steal from you, you will talk to the bus driver and the police and make a full complaint). A little Spanish is better than none – use what you have! It’s great practice and the better you get, the safer you will be!
- Don’t take anything with you that you’re not prepared to lose. Always keep your daypack strapped on when travelling – the straps wrap around your leg and the bag is compressed between your knees or feet. You don’t want to lose your travel notes, camera, etc.
- Never leave anything in the luggage compartments. Almost 100% of bus thefts take place in the luggage compartments. Keep it in your lap.
- The buses are cheap but their quality is very basic, old torn and dirty chairs, no toilets, no air conditioning so the windows are usually open except when it rains.
Beaches, weather and wildlife
Costa Rica’s coasts are known for strong currents and oil spills in some areas, but most are great for family get-togethers. Costa Rica has some of the best beaches in the world. The Atlantic coast is only five hours from the Pacific coast and both offer different views and scenery. There are no signs indicating that a beach is unsafe due to currents, so take precautions and listen to the locals about where it is safe to swim. There are no lifeguards on public beaches. A traveller should learn how to get out of a rising tide and not swim alone. There are a few active volcanoes in Costa Rica and they are dangerous, so follow the posted warning signs. The slopes of Arenal Volcano invite visitors to approach the summit, but invisible gas chambers have claimed lives in the past. Also be aware of the climate in Costa Rica. It is very hot during the day, but cool in the mornings and evenings, so bring a light jacket.
- Crocodiles are quite common in parts of Costa Rica, and although they are not as dangerous as the Nile or saltwater species, they are still considered occasional man-eaters and can grow up to 20 feet long. The largest spot for them is the Tarcoles River Bridge in the Central Pacific, as listed in the Jaco Wiki. It is recommended to stop your vehicle nearby and walk across. Some locals throw chicken and watch them eat. Be very careful when swimming or snorkelling, especially near areas where fishing is common or near river mouths.
If you go to the beaches of Guanacaste, on the Pacific Ocean, you can see crocodiles on the Tempisque River. The bridge over this river was donated by the Taiwanese government. (Later, China donated a 35,000-seat stadium after Costa Rica ended its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan).
- Although large, the magnificent jaguar is extremely rare and even most locals have never seen this very large predatory cat. They seem to be very shy and evasive; the risk of attack is very low.
- Bull sharks share much of the same territory as crocodiles and are probably responsible for more shark attacks worldwide than any other species.
- Dogs are trained to protect property and people (perro bravo) and there are also many stray dogs. Dog bites are not uncommon. Do not approach an unknown dog.
- Snakes are common in many parts of Costa Rica and there are believed to be 139 different species. The vast majority are not dangerous to humans, but as in most countries, there are exceptions. Venomous snakes are generally divided into two groups, coral snakes and pit vipers. Coral snakes are easily recognised by their colourful bands. They have a small mouth with out-of-place fangs for biting people. Pit vipers almost always have a triangular head, but can also come in different sizes and colours. Most snakes, including venomous snakes, are shy and secretive and do their best to avoid humans, but they may strike if startled or deliberately provoked. Snake bites are rare in Costa Rica, but still occur from time to time. As always, the best solution is prevention. When walking in the countryside or jungle, be careful where you step and do not walk barefoot anywhere except on the beach. If you see a snake, remember the cardinal rule about wildlife: look but don’t touch and keep a safe distance. In the extremely unlikely event that you are bitten by a snake, you should consider this a potential medical emergency and seek medical attention immediately, especially if you think the snake may be venomous. Some Costa Rican snakes, such as the famous Fer-de-Lance and Bushmaster, have an extremely potent venom that can be life-threatening if left untreated. The good news is that Costa Rica, as mentioned above, probably has the best medical infrastructure in Central America. Antivenoms for all known native snakes are readily available in all major hospitals.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Costa Rica is a very conservative and traditionalist country. The official state religion is Roman Catholicism and the population is quite religious. Nevertheless, Costa Rica caters to the needs of gay and lesbian travellers. The gay scene is thriving in San José, with many nightlife options for gays and lesbians (La Avispa, Club Oh! , Bochinche, among others). The area around Manuel Antonio, Jacó and Quepos is also a hotspot with several gay hotels and bars.
There are a number of gay/lesbian or gay-friendly accommodations in Costa Rica. The accommodations seem to be of better quality, offer a variety of services and of course discretion. Many hotels, travel agencies and resorts are gay-run and/or gay-friendly.
According to the Costa Rican Tourist Board, about 200 medical procedures are performed each month in the country’s hospitals for medical tourists. The procedures performed include cosmetic surgery, knee and hip replacements, cataract removal and other eye treatments, weight loss surgery and dental treatment. Health care in Costa Rica is attractive to international patients because of the low prices, high standard of care and access to tourist attractions. For example, a hip replacement costs about $12,000 USD and a tummy tuck costs about $4,400 USD.
The main centres for medical tourism are CIMA Hospital, Clinica Biblica Hospital and Hotel La Catolica Hospital. These hospitals in turn use medical tourism agents who can organise all aspects of your trip from start to finish.
Stay Healthy in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has one of the highest levels of social welfare in the world. Its doctors are known all over the world and are among the best. Many people from the United States, Canada and Europe travel there for treatment, not only because of the quality of the service, but also because of the cost. There are first-class hospitals in the capital. There is a public/private hospital system. The care is excellent in all areas. The public system has much longer waiting times, while the private system has shorter waiting times. If you are unlucky enough to have a very sick child who needs hospitalisation, they will be transferred to the only children’s hospital in the Czech Republic, which is in the capital. This is a public children’s hospital.
There have been outbreaks of dengue fever in some parts of the country and a malaria outbreak was reported in Limon province in November 2006, but these were few cases. It is very important to protect yourself from mosquito bites. The CDC recommends wearing light-coloured trousers and long-sleeved shirts and using insect repellent with a high concentration of DEET. If you are travelling to rural areas known to be infested with malaria, consider taking an antimalarial. However, most travellers to Costa Rica do well with up-to-date childhood vaccinations and preventative measures against mosquito bites (rather than taking anti-malarial medication).
Tap water in urban areas of the country is almost always safe to drink. However, caution should be exercised in rural areas where water sources are questionable.