Short on time? For a summary of our full blog post below, please see our related article: Five Minute Read: Is Costa Rica Safe? Yes, If You Travel Consciously, Cleverly, And With Common Sense. Here’s How.
When travellers ask us whether or not Costa Rica is a safe place to visit we do not pause before answering “yes”. Is it a utopia of purity and obedience? No, but then again, what country is? Costa Rica is not problem-free, however it is much better than you have likely been led to believe. Especially if your beliefs have been tainted by the struggles of other Central American nations that have spread negativity and doubt throughout the world’s mindset towards the entire Latin American region like the plague. Still, Costa Rica sticks out like a sore thumbs up. With nods in the directions of health care, education, environmental preservation, law enforcement, technological advancement, and tourism development, Costa Rica is unquestionably a progressive second-world country and one we feel comfortable recommending to travel groups, families with children, senior travellers, and independent backpackers.
Under one condition: that travellers act responsibly.
Have you ever listened to or read about a dummy-of-the-day or idiot-of-the-week story? These stories usually describe a real life event where an individual or criminal has done something so stupid that it garners attention from the press. The stories are often unbelievable, leaving listeners and readers to question how someone could act so incoherently. Ricky’s desire to read the local newspaper each morning (both La Nacion and Al Dia) and watch the local news every evening (Teletica Canal 7) has informed us of Costa Rica’s fair share of head-scratching stories. Many of these stories involve travellers who either forget to bring rational with them from home or somehow lose their senses along the way. In other cases, travellers find themselves caught up in unfortunate situations for reasons that can easily be avoided. Regardless of whether they occur as a result of a blatantly irresponsible act or an innocent omission of intelligence, mistakes can and do happen. Minimize the risk by travelling consciously, cleverly, and with common sense. To achieve this, we recommend familiarizing yourself with the following tips.
Watch out for sticky fingers at the airport
During Costa Rica’s high season, the exit gates at the SJO and LIR Airports resemble a mosh pit at a heavy metal concert. Swarms of professional drivers and hotel staff representatives flock to the airport exits to locate their clients, resulting in a crowd of Costa Ricans yelling out names, holding up business signs, and asking travellers if they need rides anywhere. We have yet to hear of it happening, however amid the chaos around the exit gate I worry that travellers could lose a bag here or there. In general, Costa Ricans are friendly – I do not aim to paint a picture of an angry crowd of people lunging after travellers’ luggage – however with the high volume of traffic that the airport exits see, I imagine a bag could go missing pretty quickly if it is left unattended. Upon your airport exit, make your way through the gate with your luggage in tow and keep walking until you are on the other side of the crowd. Once you have done so you can breathe again and gather your thoughts about where you need to go from there.
Avoid driving after dark
Although the exact time can vary, sundown in Costa Rica typically occurs at 6:00pm. If you opt to rent your own vehicle, do not drive long distances or on highways after dark. Many roads do not offer sidewalks and individuals walking along the side of the road (or stray animals) can be difficult to spot. In addition, Costa Rican roads can offer unfavourable conditions – you never know when a road may take a sudden turn, offer a steep cut-off, or be ridden with potholes. These conditions can be worsened by the weather, as rain and fog contribute their own driving challenges. If uncomfortable, hire a shared shuttle service and/or a private transfer service to take you from point A to point B after dark. Professional drivers are familiar with the various routes and know how to adapt to ever-changing road/weather conditions.
Avoid visiting the beach after dark
Every country has its good guys and its bad guys. Walking on the beach after dark (especially alone) is a big no-no. The first step in exercising common sense is to never put yourself in a position where you are a vulnerable target. Unfortunately touring the beach after dark (as peaceful and as calming as it sounds) does just that.
Avoid visiting an ATM machine after dark
Doing so runs the same risk as visiting the beach after dark. Why take the chance?
Avoid swimming when the water/surf/waves are rough
This one should go without saying, but from time to time we hear horror stories of individuals drowning due to dangerous ocean conditions. The risk of riptide, rip current, and/or undertow should always be a concern, no matter which beach you plan to visit (in any country in the world). Swim cautiously and keep little ones close (within arms reach). No beach visit is worth your life or the life of someone you love.
Do not take a taxi that is not an official “red” taxi (red in colour with a yellow triangle on the door, with the exception of airport taxis which are orange in colour)
Illegal taxi drivers (using their own vehicles) are widespread throughout Costa Rica. Although most are just trying to make a living (we are friends with many), we recommend that travellers do not use taxi services other than the official type unless they know and trust the driver.
Plan for your tours/activities accordingly
Costa Rica offers a tropical environment and its nature and adventure activity offerings are endless. If you know you will be active during your trip, bring the right equipment, apparel, and accessories to match. If you plan to hike, bring comfortable shoes, long pants, socks, and band-aids. If you plan to raft, zipline, or go canyoneering, bring strap-on shoes (flip flops are not permitted) and clothing that will feel comfortable given the equipment you will be strapped into (ie. waist harnesses, life jackets, and helmets). Bring insect repellent and sunscreen (a long-sleeve shirt is also recommended for activities participated in direct sunlight). Cuts, bites, blisters, and sunburn can harm you physically during your trip, but they can also be avoided by planning ahead. For more information regarding packing for your trip, see our related blog post: What To Pack For A Costa Rica Vacation.
Keep a list of common Spanish phrases and questions with you throughout your trip (great for travellers with allergies and/or dietary requests)
If you do not speak Spanish, don’t fret! Most Costa Ricans working in the tourism industry do, or at least enough to get by. However, you may find yourself in a situation where you really wish you knew more than “hola”, “adios”, and “una cerveza por favor”. There’s no harm in drafting a small cheat sheet of Spanish words or phrases to keep with you throughout your trip (Google Translator can help). Who knows when one of the following phrases will come in handy.
- ¿Cómo llego a ___? (How do I get to…?)
- ¿Dónde está el baño? (Where is the bathroom?)
- ¿Dónde está el hotel ___? (Where is the ___ hotel?)
- ¿Dónde está el restaurante ___? (Where is the ___ restaurant?)
- ¿A qué hora es el ___? (At what time is the ___?)
- ¿Cuánto tiempo se tarda en ___? (How long does it take to ___?)
- Soy alérgico a ___ (I am allergic to ___)
- No puedo tener ___ (I cannot have ___)
- No puedo comer ___ (I cannot eat ___)
- ¿Tiene esto ___? (Does this have ___?)
- Me siento mal (I feel sick)
IDENTIFICATION & POSSESSION SAFETY
Bring/carry a copy of your passport with you
You never know when you will lose your passport. It is simply one of those problems you never think you will encounter until you do. Keep a copy of your passport with you throughout your trip just in case. In addition, many tour operators will ask for this (especially if the tours you plan to participate in take place near either border) and providing them with a passport copy means you can leave your actual passport in a safe place (ie. at your hotel, locked in a safe, or locked in your luggage). This way, the original document doesn’t need to tour around with you.
Email yourself a scanned copy of all important receipts, confirmations, and travel documents
As mentioned above, keeping a copy of your passport on you is a good idea (especially if your tour/activity plans call for it). It can also be beneficial to email yourself a copy of any/all important travel documents. Internet access is widespread throughout Costa Rica (wi-fi access is prevalent, most hotels offer a computer on-site for guest use, and the majority of tourist towns offer internet cafes), so if you happen to misplace all of your information a back-up can almost always be retrieved online.
Browse online safely
Access to unsecured wi-fi signals (and in some cases, secure wi-fi signals) can put your electronic devices at risk of being hacked by others sharing the same signal as you. Avoid logging into private accounts (such as your online banking account) or sending/opening confidential information when you are tapped into an unsecured wi-fi signal. Limit your internet use to necessary travel-related functions, including the verification of online schedules, communication with the individual helping you coordinate your trip, or review of your reservation confirmation details. For additional wi-fi safety advice, the following is a great resource: http://www.idtheftauthority.com/keeping-id-safe-hotel-wifi-networks
Do not leave possessions unattended and/or in unlocked vehicles
Regardless of whether you plan to rent your own vehicle or rely on shared shuttle services/private transfer services throughout your trip, keep an eye on your possessions. If you have your own car, keep it locked at all times and parked in a secure and well-lit area. Do not leave your possessions in any vehicle overnight. If you plan to take shared shuttle services/private transfer services from point A to point B throughout your trip, make sure you can see the vehicle if/when it makes stops along the way. If you need to leave the vehicle for any reason (ie. to eat or visit the bathroom), just to be on the safe side, take any valuable possessions with you. Remember: before you leave the shared shuttle service/private transfer service vehicle and/or before you return your rental vehicle to the rental agency check in and under the seats for any possessions that may have slipped out during the ride.
MONEY & SPENDING SAFETY
Call your credit card provider prior to leaving home to release any international travel spending bans on your account
Most credit card providers automatically place a ban on international credit card purchases (this is to prevent fraudsters from using your credit card abroad in case it is lost or stolen). This ban can be removed so long as you authorize the account change in advance by phoning your credit card provider prior to embarking on your trip. There is nothing worse than being in a foreign country and needing access to cash only to find out that your access is restricted.
Do not rely on traveller’s cheques
Most hotels, tour operators, transportation service providers, restaurants, and shops do not accept them (with the exception of some all-inclusive resorts). If you do not feel comfortable carrying cash with you throughout your vacation and you do not plan on paying for items with a credit card, bring travellers cheques with the intention of going to the bank every few days to cash them in. If you plan to do so, make sure the signature you provide on your cheque matches the signature provided on your identification… exactly. I have been refused the use of traveller’s cheques at a Costa Rican bank because my signatures varied ever so slightly. Not only did the bank not allow me to access my own cash, but I was denied access at different banks since the traveller’s cheques had already been signed. Fortunately I was able to access cash via my credit card (at hefty cash advance fees), however the rest of my visit would have been a nightmare if I had not been able to do so.
Do not purchase tours from street-corner salesmen
Tour salesmen fill the street corners in popular tourist towns in Costa Rica. Save yourself a headache and hassle by reserving your preferred nature and adventure tours in advance through reputable companies. Otherwise you may be left waiting at your hotel for a tour pick-up service that was never reserved on your behalf. Your vacation time is precious. Do not waste it hunting down a street-patrolling salesman who walked off with your hard-earned cash.
Check and double-check your currency conversion
Money exchange between USD and Costa Rican Colones creates an opportunity for buyers to take advantage of purchasers. Make sure you know the going currency conversion rate and make sure you understand the exchange between currency types. Create a small rate conversion cheat sheet and keep it with you throughout your trip. It will come in handy when you are standing in line at a check-out desperately trying to estimate how much USD you need to purchase the item priced in Colones. For additional information, please see our related blog post: Understanding The Practice Of Currency Exchange and Minimizing Loss: USD to Costa Rican Colon.
Split your cash and credit cards
We have all experienced that moment of panic when we grab at our pockets and our wallet is no where to be found. If you plan to travel with cash and/or credit cards, hide these in separate pieces of luggage. If you happen to lose some during your trip (it happens to the best of us!) at least you will have a back-up funding source (or two, or three) that you can rely on throughout the remainder of your travels.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: What other safety tips would you recommend to travellers visiting Costa Rica?