old rip current warning sign

Staying Safe in Costa Rica

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While a lot of safety advice is pretty basic and makes good sense no matter where you are in the world (even close to home), there are some considerations that are specific to Costa Rica.  Mosquito-borne disease, rip currents and crimes of opportunity are risks to be aware of and know how to avoid.  As a solo female traveler, personal safety and security is also of particular concern. 

Costa Rica is a safe country with relatively low levels of violent crime, but there are risks and tragedies do happen.  Simply be aware, take some precautions, and enjoy the Pura Vida!

Here are a few tips on how to make the most of your time here and stay safe:

Personal Safety 

The majority of Costa Ricans (and others in the country) are kind and helpful, but there are bad apples everywhere.  Always be mindful of who’s around you and your safety when interacting with others.  Don’t engage if something seems wrong.  

Do not walk alone at night, especially as a female traveler.  Always use a taxi, Uber or public transportation after dark.  I learned from experience that it’s a good idea to make note of the taxi number (inside the yellow triangle on the official red taxis) in case you need to identify the driver later.

Beaches are places where tourists are frequently targeted so avoid going to the beach at dawn or in the evening or nighttime hours.  For personal safety and to avoid losing important belongings, take as little as possible with you to the beach.  

It’s a good idea to be aware of the security measures in place at your accommodations before you book.  Keep your doors locked when you are inside as well as when you’re away.

I have a keychain alarm but don’t carry pepper spray or other protective device.

Money & Identification

You must carry a photocopy of your passport at all times, with the photo page and a copy of the page with your entry stamp.  If you are driving you must carry your original passport, but otherwise it is best to leave it behind.  No one wants the headache of trying to obtain a replacement from the embassy so you can catch your flight home!

If you’re renting a vacation property or staying in a hotel, make sure that your room has a safe.  When you head out, lock up whatever valuables you leave behind such as your passport, bank and credit cards, driver’s license, phone, electronic devices etc.

Don’t carry large amounts of cash and be discreet with your money.  When using debit or credit cards, be careful with your PIN and don’t let anyone walk away with your card.  Even as I write this I am waiting for a replacement debit card because mine was recently compromised at a local service station.  It happens here too, so be careful.

I’ve accidentally left my wallet in a taxi at night and was unable to recover it, even after contacting the driver.  I lost cash and had to replace my driver’s license and cards.  I’ve learned lessons the hard way, and hope others can avoid it if possible.

Belongings

The economic environment and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on local employment affect poverty, and with poverty comes an increase in petty crime.  Visit and support local businesses, and consider donating to needy families during your stay.  There are many where simply having enough to eat, or clothing to go school, is a daily struggle.

Keep your personal belongings close to your body at all times and leave the expensive jewelry and sunglasses at home.  Purses can be grabbed by passing motorcyclists so it’s good to use a cross-body purse.  Don’t leave your purse or backpack on the back of a chair at a restaurant, and be careful when using public transportation because bags have been stolen from overhead storage when owners weren’t paying attention.

I am currently renting a home in a gated Tico condominium complex with 24 hour security, but I know several expats in Costa Rica who have suffered a home break-in.  They are rarely violent and are simply to steal whatever valuables are available.  Seasonally vacant homes are a particular target.  

Diseases

There are no mandatory vaccines to visit Costa Rica from North America, but the Yellow Fever vaccine may be required if traveling from other countries.  It is always a good idea to visit your local travel health clinic in advance of travel to inquire about potential risks and confirm vaccine requirements.

There are several water and mosquito-borne diseases to be aware of.  For mosquito bite prevention, apply repellent (20-30% DEET or 20% Picaridin) and wear neutral-colored, loose clothing that covers the skin.  Apply your sunscreen first and then repellent, ideally 20 minutes later.

  • Hepatitis A & B:  As with many other tropical destinations, is recommended that travelers be vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B.  
  • Malaria is spread through the bite of infected mosquito (female Anopheles).  It currently has limited presence in Costa Rica.  The vaccine can have severe side effects so my travel clinic advised against it, and recommended being diligent with mosquito repellant as a preventative measure.
  • Typhoid is contracted through contaminated food or water.  There may be a risk if you are staying with a family in rural areas where exposure could occur.
  • Yellow Fever is mosquito-borne and the vaccine is required if traveling from any of these specific at-risk countries.
  • Measles is spread through airborne transmission.  The CDC recommends that children 6 to 11 months old traveling internationally should get 1 dose of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine before travel.  This dose does not count as part of the routine childhood vaccination series.
  • Dengue Fever has no vaccine and is spread through the bite of infected mosquitos.  The mosquito that carries dengue bites during the day and night, both indoors and outdoors, and often lives around buildings.  The risk is greatest during rainy season (May to November) and at elevations below 2,300 m (7,500 ft).
  • Chagas Disease is spread through the feces of the triatomine bug (“kissing bug”) and doesn’t present a serious risk to travelers unless staying in low-quality housing.
  • Zika:  This is another vector borne disease with no vaccine prevention.  It can cause severe birth defects so if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant it is important to consider the risk of travel.

Weather & Environment

Speaking of sunscreen, the sun is intense here and there is nothing worse than a severe burn to ruin a vacation.  Apply sunscreen before heading out and be sure to reapply often, especially after swimming.  Please be nature-friendly and only use an environmentally-safe product.

Water safety is a very important factor when visiting Costa Rica.  The rip currents are strong and prevalent at most of the beaches so knowing how to identify them and what to do if you’re caught in one may save your life, or that of a loved one.  Most of all, listen to the locals and pay attention to warning flags if they exist on the beach.  The majority of Costa Rica’s beaches are unsupervised so enjoy safely!

The rainy season in Costa Rica runs from May through November and is a great time to visit the country.  Be sure to pack lightweight clothes that dry easily and good, closed-toe footwear, and of course have some raingear.  If you are driving, there may be additional hazards due to mudslides or washed out roads.  Localized flooding can occur and some more remote areas are not accessible by road during this time.

Earthquakes are a fact of life in this seismically-active country, located along the Pacific “ring of fire”, that is home to 20 volcanoes.  As an example, during the past 30 days Costa Rica was shaken by 2 quakes of magnitude 5.0 or above, 18 quakes between 4.0 and 5.0, 81 quakes between 3.0 and 4.0, and 43 quakes between 2.0 and 3.0.  The biggest quake was 5.2, located 5.5 km NE of San José, Costa Rica on Oct 31st at 11.01 pm (GMT -6).  For those who are not from earthquake-prone regions, it helps to become familiar with emergency procedures in case of a severe earthquake.

A little preparation goes a long way.  If you do require emergency assistance while in country, dial 9-1-1. 

Enjoy and safe travels!

 

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