The most common questions that I get about traveling in Costa Rica concern safety and security. There is a common preconception — which is false — that Costa Rica is a “Third World Country” and a dangerous place to visit. While no country is perfectly safe, Costa Rica is safer than most. This advice applies to visitors from all over the word. However, I often use the USA for comparison, just to give you a frame of reference. Here’s what you need to know before you visit:
There is very little danger of a visitor to Costa Rica becoming involved in a violent crime. Just like the USA or any other country, there are bad areas that travelers should not visit, but most parts of the country are relatively free of violent crime. Most violent crime in Costa Rica is not random. It usually involves locals and is often related to drug and/or gang activity. If you don’t get involved in illegal activities and don’t go to places that you shouldn’t go, Costa Rica is at least as safe as the USA and other Western countries.
Nonviolent and petty crimes, however, are an issue in heavily-populated areas and tourist locations. Pickpocketing and similar crimes are common. Your best defense here is not to carry anything you don’t need and to be aware of your surroundings. Keeping your smartphone, cash, and a credit card or two in your front pocket instead of in a wallet or purse is a good idea. Cameras, purses, and backpacks are often “snatched” in public or when you are distracted. Leave the expensive jewelry and laptop computer at home, or at least in your hotel room. Do not leave any valuables in an unattended vehicle, particularly buses or rental cars, for any amount of time.
In Costa Rica, you are allowed to use a copy of your Passport as ID (both the page with your photo and personal information, as well as the page with your entry stamp on it. Carry this copy with you on your adventures and leave your actual passport back at your hotel. This not only protects against theft but also against loss or damage while you’re engaging in energetic outdoor activities.
Costa Rica is a healthy country with very good healthcare and medical facilities. The incidence of many diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, is about half that of the USA. Cancer is the leading cause of death in Costa Rica, but again, that is all relative. Ticos (Costa Ricans) just don’t get sick very often. Some segments of the population live regularly into their 90s and even 100s.
Protecting your health in Costa Rica doesn’t require any special planning or actions, unless you have a health condition which requires special attention. If you are currently taking prescription medication, you should bring an ample supply with you to Costa Rica, and I advise bringing copies of your prescriptions with you, in case you need an emergency refill.
Despite the prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases in other parts of Central and South America, Costa Rica is relatively free of them. Dengue Fever is the most common of these in Costa Rica, but it is rarely contracted by tourists. Dengue tends to mostly affect the local population living in densely populated areas, such as San José, and there is an outbreak every few years or so. There was a small Zika outbreak in limited areas during 2016. The Costa Rican government has a very aggressive program for preventing and combating mosquito-borne illnesses. If you are entering Costa Rica from certain countries in South America, you must have a current Yellow Fever Vaccination.
It is advisable to have mosquito repellent with you during your visit and to apply it as necessary. You can purchase many brands, including brands sold in the USA, here in Costa Rica, although repellent is about 20 – 30% more expensive in Costa Rica than in the USA.
Water & Food
Municipal water sources and most well water sources provide clean and safe water. Tap water in Costa Rica is of high quality and is safe to drink, although water in densely-populated areas may be treated with chlorine or other chemicals, giving it a unique taste. If a particular location doesn’t appear to be up to your personal standards or if you just don’t feel comfortable drinking tap water, bottled water is generally available (it can be expensive).
Costa Rican restaurants and sodas (small, family-run cafes) are almost always clean and safe. Food poisoning and other food-borne diseases are rare. Of course, you should always use good personal judgment. If a particular establishment appears to be unsanitary, then you should dine elsewhere. This is uncommon as Ticos tend to be very clean people, personal hygiene included.
Farmers’ markets are common in Costa Rica, and almost every town has at least one market. Fruit and vegetables are clean, sanitary, and usually organically grown. Normal precautions for washing and storage are sufficient. Most meat and seafood at markets is also quite safe, but you should only buy from vendors that are storing the food properly (refrigerators, ice, etc.).
If you are particularly sensitive to pollution, such as car exhaust, this can be an issue in San José and some of the densely populated areas near the city. If you think this might be an issue for you and you’ll be spending time in the city, you may want to bring a couple of disposable face masks. When selecting a hotel in the city, pick one that is mostly enclosed and is air conditioned.
There are no special vaccinations required or needed to enter Costa Rica from North America and countries in Asia or Europe. If you’re entering Costa Rica from South America (or have visited certain countries in Africa), you will likely need a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate. If you don’t want to get the vaccination and will be visiting Costa Rica and South America, consider visiting Costa Rica first so that this won’t be an issue.
The CDC recommends the usual vaccinations and precautions for Hepatitis, Typhoid, etc. but the incidence of these is no greater than in the USA. If you’ll be spending a lot of time in the wilderness or in remote areas, you may want to consider getting vaccinated.
Rabies is not known to exist in domestic animals in Costa Rica, and Costa Rica does have a mandatory vaccination program for domestic pets and other animals. Rabies has been documented in the wild and is considered to be a risk in certain small specific areas. If you’ll be spending a lot of time in the wilderness or expect to be directly exposed to feral or wild animals (such as volunteering at an animal refuge), you may want to consider getting rabies prophylaxis treatment prior to your visit. This is not necessary for the vast majority of travelers.
The quality of medical care in Costa Rica is comparable to that of the USA. The cost of treatment, however, is typically much less in Costa Rica, and Costa Rica is a popular Medical Tourism destination, particularly for cosmetic procedures not typically covered by medical insurance. Major dental work, in particular, is a very popular reason to visit Costa Rica… the trip often “pays for itself”, versus the cost of procedures in the USA.
If you are injured or become ill during your visit to Costa Rica, the facilities in San José and other populated areas are high-quality. Medical evacuation to another country is almost always unnecessary. However, there are parts of Costa Rica that are very remote and may be located hours away from the nearest major medical facility. You should discuss this situation and the possible need for medical evacuation insurance with your trip organizer or tour provider, prior to venturing into remote areas.
Continued in Part 2…
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