Costa Rica is a rugged, uneven country. When hiking or performing other outdoor activities, be aware of the terrain around you. Steep hills, cliffs, and sheer drops are common. Don’t expect all walkways to be clearly marked or free of hazards. When you’re venturing out into the wilderness, it’s always good to do it with an experienced local guide… and definitely don’t venture into the wild alone.
When indoors, one thing in particular to watch for is slick tile and other smooth floor surfaces. Costa Rica is a rainy country and floors can be wet at any time. Wear good walking shoes with a slip-resistant sole whenever possible. High heels are OK for limited use (going out to dinner, etc.), but it’s a bad idea to wear them all the time. Don’t feel like you have to wear anything that makes walking difficult. Costa Rica is a casual country.
The number two cause of accidental death among tourists in Costa Rica is drowning (road accidents are number one). Strong rip currents are common and are a leading cause of drowning in Costa Rica. Personally, I recommend limiting ocean swimming and leave the salt water for the surfers. Swimming pools are plentiful in Costa Rica and are much safer.
Rivers, even when they appear calm, can have powerful hydraulics and undercurrents. It’s best to stay out of the river unless you’re with a guide who knows where the safe areas are.
Waterfalls can be deceptively powerful and can definitely injure or drown you. Consult with a tour guide or hotel staff to find out where the safe areas to play around the waterfalls are. Be careful… even water falling only 15 feet can feel like someone dropped a boulder on top of you. Waterfalls can also conceal powerful hydraulics that can drag you under and drown you.
If you will be going river tubing or rafting, or entering fresh water (rivers, streams, waterfalls, hot springs, etc.), you should use nose plugs. There are some particularly nasty microscopic critters living in the water that can cause serious harm if they go up your nose. (this is the infamous brain-eating amoeba that has killed people swimming in fresh water in Florida) They are completely harmless, however, if swallowed.
Animals & Plants
Injuries or poisoning due to contact with plants or animals is uncommon, but Costa Rica is teeming with life, so it’s always a possibility. No matter how tame they appear to be, never make physical contact with any wild animals. Many monkeys and wild cats (ocelots, margays, etc.) have tamed themselves, but they are not domesticated. They are not afraid of humans and will approach you, especially if you have food. However, they are also not afraid to bite off your fingers or maul you if they are suddenly startled.
Costa Rica is home to several varieties of poisonous spiders, snakes, and other critters. In the tourist areas, you’re more likely to encounter spiders than anything else. Spiders like to hang out near people, alongside roads, and near buildings. Chances are it won’t be an issue, but keep your eyes open when you’re outside. Be sure to keep your hotel room free of debris and food, especially if the room is an “open air” design. Just a little bit of food left out for a couple of hours can result in a critter party in your room.
It’s hard to get yourself in trouble with plants, but many of them are poisonous. Don’t touch – and certainly don’t eat – anything that you’re not sure about.
Once again… When you’re venturing out into the wilderness, it’s always good to do it with an experienced local guide… and definitely don’t venture into the wild alone.
Most accidental tourist deaths are caused by road accidents. This is the best reason that I can think of not to rent a car. While many people do rent a car, it’s much safer and not that much more expensive to use a professional driver. Professional tourist drivers in Costa Rica usually drive a minivan or similar vehicle with a yellow “Turismo” decal on the sides and back. Most of them are safe and reliable… this is how they make their living, after all. Please note that there are often large hidden charges for car rentals that will not be disclosed until you arrive in Costa Rica. Those cheap car rentals that you find online are pure fantasy. Tens of thousands of visitors to Costa Rica get bitten by the “car rental scam” every year.
The roads in Costa Rica are usually in decent condition in the heavily-traveled and tourist-oriented areas, but can be quite rough in other locations. Narrow roads with no shoulders or guard rails and sheer drop-offs are common. Frequent fog can instantly reduce the visibility to zero. Many roads are not marked and those that are marked are marked in Spanish. There are often no warnings of lane endings, bridges out, and other potentially fatal hazards. Driving at night is especially hazardous.
Roads are winding and the going is slow. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and farm animals are frequently encountered.
There are two domestic airlines in Costa Rica – Sansa and Nature Air. Both offer several destinations and are safe by international standards. Reliability is generally good, but domestic flying is dependent upon the weather. Morning flights are far more likely to operate on schedule. Flying can dramatically shorten travel times due to the rough terrain and slow, winding roads of Costa Rica.
Water transportation is generally safe, but the ocean can be particularly rough during the early part of high season. Get recommendations from a reliable source such as your hotel’s staff before choosing a provider. Be prepared to seek alternate transportation if the water appears to be too rough. Inland water and river transportation is generally safe, if a bit slow.
The Costa Rican government has taken positive steps to ensure that facilities such as hotels, shops, restaurants, and even many attractions are wheelchair-accessible, but it’s still a fact of life in Costa Rica that some places are simply too difficult to make accessible. It’s important to research all of the locations you plan to visit to ensure this won’t be an issue for anyone in your party who is restricted to a wheelchair. Fortunately, all modes of transportation in Costa Rica can accommodate wheelchair-bound passengers. You should still ensure that your individual transportation provider or travel agent is aware that you need accessible transportation.
There are numerous “adventure” activities available in Costa Rica. That’s why many people specifically come to Costa Rica. I won’t go into all the different activities available… The general rule is to be aware of the dangers and to get recommendations on tour providers from a reliable source (your hotel’s staff, travel agent, concierge, trusted friends, etc.). There are no required safety standards for such activities and providers in Costa Rica, but many conscientious providers “self-certify.”
Use your best judgment. Get recommendations, ensure that your provider or guide is using appropriate safety procedures and equipment, and don’t be afraid to abort the activity if you don’t feel comfortable or safe.
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