Costa Rica is a popular destination for more than 1.5 million people a year seeking a slightly out of the ordinary vacation, especially those interested in eco-tourism. The country is generally safe for tourists. However, as with any large U.S. or foreign destination, taking certain precautions can help ensure that you have a good time and make it home physically and financially intact.
The key to a safe Costa Rican trip is to start planning early.
Make sure your passport is up to spec. To get into the country, you’ll need your passport – with at least 30 days remaining before it expires – and an outbound airplane ticket. Costa Rican officials will deny you entry if your passport is damaged in any way, according to the U.S. State Department, but barring that, you will be allowed to stay for up to 90 days as a tourist.
One important note: Costa Rican authorities may stop you and demand identification during your visit, especially around the bars of San Jose or in certain beach towns. Make a photocopy of the ID page and entry stamp from your passport, then leave the passport in the hotel safe while out on the town. Carry it with you if you are going to be far from the hotel.
Also consider registering with the State Department before leaving for your Costa Rica adventure. Why?
Because, according to the government, “U.S. embassies and consulates assist nearly 200,000 Americans each year who are victims of crime, accident, or illness, or whose family and friends need to contact them in an emergency…By registering your trip, you help the embassy or consulate locate you when you might need them the most. Registration is voluntary and costs nothing, but it should be a big part of your travel planning and security.”
You can easily sign up online at the State Department website.
Packing and medical prep before you travel to Costa Rica
Many Costa Rica travel packages include visiting multiple destinations from mountain volcanoes to beach resorts. It’s important that you take proper clothing and sun protection for your trip.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the country is made of tropical and subtropical regions. The Costa Rica dry season runs from December to April and the rainy season runs from May to November. Expect it to be warm and humid in much of the country and cooler in the highlands.
This means you’ll need to take both hot- and cool-weather clothing, including pants and long-sleeved shirts, especially if your trip includes eco-tourism. During the rainy season, a hooded raincoat also would be a good idea. And boots, no matter when you go, for wearing when you’re outside the cities. Costa Rica is home to many species of spiders and snakes and even some scorpions.
Remember that you’ll be close to the equator and thus more exposed to the sun, so you’ll need to take sunblock and apply it liberally and often. A sunblock with DEET mosquito repellent is preferable. Malaria is always a concern, as is dengue fever, both transmitted by mosquitoes.
The U.S Centers for Disease Control recommends you plan on getting your shots about 4-6 weeks before the trip from a doctor who specializes in Travel Medicine, if possible. Vaccines you might need include:
Routine shots for flu, measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria, and tetanus, Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid.
If you’re going to be spending time among wildlife during your Costa Rica travel, you might also consider a rabies vaccination.
You should also begin taking an anti-malarial medication at least a month prior to your trip, according to the CDC. The recommended drug for Costa Rica travelers is chloroquine. The highest risk for malaria in the country is in Alajuela, Limón, Guanacaste, and Heredia provinces, although the CDC reports no risk in Puerto Limon.
In addition to the usual medications you take, you also should pack an anti-diarrhea medicine, along with anti-bacterial handwipes or hand sanitizer.
Have a safe Costa Rica adventure
You probably booked your Costa Rica vacation with some sort of eco-tourism or adventure travel in mind, and you picked the right place for it. Just make sure you follow some basic rules of safety to make sure you enjoy your activities without injury.
According to the State Department, eight to 12 Americans drown in Costa Rica every year. The problem is riptides and sudden drop-offs in coastal waters. The beaches don’t have many lifeguards or signs warning of dangerous surf conditions, so be very careful when swimming. Don’t swim alone, stay out of rough water and be watchful for fast currents.
In the interior, enjoy white-water rafting, jungle tours and other activities, but don’t use Costa Rican adventure tourism companies that are not registered with the Ministry of Health. Companies without government permits are not required to meet safety standards or have proper insurance.
Travel Costa Rica safely
You’ll have to find a way to get around when you arrive.
Unless your Costa Rica travel package includes all your transportation, you’ll have three main options, taxi, bus or rental car. Taxis and buses are abundant in tourist areas, and you can rent a car and drive with your U.S. driver’s license for up to three months.
If you ride the bus, do not put your belongings in the overhead bins. Hold your bags or put them where you can watch them the entire time. Otherwise, you may find at the end of the trip that everything is gone.
When taking a taxi, look for one that’s licensed. It’ll be red with a yellow triangle containing a number painted on the side. At the airport, these licensed taxis will be painted orange. Check to make sure it has a meter before taking a ride, and make sure you wear your seatbelt – it’s required.
Renting a car is not necessarily a good idea, especially on your first trip to Costa Rica. The State Department reports that the country has one of the highest accident rates in the world, partially because of bad roads, but mostly because drivers regularly ignore the rules of the road.
According to the State Department, “Traffic laws and speed limits are often ignored, turns across one or two lanes of traffic are common, turn signals are rarely used, passing on dangerous stretches of highway is common, and pedestrians are not given the right of way. Roads are often in poor condition, and large potholes with the potential to cause significant damage to vehicles are common. Pedestrians, cyclists, and farm animals may use the main roads. Traffic signs, even on major highways, are inadequate and few roads are lined…some roads to beaches and other rural locations are not paved, and many destinations are accessible only with high clearance, rugged suspension four-wheel drive vehicles.”
So, your best bet is probably the transportation provided by your Costa Rica hotel or resort, or a taxi.
Watching out for crime during your Costa Rica vacation
Most ticos – native Costa Ricans – will be friendly to you. Tourism is a major economic driver in the country, so your dollars are appreciated. But, you’ll need to careful, just like you would in any major American city.
According to the State Department, crime is on the rise in Costa Rica, and, while violent crime is infrequent, the most likely scenario is that thieves may steal your belongings when you aren’t paying attention.
Burglaries and distraction scams are common, with thieves working in groups of two to four. These are some incidents that have been reported to the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica:
A traveler’s rental car suffered a flat tire. The people who stopped to “help” stole U.S. passports, bags, cash, and camera.
A tourist hid items in a hotel room. While the tourist was away, thieves broke into the hotel room and stole the hidden items.
Several Americans were traveling on a tour bus and stopped at an eco-tourism company. While in the parking lot, thieves broke into the bus and stole U.S. passports, cameras, cash, credit cards and clothing.
An American tourist left his backpack on a chair in a restaurant while he went to the restroom. A thief stole it before he returned.
Tourists left personal items locked in the trunk of a rental car. Thieves broke in and stole the items.
A tourist put her purse in a backpack while traveling on a bus. Someone stole the purse and the credit cards it contained.
An American tourist was at a bank making a transaction. He put his passport on the counter and turned to talk to another “customer” who had approached him. The thief’s partner stole the passport while the man was turned away.
That may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. So, what should you do to avoid falling victim to thieves while on your Costa Rica adventure?
Simple. Just avoid the bar and nightclub districts of San Jose. Choose Costa Rica resorts that are located outside the downtown area. Do not walk around carrying your passport, large amounts of cash, flashy jewelry, or expensive cameras. Do not drive at night. Park in secured lots and never leave your belongings in the car – even if locked in the trunk.
In the unlikely event you are confronted by armed robbers, hand over what they want. Things can be replaced. You can’t. Also, when driving, always leave room between you and the car in front to turn and make a quick getaway if something goes wrong. And, if you are bumped from behind, motion for the driver behind you to follow and drive to a nearby police station.
In other words, practice the same common sense tactics you would use in Cleveland, or Las Vegas, or Orlando.
If you become a victim of crime during your Costa Rica trip, there is plenty of help available.
You should call 911 immediately. There are two kinds of Costa Rican police. Uniformed officers are called La Fuerza Pública, and they’re roughly the equivalent of American uniformed police officers. Investigations are conducted by the plain clothes OIJ, usually the only ones who can take reports of crimes.
In addition, the Costa Rican government formed the Policia Turistica (Tourist Police) about three years ago to help in popular tourist areas. These officers can help with language problems and help you file a report of a crime.
An important note from the State Department: While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country’s laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Costa Rica’s laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Costa Rica are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
You also should notify the U.S. Embassy at 2519-2000 during the day or 2220-3127, 2519-2280, or 2519-2279 after hours, or by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find the embassy at the intersection of Avenida Central and Calle 120 in the Pavas Section of San José, Costa Rica.
Medical emergencies while traveling in Costa Rica
The quality of medical care in Costa Rica varies from location to location, but your chances of receiving adequate treatment is higher in San Jose than in more rural areas. You can get emergency medical care by calling 911, just as you would in the states.
You may be expected to pay for care immediately, and your American health insurance may not be accepted everywhere. You’ll be able to prescription and over-the-counter medications most places in the country.
For a list of Costa Rica medical facilities, visit the U.S. Embassy website.
So that’s it.
Take some basic health precautions before you leave, be smart in selecting your travel within the country, be cautious with your activities, and be watchful for petty thieves. If you do all that, chances are you are going to enjoy your Costa Rica trip with a minimum of trouble.