With common sense, you are no more likely to run into problems in Costa Rica than you are in your own backyard. The vast majority of Costa Ricans are honest and friendly. However, burglary is rampant and crimes against tourists have risen alarmingly. In April 2010, Australia advised its nationals to “exercise a high degree of caution in Costa Rica because of the high risk of serious crime,” citing armed carjackings, home invasions, gang muggings, “express kidnappings,” (individuals are abducted and forced to withdraw funds from ATMs), spiked drinks in bars, and thieves who slash car tires then assist in repair while an accomplice steals from items from the vehicle.
Passport theft is also a serious problem. (In 2005, more U.S. passports were stolen in Costa Rica than anywhere else in the world.) Car break-ins have become pandemic along the Nicoya shoreline, particularly at the most popular surf beaches. One-third of thefts reported by tourists occurred on public transportation.
In San José, use common big-city sense. In addition, don’t ride buses at night, be careful in parks, and watch for traffic at all times. Outside the city, you need to be savvy to some basic precautions. Hikers straying off trails can easily lose their way amid the rainforests. And don’t approach too close to an active volcano, such as Arenal, which may suddenly explode. Atop mountains, sunny weather can turn cold and rainy in seconds, so dress accordingly. And be extra cautious when crossing rivers; a rainstorm upstream can turn the river downstream into a raging torrent without any warning.
In an emergency, call 911 for an English-speaking operator
The Fuerza Pública (uniformed police), based in most communities, provide patrols and detention. The Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ, Judicial Investigative Agency) investigates crime.
If things go wrong, contact the Victims Assistance Office (tel. 506/2295-3271 or 506/2295-3643, 7:30 A.M.–noon and 1–4 P.M. Mon.–Fri.), in the OIJ building, Avenidas 4/6, Calles 15/17, in San José. You might also contact your embassy or consulate. Consulate officials can’t get you out of jail, but they can help you locate a lawyer, alleviate unhealthy conditions, or arrange for funds to be wired if you run short of money. They can even authorize a reimbursable loan—the U.S. Department of State hates to admit it—while you arrange for cash to be forwarded, or even lend you money to get home. Don’t expect the U.S. embassy to bend over backward; it’s notoriously unhelpful. The Handbook of Consular Services (Public Affairs Staff, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C. 20520) provides details of such assistance. Friends and family can also call the Department of State’s Overseas Citizen Service (tel. 888/407-4747, from overseas tel. 202/501-4444, www.travel.state.gov ) to check on you if things go awry. The U.S. State Department (www.state.gov ) also publishes travel advisories warning U.S. citizens of trouble spots. The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (tel. 020/7008-1500, www.fco.gov.uk ) has a similar service.
To report issues relating to drugs, contact the Policía de Control de Drogas (tel. 800/376-4266, www.msp.go.cr/pcdold ). Report theft or demands for money by traffic police to the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes, Calle 9, Avenidas 20/22, tel. 506/2227-2188 or 2523-2000). For complaints about the police, contact the Office for the Reception of Complaints (tel. 506/2295-3643, 24 hours).
Drug trafficking and laundering of drug money has increased markedly since the ouster of Manuel Noriega from Panamá, and traffickers have been able to entice impoverished farmers into growing marijuana and cocaine, notably in the Talamancas of southern Puntarenas.
The Costa Rican government and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has an ongoing anti-narcotics campaign. Penalties for possession or dealing are stiff. Article 14 of the Drug Law stipulates: “A jail sentence of eight to 20 years shall be imposed upon anyone who participates in any way in international drug dealing.” You will receive no special favors because you’re foreign.
Riptides cause the deaths by drowning of dozens of people every year in Costa Rica. Tides change from extremely low to extremely high, and the volume of water pouring onto or off the beach can be immense. Riptides are channels of water pulling out to sea at high speed. The period two hours before and two hours after low tide are most dangerous. Riptides are often identifiable by their still surface where surf is otherwise coming ashore. If you get caught in one, swim parallel to the shore; if you try to swim directly back to shore you will be unsuccessful, and you’ll tire yourself out and possibly drown.
Costa Rica’s many charms can lull visitors into a false sense of security. Like anywhere else, the country has its share of social ills, with rising street crime among them. An economic crisis and influx of impoverished refugees has spawned a growing band of petty thieves and purse-slashers. Violent crime, including armed holdups and muggings, is on the rise. Still, most crime is opportunistic, and thieves seek easy targets. Don’t become paranoid, but a few common-sense precautions are in order.
The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo publishes a leaflet—Let’s Travel Safe—listing precautions and a selection of emergency phone numbers. It’s given out free at airport immigration counters. The ICT operates a 24-hour toll-free tourist information line (tel. 800/012-3456) for emergencies.
Make photocopies of all important documents: your passport, airline ticket, credit cards, insurance policy, driver’s license. Carry the photocopies with you, and leave the originals in the hotel safe if possible. If this isn’t possible, carry the originals with you in a secure inside pocket. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Prepare an “emergency kit,” to include photocopies of your documents and an adequate sum of money in case your wallet gets stolen. If you’re robbed, immediately file a police report. You’ll need this to make an insurance claim.
Don’t wear jewelry, chains, or expensive watches. They mark you as a wealthy tourist. Wear an inexpensive digital watch. Never carry more cash than you need for the day. The rest should be kept in the hotel safe. For credit card security, insist that imprints are made in your presence. Make sure any incorrectly completed imprints are torn up. Destroy the carbons yourself. Don’t let store merchants or anyone else walk off with your card. Keep it in sight!
Never leave your purse, camera, or luggage unattended in public places. Always keep a wary eye on your luggage, and never carry your wallet in your back pocket. Carry your bills in your front pocket beneath a handkerchief. Carry any other money in a money belt, inside pocket, a “secret” pocket sewn into your pants or jacket, or in a body pouch or an elastic wallet below the knee. Spread your money around your person.
Don’t carry more luggage than you can adequately manage. Limit your baggage to one suitcase or duffel. Have a lock for each luggage item. Purses should have a short strap (ideally, one with metal woven in) that fits tightly against the body and snaps closed or has a zipper. Always keep purses fully zipped and luggage locked.
Don’t trust locals to handle your money. And don’t exchange money before receiving the services or goods you’re paying for.
Be particularly wary after cashing money at a bank. And be cautious at night, particularly if you intend to walk on beaches or park trails, which you should do with someone trusted wherever possible. Stick to well-lit main streets in towns.
Don’t leave anything of value within reach of an open window. Make sure you have bars on the window and that your room is otherwise secure (bringing your own lock for the door is a good idea). Don’t leave anything of value in your car, nor leave tents or cars unguarded. Be especially cautious if you have a flat tire, as many robberies involve unsuspecting tourists who are robbed while changing a tire by the roadside. The ICT advises driving to the nearest gas station or other secure site to change the tire. And never permit a Costa Rican male to sit in the back seat of a taxi while you’re in the front; there have been several reports of robberies in taxis in which the driver has worked in cahoots with an accomplice, who strangles the victim from behind.
A few uniformed policemen are less than honest, and tourists occasionally get shaken down for money. Never pay money to a police officer. If you are stopped by one who wants to see your passport or search you, insist on a neutral witness—“solamente con testigos.” Be wary, too, of “plainclothes policemen.” Ask to see identification, and never relinquish your documentation. And be especially wary if he asks a third party to verify his own credentials; they could be in league.
Many men are robbed by prostitutes. Be suspicious of drinks offered by strangers; the beverage may be laced with scopolamine, a knockout drug that renders victims compliant (and wipes out their memory).
Never allow yourself to be drawn into arguments (Costa Ricans are usually so placid that anyone with a temper is immediately to be suspected). And don’t be distracted by people spilling things on you. These are ruses meant to distract you while an accomplice steals your valuables. Remain alert to the dark side of self-proclaimed good Samaritans.