Where’s the help? Costa Rica beach towns lack funding for lifeguards

May 19, 2011

Since 2008, an average of one person has drowned every 3.5 days in Costa Rica.

According to the Costa Rican Red Cross, 357 people have drowned here since 2008, including 50 already this year. If that trend continues, the number of drowning deaths in 2011 will far surpass last year’s total of 76.

On May 4, three U.S. teens from Ohio drowned on the central Pacific beach of Playa Bejuco, located between the central Pacific towns of Esterillos and Parrita (TT, May 6). On their final day of a mission trip spent working in churches and orphanages, 16-year old Kai Lamar, 17-year old Caity Jones and James Smith, 16, were swept away by a powerful riptide that pushed them out to sea. Two swimmers were rescued.

While the U.S. teens’ tragic death brought attention from international news media, most drowning victims are Costa Ricans.

According to many residents who live in beach communities, the National Lifeguard Association and members of the Red Cross, despite years of complaining about a lack of lifeguards on beaches here, little has been done to address the problem.

“There was a case in 2006 when four U.S. tourists drowned on the same beach,” said Luis Hidalgo, president of the National Lifeguard Association of Costa Rica. “After it happened, everyone talked about how the country would take measures to stop it from happening again, but nothing changed. There are signs up on the beach but there is still no one monitoring the area to provide help.”

Hidalgo said that in order for beach safety to improve, the Costa Rican government should invest more in paying lifeguards. Currently, neither the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) nor most municipalities provide any funding for lifeguard services.

“This community doesn’t have the money to pay lifeguards,” Costa Rican Red Cross spokesman Freddy Román said of Parrita. “The local government is in the same situation, and so is the Red Cross. There aren’t enough volunteers to cover 45 kilometers of beach in Parrita, and those are 45 kilometers of dangerous beach.”

Hidalgo said that of the 600 lifeguards registered in Costa Rica, only about 130 are actively working. He said lifeguard salaries are too small to support a livelihood, and often lifeguards have to take on additional jobs to make ends meet.

“The ICT has been deaf to our pleas for financing,” Hidalgo said. “We have said for many years that the country needs to invest in lifeguards and beach security, but nothing has changed… This country is great at taking money from tourists, but not at investing any of it into taking care of them.”

Drowning Demographics

Of the 357 drowning deaths since 2008, 126 (35 percent) occurred in the Pacific province of Puntarenas, where 75 percent of the Pacific beaches are located. The northwestern Guanacaste province, also on the Pacific coast, has recorded 61 drowning deaths (17 percent). The Caribbean coastal province of Limón reported 59 (17 percent).

Most victims are men in the age range of 19 to 39. During the same period, 317 men drowned, accounting for 89 percent of the national drowning deaths.


During the past 3.5 years, 17 people have drowned at Parrita, the second-highest number in the country. The town of Quepos, just south of Parrita, had the highest total, 18, since 2008 (see box).

Drownings Since 2008:

1. Quepos, Puntarenas – 18

2. Parrita, Puntarenas – 17

3. Osa Peninsula, Puntarenas – 12

4. Jacó, Puntarenas – 12

5. Sarapiquí, Limón – 11

6. Siquirres, Limón – 9

7. Santa Cruz, Guanacaste – 9

8. Liberia, Guanacaste – 8

9. Nandayure, Guanacaste – 7

10. Talamanca, Limón – 7

Dangerous Beaches:

Playa Bejuco – 5, including three last week

Bahía Ballena, Puntarenas – 5

Barranca, Puntarenas – 5

Cahuita, Limón – 5

Dominical, Puntarenas – 3

Esterillos, Puntarenas – 3

Nosara, Guanacaste – 4

Puerto Viejo, Limón – 4

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