In support of our efforts to provide readers with useful information about safety in Costa Rica, we consulted a group of local people with ample experience in Costa Rican tourism to offer their top tips for a safe visit to Costa Rica.
Scroll down to learn more about our panelists and their projects.
What are your top overall safety tips for travel in Costa Rica?
Melania Cubero: If you arrive at a bus stop or airport late in the night, make sure you have already organized transport and accommodation with someone trustworthy. Keep your expensive camera equipment hidden when you’re out and about, and do not leave your things unattended. Don’t walk alone at night.
Perry Gladstone: Do not bring anything irreplaceable. Most beaches have dangerous rip currents; learn how to escape when caught, and do not enter water past the waist without lifeguards present.
What’s the biggest safety-related mistake in Costa Rica
MC: People walking in dark and unsafe areas with expensive equipment – for example, near the Coca Cola bus terminal [in San José].
Christopher Howard: Be careful of scamsters. Just because someone speaks English doesn’t mean that he or she is honest. Bottom line: If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Colin Brownlee: I was once distracted at a bus stop while a friend of the person who distracted me took my bag.
What specific safety tips do you have surrounding driving in Costa Rica?
CH: It’s like playing a video game.
CB: Get a chip for your phone at the Kolbi counter at arrivals at the airport, use Waze and don’t rent GPS from rental car companies; it’s expensive, and much of the information is outdated. Don’t leave bags in your car unattended. Be wary of anyone trying to get you to stop on roadside, and always ask about parking safety [when leaving your car].
PG: Avoid night driving in rural areas, because people walk, dogs sleep and many kinds of animals cross the road. Observe speed limits. Roads are not well engineered: frequent lane endings, impatient drivers, cars parked on blind curves and more create dangerous conditions.
CH: Excellent and cheap. Just watch your belongings, don’t eat anything given to you by a stranger and be careful of pickpockets.
CB: Always be aware of your bags while on bus and at stations. Thieves are more interested in your carry-on then your under-the-bus stuff. They know the good stuff is in your carry-on.
CH: Watch out for riptides, overexposure to the sun and remember that lifeguard services are lacking. Also, do not swim near the mouth of rivers since crocodiles tend to gather there.
MC: Always ask if it’s safe to swim before entering the water.
CB: Make sure you choose areas to enjoy the beach that have people around. Only take what you need to the beach. Don’t take your passport, money or credit cards. Always ask your hotel about beach safety.
CH: Take a compass, cell phone, sunscreen, plenty of water, adequate clothing, and insect repellent.
MC: It’s always best to hike accompanied. Before setting off on a path, tell someone where you plan to go and when you plan to return. Wear appropriate footwear, bring sufficient water and snacks, and pay a lot of attention to where you put your feet: never stray from the paths.
Food and water safety?
CB: If you have allergies, always assume that the server does not understand your questions about ingredients. It’s best to negotiate food allergies with your hotel ahead of time and get a sense of whether they can accommodate your needs. Most water in Costa Rica is potable, but always ask [when in a new location] – and if you have sensitive stomach, stay away from street food.
Are there any products, apps or items on a packing list that you recommend?
MC: Travel insurance! If you’re going to drive – Waze is really useful in Costa Rica!
CB: I have a decoy wallet I use sometimes with expired credit cards and photocopied money; I use it when I am concerned. If someone steals that, they are gone. They don’t look for anything else. Old non-functioning cell phones work well as decoys, too. Sometimes when going for a dip, I keep my valuables that I took to the beach wrapped in a rolled up diaper. Trust me: No one will pick that up.
What efforts would you like to see to make life or travel safer in Costa Rica?
PG: [I helped develop] Ojos en la Calle [a community vigilance network and anonymous reporting app].
MC: More safety information at all the rivers and seas where there is a high concentration of tourists. In national parks, they don’t offer information about where or how to call emergency services, like for example a snake bite, if you get lost or injured… I think that this is very important.
CB: Community efforts work best. Puerto Viejo has had a security channel on Telegram that disperses information immediately, resulting in quicker identification and apprehension… The most important thing [for tourism industry employers] is to get local people jobs, and if they don’t have skills, train them. Always ask yourself, “How can I be a part of the solution?
About Our Panel
Perry Gladstone is president of the Costa Ballena Chamber of Tourism and Commerce, Lifeguards Association and co-founder of the SOMOS Foundation, which supports and operates community security and development programs in the southern zone. Equally at home in the air or on the water, Perry is an avid surfer, paraglider, musician and former record holder in the sport of freediving.
Melania Cubero is a wellness travel designer. She is also the founder of Unplug, a travel agency focused on wellness travel).
Christopher Howard has lived in Costa Rica for 39 years and is a naturalized Costa Rican citizen. He has written 14 travel-related guidebooks and Spanish language books. He has also conducted monthly relocation and retirement tours for over 20 years.
Colin Brownlee is a self-described “soon-to-be senior gay man” from Canada who settled in Puerto Viejo in 2005. He owns and runs a few successful businesses including a hotel, restaurant, travel agency and marketing agency, which employ about 50 people. Despite its challenges, he loves Costa Rica so much so that he became a citizen. He finds Costa Rica anything but dull, and even after almost 15 years here, he is in a constant state of feeling “the glass is half full.”
Article first appeared in 2019