Costa Rica travel information: Safety and security
Summary, Safety and Security and Terrorism. Addition of information on protests, strikes and recent attacks in San Jose
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Advice current as at 4:00 am 20 Jan 2020.
In August 2018, 2 female tourists from Mexico and Spain were raped and killed in separate crime-related incidents. In March 2018, a tourist group was assaulted at gunpoint on the shores of River Pacuare. In January 2018, a tourist bus was stopped by criminals and passengers were robbed at gunpoint near Tortuguero, Limon Province.
You should maintain at least the same level of personal security awareness as in the UK, including when using ATMs. Petty theft of personal items including passports is a significant problem.
Be vigilant when using buses, as thefts are common. Bags in overhead compartments are particularly vulnerable. Thieves have simple but effective ways of distracting you. Be particularly watchful of your valuables at the beach.
Avoid leaving drinks unattended in bars as there have been reports of ‘spiked’ drinks resulting in assault and theft.
Avoid using unofficial taxis - ‘taxi piratas’. Violent incidents involving tourists have been reported. Official taxis are red (or orange at the airport) with a triangular sticker and plastic box on the roof with the name and number of the taxi company. Ideally, use radio-dispatched taxis. Make sure the driver’s ID is clearly visible on the dashboard and that the driver uses the meter. Don’t accept lifts from strangers.
Avoid poorly lit or remote areas. Gang muggings, carjackings and armed robberies have occurred, including on busy streets. A number of foreign nationals (including one British national) have gone missing in recent years, with some related to criminal activity.
Car theft and theft from cars are common, even during relatively short stops at restaurant and other car parks. Don’t leave valuables in hire cars, even in the boot, and avoid leaving belongings where they can be seen from outside the car. Park in secure car parks with visible security staff, or in well-lit busy areas. There have been incidents where slashed tyres have given thieves the opportunity to help change your vehicle’s tyres while an accomplice steals from the car.
There has been disruption to local travel and public services due to protests and strikes by various groups opposed to certain Government policies. These have taken place in different locations around the country, at times affecting access to San Jose airport, and could reoccur without warning. Check local traffic information before planning your journey and avoid demonstration gatherings.
There have been a number of deaths and cases of serious illness in Costa Rica caused by alcoholic drinks containing methanol. Criminal gangs have been reported to manufacture bottles of alcohol containing high amounts of methanol. These have included the brands “Guaro Cuerazo”, “Guaro Sacheto”, “Guaro Gran Apache”, “Aguardiente Estrella Roja”, “Guaro Montano”, “Aguardiente Barón Rojo”, “Aguardiente Timbuka” and “Aguardiente Molotov”. You should take care when buying any spirit-based drinks.
The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) says “Methanol can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. High doses can cause blindness or vision loss as a consequence of serious damage to the optic nerve. Chronic exposure may cause liver damage, cirrhosis or even death from respiratory or cardiac failure”. If you, or someone you’re travelling with, shows signs of alcohol-induced methanol poisoning, seek immediate medical attention.
If you’re visiting jungle areas you should go with an experienced local guide. If you visit a volcano pay strict attention to restrictions on entry to dangerous areas. When there is the risk of an eruption the national park is closed to visitors until the danger has passed.
Emergency contact numbers are: Police Emergency - 911; Ambulance - 911 or 128; Fire Service - 911 or 118; Police Investigative Service - 911 or 2221-5337.
While air accidents in Costa Rica are rare, there have been 2 fatal incidents since September 2017 involving the domestic airline Nature Air. The company’s operating certificate has been indefinitely suspended by Costa Rica’s civil aviation authority.
You can drive in Costa Rica on a UK Driving Licence or an International Driving Permit.
If you intend to enter the country in a right hand drive vehicle you should be aware there have been instances where such vehicles have been refused entry as they contravene local law and are ineligible for local insurance.
Road conditions are generally good on main routes, although there can be potholes due to heavy rains in the rainy season. Landslides in the rainy season sometimes block the road between San José and Guapiles on the way to Limón and the San Jose/Caldera Highway. Take care when approaching bridges as these are often only one-way, even if the road is two-way.
The standard of driving is lower than in the UK. Accidents are often caused by speeding or overtaking irresponsibly. Traffic lights are often ignored. Traffic police strictly enforce speed limits. If you have an accident where somebody has been injured or where blame has not been accepted by the other driver, you must not move the vehicle until the traffic police have arrived. The Traffic Police (Transito - telephone 2222-9330 or 2222-9245) and the Insurance Investigator (INS - telephone 800-800-8000) must come to the scene of the accident to complete accident reports.
Criminals sometimes cause deliberate collisions as a means of stopping vehicles in order to commit robberies or other crimes. If you think a collision was a deliberate act by another driver to make you stop, consider driving on until you reach a safe place like a police station or garage. In these circumstances you will need to be able to explain your actions to the traffic police.
Swimming and water sports
Take extra care if participating in tours involving snorkeling or similar activities. There have been recent fatalities.
Whilst swimming from all beaches in Costa Rica, bear in mind that rip tides are very common and there are often no lifeguards. You should seek reliable local advice. Drownings are the second most common cause of accidental death and in recent years have averaged 50 to 60 per year, a third of whom were tourists.
There are regular sightings of crocodiles along the Pacific Coast near beaches popular with surfers (from Playa Azul down to Playa Esterillos) and there have been attacks in recent years.
Adventure activities, sea and river travel
Safety standards for adventure activities and on small boats are not always of a high standard. There have been several incidents involving small boats in the Tortuguero area, including a fatality due to a falling tree. If you plan to undertake any of these activities, you should arrange this with an established company with experienced staff.
Quick Facts Tourist Information for:Costa Rica
Drive on the: right
Visitors/Tourists: 2,192,000 in 2011
San José (also largest city)