Safety in Costa Rica: What is there to know as a potential expat?

May 11, 2023 in Tips for Buyers, Discover Costa Rica, Discover Costa Ballena, Life in Costa Rica

Safety is a hot topic in the news these days so this week’s article will focus on safety in Costa Rica and what you should know as a potential expat considering moving to Costa Rica. I have traveled this country by bus, car and on foot and I have felt relatively safe at night and in the day, especially compared to some other places I’ve lived. Even still, there are stories that I’ve heard locally in the news that worry me. But as an expat who has lived in the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica for many years, I want to assure you of why I continue to choose to live here in spite of these stories, based on my view of safety in Costa Rica.


Safety while swimming in Costa Rica


In 2018, 129 people drowned in Costa Rica, according to Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). This steep number has prompted the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) to create a new strategy to prevent drownings on beaches. ICT has partnered with the University of Costa Rica to launch a new mobile app that monitors waves and tides, indicating the safety conditions for swimmers in easy to understand color codes (green, yellow and red). This app will be linked with ICT’s tourism security app that will be announced in June. The beaches in our region are already largely WiFi equipped, with ICE tower signals reaching to the beach, meaning that cellphone users can access this information while on the beach.


These measures come in addition to an agreement to hire more lifeguards to be positioned around the nation’s most popular beaches. ICT and the Red Cross have signed an agreement for US$250,000 allowing for an additional 20 lifeguards for three of the beaches with highest incidences or drowning, one of which is Playa Ballena in the Costa Ballena. ICT will continue budgeting US$500,000 annually to establish lifeguard presence at the most dangerous beaches around the country.


In our Costa Ballena region, we regularly have lifeguards positioned at Playa Dominical, one of the areas most popular surfing destinations, as well as Playa Ballena in Uvita and Playa Ventanas in Ojochal. These programs are currently funded by donations from local businesses and private persons who care about the safety of our beaches. In Dominical, the lifeguards also manage lockers for surfers and swimmers to keep their personal belongings safe while in the water. These lifeguard programs have aided in the rescue of hundreds of people every year, while also maintaining a sense of security for beach goers.


Political safety


Despite being surrounded by countries in political turmoil around Central and South America, Costa Rica remains a bastion of peace and stability. Governments are voted in every four years through a transparent voting system that gives power to the most popular party’s candidate. Costa Ricans are free to vote from the age of 18 and especially amongst the younger voters, this is seen as a privilege and a chance to have their voices be heard. LGBT rights are accepted in Costa Rica, and the nation’s gay pride parade is one of the most visited annually in this region of the world.


Costa Rica abolished their national army in 1948, reallocating funds to the creation of universal healthcare and education. There have been no violent political uprisings in many decades. Even during last year’s 86-day nationwide strike over fiscal reform, there were very few incidents of criminal behavior within these long but peaceful public demonstrations.


Safety of your personal belongings


Petty theft is as likely to happen in Costa Rica as anywhere in the world. Opportunistic criminals tend to prey on unsuspecting tourists in the popular destinations of our Costa Ballena region. As a growing expat community, we can sometimes attract undue attention from criminal elements. But we are also growing in our ability to respond to these types of crimes.


Each time there is an incident, the information makes its rounds in our communities. We rally on our online messageboards to convince the victims, their property managers, or their expat friends to report the crime so that the government allocates more resources to defending the safety of our local population. There are already a number of government and private initiatives that monitor and provide information on staying safe.


PANI is the institution that watches over the rights and conditions of minors in Costa Rica.


CSCO is the Ojochal security council, overseen by expats, locals, and the local police force. This organization oversees the management of local WhatsApp groups that report safety and security issues within the local community.


SOMOS Foundation functions as the Costa Ballena’s security council, which oversees the local security organizations and liaises on issues with the municipal government. They are the creators of Eyes in the Street, which is our local mobile app for reporting crimes, directly connected with the police database and with the ability to report an emergency immediately.


Protecting your personal space


Street harassment is as likely to happen in Costa Rica as anywhere in the world. Costa Rican citizens are generally known to be friendly and outgoing, and also virile. As with any culture, there are some folks who will try to push others past their comfortable limits. But there are elements of Costa Rican culture you can rely on for protection, as well as established organizational responses being implemented to prevent harassment.


In our Costa Ballena region, I have not personally or anecdotally come across a type of “harassment” that has led to anything beyond an exchange of words or glances that make the person feel uncomfortable. Even still, discomfort is not ideal, especially when looking to fit in somewhere new. I have personally found that remaining focused on your task at hand helps to ignore leering and cat calls. Being friendly with people who you know to be truthful and kind helps, too. Most Costa Ricans don’t want to be harassed or to see anyone else being harassed (whether you are a local or expat). If they can tell that you are not interested in any undue attention, they will help you by talking to the instigators or by providing a distraction. In our region, many stores have signs in Spanish stating “no sexual harassment” and local store owners tend to have policies that don’t allow loitering in front of their shop to prevent the opportunity for harassment.


Driving safely from point A to B


Costa Ricans have a reputation for being mild-mannered people, except when on the road. Driving in city centers, like in the capital, San Jose, can be a test in patience and a lot of honking. But here in our more rural region of Costa Rica, it’s the open roads that make for a less than safe environment while driving. Driving in the Costa Ballena is safe in the sense that the main highway is well-maintained, nicely paved, with lines, reflectors and reasonable speed limits. But it’s the free-feeling people who drive how they please on these open roads that put other drivers in danger. Sharp curves and unknown obstacles are prevalent in this coastal part of the country. With all of the gorgeous tropical forests lining the roads, there are bound to be the occasional fallen branches or animals crossing the road. Speed limits and other cautionary signs are posted for good reason. As with anywhere in the world, there are both safe and unsafe drivers, so driving sensibly and defensively is encouraged.


Aside from that, some other advice is to use Waze as your navigator as it’s the most reliable GPS in Costa Rica. And avoid driving at night or in heavy rains due to the decrease in visibility. Public transportation is an alternative option for traveling safely around Costa Rica. The main providers for intercity bus travel, Tracopa and Ticabus, are both reliable, cheap, easy to use, and safe by all standards.


Food and water safety


Water in the Costa Ballena region is virtually all potable, especially in the mountainous regions where many expats go to settle. Municipal water sources largely come from high elevation mountain spring water. These sources are monitored monthly and treated as needed, whereas other water sources are the responsibility of individual property owners to purify if needed. Those with sensitive systems may choose to use at-home water purifiers and to wash all fruits and vegetables before consuming them.


If you have allergies, it is better to assume that a restaurant may not understand your questions about ingredients. This is changing in our Costa Ballena region, where a growing number of restaurants are owned by expats. International restaurateurs are bringing a new ethic to cooking and cuisine in Costa Rica. If it comes to shopping and preparing your own food, there are an abundance of organic, imported, and dietary-requirement options available to the average consumer.


Wildlife safety


One of the biggest concerns for our clients is their potential interaction with wildlife. Snakes and spiders in Costa Rica are terrifying… until you learn more about their habitat, habits and temperament. Most wildlife in Costa Rica wants to remain wild. Snakes, spiders and other critters have almost no desire to be on your manicured property or inside your home. If they end up there, it is by accident and leaving them alone will likely amount to them leaving soon afterwards. In the unlikely case of an emergency, hospitals offer free emergency services to tourists, expats, and locals alike. Every major hospital in our region is equipped to handle snake bites in Costa Rica and virtually every case that goes to hospital here survives.


Safety from natural disasters


Costa Rica sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is a region of the world that encapsulates several tectonic plates and contains 75% of the world’s volcanoes and is the cause of many of the world’s earthquakes. Costa Rica has over 200 identifiable volcanic formations dating back over 65 million years. Today, only 100 or so show any signs of volcanic activity, while just five are classified as active volcanoes. Most of the volcanoes in Costa Rica lie in the northern part of the country and in the Central Highlands, with none known in our South Pacific region.


Earthquakes are a regular occurrance but seismic activity is dispersed by this mountainous region, so most pass without much notice. Earthquakes have been responsible for 5 deaths in the nation in the last 10 years, most of which were due to heart attack. None of the notable earthquakes from the past 35 years have been in the southern region of Costa Rica.


Hurricanes are essentially a non-occurance in Costa Rica, especially not on the South Pacific coast. A map of every hurricane from the last 200 years shows that virtually every hurricane omits this area. What we do receive is a lot of heavy rain, which can result in mudslides and riverheads that can make swimming in rivers unsafe in the rainy season.


Tourism safety in Costa Rica


In February ICT launched the National Commission of Tourist Guides (CONAGUITUR), aimed to establish and monitor the training of guides via a national certification program. This is an inter-institutional agency consisting of representatives from the public and private sector interested in protecting tourism in Costa Rica by providing a technical education, professional development, and setting a baseline for the training of tourist guides on safety. The goal now is the make the hiring of certified tourist guides to be mandatory for all tourism activities.


Safety for our mental health


Forbes Magazine has recently published their World Happiness Report at the end of March, citing Costa Rica as the #12 happiest country in the world and #1 in the Latin America/Caribbean region. The report suggests that happiness is in decline around the world due to population growth, climate change, and political unease. So what makes Costa Rica consistently top happiness indices around the world? Based on our experience speaking to other expats, people in Costa Rica are generally less stressed and more laid back. This is likely due to Costa Ricans having more relaxed and family focused social structure, great weather, affordable and exceptional health care, a stable and sustainable economy, and eating healthier with fewer processed foods, even amongst the poor.


Protecting yourself when buying property


When choosing to buy a home in Costa Rica, or even an undeveloped lot, it helps to have a qualified realtor on your side. We will ensure that your transaction undergoes all of the necessary due diligence. We endeavor to show our clients all of the best options for properties in their budget and selected criteria and we don't skip out or cut short any important details. Have a read of our most recent client testimonials and rest assured that with Osa Tropical Properties, your Costa Rica real estate journey will be in great hands.


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