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Safety Travel Safety: Americas: Costa Rica

Costa Rica: Republic of Costa Rica
Capital: San Jose
Population: 3,834,934
Currency: Costa Rican colon (CRC)
Languages: Spanish (official), English spoken around Puerto Limon
Religions: Roman Catholic 76.3%, Evangelical 13.7%, other Protestant 0.7%, Jehovah's Witnesses 1.3%, other 4.8%, none 3.2%
Borders: Nicaragua 309 km, Panama 330 km

Costa Rica is a middle-income, developing country with a strong democratic tradition. Tourist facilities are extensive and generally adequate. The capital is San Jose. English is a second language for many Costa Ricans.

On both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, currents are swift and dangerous, and there are no lifeguards or signs warning of dangerous beaches. Several American citizens drown in Costa Rica each year. 

Adventure tourism is increasingly popular in Costa Rica, and many companies provide white-water rafting, bungee jumping, jungle canopy tours, deep sea diving, and other outdoor attractions. In recent years, several Americans have died on Costa Rica's flood-swollen rivers in white-water rafting accidents. Others have died trying to reach the mouths of active volcanoes after being assured by tour guides that this dangerous activity is safe. Americans are urged to use caution in selecting adventure tourism companies, and are advised to avoid small, "cut-rate" companies that do not have the track record of more established companies. The government of Costa Rica has passed legislation to regulate and monitor the safety of adventure tourism companies; enforcement of these laws is overseen by the Ministry of Health. To be granted official operating permits, registered tourism companies must meet safety standards and have insurance coverage. 

Demonstrations or strikes, related to labor disputes or other local issues, occur occasionally in Costa Rica. Past demonstrations have resulted in port closures, roadblocks, and sporadic gasoline shortages. These protests have not targeted U.S. citizens or U.S. interests, and are typically non-violent. Travelers are advised to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place and to keep informed by following the local news and consulting hotel personnel and tour guides. Additional information about demonstrations may be obtained from the Consular Section at the U.S. Embassy, or on the Embassy website.

Crime is increasing and tourists are frequent victims. Criminals usually operate in small groups. While most crimes are non-violent, criminals, including juveniles, have shown a greater tendency in recent years to use violence and to carry handguns or shoulder weapons. U.S. citizens are encouraged to exercise the same level of caution that they would in major cities or tourist areas throughout the world. Americans should avoid areas with high concentrations of bars and nightclubs, especially at night, and should also steer clear of deserted properties or undeveloped land. Americans should walk or exercise with a companion, and should bear in mind that crowded tourist attractions and resort areas popular with foreign tourists are also common venues for criminal activities. Travelers should avoid responding in kind to verbal harassment, and should avoid carrying large amounts of cash, jewelry or expensive photographic equipment. Local law enforcement agencies have limited capabilities and do not act according to U.S. standards, especially outside of San Jose. 

In recent years, several Americans have been murdered in Costa Rica in urban, rural and resort locations. U.S. citizens have been victims of sexual assaults both in cities and in rural areas. In some of these cases, the victim has known the assailant. There have been several sexual assaults by taxi drivers. Travelers should be careful to use licensed taxis, which are red and have medallions (yellow triangles containing numbers) painted on the side. Licensed taxis at the airport are painted orange, rather than red. All taxis should have working door handles, locks, meters (called "marias"), and seatbelts. Passengers are required by law to wear seat belts. Passengers should not ride in the front seat with the driver. If the taxi meter is not working, a price should be agreed upon before the trip begins. 

There have been reports that unsuspecting patrons of bars and nightclubs have been drugged and later assaulted or robbed. Americans should always be aware of their surroundings, and should not consume food or drinks they have left untended. Americans may find it safer to seek entertainment in groups to help avoid being targeted, especially in urban areas. 

Although unusual, there have been a number of kidnappings reported over the past several years, including the kidnappings of Americans and other foreigners. Some of these cases have been so-called �express kidnappings,� in which victims are held for several hours as the kidnappers transport them to various automated bank teller machines in an effort to take as much money as possible from the victims' bank accounts. Carjackings have also increased, and motorists have been confronted at gunpoint while stopped at traffic lights or upon arrival at their homes. Late model sports utility vehicles and high-end car models are popular with carjackers. One method of initiating kidnappings and carjackings is to bump the victim's car from behind; the unsuspecting victim stops, believing he or she has been involved in a minor car accident, and is taken hostage. Americans should remain vigilant to these types of incidents, and use caution if bumped from behind on an isolated stretch of road. 

Another common ploy by thieves involves the surreptitious puncturing of tires of rental cars, often near restaurants or tourist attractions, or close to the car rental agencies themselves. When the travelers pull over, "good Samaritans" quickly appear to change the tire - and just as quickly remove valuables from the car, sometimes brandishing weapons. Drivers with flat tires are advised to drive, if at all possible, to the nearest service station or other public area, and change the tire themselves, watching their valuables at all times. Travelers can reduce their risk by keeping valuables out of sight, by not wearing jewelry, and by traveling in groups. Travelers should also minimize travel after dark. Before renting a car, travelers should ask the rental company their specific policy regarding damage to a tire or wheel rim due to driving on a flat tire. Some rental car companies may cover the costs of the damaged tire and wheel rim if the occupants feared for their safety and drove to the nearest public area to change the flat tire. 

Travelers should purchase an adequate level of locally valid theft insurance when renting vehicles. One should park in secured lots whenever possible, and should never leave valuables in the vehicle. The U.S. Embassy receives reports daily of valuables, identity documents, and other items stolen from locked vehicles. In many of these cases, the stolen items were hidden under the seat, in the glove compartment, or secured in the trunk. Thefts from parked cars commonly occur in downtown San Jose, at beaches, in the airport and bus station parking lots, and at national parks and other tourist attractions. 

Money changers on the street have been known to pass off counterfeit U.S. dollars and local currency. Credit card fraud (either using stolen credit cards or the account number alone following copying of the number) is on the rise. Travelers should retain all their credit card receipts and check their accounts regularly to help prevent unauthorized use of their credit cards. Avoid using debit cards for point-of-sale purchases, as a skimmed number can be used to clean out an account.

Costa Rica has a 911 system for reporting emergencies. Crimes that are no longer in progress should be reported in person at the nearest police station. In the event of a traffic accident, vehicles must be left where they are, and not moved out of the way. Both the Transito (Traffic Police) and the Insurance Investigator must make accident reports before the vehicles are moved. Although sometimes slow to respond after notification, these officials will come to the accident scene.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States, and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Costa Rican law, even unknowingly, may be arrested, imprisoned, fined and/or expelled. 

Soliciting the services of a minor for sexual purposes is illegal in Costa Rica, and is punishable by imprisonment. The Costa Rican government has established an aggressive program to discourage sexual tourism and to punish severely those who engage in sexual activity with minors. These acts are also illegal under U.S. law, even if the act takes place abroad. Several U.S. citizens are serving long sentences in Costa Rica following conviction of crimes related to sexual activity with minors. 

Under the PROTECT Act of April 2003, it is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, to engage in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18, whether or not the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident alien intended to engage in such illicit sexual conduct prior to going abroad. For purposes of the PROTECT Act, illicit sexual conduct includes any commercial sex act in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18. The law defines a commercial sex act as any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by a person under the age of 18. 

Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998, it is a crime to use the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transmit information about a minor under the age of 16 for criminal sexual purposes that include, among other things, the production of child pornography. This same law makes it a crime to use any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transport obscene materials to minors under the age of 16. 

Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Costa Rica are strict, and convicted offenders can expect lengthy jail sentences and fines. In addition to the criminal penalties they may face, tourists who purchase or sell illegal drugs or use the services of prostitutes greatly increase their risk of personal harm. Several Americans have died in Costa Rica in recent years in incidents related to drug use or patronage of prostitutes. 

Under Costa Rican law, suspects in criminal cases may be held in jail until the investigation is completed and the prosecutor is ready to proceed to trial. This pretrial detention can last two years, and in some cases, longer.

Medical care in San Jose is adequate, but may be more limited in areas outside of San Jose. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services, and U.S. medical insurance is not always valid outside the United States. A list of local doctors and medical facilities can be found at the website of the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, at

Costa Rica is located in an earthquake, hurricane and volcanic zone. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Costa Rica is provided for general reference only, and it may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance. 

Safety of Public Transportation: Fair 
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Fair to Poor 
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Fair to Poor 
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Fair to Poor 

Traffic laws and speed limits are often ignored; turns across one or two lanes of traffic are common, and pedestrians are not given the right of way. Although improving, roads are often in poor condition, and large potholes with the potential to cause significant damage to vehicles are common. Traffic signs, even on major highways, are often inadequate. All of the above, in addition to poor visibility because of heavy fog or rain, makes driving at night especially treacherous. In the rainy season, landslides are common, especially on the highway between San Jose and the Caribbean city of Limon. All types of motor vehicles are appropriate for the main highways and principal roads in the major cities. However, some roads to beaches and other rural locations are not paved, and some out-of-the-way destinations are accessible only with high clearance, rugged suspension four-wheel drive vehicles. Travelers are advised to call ahead to their hotels to ask about the current status of access roads. 

Travelers should avoid responding in kind to provocative driving behavior or road-rage. In case of an accident, travelers are advised to remain in their car until police arrive. Travelers are further advised to keep all doors locked and to drive to a well-populated area before stopping to change a flat tire (see �Crime,� above). 

Costa Rican law requires that drivers and passengers wear seatbelts in all cars, including taxis, and police are authorized to issue tickets. Traffic enforcement in Costa Rica is the responsibility of the Transit Police ("Transitos"), who are distinguished by a light blue uniform shirt and dark blue trousers. They use light blue cars or motorcycles equipped with blue lights. They often wave vehicles to the side of the road for inspection. Drivers are commonly asked to produce a driver's license, vehicle registration and insurance information. Third-party coverage is mandatory in Costa Rica. Infractions will result in the issuance of a summons. Fines are not supposed to be collected on the spot, although reports of officers attempting to collect money are common. Persons involved in vehicular accidents are advised not to move their vehicle until instructed to do so by a Transit Officer, who will respond to the scene together with a representative of the National Insurance Company (known by its local acronym, BCIS.) Accidents may be reported by dialing 911.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Costa Rica's civil aviation authority as Category 1 - in compliance with international aviation safety standards for oversight of Costa Rica's air carrier operations. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet website at 

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign air carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at (618) 229-4801. 

Since 2000, several American citizens have died in domestic air accidents. Local investigations have judged pilot error to be the cause in the majority of the accidents. Private air taxi services have been involved in a disproportionate number of crashes. The Government of Costa Rica's civil aviation authority has responded by dedicating additional resources to the oversight of the pilots, procedures, and aircraft of air taxi operators.

Please also refer to the separate Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

October 13, 2004

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