Costa Rica’s combo of smoking volcanoes and amazing national parks, gorgeous beaches and colorful wildlife (this is one of the most bio-diverse countries on Earth, you know?) helps to make it one of the true travel gems of Central America. But this famed tropical paradise also has a fair few hazards. Cue this guide to what to avoid in Costa Rica…
Between the tropical beaches, the soaring mountain ranges, and the sloth-filled jungles, Costa Rica has plenty you might want to watch out for. Yes, it’s consistently rated as one of the safest countries on the planet, but that might just lull you into a false sense of security. Mhmm, it’s got some of the finest surf in the Americas, but that can bring hazards. It’s true that there’s epic wildlife viewing, but not all animals in this corner of the globe are as friendly as three-toed sloths.
This guide to what to avoid in Costa Rica will run through 11 things that we think you should be wary of when you jet into San Jose and start exploring the chilled surf towns and vast reserves. It details everything from small-scale taxi scams to formidable fauna, and dangerous places to common travel mistakes and mishaps. Let’s get going…
One of the most common pieces of advice when traveling to Costa Rica is to avoid taking unofficial taxis. Sure, after a wild night out in the cantinas of San Jose, it might be tempting to just hop in the first taxi you see. But that’s not the best idea and we certainly wouldn’t recommend it.
There are many reports of scams and even violence from the so-called ‘pirate taxis’ that operate all over the country. Always make sure to look for the red (or orange at the airport) taxis that have a yellow triangle on them. They can usually be found in abundance out on the streets of the bustling capital, San Jose. Be extra careful around bus stops and in more rural areas, as that’s where the pirates tend to catch their prey. Oh, and be especially wary of drivers saying there are no buses running – it’s a well-known ploy.
Not regulated by the government, so-called taxi pirates will take you to your destination but will charge a hefty price tag that’s not even close to fair. However, some tourists have been even more unlucky, having ended up in nasty situations with the drivers. Other tips for being sure you’re entering an official taxi is to make sure the driver’s ID is visible and check that they are using a meter.
Avoid the beach at night
Although always tempting to take a late-night stroll by the water, this is definitely something to avoid in Costa Rica. Like many exotic lands, the beaches are the happening hotspots throughout the day, however, when night falls, these poorly lit areas become a stomping ground for criminals on the prowl. There have been several reports of robberies and assaults on unsuspecting tourists on some of the sandy shores.
But that’s not to say all beaches in Costa Rica are a definite no-no at night, as some of the party beach towns are just as buzzing come nightfall as they are in the day. For example, in Tamarindo and Jaco there are many beach clubs and bars for you to enjoy after dark. So, when it comes to this one, picking your spot is key. But avoiding quiet and darker areas of beaches is a must, especially as a solo traveler.
While you may be an adventurer who loves exploring off-the-beaten-path areas, we wouldn’t recommend doing so in Costa Rica. While the vibrant capital of San Jose has much to offer, including bustling markets, peaceful parks, and fascinating museums, it also has its fair share of neighborhoods you would not want to wander into.
El Infiernillois, for example, is a well-known hub for drug distribution, with warring drug gangs creating issues for locals. In fact, the name actually translates to ‘hell’ in English, so that may be your first clue to avoid it at all costs. La Carpio, Los Guido, and Desamparados are just some of the other San Jose districts you wouldn’t want to take a wrong turn into.
Outside of San Jose, another area you might want to skip on the Costa Rica itinerary is Limon City. Having the highest rate of unemployment and organized crime in the country, this port city is also the main drug trafficking sea route.
However, although crime is on the rise in Costa Rica, it is mainly gang-related, therefore tourists are seldomly impacted. It will also please you to know that tourists are well looked after here, due to tourism being one of their main sources of income and there are specialist tourist police units dedicated entirely to making sure your trip is one to write home about – in a good way.
Carrying your passport
Another thing you will definitely want to avoid in Costa Rica is having your passport on you. Although contrary to the usual advice of always keeping your valuables close, it is advised to lock your passport away somewhere safe around these parts.
Petty theft is the most common crime in Costa Rica and passport theft especially is on the rise. Considering this, it is recommended to only carry photocopies of your passport with you and leave the real thing somewhere criminals can’t get their mitts on it.
But it’s not just passports you need to be wary of. All valuables need to be kept well hidden from possible thieves in your midst. And when it comes to jewelry, you may want to leave your flashier pieces at home, as any signs of wealth are just asking for trouble in this area. Be especially wary on buses where theft is common as these cunning thieves have a fair few distraction techniques up their sleeve just waiting to be tested on the vulnerable tourist.
Unknown alcohol brands
While it may be tempting to pick up a bargain in the local bars, avoiding any surprisingly cheap or unheard-of alcoholic brands is a must in Costa Rica. The reason being that there have been many reports of deaths due to drinks spiked with large quantities of methanol. And in 2019 there was even a national alert issued about it.
The poisonous chemical, often found in many cleaning products, has been added by dodgy vendors trying to make a quick buck, as it is a cheaper way of filling their drinks. There were around 30,000 bottles confiscated after suspected poisoning, including brands such as Aguardiente Barón, Guaro Montano and Molotov Aguardiente. So, if after having a drink, you start experiencing any symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, or headaches, it is best to seek treatment as soon as possible, as delaying it could prove fatal.
But, if you’re looking for a safe choice, why not grab Costa Rica’s favorite beer, Imperial. Or perhaps a little Rum might be what you fancy? Well, you shouldn’t go wrong with a Ron Centenario.
Feeding the monkeys
With adorable little faces, capable of melting even the coldest of hearts, it is definitely hard to resist giving the monkeys a tasty treat. However, in Costa Rica, this is absolutely something you should avoid. Feeding the monkeys is not only frowned upon, but it is actually punishable by Costa Rican law. So, unless you’re wanting to swap your lavish lodgings for a jail cell whilst on this trip, you may just want to heed the warnings.
It is said that due to being fed by humans, monkeys will remain at the same spots, therefore not getting their average daily miles needed to maintain good physical health. This, along with potentially harmful bacteria being spread to them are just a couple of the reasons why resisting that urge to give them a leftover is of utmost importance. It has also been found that monkeys can get very aggressive if becoming used to relying on humans for food – and no one wants to be on the receiving end of a monkey’s bad mood.
The world’s most toxic spider
While Costa Rica is home to some of the most beautiful and exotic wildlife, it is also the living quarters for approximately 2000 species of the dreaded arachnids.
But it is the Brazilian wandering spider (also known as the banana spider) you will definitely want to avoid. With its scientific name, phoneutria, derived from the Greek, meaning ‘murderess’, this creepy crawly is not one to be messed with. Found mainly in the jungles and banana plantations, a bite from this guy unleashes a powerful neurotoxin capable of causing a loss of muscle control, and, if untreated, can lead to fatal paralysis and asphyxiation.
These spiders have a leg span ranging from around five to seven inches and can be recognized by rows of black dots or an overall reddish color on the underside of the abdomen. And if you spot it raising its front legs, you may want to run as fast as you can, as this is a defining characteristic of defensive behavior.
Luckily, bites are rare, but that being said, you might want to shake out your socks and shoes in the morning just to be extra careful.
Skipping the mosquito repellent
The plague of some of the most enticing lands – the mosquito. Costa Rica unfortunately is not exempt and so if you want to avoid contracting any potentially nasty mosquito-borne diseases, you don’t want to get lazy when it comes to protection.
Like any true backpacker knows, a bottle of mosquito repellant, preferably containing DEET, will become your best friend when venturing around mosquito-populated countries. In Costa Rica, they are most prevalent in the months of May to October and are mainly found along the coast. These small but mighty pests carry a number of diseases in these parts, such as dengue fever, the chikungunya virus and zika virus.
Symptoms of any of these generally entail fever, headache, muscle pain, rash, and vomiting. It is recommended to seek medical treatment if you start to feel unwell, as symptoms can progress and possibly become fatal if left untreated. However, for the most part, mosquito bites are simply an itchy annoyance that are just another part of your tropical travels.
Renting your own wheels to explore Costa Rica is a great way to go. It offers the freedom to hop from the smoke-belching volcanos and whitewater rivers of La Fortuna to the idyllic beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula at your own pace. And there’s ALWAYS some amazing waterfall or hiking trail to stop at along the way, you can rest assured of that.
Thing is, the roads in Costa Rica still aren’t the best in the world. Things have come a long way in the last decade, with more and more of the key routes getting tarmacked and renovated – notably the road into the Osa Peninsula (for whale watching) and the one down the Nicoya region (for surf towns).
But there are still certain routes that are more pothole than level asphalt. That’s why it’s always a good idea to hire a 4X4 in these parts. It also helps to have some experience in off-roading. Otherwise, you might want to plan your driving routes to avoid particular roads, especially the remote ones far away from San Jose and the Central Valley.
There’s a dark side to the eye-watering biodiversity stats of Costa Rica and it comes in the form of some of the world’s deadliest snakes. Mhmm…this country hosts a whopping 22 venomous snakes, several of which rank among the most prolific serpent killers on planet Earth. Not good. Not good at all.
The first one that’s mentioned is usually the aggressive fer-de-lance, a viper that has a deadly bite and is quick to attack whenever it’s threatened. It’s estimated that that species is responsible for over 50% of snakebites in Central America as a whole. Then there’s the deceptively elegant eyelash viper, a bright yellow snake that can be found living in the trees of Costa Rican jungles. And then there’s the yellow-bellied sea snake, one of the most dangerous animals in the oceans, anywhere!
Although snake encounters in Costa Rica remain relatively rare, the very nature of activities you do here means that most visitors are at risk of coming across a serpent or two during their time. Plus, there’s still something like 500 incidents of snakebite each year here, so the numbers aren’t negligible by any stretch.
And lastly on our list of what to avoid in Costa Rica is a little something from mother nature. Although the powerful waves are a magnificent sight to behold, as well as providing excellent surf, drowning is actually a leading cause of sudden injury and death in this country.
With fatal accidents averaging over 150-200 a year, the waters here are not for the faint-hearted. Dangerous rip currents and riptides are prevalent in many of the beaches and entering the water can be incredibly risky, even for the strongest of swimmers. Always heed warning signs and keep a cautious attitude when on the beaches in Costa Rica.
However, it’s not just the ocean you have to be wary of in these parts. Costa Rica’s rivers are home to some of the most terrifying crocodiles on the planet, with the Tarcoles River housing around 2000 of them. In fact, it has become so known for crocs, that the bridge over it has been nicknamed ‘crocodile bridge’ and sees many a tourist flock there for a sighting of these snappy terrors. But if you want to make it back home in one piece, certainly don’t get too close to the water here.
Things to avoid in Cosa Rica – our conclusion
From venomous snakes to winding roads with oodles of potholes, classic traveler taxi scams to rough waters on the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, there are actually plenty of things to avoid in Costa Rica. That said, this corner of the Americas really does deserve its rep as one of the safer parts of the planet to visit. It’s got generally low crime rates across the board, the people are very friendly and ready to help, and the nature reserves are managed exceptionally well. The vast majority of travelers who come this way usually leave with only fantastic memories.