What are you to think when the American press refers to the political and military problems of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua as Central America? At least it's better than the former practice of calling everything between Mexico and Peru banana republics. Even with the regional problems, Costa Rica remains peaceful. Its democracy and neutrality together with lack of an army are its greatest sources of national pride. While residents are concerned about problems in other countries, only the economic instability has spread. One California paper headlined
its article "What's a Nice Little Country Like Costa Rica Doing in a Place Like This and then told what a delightful, relaxing place Costa Rica is. During your vacation the only evidence you're likely to see of regional problems is a maid from El Salvador or Nicaragua cleaning your hotel room (as you well might in Los Angeles).
There is far less violence in the entire country in a month than there is in any major U. S. city in a night. The murder rate is half that of the U. S. You are personally as least as safe here as you would be any place on earth, including at home.
Note: drugs are in Costa Rica as elsewhere though most are in transit to North America. Breaking Costa Rica's drug laws is definitely not worth it, as penalties are severe and bail is not always set even for possession of small amounts. Foreign embassies, including the United States embassy, cannot help citizens who break the laws of the country they are in.
Theft has always been here and has increased with the economic crisis and the admission of thousands of refugees who have not been able to find work. The bars across ground floor windows of most houses and other buildings will probably startle you on your first drive into San Jose from the airport. The majority of the people you see are the most honest people in the world, but here, as elsewhere, there are some of the others and they are very quick and expert. I take the precautions listed below.
1. When traveling, always look as neat and clean as humanly possible but don't look affluent. Lots of jewelry and matched sets of leather luggage may make you feel more important when you arrive at a hotel, but unless you have Princess Diana's security forces, they aren't worth it. At best, you are a mark for every cab driver and merchant who can raise his price. At worst, you are an easy target for major theft. In particular, gold neck chains with pendants and pierced earrings of any value may be taken off you in the street (with possible damage to neck or ears). Don?t wear an expensive-looking watch, and keep cameras out of sight unless using them.
2. Try to avoid taking more luggage than you can carry at one time. Besides making travel easier, this saves leaving anything behind when moving through airline and bus terminals. Backpacks are handy, but avoiding a hippie look can save trouble with customs and unpopularity with villagers. Don't leave luggage unattended in public places, buses, taxis or parked rental cars.
3. When you are out for day or evening, avoid carrying anything you don't need at the time. Hotels can keep your extra money, cameras, passport, and other valuables in their safes. A photocopy of the first several pages of your passport including its number, your photo, and your entry visa stamped at the airport is sufficient and should always be carried. Of course, passport and credit card numbers should be recorded and kept separately so you have them when reporting a theft. The police can stop travelers on the street and demand to see passports, but the photocopy seems to be acceptable as long as it includes your photo and visa. You do need passport and driver's license if you're driving a rental car.
4. Take local advice, especially in San Jose, Puerto Limon, and Puntarenas, and don't walk in parks and questionable neighborhoods at night. Walk with someone if you can. I take a taxi if I must carry valuables or am out at night in cities. Looking alert and aware of anyone who comes close is a deterrent to theft.
5. Avoid crowds at bus stops and be careful if you're jostled. Don't accept candy or food from people you meet on buses.
Costa Ricans carry nothing of value in pockets, even a cheap pen in a shirt pocket. Men should never carry anything in back pockets. For men or women once in the country, a traveler's pouch worn inside clothes is a relatively safe place to carry money. Some have a loop that fits over a belt, allowing the pouch, big enough for flat bills, to hang down inside trousers or skirt. For women, it's best to avoid nylon zipped bags which seem to be targets, and instead use a purse with secure handles and a short shoulder strap that allows the purse to be carried under your upper arm. Utility leather handbags, about $20 in Costa Rica, zip securely and are big enough to hold billfold, shopping bag, and even a camera. Friends who carry these have had no problems.
If you do have a theft, call the ICT or visit their office under the Cultural Plaza and file a complaint. The police can't hold the thief if they catch him without a complaint. The ICT people speak English and will represent you as needed later so it doesn't interfere with your vacation or leaving the country.
In summary, don't bring anything you don't really need, try not to carry anything you don't need that day, and watch or have someone else watch anything you put down. Try to look and act like a knowledgeable foreign resident of Costa Rica rather than a tourist just off the plane.
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