I remember having Chinese dumplings in an upscale shopping mall with my ex boyfriend and excitedly telling him about my plans to rip off my high heels and go live in the Caribbean jungle. Riding the wave of attachment and detachment from this man for the last three years, Costa Rica emerged as a life raft on my horizon.
Brightly colored wooden houses, coconut palm lined jungle beaches, Rastafarian culture, reggae music, and fresh seafood smothered in coconut milk all sounded too incredible to be real. Puerto Viejo sounded like paradise.
Upon hearing this news, he turned to me and said, “I’m pretty sure Costa Rica’s Caribbean is the rape and kidnapping capitol of the world.”
Sobered by his words, I went home and I did what any twenty something who had barely traveled and been told by her on again off again ex boyfriend that she had already booked a flight and paid a housing deposit in an incredibly dangerous place would do. I turned to Google and asked, “is Puerto Viejo safe?”
A recent story in the news came up first, about a tourist living in Punta Uva, who walking home late one night was thrown into a car, driven for an hour up the coast, gang raped on the beach, and left behind until a beach vendor discovered her in the morning. I read another story about a man who was murdered while sitting on the beach in the middle of the day. As I scrolled, terrifying stories surfaced one after the other.
Google told me that no, Puerto Viejo was not safe.
I felt equally scared and committed. My fantasies of Caribbean living had blossomed so fully that a jungle vine invisibly tethered my heart. In an attempt to control what sounded like an uncontrollable situation, I went to my travel companion Andie and I laid out some ground rules. They read as follows:
1. We will never take an unmarked taxi.
2. We will never tell anyone where we live.
3. We will never have more than two drinks in public.
4. We will dress modestly to not draw attention to ourselves.
Reading the rules now, I laugh.
Puerto Viejo doesn’t have marked taxis. They are all gypsy cabs. In fact you’re lucky if you find one with a door that locks or a seatbelt that functions. This is a small town where people talk, people watch, and people will likely know where you live… in fact one of their relatives is probably already your neighbor. The laid back Rasta lifestyle lends itself to a sunset cervasa and the bumping Reggaeton parties often lure you into dancing and drinking until morning. And when you’re on holiday in a hot sweaty tropical beach town you will probably want to be naked as often as possible.
In other words, after one hour in Puerto Viejo we threw all of our rules out the window. We even did some things that in retrospect I would never recommend to any of you. But nothing bad really happened. We were never robbed. We were never physically harmed. We had an amazing time.
This is not the case for everyone.
Two years ago while I was living in Puerto Viejo, masked men were breaking into homes with guns. One day they ran down the beach with machetes robbing people midday. A friend of mine worked for the Spanish school where every single computer, including her Macbook Pro, was stolen. A few weeks later I was pushed off my bicycle and robbed by men in a car on my way to the beach at eleven am. I’m pretty sure an acquaintance of mine stole my iPhone and money out of my pocket one night at the bar. Friends of mine have been mugged, jumped, and even raped at all times of night and day.
Even paradise has darkness.
Returning from Southeast Asia I wondered how dangerous Puerto Viejo might feel to me. While I take precautions that I never took in Thailand and monitor my belongings with a far more watchful eye, I see the safety in Puerto Viejo shifting. Police now patrol the road and the beach regularly, community members installed security cameras on popular getaway roads for thieves, and the bars where drug dealers once peddled seem to all be closing down. Still, a few days ago a tourist who took my yoga class showed up with a bloody lip after getting mugged walking home after a party.
So when people come to me instead of Google to ask if Puerto Viejo is safe, I often feel uncertain how to answer. Unfortunately, crime is a reality here. But isn’t it everywhere in the world? Can’t any place at any time be safe or scary? How many people are victims of crime every single day in the United States of America? Is it that we think that when we’re on holiday these unfortunate realities shouldn’t exist?
I practice facing and addressing my fears rather than living in them. However pragmatically speaking certain decisions lead to danger more than others. As a solo traveler I consider these dangers and behave consciously to keep myself as safe as I can.
Rather than determine whether Puerto Viejo is a “dangerous” place, which ultimately I cannot control, instead I focus on what I can do. Here are my tips for how to live and travel safely in Puerto Viejo:
Take a Taxi After Dark
Nearly every incident I hear about in Puerto Viejo takes place on the main road after dark. The jungle road that connects the different beach communities has long stretches of complete darkness and when you walk you become quite vulnerable. My personal rule is absolutely no walking outside of town after dark, even if it’s as early as 7pm and you have a group. Occasionally I will ride my bicycle after dark early in the evening, however never with valuables.
The safest option, one I always recommend, is to take a taxi at night. Most locals will advise the same. It’s nice to know a taxi driver you can trust, so ask a restaurant or your hotel to call you a taxi and then ask the driver for his phone number so that you can call him in the future.
Stay Off of the Beach After Dark
Few things feel more romantic to me than sitting on the beach under the stars and swimming in the ocean under the moon. However unless you’re with a large group, in Puerto Viejo I advise against it. The dense jungle that guards the beaches keeps them very dark and the crashing waves drown out all sounds. That aside, I rarely hear stories of incidences on the beach, but personally I feel too vulnerable when I’m out there alone.
Pay Respect to the Waves
The entire coastline has some seriously strong currents. Every year people drown after getting caught in riptides. Exercise caution especially if you’re not a strong swimmer.
Lock Your Valuables in a Safe
Break ins do happen but most hotels and hostels have safes that you can lock your valuables in. Use them. Better safe than sorry.
Watch for Critters
This is the jungle. I repeat, this is the jungle. There are wild animals, poisonous snakes, and all kinds of insects. Be aware of where you place your foot and if you’re walking in deep jungle, you may want to wear rubber boots. You can avoid encounters with tarantulas and scorpions by keeping your belongings clean and off of the floor and checking your bedsheets and night. Use coconut oil on your skin to ward off mosquitos and keep sand fleas from biting you on the beach. Resist the urge to scratch your insect bites and always keep them clean with soap, water, and perhaps some tea tree oil to prevent infection.
Don’t Go Home With Someone You Don’t Know
It’s shocking to me how seldom people practice this everywhere in the world. I strongly advise against taking a stranger home with you or going home with a stranger, not only in Puerto Viejo but anywhere. I know of one man in Puerto Viejo who invited women to his house for dinner, an offer from him that I repeatedly declined, and later heard that he date raped a friend. Some locals also carry the reputation of sleeping with tourists and then robbing them in the morning. These have not been my personal experiences, but be aware that when you invite someone into your home you offer them your trust. Choose wisely.
Only Take What You Need
The fact that you need so little to enjoy yourself is one of the best things about Puerto Viejo. For the beach a sarong, a water bottle, and a few dollars will suffice. At night tuck the money you intend to spend in a hidden place on your body and leave everything else at home. Take less, use less, and you stand to lose less.
Consider that in Costa Rica most workers earn around $2 per hour and the least expensive meal in a restaurant costs $5. Costa Rica has an extremely high cost of living particularly relative to what most people earn. Most Westerners make more in one hour than a local in Puerto Viejo earns in an entire day. Yet when you walk into the grocery store, the prices are all the same.
You can imagine how this disparity could lead to resentment. A tourist doesn’t need his iPhone, he need only call AT&T and get it replaced after being stolen. She doesn’t need that extra cash in her pocket, there’s plenty more available inside the ATM. The more you show what you have, the more likely you are to be a target. Someone who feels like they have nothing and sees that you have everything might not think twice about taking what you have. Why do you deserve it, after all?
I recommend keeping your electronics tucked away, your fancy jewelry at home (the sea air will destroy them anyway), and your wealth statistics to yourself.
Many lifetimes weave the story that becomes a culture. Why people behave the way that they do individually and in societies is so layered and intricate you could spend your lifetime simply attempting to understand your own. However few things offer greater fulfillment in travel than seeking to understand as much as possible. As visitors it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on our new environment to both protect ourselves and give our respect.
I’ve been to Puerto Viejo nine times in the last three years and every day I unfold a new level of understanding about the culture that surrounds me. Afro Caribbean roots, indigenous communities, Costa Rican nationalism, and North American and European transplants lend color and texture to the elaborate cultural fabric.
Do research, ask questions, and listen. The more you seek to understand where you are and the people who live there, the easier it becomes for you to live in harmony with your surroundings, and the more your surroundings serve to protect you.
Trust Your Instincts
Beyond research, advice, and this article lives an inner voice with the wisdom to always keep you safe. Listen to that voice, trust that voice, and follow that voice. It will not fail you.
Want to create your own magical trip to Costa Rica? Check out my eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica!