Staying healthy on a trip to Costa Rica is predominantly a matter of being a little cautious about what you eat and drink, and using common sense. Many beaches have dangerous riptides, and drownings are sadly common. As you climb above 3,000m (10,000 ft.), you may feel the effects of altitude sickness. Be sure to drink plenty of water and not overexert yourself. Limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and, thereafter, from 11am to 2pm. Use sunscreen with a high protection factor, and apply it liberally. Remember that children need more protection than adults. The water in San José and most of the country’s heavily visited spots is generally safe to drink, but if you want to take no chances, stick to bottled water.
General Availability of Health Care
In general, Costa Rica has a high level of medical care and services for a developing nation. The better private hospitals and doctors in San José are very good. In fact, given the relatively low-cost nature of care and treatment, a sizable number of Americans come to Costa Rica each year for elective surgery and other care.
Pharmacies are widely available, and generally well stocked. In most cases you will not need a doctor's script to fill or refill a prescription.
If You Get Sick
Your hotel front desk should be your best source of information and assistance if you get sick while in Costa Rica. In addition, your local consulate in Costa Rica can provide a list of area doctors who speak English. The local English-language newspaper, the Tico Times, is another good resource. We list the best hospitals in San José in “Fast Facts: San José.” These have the most modern facilities in the country. Most state-run hospitals and walk-in clinics around the country have emergency rooms that can treat most conditions, although you’re better off going to a private hospital in San José if that’s an option.
Also known as harmful algal blooms (HAB), red tides are a phenomenon occurring in oceans worldwide. Red tides can arise from natural or man-made causes. Some are seasonal, while others may be provoked by pollution or chemical waste. Some are toxic and others are benign. Harmful algal blooms are often accompanied by dead fish and sea life. Rising sea temperatures have been cited as one cause of an increase in HAB occurrences, although they have been recorded in frigid arctic waters. Some can turn ocean waters a deep red, while color changes from deep green to murky brown have also been documented. Some, in fact, do not affect the water color at all. Tidal changes have no causal link to red tides, so the name is a bit of a misnomer.
All red tides are characterized by rapid and massive reproduction of algae or phytoplankton. Pacific-coast beaches have been hardest hit, especially those along the Nicoya Peninsula. Still, red tides have been recorded all along both of the country's coastlines. In Costa Rica, red tides tend to be more common near the start of the rainy season. Most only last a day or so, although some have lasted as long as a couple of weeks. It's extremely hard to tell for certain if a red tide is a dangerous algal bloom or not. If you notice a deep red or unnatural brown tint to the water, it is best to refrain from swimming. Due to dark sands and benign river runoff, many of Costa Rica's beaches often appear to have brownish water that is perfectly safe for swimming. Ask around locally to find out the current water conditions.
Regional Health Concerns
Tropical Illnesses: Your chance of contracting any serious tropical disease in Costa Rica is slim, especially if you stick to the beaches or traditional spots for visitors. However, malaria, dengue fever, leptospirosis, and zika all exist in Costa Rica, so it's a good idea to know what they are.
Malaria is found in the lowlands on both coasts and in the northern zone. Although it's rarely found in urban areas, it's still a problem in remote wooded regions and along the Caribbean coast. Malaria prophylaxes are available, but several have side effects, and others are of questionable effectiveness. Consult your doctor regarding what is currently considered the best preventive treatment for malaria. Be sure to ask whether a recommended drug will cause you to be hypersensitive to the sun; it would be a shame to come down here for the beaches and then have to hide under an umbrella the whole time. Because malaria-carrying mosquitoes usually come out at night, you should do as much as possible to avoid being bitten after dark. If you are in a malaria-prone area, wear long pants and long sleeves, use insect repellent, and either sleep under a mosquito net or burn mosquito coils (similar to incense, but with a pesticide).
Of greater concern is dengue fever, which has had periodic outbreaks in Latin America since the mid-1990s. Dengue fever is similar to malaria and is spread by an aggressive daytime mosquito. This mosquito seems to be most common in lowland urban areas, and Puntarenas, Liberia, and Limón have been the worst-hit cities in Costa Rica. Dengue is also known as "bone-break fever" because it is usually accompanied by severe body aches. The first infection with dengue fever will make you very sick but should cause no serious damage. However, a second infection with a different strain of the dengue virus can lead to internal hemorrhaging and could be life-threatening.
One tropical fever I think you should know about is leptospirosis. There are more than 200 strains of leptospires, animal-borne bacteria transmitted to humans via contact with drinking, swimming, or bathing water. This bacterial infection is easily treated with antibiotics; however, it can quickly cause very high fever and chills, and should be treated promptly.
If you develop a high fever accompanied by severe body aches, nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting during or shortly after a visit to Costa Rica, consult a physician as soon as possible.
Costa Rica has historically had very few outbreaks of cholera. This is largely due to an extensive public-awareness campaign that has promoted good hygiene and increased sanitation. Your chances of contracting cholera while you're here are very slight.
The zika virus became a major concern throughout tropical areas of Latin America in 2016. The tropical mosquito borne virus is spread by day flying mosquitoes (including Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopictus) and is generally so mild that 80% of people who contract it never know they have it. Symptoms are similar to dengue fever, normally lasting for two days to six days, however, zika is particularly dangerous for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant as the virus poses a serious health problem for fetuses, especially in the first trimester. Before traveling to affected areas, it is best to consult your family’s physician and other doctors if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
Dietary Red Flags: Even though the water in San José and most popular destinations in Costa Rica is generally safe, and even if you’re careful to buy bottled water, order frescos en leche (fruit shakes made with milk rather than water), and drink your soft drink without ice cubes, you still might encounter some intestinal difficulties. Most of this is just due to tender stomachs coming into contact with slightly more aggressive Latin American intestinal flora. In extreme cases of diarrhea or intestinal discomfort, it’s worth taking a stool sample to a lab for analysis. The results will usually pinpoint the amoebic or parasitic culprit, which can then be readily treated with available over-the-counter medicines.
Except in the most established and hygienic of restaurants, it’s also advisable to avoid ceviche, a raw seafood salad, especially if it has any shellfish in it. It could be home to any number of bacterial critters.
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns: Although Costa Rica has Africanized bees (the notorious "killer bees" of fact and fable) and several species of venomous snakes, your chances of being bitten are minimal, especially if you refrain from sticking your hands into hives or under rocks in the forest. If you know that you're allergic to bee stings, consult your doctor before traveling.
At the beaches, you'll probably be bitten by purrujas (sand fleas), especially on the lower part of your legs. These nearly invisible insects leave an irritating welt. Try not to scratch because this can lead to open sores and infections. Purrujas are most active at sunrise and sunset, so you might want to cover up or avoid the beaches at these times.
Snake sightings, much less snakebites, are very rare. Moreover, the majority of snakes in Costa Rica are nonpoisonous. If you do encounter a snake, keep your distance. Avoid sticking your hands under rocks, branches, and fallen trees, and avoid brushing up against vegetation.
Scorpions, black widow spiders, tarantulas, bullet ants, and biting insects of many types can all be found in Costa Rica. In general, they are not nearly the danger or nuisance most visitors fear. Watch where you stick your hands; in addition, you might want to shake out your clothes and shoes before putting them on to avoid any unpleasant and painful surprises.
Tropical Sun: Limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and, thereafter, from 11am to 2pm. Use a sunscreen with a high protection factor, and apply it liberally. Remember that children need more protection than adults.
Riptides: Many of Costa Rica's beaches have riptides: strong currents that can drag swimmers out to sea. A riptide occurs when water that has been dumped on the shore by strong waves forms a channel back out to open water. If you get caught in a riptide, you can't escape the current by swimming toward shore; it's like trying to swim upstream in a river. To break free of the current, swim parallel to shore and use the energy of the waves to help you get back to the beach.
Although most of Costa Rica is safe, petty crime and robberies committed against tourists are endemic. San José, in particular, is known for its pickpockets, so never carry a wallet in your back pocket. A woman should keep a tight grip on her purse (keep it tucked under your arm). Thieves also target gold chains, cameras and video cameras, prominent jewelry, and nice sunglasses. Be sure not to leave valuables unsecured in your hotel room, or unattended on the beach. Given the high rate of stolen passports in Costa Rica, mostly as collateral damage in a typical pickpocketing or room robbery, it is recommended that, whenever possible, you leave your passport in a hotel safe, and travel with a photocopy of the pertinent pages. Don't park a car on the street in Costa Rica, especially in San José; plenty of public parking lots are around the city.
Rental cars generally stick out and are easily spotted by thieves. Don't leave anything of value in a car parked on the street, not even for a moment. Be wary of solicitous strangers who stop to help you change a tire or take you to a service station. Although most are truly good Samaritans, there have been reports of thieves preying on roadside breakdowns.
Inter-city buses are also frequent targets of stealthy thieves. Try not to check your bags into the hold of a bus, if they will fit in the rack above your seat. If this can't be avoided, keep your eye on what leaves the hold. If you put your bags in an overhead rack, be sure you can see the bags at all times. Try not to fall asleep.
Single women should use common sense and take precaution, especially after dark. I don't recommend that single women walk alone anywhere at night, especially on seemingly deserted beaches, or dark uncrowded streets.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.