People who have never visited Costa Rica always ask me the same three questions. Is it safe? How is the medical care? Is the real estate market going up?
Let's start with safety. Having lived here now for nearly three years, and in two different areas, one being the beach areas surrounding Tamarindo, the other being the mountains outside San Jose, I have accumulated some sense of life here and a feeling for the question of safety.
Personally, I feel much safer, physically, living in Costa Rica than I did living in either Miami or L.A. The stories that I hear from friends and acquaintances confirm this feeling. For the Canadian, American or European, violent crime resulting in personal harm is very rare. Extremely rare. As anywhere, you need to use common sense, but your chances of being assaulted or hurt are much lower here than in the United States or Canada.
This personal experience is backed up by statistics. I found a fascinating web site, www.nationmaster.com, that collects country statistics from official sources, then compares them. In assaults, the United States leads the way, but is nudged out of first place in assaults per capita by smaller places. In both absolute and per capita terms Costa Rica does surprisingly well, far better than the U.S., Mexico and even Canada. Out of 57 countries listed, the United States comes in at number 6 for assaults per capita, Canada number 9, Mexico number 20, and Costa Rica brings up the rear at number 50. Not bad, eh? Especially considering that Costa Rica has a small population, just over 4 million people, which would inflate its per capita numbers if tourist crime were high. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_ass-crime-assaults and http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_ass_percap-crime-assaults-per-capita and http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_ass_percap-crime-assaults-per-capita
On the other hand, petty theft is common. The Costa Rican character is non-confrontational, almost to a fault. Get pushy and you commit a social mistake. Your Tico counterparty probably will not argue back, but will be resentful and will figure out a passive-aggressive way to get even, usually by telling you what he or she thinks you want to hear, then doing nothing. This character trait also shows up in non-confrontational crime patterns.
Leave anything in your car unwatched, and you run a good chance of losing it. A local institution is the "watching man", to whom you pay from $0.20 to $2.00 to watch your car. The amount depends on the time of day or night and length of time away from the car. Leave anything lying around, your wallet, purse, IPod or camera, it could disappear. To avoid aggravation, make a copy of your passport and visa stamp and leave your passport in a safe. Never leave stuff unwatched on the beach.
More problematic, theft extends to cars and houses. Therefore, as a part-time resident, your property is much more secure if you live in a gated community. This also is true, by the way, in Miami and L.A. Since I live a lifestyle not that different from a snowbird's, frequently away a week at a time, I live in gated communities. I also incorporated extensive security into the design of my gated condominium project outside Tamarindo, www.theoakstamarindo.com.
Apart from anecdotal evidence and statistics, you also can gain insights from indirect evidence, along the lines of the famous Sherlock Holmes clue, the dog that didn't bark. If you're in a building and you want to know if it's raining outside, you can look out the window to find out. Maybe you can see the rain. Maybe you can't. If you're like me, you look at the cars. Are their windshield wipers on? If they are not, then it's not raining.
In Costa Rica, indirect evidence comes from tourism and investment, both of which are booming. Passengers travelling through the international airport in Liberia, which serves Costa Rica's Gold Coast, are soaring. Far from being scared away, tourists are coming in greater and greater numbers, fueling a real estate boom. Ditto with San Jose and the Central Pacific coast. It's not raining.
In conclusion, at this writing, is Costa Rica safe? By many measures, yes, surprisingly, safer than Canada and the United States. Take normal precautions and you should be fine.
Next time. How is the medical care?