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The recent murder of a Florida woman vacationing in Costa Rica has brought the safety of the once deemed 'safest country in Central America' into question.
Carla Stefaniak, 36, was staying at an Airbnb outside of the capital city of San Jose when she went missing. After failing to board her return flight home the following day, her family became concerned. Her body was found a week later in a wooded area just 300 yards away from the apartment where she was staying.
While petty theft and armed robberies are the main problems, the country has seen an increase in murders, with American tourists frequently being targeted. In 2017, Costa Rica saw its highest homicide rate yet, with 603 reported, working out to a rate of 12.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. These numbers, however, should not deter travelers from visiting the beautiful, rugged, rainforested country.
In comparison to other popular vacationing destinations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the numbers are still relatively low.
For Jamaica, 2017 saw 1,161 reported homicides, working out to 55.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. In Mexico, a country deemed safe, 29,168 homicides were recorded in 2017, about 22.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. Other popular destinations with a higher homicide rate than Costa Rica include Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
The US State Department currently advises 'normal precautions' for American tourists visiting Costa Rica, with increased caution in certain neighborhoods, as with any other country.
After recently returning from a trip to the Jaco and San Jose areas of the country, I can say there wasn't a time I felt any less safe than I have anywhere else. The residents are warm and friendly. Local police are out doing their jobs and patrolling the area. If you envision gang members and thieves milling about just watching and waiting to violently attack, you have the completely wrong idea.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, crimes committed against U.S. citizens are typically non-violent. Examples of recent crimes include a group of people stopping to help change a flat tire, instead stealing U.S. passports, cash and a camera.
Another instance consisted of an American's backpack being stolen from a chair at a restaurant while he was in the restroom. Money is often a major motivator for these crimes, which you can expect in most poverty-stricken areas of any country.
Believe it or not, many major U.S. cities have a higher homicide rate than Costa Rica. Although Chicago saw a decline in reported homicides in 2017, the 'Windy City' still has a high rate of 24 per 100,000 inhabitants. Per a report released by the FBI, St. Louis had the highest rate in the country with 65.83, followed by Baltimore with 55.48 and New Orleans with 40.10.
Crime is inevitable throughout any part of the world and it's important to take the cautionary steps to ensure you are not a victim, regardless of where you choose to vacation.
Keep your valuables, including jewelry, passports, cash and credit cards, locked up in your hotel safe if possible. If able, travel in groups of people you know. Do not leave a bar, nightclub, restaurant, or any other facility with someone you do not know. This includes strangers you may have been talking to for the past hour and think you know but you really don't.
Avoid walking around at night, especially in heavily populated cities, like San Jose for example. If you would like to do some sightseeing, walk with a companion. If you traveled alone, be alert and look for any suspicious activity around you. If you need to get from point A to point B by vehicle, only use licensed taxis.
In addition, keep your cell phone on you and charged at all times, be wary of strangers asking to help with car problems and be alert of persons loitering on the side of the road. If renting a car in Costa Rica, or any other foreign country, exercise extreme caution if you find yourself with a flat tire. If possible, continue driving to the nearest service station or another public area and change the tire yourself, keeping an eye on your valuables at all times.
Travel agents can also be very helpful when it comes to finding a safe destination for you and your family to travel to. Agents have more insight into the industry that allows them the most accurate information available.
Often times the media will over-sensationalize current news stories involving homicide in foreign countries, leading to fake news that can deter tourists from destinations they are actually pretty safe in. Agents can also recommend specific hotels or resorts with inside knowledge of their own, or previous client, ensuring you stay at the safest place available.
Costa Rica is a beautiful country full of protected rainforests, stunning wildlife, numerous active and inactive volcanoes and an extensive list of national parks. The country ranked 15th among international destinations for Americans in 2017, according to the U.S. Commerce Department's National Travel & Tourism Office, with more than 1 million visitors. Costa Rica is still a safe place for American travelers and should continue to be a destination we choose to visit.
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