Disasters in Costa Rica are part of the concern of any traveler who is willing to spend time here. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and diseases like malaria or yellow fever seem to be part of our lives when we live in the tropics. But, is it true?
Disasters in Costa Rica seem to be an essential concern for any visitor to the country. What are the dangers? Will I be exposed? Are there any emergency plans?
How well prepared is Costa Rica for a real nature strike?
Read here some of the most usual threats that we face in Costa Rica and how we decided to cope and thrive in them.
Ok! When we talk about disasters in Costa Rica, putting earthquakes first in the list makes sense. Because let’s face it: We are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the most shaken area of the planet.
We have seisms every single day, and several per day: little ones, some of them below 2 in the Richter Scale. But then again, unpredictably and without an average number to quote, we get the unsettling four and above earthquakes.
Regarding these, and if you ask any Costa Rican, the usual behavior is “I’ll run if it gets stronger.”
And if you look at our history, every decade or so, we get a real strong one, above 6. Those are the ones we want to talk about in this post.
The first thing to acknowledge about disasters in Costa Rica is that the country emergency plan is based on prevention, so you will notice emergency evacuation routes and signals in all buildings you visit: Hotels, restaurants, tour operators, and even stores, banks and National Parks.
Second, all buildings in Costa Rica are built to comply with the seismic building code, and builders take it seriously.
Yes, the government is not as strict as it should be, but from the banks, that in many cases, provide the loans for the constructions to the Federated College of Engineers and Architects (CFIA), none is willing to play with the risks.
If you took a look at the past earthquakes in Costa Rica and compared to other areas in the world with the same Richter scale magnitudes, we always have fewer casualties.
We don’t use gas pipes to prevent the danger from fires, and the country has been replacing the aerial electric wires with underground systems in the main cities.
Volcanoes in Costa Rica
The very plate tectonics associated with producing Costa Rica’s earthquakes form a line of over 112 volcanoes ranging from entirely dormant to emitting constant eruptions.
Right now our active volcanoes are:
- Rincon de la Vieja
All of them, as of September 2019, with very low activity.
Just like in the case of seism prevention, no permits are given for construction close to any of the active volcanoes.
Now, when we talk about volcanoes, the first thing to realize is that they let you know when they are entering an active period. Volcanologists from all over the world have been studying Costa Rican volcanoes for decades now, and they monitor them continuously. So much to the point that anyone, you included can see some of the craters live, right now and right here:
What has happened lately?
The most known volcano in Costa Rica, of course, is the Arenal Volcano. However, it has been quiet for about a decade. It is considered to be dormed.
Turrialba Volcano has been very active since September 2014. Some of the eruptions since then have been big enough to shut down the SJO Juan Santamaría International Airport several times.
The area in the surroundings of the Turrialba has been permanently evacuated. However, there are several hotels in the region to watch the volcano from a safe spot.
The last small eruption happened on August 22, 2019. But this can change anytime.
Eruptions at Poás volcano at the beginning of 2017 damaged the pathways, crater facilities, visitor’s center, and outlook, and shut down the national park for two years.
Nowadays, there are shelters at the visitors center and outlooks, as well as real-time gas monitors and newly qualified safety staff.
Rincón de La Vieja
Currently active, and the trails and paths to get to the crater have been closed indefinitely. Eruptions usually only affect the areas surrounding the crater and sometimes may cause lahars in the rivers below.
We could say Irazu is dormed, but no. Two tiny fumaroles remain in its crater. However, this may change almost at any minute. The last activity was in the early nineties when lahars came down from the Northeast wall of the active crater. All the materials and some of the devastation happened in an isolated area of the Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Because of the tsunami disasters in Southeast Asia and Japan, the research, alarm systems, and awareness of offshore earthquakes has grown exponentially as it is recognized that these may be more devastating than the ones onshore.
Now, the seabed off the coasts of Costa Rica is not especially suited to the development of tsunami waves.
Significant earthquakes off the shore of Chile (> 8.0) and in the central Pacific provided Tsunami warnings to Costa Rica, but in the end, the increase in the waves was hardly noticeable.
There has never been a significant tsunami recorded in Costa Rica; however, even if there is, Costa Rica topography allows easy access to higher places very close to the beach.
Hurricanes are not a primary concern in Costa Rica, at least on the Caribbean shore.
The configuration of the Gulf of Mexico directs storms to turn north, and in the hundreds of years of reports, none had ever made a direct blow (1996 Hurricane Cesar was the closest) until Otto went over Northern Costa Rica in 2016.
November 2016 – Hurricane Otto – There were ten casualties, and two small towns in the North of Costa Rica were almost destroyed on Thanksgiving day.
Now, what happens in the Pacific Shore? The hurricanes of the Caribbean may hit us harder on the Pacific as the water gets sucked up from the Pacific and rained over the country, especially as they hit the land on the area that goes from the Central Pacific to the Golfo Dulce.
This phenomenon creates floods throughout the region, and roads get closed as rivers go over the bridges.
Flooding is usual through the rainy season in some regions of Costa Rica. On top of the generalized flooding of lower lands and particularly near the few large rivers of the country.
CHECK WEATHER CR (Vinculo weather in Costa Rica)
Thunderstorms in the mountain range tops can create flash floods down the canyons and valleys, forming dangerous water heads far away from where the climate may be shining under clear skies.
These can happen any time since the high mountains are moderately wet even in the sunny season. Nevertheless, they are quite usual in the rainy season when downpours saturate the ground.
Dengue, malaria, zika, yellow fever, and similar threats
Yellow Fever: is not only gone from Costa Rica but if you have been in any yellow fever at-risk countries, you have to bring proof of your vaccination. (Even Costa Ricans have to travel back and forth with these papers if visiting any country that can have the risk of the deadly disease).
In terms of dengue, zika, and malaria, the problem seems to rise always in the rainy days as the mosquito needs the water to reproduce.
Costa Rica has developed an active campaign to eliminate the possible mosquito sources, and thousands are wholly removed or treated.
(Treated mosquito breeding areas implies all areas where mosquitoes may thrive: aquatic plants, fountains ponds, and other breeding places that cannot be eradicated but are kept clean)
The spraying of mosquitoes house per house is an on-going government and community endeavor that help the advertising, educational, and social media campaigns to get rid of any possible breeding areas.
Health Education Programs
In Costa Rica, and when we talk about prevention, the most substantial effort goes to the elementary schools. In many cases, the children teach their parents how to get rid of the mosquito breeding areas and hatcheries.
Natural Disasters while you are traveling
So, what will happen in case any of the disasters above occur while you are on vacation in Costa Rica?
This is probably the main reason why it is so important to take vacations with a travel agency. As if you are our passenger, we take care of whatever comes up where it comes up.
In general, our advice is to read the emergency literature that all hotels provide, find the emergency routes and exits, and learn them, first thing as you arrive in a region and hotel.
Usually, in organizations such as accommodations, tour operations, and areas like airports and national parks, there are people already appointed to handle a sudden situation.
Please find them and follow instructions.
To wrap it up:
When talking about natural disasters, Costa Rica is a case of success. Emergencies are dealt with efficiency and professionalism, and whenever there are casualties in any of the catastrophes, the reasons go to unpredictability or people who didn’t follow instructions.
For instance, in the case of the only hurricane to hit Costa Rica in our history, you will find that all of the Caribbean coast, towns, and cities were evacuated completely, and the hurricane changed direction and landed inland in an unexpected region.
Some of the casualties were close to rivers and didn’t evacuate when prompted.
If you are thinking about a vacation in Costa Rica, our advice is to go with a professional travel agency and read all you can to prevent whatever may come up.
Remember that natural disasters can happen almost anywhere in the World, but what is dangerous about them is not having a fast capacity to respond, starting at the bottom with the personal knowledge, and ending with the government reaction.
Let’s do our part when traveling:
- Hire a responsible travel agent to support you
- Get travel insurance that includes natural disasters on the policies
- Learn all you must when moving to the different regions
- Learn the evacuation routes as soon as you arrive at any new hotel or tour area.
- If something happens, find the person in charge and follow instructions.