The Dark Side of Costa Rica’s Beaches
Costa Rica’s beaches are one of the country’s most attractive characteristics, and with over 1,000 miles of coastline altogether (Caribbean and Pacific sides) this isn’t a surprise. Know that despite the amount of land lapped by sea water, most of the beaches are actually located on the Pacific side of this small nation.
There are a handful of sparkling white beaches, but most are made up of dark black sand; a reminder of the volcanic origin of this isthmus-like country. In most cases, mountains, cliffs, and jungles meet the ocean with either slivers or wide swaths of lovely beaches that vary in depth according to the tides.
Costa Ricans love their beaches, and they love getting away to them as often as possible. If you doubt this, try getting on any highway that leads west on a Friday afternoon! One of the main highways, route 27, makes all its lanes east bound on most Sunday afternoons to facilitate the return of the weekend beach goers. Tourists, of course, also flock to our beaches, renowned for their breathtaking sunsets and jungle-like surroundings.
Growing up in Tennessee, I lived on a lake but loved going to the beach. Of course I dreaded the 8-10 hour drives to the coast. Going to the beach when spending time in Costa Rica as a child involved an adventure because we went by train! But only if you were going to Puntarenas. Unless you had a 4-wheel drive vehicle and were prepared to spend most of the day getting to your destination, the stunningly beautiful, wild beaches up and down the Pacific coast were really difficult to get to until the late 70’s and early 80’s. Most of those places are now unrecognizable to me due to the surge in development that has occurred in the last 25 years.
By the mid 80’s, I was living in CR and spending one or two weekends a month at the beach; usually Bejuco beach in Esterillos Este. Several of my friends had cabins there, and there were a handful of rentals available. Our children were the same age and went to the same school, and our families spent week-long vacations relaxing and enjoying ourselves together whenever possible. Stressed, tired or have a cold? Get to the beach! It’ll cure everything!
But, there is a dark side to our beaches, and today, I must bring this to your attention. Drownings and water related accidents account for the second most common cause of death in Costa Rica, and almost half of these involve foreign tourists. Our Central Pacific beaches are some of the most dangerous in Latin America, claiming around 60 to 160 lives each year (depending on whose numbers you want to believe) The lifeguard association documented 141 in 2016. There are several reasons for these dismal statistics, and these are what I want to address in this post.
Why this serious post and why now? Because a little over a week ago I spent the last evening of my own beach visit trying unsuccessfully to save the life of a young tourist who became one of these tragic statistics. The pain and despair of watching death take a young life is indescribable. He became one of the 3-5 tourists who drown in Costa Rica every month, and most are under the age of 25.
I posted on my personal Facebook page to encourage people to learn CPR, but I felt I hadn’t nearly done enough, so this is an additional effort to spread awareness of some of the issues. I want you to know that you can enjoy our beaches safely by being aware of the dangers and by using common sense combined with more careful attention to our unique geographical features.
First and foremost, know that no lifeguards are regularly present on the vast majority of beaches, and even if there is a lifeguard on duty, he/she is likely responsible for a ridiculously large area. Training is available, but resources to pay for it and for the lifeguards are virtually nonexistent. Lifeguards have repeatedly lobbied for more funding to increase their numbers and to improve education, but so far have not been heard. Bottom line is you should assume that you are on your own out there. Many beaches are isolated and emergency services may take 20 to 30 minutes or longer to reach a specific area.
Semi-private beaches might offer more in the form of beach warning flags, life guards, and so forth, but for now, don’t count on it. Posted warnings about riptides or dangerous tides of any type are rarely found, and most Costa Ricans (as well as tourists!) are really bad about heeding those warnings in any case.
By the way, one of my first reactions to last week’s tragedy was to start a GoFundMe page for the Bejuco life guard after learning that the program is underfunded and woefully understaffed. It turns out someone already did and I will post a link to this page below.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of our Pacific coast beaches face the open sea. There is virtually nothing between us and Japan or Hawaii. Massive amounts of water are moving toward us with little to inhibit its approach.
I’ve been on both far northern beaches and far southern beaches, and the jagged coastlines and pounding waves on many of them made it abundantly clear that they were not swim friendly waters. When not even surfers will go out to take on those waves, this should be all the warning you need to stay out of the water. Yet, on one of those dangerous mornings (at Dominical) I saw a lifeguard repeatedly try to get a family with small children out of treacherous surf while they ignored his frantic pleas. I couldn’t believe it.
More often than not, however, our beaches don’t appear dangerous—especially in the central Pacific area that sees more than its share of drownings. And this is the beautiful deception I am referring to. Bejuco beach property owners and rental managers regularly warn their guests, but I see how it falls on deaf ears. I’ve tried it myself, especially when I’ve seen behavior that makes me cringe.
I don’t care if you are a surfer from California or Hawaii, or if you have been living on the beaches in Florida or South Carolina all your life. I don’t care if you are a strong enough swimmer to swim the English Channel. You must use appropriate caution on CR beaches when you come to visit, and you must pay attention to the warnings that locals offer. We know of what we speak.
I was once building a sand castle with my then 6 year old daughter, sitting far enough up to avoid getting wet. I thought. Nothing about the surf looked dangerous. Next thing I knew we were both under water being rolled and pulled into the sea. I barely managed to grab her swimsuit and hold on to her for dear life until I was able to gain traction and stop our rolling. Much coughing and sputtering and shaking later, we crawled out and moved up to dry sand. I tried not to scare her, but it had terrified me. Lesson learned. We did nothing more than ankle deep wading after that on this stretch of beach, and not much of that, I might add. This was off Palo Seco (near Parrita), now well known to be a particularly dangerous beach.
The amount of debris that washed up on that beach that afternoon was impressive and another sign of how powerful that particular tide was. I was just lucky that we didn’t end up as part of the debris, because we could have, and what’s more, no one would have known what happened to us since at that particular moment, we were alone on the beach. That incident, almost 30 years ago now, was my first and hopefully my last personal close call. It changed everything I had ever assumed about being careful on the beach.
Now, let me focus on a beach not so far from Palo Seco, called Bejuco, because it’s the one I’ve been going to for decades, and where the death I mentioned earlier occurred. For the record, I do not know what happened to the victim. I only know what transpired during the rescue and attempts to resuscitate. I was told that the life guard there had pulled 4 people out during the previous week, one of whom also did not survive. Most everything about Bejuco can be applied to other beaches in Costa Rica.
The black sand beach is wide and it gently descends into the sea. You can walk out a very long way and still not seem to be getting into deep water. The waves don’t look huge or menacing, and they usually aren’t. And this is one of the biggest deceptions of all. In the blink of an eye you can be slammed by an unexpectedly large or particularly powerful wave that will roll you about until you lose all sense of which way is up.
And most of our breakers don’t roll in alone—they occur in multiples so that at any given moment there are 4-6 breakers crashing in at the same time. Add to that the power with which you will be pulled back and under, and things can get scary very fast. If the tide is going out, even a strong swimmer can get in trouble in a matter of seconds.
Then there are the undercurrents and riptides, which are so common here that they are responsible for the majority of drownings (especially among young male students on holiday weekends). Riptides are quiet areas of surf that appear very calm. Victims may be caught off guard or mistakenly drawn to the place where the waves are almost non existent. What too many beach goers are ignorant of is that this calm spot is where the sea is being pulled back with such great strength and speed (up to 8 feet per second) that a wave cannot form. Get caught in it and you too will be dragged out to sea. Swimming back in will be impossible and countless young, strong swimmers in the prime of life have exhausted themselves and drowned while trying to fight it. There are many informational tutorials on how to swim “sideways” or parallel out of the riptide to escape it before swimming toward shore. Please inform and educate yourself before you enter any ocean anywhere in the world.
Many Costa Rican beaches are rocky, even though the rocks are hidden under a thin layer of sand or water at high tide. (Bejuco is an exception to this—it has virtually no rock) Costa Rica is really little more than a giant volcanic rock covered in soil and sand, so one should be prepared to encounter patches of those volcanic rocks from time to time. They are usually worn smooth, but getting slammed into them by a wave would not be good. Familiarizing yourself with the beach at low tide can go a long way toward making it a safer place to swim in during high tide.
Don’t go into the ocean while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Just don’t do it. Many of the drownings in CR are a result of swimming while drunk or otherwise impaired. I suspect this is especially true in Jacó, possibly the most popular “party hearty” beach in the country. Pass out in the dry sand next to the road if you must, but stay away from the water if you’ve over indulged!
Use the buddy system. Always have another adult out there with you. A sober one who can call for help the moment they realize you are in trouble. You are there for one another. Have fun and enjoy, but if one gets out of the water, you both get out.
Please do not let small children go in alone. When kids are a little older you can use some discretion, but even then, at least 2 responsible adults need to be present when there are children in the water. These seas can easily sweep adults away, what makes you think you can get to your child fast enough?
Earlier on the very same day I witnessed the drowning last week, I walked down to the beach and into the ocean. I was almost waist deep when I suddenly noticed that no one was near enough to see or hear me. I also realized the tide was still going out. I immediately walked out and went back to the pool for my mid day swim. I’m a strong swimmer but my heightened awareness and respect for the ocean on this beach was stronger. I had no intention of risking my life for a swim, as much as I wanted feel the waves. Seeing a younger and stronger body who lost that bet later in the day was a heartbreaking experience I will never forget.
Our rule for older kids was they had to be attached to a flotation device of some sort—this was usually a boogie board. I would now consider adding a whistle as a required accessory for every family to have on hand—this means on your person at the beach or even attached to a swimmer’s wrist. It can be used to get the attention of someone who has gone out too far, or to summon help. The pounding waves and playful squeals of beach goers can make it impossible to hear calls for help until it is too late.
Last but not least, learn CPR. Take an updated refresher course if it’s been a while since you were certified because new techniques are more effective than old ones were. Please make sure you are never caught in the situation of being the person screaming out, “does anybody know CPR!” I can’t imagine how traumatic and helpless that would feel.
One of the small comforts I can take from last week’s tragedy was that although we were unable to save the young man’s life, it wasn’t because no one was around to help. A group of strangers came together and became a remarkably efficient team within moments because of appropriate training. I don’t have a lot of clear memories of what happened that day over and above my own role, but I do remember the comment of one of the bystanders when the EMT’s arrived and took over for us, “they’re doing the exact same thing you were doing!” Yes. Because that’s all that could be done right then. It can mean the difference between life and death, even though it’s never a guarantee.
I grew up on a lake and had a parent who modeled and reinforced life saving techniques of all types on a regular basis. Even as a teen, many of my peers had been through life guard certification or Water Safety Instructor courses as I had. Most of us had at least a little training in doing CPR. It was a badge of honor for us and simply expected when you were around water as much as we were. Because of my dad’s involvement in a voluntary Rescue Squad, I witnessed more than one rescue. CPR and other rescue techniques were drilled into me, and I am grateful.
One of the things that stood out to me on Bejuco beach last week was that most of us involved in the CPR efforts were North Americans, and most of us were over the age of 50. Very few Costa Ricans are trained in CPR, and I realize few younger Americans are either. Adequate training means you respond without hesitation. I can’t tell you how deeply this impressed me last week.
My friends and family have enjoyed Costa Rican beaches for decades with no loss of life, and no close calls, but we don’t push our comfort levels or our abilities, and we maintain a healthy respect for what I call the unforgiving power of the ocean.
I know that safety at Costa Rica’s beaches must be improved. Grassroots efforts to train and fund lifeguards are increasing. Pressure must be put on the Ministry of Health to prioritize the funding of lifeguards, patrols, and signage. Unfortunately, I also know that nothing significant is likely to happen anytime soon.
In the meantime, I will try to promote awareness of the situation and encourage readers to be more careful when they visit Costa Rica’s beaches. If you feel my article was valuable, please share it with others. And, if you are willing and able, consider making a contribution to any local groups who are trying to improve conditions on their beaches. The first link listed below is to one such group. Thank you in advance for your support.
Pura Vida, my friends.
The photographs above are all my own. All Rights Reserved to Marie Elena Hawkins
The links below provide a bit of added information.
I am waiting for confirmation on the Bejuco GoFundMe site and will add it as soon as possible.