Sidewalk Perils in Costa Rica
Perhaps you’ve heard about dangerous Costa Rican roads. Well, let me assure you, our sidewalks are right up there with them. Four of my condo complex neighbors have fallen in recent weeks, as have two other friends. These close encounters with the ground of the painful kind have resulted in a variety of minor but unpleasant injuries.
The instructions to Costa Rica visitors are always, “look down at where you’re going, then glance up at the sights. Repeat. If you want to really take in the sights, stop walking!”
Just so you know, every photo you see in this article was taken on the mile and a half that I regularly walk into town. What I encounter is typical of what you’ll find anywhere in the country, including downtown areas in larger cities.
The condition of sidewalks here changes every few feet and day by day. That is, when a sidewalk actually exists! The reason for this is that until January of 2016, sidewalk construction and maintenance was up to each individual property owner. The 2016 law turned that responsibility over to the municipalities, but since budgets are always tight, sidewalks haven’t been a priority. There are very few places where you can walk the way you would on most sidewalks in the U.S. or Europe. Spend enough time in Costa Rica and a tumble is pretty much an inevitable matter of time.
Decades ago I stepped off a bus onto wet pavement. It was on a steep slope and I was wearing high heels. My feet flew out from under me and after two more failed attempts to stand up, a bystander stepped out into the rain and basically picked me up and set me on my feet. I could not have been more mortified! Grateful, but mortified. My hip was only slightly more bruised than my pride. It was the only time I’d ever fallen here in the street; until this past April.
It was a beautiful day and I was walking a route I’ve walked a hundred times in the last two years. Most of it has decent enough sidewalks, but there is one short segment that has just disintegrated into concrete pieces, dirt, grit, gravel, and what I call city detritus-broken bits of glass and unrecognizable trash. And it’s near a spot where garbage is piled for collection each week, so it’s far from pristine. (There’s a shot of it in an image below)
I was wearing walking shoes, going along my merry way when in the middle of that junky section, I tripped over a protruding edge of brick that had recently worked its way up. In trying not to fall, I ended up taking several staggering steps meant to regain my balance, but which actually resulted in my getting a good running go at falling harder than I otherwise would have.
I experienced the last seconds in that bizarre slow motion format that allowed me a brief second to consider twisting to fall on a shoulder to save my previously injured knee. But then, as the ground rapidly approached, I could only think, “Oh no. Not here (at a raised slope of asphalt where my face could hit). Please let my arms, hands, and wrists be strong. Don’t snap!” Plant hands, skid, POW!
I am down in a dusty, gravel crunching, grit-sliding-on-asphalt moment. When I open my eyes my face is no more than an inch from the pavement but it hadn’t hit. My sunglasses didn’t even fall off. I am mostly flat on the rough ground with arms in a push up position. Hands and wrists seem to be ok. I push up to my knees and look at my hands. Both are shredded and embedded with grit and detritus-yeah, that’s going to hurt for a while. I test everything gingerly and stand up. Knees have survived! Jeans aren’t even torn. Glory Hallelujah, thank you God!
A car has stopped in the road beside me, the driver watching to see if I am alright. Ahead of me another walker has turned toward me, but pauses when he sees I’m up and walking. I appreciate that they were ready to help me had I needed it. I nod my thanks and they go on. No, I’m not embarrassed. I’m thrilled that nothing is broken and that the knee, which I really tore up 5 years ago (not in a fall) seems to be functioning normally. It won’t start hurting for another 30-40 minutes.
I walk 10 steps back to the little market where I’ve stopped often enough to be a familiar face. I ask to wash my now bleeding hands and as the owner takes me outside to the faucet he sees them. “Oh, señora, your hands.”
“They’ll be ok,” I answer. “It was my knee I was worried about. The scrapes are nothing.” He winces as he watches me pull pebbles out of the holes in my palms; the water flows over them pink with blood. I pat my hands on the back of my jeans and sitting on a bench, pull some ointment out of my pack and apply it as best I can. He offers no more assistance and I get up and go on my way.
I’m not shaking. Nothing’s broken and no tendons are torn. I am bruised and bleeding, but I am ridiculously, happily relieved. I’m going to have to take it easy for a week or two, but this fall is not going to cost me my mobility, a hospital stay, or any permanent damage. I have never been so grateful for my strong bones and muscles as in this moment.
In the end, one knee was severely bruised with a single small but deep gash in it. It took a week to walk normally, and a month for the knee cap tenderness to go away. Constant icing plus lots of vitamin C and turmeric resulted in virtually no black and blue discoloration. My shoulders and biceps ached badly for days, but my hands actually ended up being more troublesome and painful than anything else, taking weeks to totally heal as grit worked its way out and raw patches grew new skin.
So, that was what happened to me. Some of my neighbors were equally lucky, while others ended up with fractures and ongoing issues. You should know I have a strong medical background and enough experience to self assess. I knew I didn’t need to be checked out at an ER. I used my holistic knowledge, modalities, and remedies to take care of myself, as I usually do.
However, if you were to fall and suffer potentially serious injuries, don’t hesitate to get yourself to any ER in Costa Rica. Staff is well trained and will take care of you regardless of insurance. Not every place will have English speakers immediately on hand, though, especially if you are in a remote area.
Some foreign insurance plans will cover ER visits and others will not. There is no general correct answer for that. Find out ahead of time what your provider’s policies are. Know that out of pocket costs here are usually a fraction of what they are in the US unless you choose a pricey private hospital.
Now, back to the basic issue of sidewalk safety. The short answer is: there is none. Sidewalks aren’t even the norm outside of city centers. The municipalities are only beginning to improve their sidewalks. I am seeing progress in my little community, although the place I fell hasn’t been improved yet. My fingers are crossed!
Safety in Latin America is relative on every level. It is, and has always been, survival of the fittest!
Sidewalk safety is a totally unheard of concept here. As my image above shows, when the walk is totally torn up to be repaired, there may be no neon yellow warning tape, even for farmers market day when hundreds of people will be walking near by. The middle of the walk may be smooth going while dangers along the edge could seriously ruin your day. Or, you might be on a nice wide sidewalk with a new hole cut into it that was not there the day before.
Seasonal rains, loose soils, and constant earth tremors mean that everything shifts or crumbles over time. Roads are constantly being widened, but sidewalks are rarely taken into account. Driveways and slopes result in randomly occurring curbs and bumps. Drains, ditches, and water meters may not have covers. Anything could be sticking up or out when you least expect it. Jagged edged holes are common, as are sharp and deep drop offs.
There are areas where sidewalks are in great shape, but never let down your guard.
Exploring Costa Rica means doing a lot of walking, and I want to help you do it safely. Consistently watching your step is a skill you absolutely must acquire in Costa Rica to avoid minor stumbles or nasty falls.
Above and beyond sidewalks, here are a few things to keep in mind when on foot:
- Asphalt around bus stops is notoriously slick due to fuel residue, while the nearby sidewalk may be coated with soft drink or fruit nastiness–or much worse.
- Gutters are deep and dangerous; always look before stepping off the sidewalk or out of a vehicle.
- Seasonal rains create all kinds of slippery conditions to contend with. Never step into a puddle where water hides the depth and nature of what’s beneath it. And beware of deep culverts; someone falls in and is washed away every year here.
- Learn to scan the terrain ahead of you and be extra careful when in a particularly treacherous area. Remember that the ground here is very unstable, so landslides and collapses at the edges of rivers or hills are common, especially in the rainy season. Never depend on railings or posted warnings. They may be absent or faulty.
- Vehicular traffic does not slow down for pedestrian traffic! Be hyper-aware of that when walking near the edges of roadways, even if you’re on a sidewalk.
It’s been weeks since my fall and I’m back to normal. Every time I walk by that spot I do glare at the brick, but I smile smugly, too. My body proved to me that it is still strong and able to mend itself. Of course, I’m trying to be more cautious whenever I walk, but I tend to keep up a fast pace. Mostly, I hope that if and when I fall the next time, I’ll just fall right away without getting a running go at it first!