Despite traveling often, we still experience mistakes. Here’s a story of falling prey to theft in Costa Rica back in 2009. It’s a good reminder to always be on guard …
It was the oldest trick in the book. The man with the gaudy Acapulco shirt sat down next to me at the bus station. I had seen him wandering around the station earlier and had pointed out his t-shirt to my husband, laughing at its ugliness. My husband had just stepped away to use the restroom. I was left to watch our bags. I counted our bags: two hiking bags and two carry-ons.
The man with the Acapulco shirt turned to me and asked me something in Spanish.
“I’m sorry,” I reply, “no comprendo.”
I felt bad not being able to speak Spanish, as if people saw me as some arrogant tourist expecting everyone to understand me. We had just ended our honeymoon week in Costa Rica. And I had become enamored with the country’s tropical climate, picturesque scenery, and friendly people.
I had wished that I had been able to communicate with people better, but we had somehow been able to get by with my husband’s high school level Spanish. Now the trip was done. We were at the station in Quepos waiting for the bus that would take us to Alajuela, where the airport was.
This post was updated on February 14, 2020.
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Experiencing theft in Costa Rica
The man with the t-shirt gave me a strange smile as I said my reply, and promptly walked away. I thought nothing of it, and resumed my waiting for the bus. I recounted our bags. Two hiking bags and one carry-on.
My heart stopped. My husband’s carry-on was missing. That silly man. He wasn’t asking me a question. All he wanted was my attention so his accomplice could take our bag. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have fallen for such a simple trick?
I was no stranger to traveling. Since I was a little girl, overseas travel was part of my life. I knew the dangers of pickpockets, and the importance of keeping your valuables hidden away. And I regularly wear a money-belt when traveling.
Yet, somehow I was careless. Somehow I let the magic and allure of our honeymoon fool me into thinking that Costa Rica was different from any other country I had traveled. My foolishness cost us my husband’s digital SLR camera, his journal, and his wallet. I was immediately struck with guilt.
A turn for the worse
“I’m sorry,” I said when my husband returned. I was almost in tears, wishing that I could rewind to five minutes earlier, when we still had his bag. It wasn’t the actual loss of the items that upset me, but what those items represented.
My husband had written stories in his journal from his past travels. We had filled our memory card to the brim with pictures from our wedding reception, our hikes through the rainforest, our afternoons on the beach, and kayaking in the lagoon. A picture is worth a thousand words, but not if you’re a thief. I was saddened by our loss and apologized to my husband profusely for my momentary lapse of common sense.
To make matters worse, in the midst of the robbery, we had missed our bus. Apparently we had been waiting at the wrong side of the station. And when we had gone back to the ticket counter to ask where our bus was, they informed us it had already left. The next bus heading to Alajuela was a local one, which meant a stop at almost every town and village along the route.
Riding the bus through Costa Rica
My husband and I reluctantly exchanged our tickets, and when our bus arrived at the station, we quickly boarded the bus, relieved that there would be no more mishaps for the rest of our trip.
“I’m so stupid,” I said to my husband as the bus pulled out of the station, “none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been so careless.” I was still so embarrassed from experiencing theft in Costa Rica.
“You’re not stupid,” he reassured me. Even though I knew he didn’t blame me for what happened, I still couldn’t shake off the thought that I had brought bad luck for us on this trip.
The bus went rapidly on its way, stopping briefly from time to time to pick up passengers. The roads in Costa Rica are narrow, and often wind along mountainsides and hillsides. There is something unnerving about riding in a large bus the size of a Greyhound, going fifty miles an hour along hairpin turns.
After years of traveling in countries of comparable (if not worse) levels of development, I have learned to relinquish the thought that I could control my destiny. At this point, there was no way for me to influence the decisions that the driver made. All I could do was accept. We watched the sun set on the horizon, and settled down for the long drive to Alajuela.
Within two hours of arriving at our destination, the bus suddenly stopped. It had grown dark, and we were perched on the side of a mountain, behind a line of cars. A traffic jam in the middle of Costa Rica! We wondered what had caused the stop. Was it a car accident? Was there a landslide? A stalled vehicle?
Neither the driver nor the passengers gave us any clue of what was going on. My husband was becoming agitated, and I tried to calm him, but inside I was panicking too. What if we missed our flight? What if we had to stay here all night? Why hadn’t we bought a cheap phone so we could make some phone calls?
My mind began to think of back up scenarios and action plans on what we would have to do in case we did miss our flight. At the present moment, there was nothing we could do but wait, our fate was not in our hands.
In a way, the whole day had been an exercise in relinquishing control. As a traveler, there is only so much that you can do to prepare for the unexpected. But as the definition of the word implies, there is no way to expect exactly what is going to happen to you.
I suppose there were things we could have done better. Renting a car and driver may have saved us a wait at the bus stop. But it still wouldn’t have stopped the traffic jam. Keeping better track of our bags may have prevented us from being robbed, but it probably would not have prevented us from missing our bus. In life, and especially in travel, it’s easy to focus on the what-ifs, as if, had we made a different choice, life would have turned out differently.
Travel has its own plan
But in actuality, travel teaches us that life has its own plan. The only thing we can really control is how we choose to experience it. At that moment, I hated Costa Rica. I hated the men who stole our bag. I hated the roads for being so narrow. And I hated the cars and buses for going at speeds much faster than what the driving conditions allowed.
I knew it was an unrealistically hate. I knew that only days before, I had loved Costa Rica for its cool afternoon rains, for its warm cups of coffee, and for its wealth of animals that made themselves known on our rainforest hikes. And I also knew that this current emotion was just a consequence of falling prey to theft in Costa Rica.
Coming to terms with our theft in Costa Rica experience
Now, years later, that day is just a small fraction of my memory of that trip. Costa Rica was like a passionate ex-lover. It drew us in with its exotic beauty and easy nature. And then it broke our hearts, leaving us to figure out how to put it back together. With the help of time, I have been able to distance myself from that moment, and remember the broader picture of the trip.
Time affords us the opportunity to reflect, to forgive, and to learn. Like all past romances, with time, we end up yearning for that high once again. Despite the unfortunate experiences of theft in Costa Rica, we did return, ten years later. This time around, we were more on guard, as we explored Costa Rica with our kids.
But we still know, as all wise travelers know, no amount of preparation can ever prevent the unexpected. The best we can do is to go with the flow.
Tips for preventing theft in Costa Rica
Don’t fall for the same tricks that I fell for! Here are three ways you can prevent being robbed while visiting Costa Rica.
#1. Attach your bags together when waiting somewhere
It’s easy for a thief to swipe a bag off the floor. But it’s not so easy when it’s connected to another bag. When waiting at a location, connect your bags together to prevent theft in Costa Rica.
#2. Keep your valuables in your bags
One of the mistakes we made during our trip was taking the DSLR camera in and out of our bags in public. Anyone watching knew that we had valuables in that bag. A better plan is to keep your valuables in your bag until you’re in a more private location. Having the perfect photo opp isn’t worth being victim to theft!
#3. Minimize your bags
Having to keep track of one or two bags is much easier than having to keep track of four or five. When transiting between cities in Costa Rica, try to consolidate your things into as few bags as possible. For solo travelers, I like the Cotopaxi Allpa Travel Pack because they’re streamlined, but have a lot of pockets to organize your things.
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