Earthquakes are quite common in Costa Rica with small ones occurring daily and tremors strong enough to feel a few times a year. Major quakes strike about once a decade but no tourist has ever been killed or seriously injured by an earthquake in Costa Rica.
The deadliest earthquake in Costa Rican history struck north of the central valley January 8, 2009 and claimed 34 lives in and around the small village of Cinchona. Although 369 tourists were evacuated from La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace lodge they escaped with only a few minor injuries probably due to the higher quality modern construction techniques at the major attraction. It took over four years to repair the roads from Alajuela into the area and north to San Miguel.
In 2004 a magnitude 6.2 quake centered on the Pacific Coast near the Pacific coast tourist destination Manuel Antonio killed 8 locals and damaged several buildings and roads. The largest quake in modern history (magnitude 7.6) struck the Caribbean coast in April of 1991 killing 27 and damaging the Limón rail line so severely that repairs have never been attempted. The coral offshore from Cahuita in the national park was permanently lifted about three feet severely damaging the shallow portions of the reef.
The tourist infrastructure and modern areas in Costa Rica are generally well prepared for earthquakes. Building standards include earthquake “proof” engineering to prevent collapses and natural gas pipes are not used which greatly reduces the danger from fires. Emergency personnel are well trained and responded quickly and efficiently to the 2009 quake.
Volcanoes in Costa Rica
The same plate tectonics involved in creating Costa Rica’s earthquakes create a line of volcanoes over 130 volcanoes varying from completely dormant to exuding lava extending down the spine of the northern half of the country. The activity levels of the individual volcanoes vary widely and while the most famous, Arenal volcano has gone quiet others have been deemed off limits due to increases in activity.
Visitor’s centers on Poás and Irazú, and hot spring resorts directly in the path of lava flows at Arenal belie the fact that these are active volcanoes.
A larger than usual (but still much smaller than what it’s capable of) eruption at Arenal in 2000 killed two people and chased everyone out of the pools at Tabacón Resort.
All of the deaths directly attributed to volcanic activity in Costa Rica occurred at Arenal which erupted in 1968 after centuries of near inactivity destroying the village of Tabacón and killing seventy-eight people.
The lava has flowed and ebbed continuously over the ensuing fifty years but the danger zone is well defined and deaths have been limited to a few foolish adventure seekers who ventured into prohibited zones close to the active cone. Arenal has been silent for most of this decade.
In 2015 Volcan Turrialba ejected enough ash and cinders to create a cloud large enough to close the SJO international airport 50 km away. It reopened the next morning and no injuries or loss of life was reported. In the subsequent three years airport operations were impacted numerous times and experts predict high levels of activity continue into 2019.
Eruptions at Poás volcano in early 2017 damaged trails and visitor centers, shut down the national park and demonstrated that it was time to stop relying solely on luck to prevent death and injuries to tourists. Bunkers at the visitors center and viewing platforms as well as real time gas monitors and newly trained safety personnel are planned for the reopening by 2019.
A few years ago the tsunami disasters in Southeast Asia and Japan raised awareness that offshore earthquakes can be more devastating than onshore ones. The shape of the seabed off the shores of Costa Rica is not particularly suited to the formation of tsunami waves. Recent major earthquakes off the coast of Chile (> 8.0) and in the central Pacific triggered Tsunami warnings in Costa Rica but all resulted in nearly unnoticeable increases in wave heights on the shores.
In most areas the ground rises sharply away from the beach. There has never been a significant tsunami recorded in Costa Rica but if you are concerned about the possibility of a tsunami “ocean view” accommodations well out of the reach of the waves are readily available in most beach areas.
Hurricanes are not a major concern in Costa Rica (see current storms and weather predictions)
The shape of the Gulf of Mexico dictates that the storms turn north soon after entering and out of the past several hundred only Hurricane Cesár came close in 1996 until Otto pushed across Northern Costa Rica in 2016.
Climate change is contributing to more unpredictable weather and in late November of 2016 Tropical Storm Otto moved slowly across the southern Caribbean building strength until it was a category 2 Hurricane when it made landfall on the Costa Rica, Nicaragua border.