Many Costa Rican tourism operators watched with dismay what was happening in the Dominican Republic around tourists possibly poisoned by tainted alcohol, and now a tainted alcohol crisis of our own has arrived. The sensational headlines, however – inspired by “if it bleeds, it leads” newsroom priorities – fail to make some key distinctions that are confusing for tourists. Here’s what you need to know to re-assure visitors who may be expressing apprehension about visiting Costa Rica:
- To date, twenty deaths have been reported, caused by consumption of guaro-like alcohols tainted with methanol. It is believed that all of these victims have been Costa Rican nationals;
- While still unverified, there’s been some suspicion that many of the affected victims are members of specific sub-classes usually in environments distant from a tourism-focus (such as those struggling with poverty and substance-abuse issues);
- So far there have been no reported cases of tourists being sickened because of this methanol poisoning, and it appears quite unlikely that tourists who obtain alcohol through legitimate channels are at risk;
- Affected brands include Guaro Montano, Guaro Gran Apache, Aguardiente Estrella, Aguardiente Barón Rojo, Aguardiente Timbuka, and Molotov Aguardiente. The health ministry has recommended that these brands be avoided until further notice (it is very rare for tourists to buy or consume these lower-end products);
- It’s believed that empty bottles of some of these brands (which are registered for legal sale in Costa Rica) had been refilled with bootleg liquor and then sold outside of conventional retail outlets (often for less than $2), and that those who became ill did so after drinking from those bottles;
- According to health ministry officials, fatalities included 15 men and five women between the ages of 32 and 72, and most occurred in or near the capital: Seven people in San Jose; four in Cartago, and one in Heredia. But there were coastal cases: three in Limón and two in Guanacaste;
- Based on the information available, it appears that a tourist relying on quality brands purchased through reputable sources is extremely unlikely to be exposed to the methanol that is apparently present in this bootleg liquor;
- While it appears that this problem has not affected any tourists, and remains unlikely to, it’s not impossible that rare tourists could be exposed, and it behooves us to caution any of our guests that we think may be at risk of being exposed to these lower-end products;
- Whether you deal with tourists or nationals, be a good citizen and know the signs of poisoning and summon assistance if needed: Symptoms may closely resemble intoxication at first, but do not show up until the methanol has been metabolized, often as long as 14 – 48 hours later. Drowsiness, lack of inhibition, vomiting, vertigo, a severe headache, and abdominal pain are common signs, according to the World Health Organization. Hyperventilation, breathlessness, vision issues, and convulsions may follow. In severe cases, the patient can fall into a coma or be left irreversibly blind.
- We also ask our readers to recognise that this is above all a health issue, and like any other health issue its victims deserve our compassion, not our judgement or derision.
We have included links below to just a few of the stories (and a couple of ridiculous graphics) to give you an idea of what your guests may be reading. Whether this will impact tourism remains to be seen. In the meantime, we hope that the health ministry will bring this crisis quickly under control, for the safety of Ticos and tourists alike.
Update, July 24: delfino.cr is reporting that “Health Minister Daniel Salas Peraza issued a resolution that totally prohibits the commercialization of “Guaro Montano”, “Aguardiente Timbuka”, “Aguardiente Molotov”, “Aguardiente Barón Rojo”, “Guaro Gran Apache”, “Aguardiente Red Roja” and “Brandy Sachetto. This resolution was published on Wednesday in the Official Gazette and orders, immediately, that the health areas of the country cancel the sanitary operating permits to establishments where it is discovered that they continue to market these now prohibited brands.“