Slash and Burn

It's a little surreal when you find yourself firmly in the grip of an anecdote. I'd heard from several reliable sources about one of the most common rip-offs in Costa Rica, the slash-then-burn, but I never expected to experience it...TWICE.

The Scam

It goes something like this. Unsuspecting tourist leaves the rental car agency only to discover a flat tire a few km later. A friendly local appears, is very helpful in changing the tire, and the unsuspecting tourist continues to their destination delighted that despite the bad luck of a flat they've only lost a little time due to the generosity of the passing Tico.

Only later they discover that in the confusion of moving the car out of traffic, removing the jack from under the seat, dismounting the spare and changing the tire they were robbed by the friendly local's accomplice who'd also slashed their tire at a stop light or in traffic a block or so earlier - they've been burned.

I suppose it could happen anywhere but the accounts I've heard occur near the rental car centers. It's easier to target fresh arrivals who might be a little disoriented and are probably carrying all their valuables.

Our First Costa Rican Slash-and-Burn Experience

We'd picked up our car without incident a few days earlier from an agency near the International Airport, so I thought it might just be bad luck when I heard the telltale scuffling sound of the sidewall scrunching and felt the little 4WD pulling to one side on a completely flat tire.

Still I took my own advice and drove several blocks on the flat before pulling into the parking lot of a modern pharmacy to change the tire. A friendly Tico named Charlie did try to help out, but I said no thanks and kept the doors locked and windows rolled up.

When I took the flat to a nearby service station they said the sidewall had been punctured with a knife probably by a team working tourists leaving the cluster of rental agencies near Sabana park that we'd just passed on our way through San José to Orosi.

An exhaustive inventory while they repaired the tire proved we still had all the valuables (and all the crap we probably don't need) that we'd started out with. Fortunately we'd escaped the burn portion and the slash only cost us an hour and a half and 2,000 colones ($4) to repair.

And Again

The second time a few months later it was almost routine. We were stuck in traffic about a kilometer from rental row across from Juan Santamaría when some maniac pulled out to pass despite oncoming traffic then pretending to realize his error stopped cold next to us. The hissing started almost immediately and I simply waited for a gap in traffic, made a U-Turn and drove on the flat back to the rental agency.

How to Avoid the Slash and Burn

If you choose a rental car there is really nothing much you can do except get out of town quickly and hope you're lucky. Between this, the rampant theft from parked cars and the Costa Rican authorities indiffence to both we've started recommending that travelers choose provided transportation rather than renting a car.


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