I received an email alert from the U.K.’s travel advisory service on Friday concerning alcohol in Costa Rica. The alert, which is expanded upon on the page for Costa Rica, notes that “there have been a number of deaths and cases of serious illness in Costa Rica caused by alcoholic drinks containing methanol.”
The advisory continues to say that spirit-based alcohols, and especially those from unknown sources, can cause serious health problems and even death when they contain methanol (see why here). It notes that “criminal gangs have been reported to manufacture bottles of alcohol containing high amounts of methanol. These have included the brands ‘Guaro Gran Apache,’ ‘Aguardiente Estrella Roja,’ ‘Guaro Montano,’ ‘Aguardiente Barón Rojo,’ ‘Aguardiente Timbuka’ and ‘Aguardiente Molotov.’ You should take care when buying any spirit-based drinks.”
How to avoid methanol poisoning
When going to countries like Costa Rica, Dominican Republic (where there have been issues), Mexico (where there have also been issues), and frankly wherever, you should take care when buying spirit-based drinks. And how do you do that? A story on the subject by LifeHacker offers three pieces of advice:
- Pay attention to warnings, like the U.K.’s warning regarding alcohol in Costa Rica. From the story: “[The named] brands are probably fine if you know the bottle in your hand is legit, but the health ministry says it seems that people have been passing off methanol-tainted alcohol under those labels.” Reading up on your destination and its current dangers in advance is a good place to start preparation for any trip.
- Avoid anything homemade or sketchy looking, and “if a drink is surprisingly cheap, be suspicious.” In Bukit Lawang, Indonesia, in 2013, our own editor learned the urgency of this advice. He shared a spirit-based drink mixed by English travelers at his guesthouse prepared using a homemade alcohol that those guests had purchased from a local. Within hours of drinking it, one of the English guests had lost her sight, and then her ability to move. She tragically died days later. The details remain unclear, but the alcohol mixture was named as the likely cause of death. In remote areas, especially, you should not drink homemade alcohol. Simple as that.
- Watch out for symptoms and signs of poisoning. On its Costa Rica page, the U.K.’s travel advisory cites the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). There, the PAHO says that “methanol can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. High doses can cause blindness or vision loss as a consequence of serious damage to the optic nerve. Chronic exposure may cause liver damage, cirrhosis or even death from respiratory or cardiac failure.’
So stay aware of the risks with alcohol in Costa Rica, and drink known brands and from sealed bottles everywhere. You’ll almost always be okay, but you should also travel smart and stay aware of location-specific risks, including those concerning alcohol. These are the best travel tools you have. Use them!
For more travel advisories
I recommend signing up for travel advisory alerts from the U.K. government. This way, the government will send you email updates related to safety and things to know in different destinations. It’s just like the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory service, and the travel advisory services of other countries (which are also worth referencing), but I generally find the U.K. one to be the most comprehensive.
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