Is Costa Rica Safe in 2020? Everything You Need to Know

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How safe is Costa Rica for visitors? Dave Seminara shares his travel safety tips, from places to avoid to violent crime, common travel scams and personal safety in Costa Rica.

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Catarata del Toro waterfall at sunset, Costa Rica Photo © Getty Images/Matteo Colombo

Costa Rica's borders are open to all travelers from 1 November 2020. Read the latest travel alerts to find out how COVID-19 restrictions affect travel to Costa Rica.

How safe is Costa Rica in 2020?

Costa Rica is a beautiful country that essentially invented the eco-tourism holiday. Nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is unique in the region because it has no standing army and has had no civil wars. It boasts a great climate, friendly people, beaches, wildlife and enough adventure travel opportunities to fill a month-long holiday.

But, it can also be a deceptively risky place to visit, particularly for travelers who have no experience of traveling in Latin America.

It’s a major transit country for drug trafficking, and in recent years, hundreds of thousands of migrants from poorer neighboring Central American countries have flooded into Costa Rica seeking work. While some have found it, many others do not have regular employment and are desperate enough to commit crime.

Here are a few tips to help you stay safe in beautiful Costa Rica.

How bad is crime in Costa Rica?

In the 2020 Global Peace Index, Costa Rica is ranked 32 out of 163 countries when it comes to overall peace. This is up two positions from 2019. In Central America and The Caribbean overall, Costa Rica is ranked the number 1 most peaceful country in the region out of 12.

However, the homicide rate increased from 11.9 homicides per 100,000 people to 12.3 in the last year, and crime is still a significant threat to travelers in Costa Rica.

While most visitors do not experience trouble, you should exercise common sense safety tips to avoid becoming a potential target for criminals.

Tourists stand out from locals, but it’s easy to minimize your risk of serious crime. Here’s how to avoid trouble (that you could apply to anywhere you travel):

  • Travelers should consider traveling only in groups when moving about very early in the morning and late at night
  • When traveling by bus, avoid placing luggage in the overhead bins, as theft from them is on the rise.
  • Solo travelers, particularly women, are vulnerable on beaches at times when there are few others are around, the same applies to national parks and other wild places
  • Hand over cash and valuables if you’re robbed; they’re not worth risking injury for
  • Don't be flashy with your belongings or the way you dress
  • Avoid carrying your passport or too much money with you while you're out and about
  • Keep your valuables locked up safely in your accommodation, and never leave anything of value out in the open, even if it’s inside your hotel room
  • Don't leave anything under your towel while you're out surfing
  • Protect yourself from mosquito bites at dawn and dusk
  • Don't say yes to drugs, don’t get drunk and keep your wits about you at all times
  • Snatch and grabs are quite common, with thieves grabbing just about anything they can get their hands on. A common crime is pulling watches from unsuspecting visitors as they casually hang an arm out a car window, or snatching sunglasses that are resting on someone’s head
  • Theft from parked and unattended vehicles is also on the rise. Try to park in well-lit or guarded areas, always keep the doors locked and windows rolled up, and never leave anything of value in plain sight of passersby
  • Pay close attention to your surroundings in crowded locations, particularly when using public transport throughout Costa Rica
  • Thieves tend to strike in more touristy areas like beaches, national parks and in and around downtown San Jose – so be aware.

Is Costa Rica safe for families?

Yes, Costa Rica is a great destination for family holidays, and most families who visit experience no safety concerns.

Families probably have fewer problems than other categories of travelers in Costa Rica because there’s strength in numbers and, for the most part, families aren’t engaging in hard partying.

Is Costa Rica safe for LGBTQ+ travelers?

Many LGBTQ+ travelers visit Costa Rica and report few problems. Compared to other Latin American countries, Costa Ricans are considerably more tolerant than many other nations in the region. On 26 May 2020, Costa Rica became the first country in Central America where same-sex couples can obtain civil marriage licenses. 

That said, overall levels of tolerance maybe a touch lower than what travelers from North America, Europe and Australia may be accustomed to.

LGBTQ+ couples could encounter unwelcome attention if they engage in public displays of affection in small towns where locals aren’t used to visitors. Avoid public displays of affection in more rural areas to be on the safe side.

Is Costa Rica safe for women travelers?

Women, particularly those traveling alone, must exercise a high degree of caution in Costa Rica as women visitors have been the victims of sexual assault and murder in recent years and the overall sexual assault rate has increased.

Solo female travelers should strongly consider staying in places where they can meet other travelers, particularly if planning to go on hikes, stay out late or visit remote places.

Places to avoid in Costa Rica

Here are some places to avoid or visit only if you absolutely have to, only during daylight hours and preferably accompanied by a local.

Be careful in Quepos, which is the gateway town just outside Manuel Antonio National Park. The same goes for Tamarindo and Jaco due to incidents of crime (mostly robberies) targeting visitors.

Other high-risk areas with violent crime rates significantly higher than the national average include Matina, a small rural community along the Matina River in Limón province, Limón, Liberia, Pococí, Talamanca, the Desamparados neighborhood in San Rafael, Santa Rosa de Pocosol, San Carlos, a rural region bordering Nicaragua, and the district of Barranca, on the Pacific coast in the province of Puntarenas. The Caribbean coast has historically had more crime than the Pacific coast. 

San Jose, like many big cities, can be riskier for travelers, particularly after dark and especially in the downtown area. It is advised that you avoid any of the parks in San Jose at night, as they are considered very dangerous, and stay away from the following neighborhoods in and around San Jose:  Los Guido, Desamparados, Pavas, La Carpio, Leon XIII, the El Carmen neighborhood in Cartago, and the “El Infiernillo,” sector of Alajuela.

Avoid camping on any of the beaches for safety reasons – it’s best to find secure accommodation at a lodge or hostel. A good rule of thumb is that anywhere visitors visit frequently will be a target for crime – don't be alarmed, just be alert.

Find out how to get around Costa Rica safely with these travel safety tips.

Safety tips for travelers to Costa Rica

When to visit Costa Rica

December through April is the dry season. This is also Costa Rica’s high season. May through November is the rainy season, euphemistically called the “green season.” Afternoon showers are common during the green season and it’s slightly cooler than the dry season.

There are periodic hurricanes in September and October, which are by far the quietest months for tourism and also when prices are lowest, but Costa Rica is rarely severely impacted by them. Read about natural dangers and how to stay safe in Costa Rica. 

Is it safe to drink the water in Costa Rica?

Yes, except in Limón and Puntarenas, though many visitors choose to drink purified or bottled water to be extra safe.

Methanol poisoning in Costa Rica 

In 2019, there were dozens of deaths and many cases of serious illness in Costa Rica caused by alcoholic drinks containing methanol. Be very careful buying spirit-based drinks, particularly if the price seems on the low side. Methanol can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. High doses can cause blindness or vision loss. Be cautious while drinking in Costa Rica, particularly in hole-in-the-wall type establishments.

Food safety in Costa Rica

Food hygiene standards in Costa Rica are on the middle of the scale. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants with unsanitary bathrooms and food stands might have great food at even better prices, but your meal might not be that great a deal if you spend half your holiday on the toilet.

Select clean restaurants and avoid buffets, especially where food is sitting out.

Travelers should be up-to-date on their vaccines. Check with your doctor to see what you need based on your situation. Check out our comprehensive guide to vaccinations here

Hiking and wilderness safety in Costa Rica

Many travelers have gone missing and/or died in Costa Rica while hiking or camping in rural areas and national parks. 

Don’t hike, trek or camp alone in Costa Rica. Instead, hire a local guide, or hike with others and let someone know where you’re going and what time you expect to be back. Ask them to seek help if you don’t return at the appointed hour. 

Is it safe to go on a zip line tour in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is a well-known adventure travel destination with many zip line tours and bungee jumping opportunities. There have been reports of visitors being seriously injured or worse in zip line accidents. Choose companies with the longest and best track record, not just the cheapest operator you can find.

Common travel scams in Costa Rica

Slashing tires: one common scheme involves criminals puncturing or slashing the tires of a visitor's rental vehicle. As soon as the tire goes flat, a "good Samaritan" conveniently appears offering to help change it. Then, while you're out of the car trying to change the tire, the thief's accomplice sneaks in and steals anything of value from the vehicle.

If you do get a flat while driving, it's recommended that you continue to drive until you reach a safe, well-lit area where you can change it yourself safely. Reputable car rental agencies in Costa Rica will not hold you accountable for a damaged rim if they believe your safety was in question.

Mandatory car rental insurance: this may not be considered a scam but many car rental companies, including familiar international chains, often advertise low prices but then when travelers pick the car up, they are told that the price doesn’t include Costa Rica’s mandatory car rental insurance. The insurance is required but it’s a scam that they don’t disclose the price of in advance. This happened to me in Costa Rica. The companies with the lowest advertised prices tend to also charge the most in mandatory insurance. When booking, asking for the total price with a detailed breakdown of the rental cost plus the mandatory insurance so you can make an informed decision. 

Money scams: avoid changing money anywhere other than at a reputable bank. Scammers on the street often offer good rates, but you'll end up with counterfeit cash. Another popular involves a person dropping change in a busy or crowded area. When the victim bends down to help pick up the coins his wallet is lifted.

Passport theft: this is a growing problem in Costa Rica. It's recommended that you make photocopies to carry while traveling, but keep the real thing locked safely in your hotel safe.

A final caution: when you travel, you’re more open to meeting new friends than you are at home. This also makes you vulnerable. Definitely get to know locals but be wary of overly friendly people who approach you out of the blue with offers to take you places, give you free weed or buy you drinks.

Don't break the law in Costa Rica

Find out about local laws to avoid getting in trouble before you travel.

Police corruption 

There have been cases of police mistreating and/or extorting money from visitors. In any case, here’s a snapshot of your rights if you’re detained by law enforcement officials in Costa Rica.

  • You have a right to know the cause of your detention, the name of the officer that requested it, and to be shown the warrant issued against you if there is one
  • You have a right to immediately inform your country’s embassy that you have been arrested and detained
  • You have a right to consult with the lawyer of your choice, otherwise by a public defender
  • You have a right to know what law you’ve supposedly violated
  • You have the right to remain silent
  • You have the right to be treated with dignity and to exercise free will (i.e. not be coerced into giving testimony.)

Photography laws

Ask first, take photos later. It is illegal to take photographs of any official buildings in Costa Rica. If you are uncertain, check with a local or someone in authority.

Do not take photos of women and children. Although it's not illegal, doing so is irresponsible, and may be seen as suspicious or met with violence.

Drug laws and crime in Costa Rica

Buying, selling or possessing any type of illegal drug is a serious offense in Costa Rica. If you are caught, you will be arrested and could face either a hefty fine or a lengthy prison sentence. 

You may meet locals who will offer to sell you drugs, usually marijuana. If you buy it, do so at your own risk; marijuana is illegal in Costa Rica but personal possession has been decriminalized. 

Sex crimes

Prostitution is legal, however, 'sex tourism' is a crime, and brothels and pimping are illegal.

Always carry your identity papers

All visitors to Costa Rica are required to carry identification, but not necessarily a passport, with them at all times. There is an increasing problem with passport theft, so it's safest to leave your passport locked up at your accommodation. Carry a photocopy of the bio-data page with you, along with the page that shows your entry stamp into Costa Rica.

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What travel safety tips do you have to share with others? Tell us in the comments below.

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22 Comments

  • andy said

    It sounds the same as the US...but nicer and warmer with fresh produce and a slower pace of life.. I wonder if the criminals run on tico time as well?

    Reply

  • kat said

    It was between Costa rica and Dubai for me.But I'm sure I recently heard of trouble in CR.Dubai it is

    Reply

  • olderbudweiser said

    I foiled a kidnapping when I retired and visited Costa Rica last August 2015. I was vacationing with my wife when my backpack was stolen containing my passport, cellphone and clothing aboard a public bus in Jaco. I had to return to the capital (San Jose) to set an appt. and get a temporary passport. Unfortunately, my wife had to leave at the end of July and I was left alone and stranded.
    I needed (a police report (denuncio) before the appt., so I returned to Jaco. In Jaco after leaving the police station with the necessary document, I went to purchase a ticket to get back to San Jose. That's when a young woman 1/2 my age approached me and asked if I was alone. I said yes, but so what? I didn't think much about it. As I left the bus station she crossed the street to approach me again and became very friendly. Asked who I was, where I was staying, etc. She entered a store and asked if I would buy her a bottle of water which I did (she was sweating and was a poor merchant w/ chips to carry). She asked where I was staying and I told her the name of my hotel in San Jose.
    I left that day and returned to the San Jose hotel. Didn't think anymore about this young woman. That's when it hit me. She was in town the following day and called my room. There were already alarms ringing in my head by her aggressive and confident nature. She was stalking me. Being alone and nothing to do until the embassy appt., I went along with her to a late lunch. As we walked along, she said to me she's been looking for a boyfriend just like me. Imagine that?? A "boyfriend" with a perfect stranger!! Alarms everywhere. We stopped to eat and that's when she said she wanted me to go "just 45 minutes out of town" with her. I told her I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying in the city. I was looking down at my food when she threw her glass of beverage in my face saying, "Fuck Off you Son of a Bitch!!" She disappeared. I waited till I was able to dry off my face and clothing. The waiter, customers and management in shock....I turned to the waiter and said, "The check, please!"???? Pura Vida.

    Reply

  • Neoone said

    @olderbudweiser you should have gotten those "alarms" when she first came to you and shouldn't have gave her all that information. Not very smart guy... or you probably were looking for another kind of tourism and so you get what you deserve.

    Reply

  • Maggie said

    Hi everyone,

    after reading all of think makes me second think about going to CR. But it's such a beautiful place and I have always wanted to go .. I picked out a few Villas along the coast of Jaco beach. They all had 5 star reviews but even so, now, I'm still reconsidering the area... any suggestions

    Reply

  • kathy milton said

    I returned from Costa Rica Wednesday March 1st, 2017. On Tuesday evening at 7 oclock I was assaulted by a young man on the beach in Samara. I was walking with another woman , on our way to the restaurants on the beach. I was carrying a cross body bag which the assailant was unable to get . He attacked me from behind, violently threw me to the beach. I have multiple bruises and swelling on my left thigh. He ran off with with small purse which contained cash and an I phone. We suspect that a taxi driver on Sunday night, "targeted us". He demanded 3$ US for fare instead of usual 2$. This allowed him to see that I had US cash. If you are going out......only carry enough cash to pay for your dinner and drinks. The beach is NOT safe after dark, in spite of what we were told. I am happy to be alive.

    Reply

  • Elaine said

    I always fancied going to Costa Rica, but I have changed my mind now, Thank God for
    the internet, there are many more interesting places in the world than knowingly going
    to a "Beware, watch over your shoulder place", however beautiful it is!

    Reply

  • dee said

    OMG - Ive been to Cr twice already. I rent a car and travel alone with husband or with my 18 tear old daughter. Never had a problem or even felt scared. I do not go to the large cities at all. THe locals are wonderful beautiful people. As with anywhere - stay away from the cities. CR is one of the most beautiful and amazing places I've ever been to and am considering retiring here. Don't not go because you hear horror stories. Get away from the cities and see the real costa rica!

    Reply

  • TC said

    @dee - flights booked flying into San Jose. Just me, my 12 yr old daughter & sister. I think I've been reading too much - really reconsidering....planned on renting car and heading to La Fortuna area. Someone please tell me I'm freaking out over nothing. :/

    Reply

  • Karen said

    I owned a house 3 km North of Jaco for 5 years. Sold it 3 years ago because of the frequent violent crimes. A bar manager was murdered for the cash receipts, 500 meters from our home. Home invasion robbery very common, even in gated complexes. Day time robbery at a popular restaurant, patrons tied up and threatened. Staff and patients at upscale drug rehab center were tied up and shot. Everyone I met had stories of violence. And petty theft is constant. CR is beautiful but not safe.

    Reply

  • oscar said

    we have been here 5 months , and after spending over 20000 dll , we're goin back eeeeny where in the goooood usa. as soon as they hear you talking , they ears end eyes pups up , and espect you to poop MONEY for them, my very dissapontment two cents , but give it a try , it may be different . ,,,,NOT ! good luck and god blessyou.

    Reply

  • Will D said

    I went about a year ago and spent a few nights in the heart of San Jose and then a week in the bush. I never had a problem but would recommend knowing how to speak Spanish or a bit of Spanish. It makes you blend in a bit better and stay a bit under the radar. I do agree with staying away from parks at night as they do get a bit interesting. You are probably ok if you travel in a group or with another person.

    Reply

  • Bill said

    I lived in Costa Rica for nearly 10 years thinking that it was reasonably safe but this past year I see a whole new picture. First, a Canadian was killed in Puerto Viejo in March while taking sunrise photos. I though, yes so that is one in... how many? Just someone's bad luck. Later in November I saw on local new that the murder count for 2017 is near 700, but later I looked at the statistics that show 603, 576, or 579 depending on the source.

    Finally, in that month my apartment was broken into and I filed a report to OIJ for investigation. I had surveillance video and names of some of the people. The inspector never came to look, never interviewed the people (at first he said that he couldn't find these people, then within 5 minutes I, with my lawyer, found the names and location on Facebook, and still after receiving the information he did not interview them), this crime was "under investigation" for 2 months and then closed with the conclusion that there is no evidence that a crime was committed.

    On another instance, my apartment was broken into with the person still inside. The glass on the door was smashed with a shovel. I called police and they came, but because I knew who the person was, they only removed the person from the property and it was my responsibility to go to the courts to file charges. They did not arrest that person. That has been six months ago and still nothing has been done.

    My conclusion is that crime is on the rise because the police and justice system do not act when crime has been committed. Did you know that if a theft is under the value of $500, a crime has not been committed. Police might listen to you, they might write it down, but that's as far as the incident goes. Have you ever wondered why stores have multiple guards in the store??? Maybe the country doesnt have the resources for proper policing? Maybe there laws are too antiquated - the penalty for physical assault is an apology and if time was off work, the offender need pay for the lost wages.

    When I first moved to Costa Rica I was excited by the WIld West feel, but once one becomes wrapped up in needing law and order, that is when it becomes real.

    Reply

  • Sam said

    This is a scare site don’t let it dissuade you from going to Costa Rica! Violent Crime rates are lower than the US. I have been 7 times with my family and it is an amazing experience every time. Just use common sense like you would at home and you’ll be fine

    Reply

  • Ramoan Thompson said

    Living in CR and anywhere else is about the same. Sort out where not to go and at what hours the same way you would in the States. Respect local culture everywhere you visit. You will come here as a tourist and despite your best effort, you will appear to be a tourist for long time. Learn to be as gentle as a dove and as cautious as a snake to avoid fist fight. The U.S. is not the centre of the universe so please do not visit here or other places pretending that it is and that the world owes you something. CR is a place where people live just as where you live now. Just be normal and everything is going to be alright..... Just as long as jumping into a volcano is not on your bucket list.

    Reply

  • james said

    Costa Rica is safe there's nothing to worry about, I went for 5 weeks and ran into nothing a toll its safe as long as you have common sense

    in recommend it

    Reply

  • John said

    Does anyone go for the dental?

    Reply

  • Micbael Bell said

    I lived in Costa Rica for 6 years. I have a family there and am locked out because of the Covid 19. My small kids and their mother travelled all over the country visiting National Parks, beaches , plantations and every wild animal park in the country. The horror stories on this page are isolated cased just like they are almost anywhere! Just use common sense and you will be fine statistically just like in your home country. It is amazing so many people act like other countries are a theme park where real life doesn’t take place. Do not go to Costa Rica and you will regret it!

    Reply

  • Fallas Quesada said

    Keep in mind Costa Rica has been receiving a lot of people from Nicaragua, who cross the border illegally, so there is an spike on drinking, and crime, like many sexual related cases, one of which being the one of one doctor who was raped and kill, not that all Costa Rican are quiet people but it is the result of the president of Nicaragua opening the jails and helping criminals to go across the border to create mayhem in the country.
    if you ask it is safe to travel yes it is, but keep an eye open its is not the safest in America,

    Reply

  • Micah said

    I (US citizen) lived in Costa Rica for a year and a half and never encountered any issues of violence or crime. I lived among the people and they are the nicest ever! Just like in any other country where you are a traveller, keep an eye out, especially in touristy areas, but DO NOT take Costa Rica off your bucket list!

    Reply

  • Anthony T said

    I went to Jaco in December 2019, Fell in love with the country. I visited Manuel Antonio and Jaco. Yes drugs are everywhere, yes petty theft is an issue, but if you are smart you won't have an issue. In manuel Antonio many poor people will 'watch' your car for a few colones just pay them. Not only do they watch your car, but they are the ones who break into your car IF you don't pay them. Extortion? Yes but for 4 bucks who cares. I also went home with one lady from Jaco and while my experience was wonderful (I'm going back to stay with her longer) There are horror stories of people getting drugged or robbed when they visit a local girl's place. Just be smart if you treat it like you would any bad city in the USA you will likely be even safer than the worst places in the USA LOL. P.S. Jaco for the ladies ;) most beautiful women in the world.

    Reply

  • Jean said

    Why do all the locals have bars on their windows, gates around their homes and guards at the entrances of their communities? That doesn’t send a message of safety to me. I’ve been here twice and have always felt safe but am worried I am being naive. Especially after getting ripped off at the grocery store today by the check out gal. Claiming I gave her 1000 colones when I gave her 10,000. I did so on purpose for a change -5,000 to pay taxi. Right from the moment she did it and closed her till and ran off to the bathroom, not stopping as I tried to call out it was wrong, not one person working there was open to believing I was honest. She was allowed to count her own til and no surprise it was all correct! Just 10 colones over. Not 8040.
    Anyway, I knew I gave her the 10,000 but humbly apologized and left the store anyway chalking it up to being much more careful in the future.
    It wasn’t a violent crime. But why the bars? When did they become common?

    Reply

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