Is Costa Rica Safe? Places Travelers Should Avoid

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Beyond the jungles and beaches, Costa Rica does have violent crime. Our safety expert, Phil Sylvester, shares his advice on what you need to know to stay safe while traveling in Costa Rica.

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

Whether you're here for the surf, wildlife or to get back to nature, this is what you need to know about violent crime and places to avoid in Costa Rica.

Before you go, see your travel doctor to make sure you've got recommended vaccinations and all booster shots are up to date.

Travel alert for Costa Rica: COVID-19 outbreak – March 2020

The goverment has closed its borders to all coming foreigners from March 18. All residents and refugees will lose their migratory status if they leave the country for any reason on or after 24 March. All beaches, temples and religious services are closed. Vehicles in the main cities are restricted from 10pm to 5am.

Wondering how your travel insurance might be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak? Find answers to some of our common questions about COVID-19.

How bad is crime in Costa Rica?

Crime is a significant threat to travelers in Costa Rica. However, according to the OSAC Crime and Safety Report, in 2018 there was a decrease from 2017's record-high murder rate.

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

The usual rules apply: 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, 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 and keep your wits about you while out at night.

Non-violent crime in Costa Rica

Pay close attention to your surroundings in crowded locations, particularly when using public transport throughout Costa Rica.

Theft

When traveling by bus, avoid placing luggage in the overhead bins, as theft from them is on the rise. Never leave anything of value out in the open, even if it's inside your hotel room.

Snatch and grabs are quite common, with thieves grabbing just about anything they can get their hands on. A favorite target of late has been pulling the watches from unsuspecting visitors as they casually hang an arm out a car window, or snatching sunglasses that are resting on top of someones head.

A good rule of thumb is not to leave anything exposed that you aren't comfortable losing.

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.

These thieves tend to strike in more touristy areas like beaches, national parks and in and around downtown San Jose – so be aware.

Two policemen on a cloudy day walking along the beach
Two policemen patrol the beach in Samara, Costa Rica. Photo credit: iStock/ukulelegirl

Slashing tyres

One popular scheme involves criminals puncturing or slashing the tyres of a tourist's rental vehicle. As soon as the tyre goes flat, a "good Samaritan" conveniently appears offering to help change it. Then, while you're out of the car trying to change the tyre, 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. Some car rental agencies in Costa Rica will not hold you accountable for a damaged rim if they believe your safety was in question.

Money scams

Avoid changing money anywhere other than a reputable bank. Scammers on the street are always offering to give you a good rate and a fast, easy transaction. What you'll end up with is counterfeit cash while the crooks make away with your good money.

Another popular scam on the streets 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.

Passports

Finally, passport theft is a growing problem in Costa Rica.

It's recommended that you make photocopies to carry on you while making your way around, but keep the real thing locked safely in your hotel safe.

Violent incidents in Costa Rica

Unfortunately, violent crime against foreigners remains a significant problem in Costa Rica, with incidents of armed carjacking and muggings at gun or knifepoint on the rise. There are a number of things to know about crime, and here are some ways to avoid trouble.

Express kidnapping

One of the most dangerous crimes involves what's known as "express kidnapping", a tourist is abducted and held captive for only a few hours, while the criminals take the victim from ATM to ATM and force them to withdraw cash.

Always be aware of your surroundings and never let down your guard. Avoid areas that are secluded and try to travel in groups rather than walking around alone, particularly after dark.

Armed robbery

Armed robbery is not uncommon, with victims being violently attacked and held up at gun or knifepoint. Incidents of carjackings have also been reported.

One increasingly popular ploy involves a thug purposely causing a minor accident, often bumping into a vehicle from behind. When the driver pulls over, the thief approaches with a weapon and either forces the victim to exit the vehicle so they can steal it, or takes the driver hostage.

If you are involved in any type of accident, continue to drive to some place safe before pulling over to exchange information.

Drink spiking

Reports of drink spiking have increased, with victims being assaulted and robbed while unconscious.

Costa Rica has an awesome nightlife scene, and it's a great way to experience the local culture and have fun, but if you decide to partake do so responsibly.

Don't overdo it on drinking alcohol on a night out, don't accept drinks from strangers and keep your cocktail in sight (or better yet, in your hand) at all times.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can be a problem for female travelers who are out and about by themselves in Costa Rica.

There have been cases where women were alone on the beach or riding in a taxi alone have been targeted and assaulted – and in some cases, raped.

Taxi drivers are often the culprits, so female tourists are advised to only use authorized taxis that are red with yellow numbered triangles. This indicates the taxi is licensed and therefore typically safer to use. And, of course, it's always safest to travel in groups where you can.

Places to avoid in Costa Rica

There are plenty of beautiful and safe areas to visit in Costa Rica, however, there are some places that are best avoided.

The following areas aren't necessarily "no-go" spots, but they do see higher levels of crime. Be especially careful and aware of your surroundings in these locations:

  • Manuel Antonio
  • Quepos, Tamarindo
  • Jaco.

San Jose, like any big city, can be riskier for travelers, particularly after dark. It is advised that you avoid any of the parks in San Jose at night, as they are considered very dangerous.

If you plan on visiting some of the banana plantations in Limon, be certain that there is a security guard on your tour bus. Buses that don't have protection are frequently targeted by thieves and other criminals. You should also avoid camping on any of the beaches for safety reasons – best to find secure accommodation at a lodge or hostel nearby the beaches you want to visit.

A good rule of thumb is that anywhere tourists visit frequently is going to be a location that criminals lurk – don't be alarmed, just be alert.

The ports of Puntarenas and Limon are especially vulnerable to criminal activity, as well any other public transportation hubs.

Bars and nightclubs are often havens for trouble, like the Gringo Gulch area of San Jose. Take extra care when visiting any of these night spots.

Vaccinations for Costa Rica

If you are visiting Costa Rica after traveling to Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru or Sub-Saharan Africa, you are required to be vaccinated for Yellow Fever. Authorities will verify this by checking your certificate, so bring it along otherwise you won't be allowed into Costa Rica.

Malaria is a serious problem, particularly in more rural areas. The provinces of Puntarenas and Limon are especially risky as is the area along the Panama border.

The wet season (typically April through November) can bring other insect-borne diseases like Chagas' Disease and leishmaniasis. There have been recent outbreaks of Dengue Fever in various areas throughout the country, including San Jose, with over 20,000 confirmed cases in recent years. People between the ages of 20-30 are most susceptible to the disease. To avoid contracting these illnesses always use a good quality insect repellent, preferably one containing DEET, and wear clothing that covers arms, legs and feet.

Visitors to Costa Rica often find themselves battling a case of traveler's diarrhea. To avoid this lovely condition, avoid drinking tap water (purify your water by boiling or using purification tablets is recommended) and make sure your food is cooked thoroughly.

You should visit a travel doctor at least two months before you go to find out f you need a precautionary immunisation, as that will leave enough time for the medication to take effect, typically takes between four and six weeks, so plan accordingly.

Don't break the law in Costa Rica

The Costa Rican authorities do not tolerate any form of lawlessness, they don't care it's a foreigner who was unaware of the rules. If you break the law you may be ejected from the country, arrested or even imprisoned. Here are a few things to keep in mind so you don't unwittingly cross any boundaries.

Photography laws

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

Avoid taking pictures of women or children. Although it's not illegal, doing so is seen as suspicious and may be met with violence. If you really want to take a portrait photo of someone, always get their permission.

Drug laws and crime in Costa Rica

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

You will likely run into quite a few locals during your stay that will offer to sell you drugs, usually marijuana. If you buy it, do so at your own risk. Just keep in mind that Costa Rican prisons can be a bit rough and accessing legal help to get out can be challenging.

Sex crimes

Prostitution is not illegal, however 'sex tourism' is a crime that is still prosecutable by foreign governments. In other words, if it's illegal where you come from, you can still get in trouble for engaging in it in Costa Rica. The areas where prostitution is more prevalent include San Jose and Jaco. If you wouldn't break the law back home, don't do it overseas.

Always carry your identity papers

All visitors to Costa Rica are required to carry proper identification and documentation with them at all times. However, there is an increasing problem with passport theft in the country, so it's safest to leave your original passport locked up safely back at your accommodation, and only carry copies. Be sure the copies are clearly readable and contain an image of the entry stamp.

So, is Costa Rica safe to visit or not?

Overall, Costa Rica is a destination where you should exercise a bit of extra caution. Don't panic, just be alert and keep a low profile while you're out and about to avoid theft or unwanted attention.

Whether you're into wild outdoor adventure, trekking or just relaxing after a surf, the natural beauty is unmatched, from beaches to rainforests to magnificent active volcanoes. Make the most out of your trip to Costa Rica by listening to local advice on places to avoid and keeping yourself and your belongings safe.

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15 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

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