Crime and Safety in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is one of the world’s most beautiful destinations. With its exciting terrain – volcanoes, cloud forests, and beaches – and fascinating biodiversity, it attracts millions of travelers every year, and the rise of tourism shows no signs of slowing down. Yet this peaceful democratic nation is still a developing one, and not without its share of troubles. Costa Rica does have crime, but unlike some countries in Central America, most travelers report feeling quite safe here.
Costa Rica has the least amount of poverty in all of Central America. But although this country enjoys relative prosperity, 20 percent of its population still lives below the poverty line.
If you do encounter crime in Costa Rica, you can contact the police by dialing 911.
Tourist Crime and Petty Theft
Petty theft is by far the most common threat to visitors in Costa Rica. Pickpocketing and carjacking are the most common crimes in Costa Rica, and make up most of the crimes reported by travelers. Fraud, including credit card fraud and identity theft, is on the rise as criminals have become more tech-savvy. Credit card thieves usually manage to steal credit card information without stealing the physical card.
Passport theft is also common. Whenever possible, leave your passport in your hotel safety deposit box. If you need your passport information, you may be able to simply bring a photocopy.
Costa Rica also has its fair share of hustlers – street-corner “tour guides” may offer services to passing travelers, such as hotel pickup for a popular activity or destination. Unlucky travelers are left waiting for a service that will never be delivered. Limit your interactions with anyone who approaches you on the street offering tourist services. You should also keep in mind that thieves often work in teams, so be wary of anyone who seems overly eager to engage you conversation. They could be trying to distract you while a robbery takes place. These types of thefts and scams have become increasingly common in the beach town of Jacó.
While most accommodations in Costa Rica are very secure, invasions of rental homes and hotels – especially lodges without proper security – do take place. The Limón region has seen a spike in the number of reported incidents of eco-lodge break-ins in the past few years. Travelers need to make sure their lodgings have adequate security measures, including safety deposit boxes and locking windows and doors.
Capital city San José has a different feel from the lush beaches and rainforests of the more rural areas of Costa Rica. There is a higher rate of crime here than in most other Costa Rican cities. Travelers are unlikely to be victims of violence here, but petty theft and car theft – especially theft of luggage from parked cars – are very common. Keep in mind that crowded areas with lots of tourists attract pickpockets. It is best for travelers to avoid areas that are known for having high concentrations of bar-hopping tourists. Criminals are more likely to prey on tourists who are visibly intoxicated. San José has a number of safe attractions during the day, but you should avoid walking around the city at night.
Some of Costa Rica’s coastal towns – such as Jacó on the Pacific Coast, and Limón on the Caribbean Coast – have developed increasingly seedy reputations over the years. Unfortunately increased number of tourists can also mean an increased amount of crime. These are also surfing hotspots, like Costa Rica’s famously popular Tamarindo beach town. Unlike Tamarindo, these areas have not yet attracted a lot of wealth and development, making it easy for criminal enterprises to take root. But don’t let this fact dissuade you from visiting the national parks and beautiful beaches in these areas. You can travel safely here if you remain with your tour group, don’t travel alone at night, and keep your valuables secure.
Organized Crime and Costa Rica’s Drug Trade
Mexican criminal gangs have begun to infiltrate Costa Rica. Drug cartels have been known to hide large amounts of contraband in Costa Rica’s national parks. Costa Rica’s park guards are trying to combat these types of activities, but with so munch uninhabited land it can be difficult to monitor.
Violent crime has become an increased problem along Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast, but there are some simple steps to take in order to avoid danger. Do not go out alone at night, or wander in isolated areas.
Broadly speaking drug trafficking does not particularly affect visitors, except that the presence of drugs has provided an even greater incentive for theft. Because drugs are cheaper in Central America, even items with little value to most travelers – like cheap sunglasses – might be snatched and sold for drugs.
Trafficking and Prostitution
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, which is why this country has become a popular destination for sex tourism. Sex tourism has increased recently, primarily on the Caribbean Coast. Take note that while prostitution is not a crime, tourists who solicit prostitutes run a significant risk of getting robbed.
Costa Rica also has a unique problem with organ trafficking. Unscrupulous doctors recruit destitute Costa Ricans who are willing to sell their organs to patients in Europe and the Middle East. In 2012 a ring of Costa Rican doctors were arrested in connection to these transactions, and the Costa Rican government has begun imposing stricter punishments for these types of crimes.
Even confident drivers find Costa Rica’s roads daunting. Rural roads are often riddled with potholes that can severely damage a car, and roads can be washed out entirely during the rainy season. Driving at night is extremely hazardous due to lack of streetlights, signs, and guardrails. Local drivers tend to take risks, especially outside the cities, where traffic is less regulated. The many motorcyclists in Costa Rica are known to disregard traffic laws and make driving conditions more hazardous for everyone.
In cities, particularly San José, heavy downtown traffic provides many opportunities for thieves to commit smash-and-grab robberies (the thief smashes the windows of a car to grab the driver’s belongings). Rental vehicles are common targets. It is a common ploy for criminals to slash a rental’s tires, and then follow the car until the driver is forced to pull over. At first the thieves act as though they are stopping to help, and then they steals valuables out of the car.
Only take registered taxis in Costa Rica, which are red and orange. Take note of the license plate number before you get in the car. If you take an unregistered taxi, you are running a much greater risk of being robbed. Your driver may charge you an exorbitant fee, or worse. In the worst-case scenarios, criminals masquerading as taxi drivers temporarily kidnap their passengers and drive them to an ATM, where they force them to withdraw money.
Costa Rica, for all its imperfections, is still known as a paradise. While this article is intended to prepare travelers for the worst possibilities so they can better enjoy their visit, most people return from their Costa Rican adventures safe and sound, dazzled by the country’s tropical mystique. Costa Rica’s crime rate is lower than certain cities in the U.S. Bring your common sense and vigilance with you to Costa Rica to ensure a happy vacation.
Safest Places to Visit
The Gold Coast – Once made up of sleepy fishing villages, this exceedingly sunny region is now a favorite with expats.
Arenal – Arenal draws thousands of visitors each year to see its namesake volcano and lake. It has a friendly, rural atmosphere.
Southern Pacific Coast, including Dominical, Uvita, and Ojochal – These jungle towns are spread along forested mountains and sleepy beaches, and the region has everything most people want from a Costa Rican adventure. Pickpockets may target travelers, but the area is typically nonviolent.
Central Pacific Coast – Again, thieves and con artists may target travelers here, especially in the tourist town of Jacó, but crime is not much to speak of compared to San José. To get away from the souvenir shops (and potential danger) of Jacó, visit the town and national park of Manuel Antonio, which is beautiful and safe.
Know Before You Go
Hatillo, a district of San José: This low-income neighborhood has one of the worst reputations in Costa Rica, home to many low- and mid-level drug dealers. While it is culturally interesting, travelers should avoid this district, particularly at night.
Jacó, on the Pacific Coast: As mentioned above, Jacó is becoming a more difficult area to visit, with increased drug trade and prostitution.
Limón on the Caribbean Coast: While Limón remains a point of interest for many travelers, including its wild Carnival festival, the Costa Rican government has idenitified it as an area where crime is on the rise.
Do not leave any valuables or any type of luggage in your car. If any of your belongings are visible you run the risk of getting robbed.
Leave flashy jewelry at home, and refrain from bringing valuables like fancy cameras out with you at night.
Make a copy of your passport to carry while your real passport in locked away in your hotel safety deposit box.
Do not leave belongings like phones unattended at the beach, even for a moment.
Avoid walking or bicycling at night. Use a registered taxi or car.
The airports are popular among pickpockets, especially at the bustling exit gates. Keep your wallet and passport in a safe place on your person, like in a zippered handbag or in the breast pocket of your jacket.
Driving after dark is dangerous not only due to poor road conditions, but highway robbery. If your tires have been popped, or a car traveling behind you bumps your fender, do not pull over. Continue driving to a safe place, or at least a place with people around, like a gas station or a restaurant.
Avoid the beach after dark. Tourists strolling on the beach at night are targets for muggings.
Avoid ATM machines that are tucked away or isolated, and don’t withdraw cash after dark.
Only take taxis that are red (with a yellow triangle on the door), or orange.
Do not leave your belongings unattended in your vehicle.
Only accept tour guide services from reputable companies.
Do not become drunk in public. People obviously under the influence are perfect targets for criminals.
Do not purchase or accept drugs.