Many people visiting Costa Rica are uneasy about safety. They have heard about violence in other areas of Central America and are unsure of what to expect. Rest assured that Costa Rica is generally a very safe and peaceful place to visit. As long as you exercise some precautions, you shouldn’t have any problems on your trip. Below we share some general tips and also specific guidance for different situations.
The majority of crimes against tourists in Costa Rica involve petty theft. Most often, they are opportunistic in nature and non-aggressive. While Costa Rica does have more serious crimes like armed robberies and home invasions, these occur much less frequently. During all of our years traveling in Costa Rica and during the almost three years that we have lived here, we have been the victim of a crime only once. On one of our first visits to the Manuel Antonio area, Matt was getting our bags from the luggage compartment of the public bus at the bus station in Quepos. As he was reaching under to retrieve our bag, a guy took his wallet from the outside pocket of his cargo shorts. Matt didn’t notice at first because of all the commotion of everyone trying to get their bags. Later, his wallet turned up on the ground nearby. The $20 that was inside was gone, but his license and all of his credit cards were still there. This was one of those typical petty theft crimes that occur here every day. It easily could have been prevented if he had his wallet in a more secure location. Luckily, we had the rest of our money safely stored away in a bag that Jenn was carrying.
Here are some ways to prevent crime from happening to you.
Don’t carry a lot of money on you. This shouldn’t be much of a problem as ATMs are easy to find in most areas of Costa Rica and credit cards are widely accepted. If you are traveling to a destination where you’ll need to be carrying cash due to a lack of banks (e.g., Drake Bay, Tortuguero), keep it in a money belt, neck wallet, or a secure place in a bag with a zipper. Also be careful when taking money out of your wallet not to flash it around. If you’re carrying a lot of cash, you don’t want people to know that. When we traveled as tourists and took the bus to get around, we hid money in plastic bags under the soles of our sneakers!
When you don’t need your passport, keep it in a safe place like a hotel safe. Here’s another easy thing to do, which is recommended by the US Embassy. Photocopy the first page of your passport (with your name, photo, etc.) and the page with your stamp allowing entry into Costa Rica, and carry that with you instead.
Leave any cards, like credit cards, that you’re not planning to use at home so that if you have your wallet stolen, you don’t lose everything. And make sure to write down the account and support phone numbers for your cards and keep them separate from your wallet, in case something does happen.
Never hang a purse or bag on the back of your chair at a restaurant. We have seen a few security camera videos where people causing a little commotion on the other side of a restaurant distract everyone while another person comes from behind and snags the belongings.
It is also a good idea to leave flashy jewelry at home to avoid looking like you have a lot of money.
For electronics, people walk around all the time with their expensive SLR cameras hanging around their necks. This is fine for the most part. Costa Rica is a very touristy country and the locals are used to this. A few places where it’s a good idea to keep your camera in a bag is the city of San Jose, in remote areas, and at bus stations and other public areas where people congregate. One example we know of someone having their camera stolen in an unexpected place was on a beach path near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. The person was walking by himself back from the beach on one of the small paths in the middle of the day. There weren’t any people around, and a guy came out of nowhere and grabbed his camera.
If you’re traveling with a laptop, tablet, phone, etc. keep it locked in the hotel safe when you’re not using it and you should be fine. As a precaution, we like to have tracking software like the Prey Project installed on our devices. This would help us track and hopefully get our stuff back if it was ever stolen. The software uses your device to take pictures of the thief, track them with GPS, and follow what websites they go to such as their email and Facebook account so you can find out who they are.
Renting a Car
Rental cars are targets in Costa Rica. The main car companies all use the same handful of models so thieves know which cars on the road are rentals. Don’t let that stop you from renting, though. Most of these crimes are easily preventable. The most important security measure is to never leave anything, even a pair of cheap sunglasses, inside the car. This goes for things in sight and out of sight. If you are traveling between destinations and need to make a stop, bring your bags with you if possible, leave one person to watch the car, or find a lot that is guarded. A lot of restaurants in Costa Rica have attendants who will watch your car in exchange for tips. You’ll also see them along the street in cities and at some attractions.
Also be aware of scams. One we’ve heard of involves giving you a flat tire by putting nails, etc. on the road or under your tire in a parking lot. After you get a flat and pull over, someone comes to the “rescue” to help while another person steals your belongings. This isn’t too common but is good to be aware of. If you do get a flat, try to make it to the nearest gas station or pull over at a local business if that’s not possible and call the rental car company for help.
If you have a cell phone, bring it so that you don’t have to rely on anyone else in case of an accident or problem with the car.
Taking the Bus
We traveled by bus almost exclusively when visiting the country as tourists. We loved taking the bus because it was a great chance to interact with the locals, and we seldom ran into problems. A couple of tips are to keep any valuables you have on you or in a small bag at your seat. Buses have an overhead compartment that is fine to use for most things, but you wouldn’t want to keep anything valuable up there as someone could easily grab the bag and then exit the bus. The same goes for the luggage compartment under the bus. The bus driver or someone helping usually helps take the bags from under the bus when it stops, but this isn’t always the case.
Avoid people trying to “help” you at the bus station. We’ve been harassed by these types of people before. Once we were traveling from San Jose and had to switch buses in Limon before heading on to Cahuita. As we were waiting for the bus continuing south, a friendly guy approached us, insisting on helping us get our tickets. Even though we told him that we didn’t need any help, he kept following us around. Later, he asked for a tip for his help and wouldn’t go away so eventually we gave him some money just to get rid of him. Try to avoid these situations by taking direct buses or looking busy at the bus station while you wait for a connection.
Taking a Taxi
Costa Rica has pirate taxis, which are cars manned by unlicensed taxi drivers. For safety reasons, it is best to avoid these and use only official taxis. Taxis that have been licensed by the Costa Rican government are uniformly red or orange (for airport taxis) and have either a yellow triangular medallion or airport taxi symbol on the door.
Staying at a Hotel or Vacation Rental
For the most part, you don’t have to worry about crime at hotels. If you’re staying in an area that has problems with theft, the hotel will most likely have a guard on duty 24 hours a day and may have one as a precaution, even in areas without much crime. Many hotels, especially in San Jose, also have security gates that close at night and require that you beep to be let in. Even with security measures, it is always good to be vigilant and keep your belongings locked in the hotel safe.
Vacation rentals present a unique problem. They usually don’t have the same level of security, and thieves often know which houses are vacation rentals. They also know that tourists don’t always take the necessary precautions. If you are concerned about crime in the area you’ll be visiting, pick a vacation rental that has security measures in place. A guard, security system, gate, deadbolt, safe, etc. all go a long way towards keeping a property secure. Even when you are home, don’t leave valuables in sight from windows and especially within arm’s reach of screened windows since they can be easily torn or cut. Whenever you leave or are sleeping, always be sure to lock the house’s windows and doors.
Going to the Beach
One of the most common crimes that occurs in Costa Rica is bags being stolen from the beach. We are always amazed at the number of tourists who leave their bag on the beach while they go swimming. Never do this, as thieves are often not far away, and will grab your bag then run off on a nearby beach trail. If you’re traveling with more than one person, take turns swimming and be sure that someone stays up on the sand with the bags. One way to avoid this problem altogether is not to bring anything valuable with you. If you only have a towel, sunscreen, and flip-flops, there is nothing of value for anyone to take.
Going Out at Night
If you’re planning to go to the bars and clubs at night, stay in a group. Take a cab home or drive yourself, don’t walk, especially at night. We have heard of assaults on women happening late at night as they walk back to their hotel from a bar.
What to Do if You Are the Victim of a Crime
If you’ve had something stolen or been the victim of another type of crime, it’s important to report the details to the police immediately. Sometimes quick action can get you your stuff back and catch the perpetrators. Costa Rica has several different branches of police, which can be confusing. If there is an emergency or a crime has just happened, you should call 911 as they will help dispatch the correct officers.
Most likely the Fuerza Publica (National Police) will arrive. This is the branch of police that is in charge of crime prevention and general public safety. Hopefully, they will arrive soon after your call, but sometimes it can take a while. If the incident was related to a traffic accident or violation, the Transit Police will likely arrive. Transit Police have jurisdiction only over Costa Rica’s roads and vehicles.
The Policia Turistica (Tourist Police) could also respond. They are on patrol at many popular tourist destinations, and are usually bilingual (English). Their job is to reduce crimes against tourists and provide outreach to travelers to help them stay safe.
Whichever type of officer responds, a report of the crime must be made at an entirely different branch of the police called OIJ (Organismo de Investigación Judicial). OIJ investigates crimes and brings charges against suspects. Sometimes the closest OIJ office is a good distance away, but it is important to go there to report the crime or else nothing will ever happen. A recent pilot project in towns such as Manuel Antonio, Jaco, Tamarindo, Playas del Coco, and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca hopes to make this a bit easier by allowing the Tourist Police to file criminal reports in addition to OIJ.
Those are our tips for staying safe on your next trip to Costa Rica. They are intended to be preventative and not to scare you. Keep in mind that most Costa Ricans really are honest and kind, but just like anywhere in the world, the people are not all good. It is always prudent to be aware of the most common scenarios for crimes so that they don’t ruin your vacation or worse.
If you’re interested in more information about crime and safety in Costa Rica, check out these links:
- US Department of State’s Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report for 2015
- Safety Tips from US Embassy
- Safety Tips from UK government
Looking for more information to help plan your trip? Here are some more useful posts:
- Money Matters: Currency, Exchanging Money, and Tipping in Costa Rica – Covers using ATMs and credit cards, tipping in different situations, and the best ways to exchange money.
- Best Time to Visit Costa Rica: Info on what it’s like to travel during the dry and rainy seasons, and times to avoid.
- Best Hotels Near SJO Airport: Seven awesome hotels that will make your first or last night in Costa Rica memorable.