What every tourist wants to hear is Costa Rica has the lowest crime rate of any Central American country, but it would be imprudent not to point out that this a dubious distinction at best.
Each time I update this page I struggle to figure out how to get people to take crime seriously without making Costa Rica sound like a war zone.
Costa Rica has always been safe and stable compared with other Central and Latin American countries and still is. Unfortunately though, in the first decade of the 21st century crime associated with illegal drugs exploded in the Americas. Mexico became a killing field, meth fueled violence in the rural U.S. reached epidemic proportions and even the idyllic paradise of Costa Rica has become a little less perfect.
As other routes have been shut down, Costa Rica’s porous borders and hundreds of miles of unguarded shores have proven attractive to traffickers moving drugs north from Columbia. While nothing like the tragedy in Mexico, execution style killings occur monthly in San Jose and at least one body has washed up on a popular Pacific tourist beach.
Besides becoming a smuggling corridor Costa Rica is also dealing with a rapidly growing problem of drug abuse within her borders. Since most addicts don’t hold down regular jobs this contributes significantly to the recent increases in crime against tourists.
Crimes Against Tourists – Petty Theft
Rick Steves on crime in Europe “your baggage is never really safe” and half jokingly “there’s a thief on every train (union rules).”
It’s tough to tell travelers who are all excited about the vacation of a lifetime that there are criminals around every corner and hiding under every rock but I suppose that’s one reason that travelers end up as such easy targets.
The vast majority of crimes against tourists in Costa Rica are non-violent theft from parked cars, belongings left on the beach, luggage bins in buses and rental houses or hotel rooms while the occupants are out.
Everything seems so tranquil that people let down their guard. Hikers find it hard to imagine there’s anyone around for miles when they set their camera on a rock to take a dip in pool under a perfect waterfall in the rain forest. Honeymooners are surprised that it’s not a good idea to leave their bungalow windows open when the wine and moonlight entices them off the terrace for a stroll on the beach.
Crimes of opportunity are on the rise; the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica files more stolen passport reports than any other embassy in any country in the entire world. Fortunately you’re reading this so you don’t have to become a victim. Use common sense, use the locks on your doors, use the safe in your room, don’t flash wads of cash, don’t leave valuables in the car, and don’t bring your jewelry.
Indirect Impacts of Crime
Other thefts can impact tourists indirectly. The popular tourist destination of Arenal was recently left without internet service for an extended period because someone stole all of the fiber optic cable linking the region to the main lines.
On the roads thefts range from annoying when highway signs are pilfered and sold as scrap metal (they had to replace them all with a plastic composite which has no value at the scrap yard) to quite dangerous when manhole covers and storm drain grates disappear leaving open pits that can snap axles and cause accidents.
Anything and everything that’s unattended or unsecured anywhere will be stolen. During the Turrialba volcano eruptions that were closing down SJO airport in 2015 they stole the seismic and gps remote monitoring equipment from the early warning station. Not exactly sure what you do with a remote monitor station…probably re-sell it to someone as a vibration detector for part of their home security system.
Quiebravidrios – Glass Smashers
Quiebravidrios target vehicles stopped in traffic, smash a window and grab whatever small valuables are within reach on the passenger or back seats.
So far no tourists have been victimized. To date all of the incidents have occurred in the greater San José area and 100% of the victims have been Costa Rican women driving alone.
To avoid quiebravidreos – don’t drive alone near San José and keep small valuables like phones, purses, wallets and backpacks out of sight.
Recently a traveler reported that they were robbed while sitting in their car in a fenced guarded parking lot of a supermarket near the airport. They knew better than to leave their belongings unattended so one went in while the driver waited in the car.
A passerby knocked on the rear drivers side window and started pointing animatedly under the car. The driver open his door, leaned out and down to look while the passerby jabbered incoherently.
The driver sat back up just in time to see his small backpack disappearing across the parking lot through the open rear passenger side door. The banging and yelling was just enough of a distraction so the passerby’s partner could snatch whatever was on the seat.
Keep your windows up and doors locked at all times
There is one attack that first became common in 2006 and despite warnings about it in every rental car agency is still relatively prevalent in Costa Rica in 2015.
If you pull out of the airport, hotel, rental agency, or a gas station and get a flat tire in the next mile or so, the guy that magically appears to help out is really distracting you while his buddy empties your trunk or back seat. Change it yourself, or drive on the rim to a service station, or back to the airport, rental agency or hotel.
According to the U.S. embassy this is still the second most common way for passports (along with most or all of the other luggage) to be stolen. The most common way is from parked cars.
Other Tips for Preventing Theft While Traveling
While violent crime is rare, petty theft, especially from tourists is common. The most likely places for things disappear from are cars (locked or not), beaches, bus luggage compartments, and hotel rooms.
Leave your valuables at home. If you don’t bring it you don’t have to worry about it. If you have to bring it leave it locked up.
Don’t leave anything of value inside your car or in the trunk. Some locals recommend that you leave it unlocked so thieves don’t have to break an expensive window or handle to discover that there is nothing of value inside. Probably not the greatest idea since they may just take the whole car if you make it too easy.
If you can’t bring your backpack onto the bus, keep an eye on the luggage compartment at stops to make sure it isn’t “accidentally” unloaded. Don’t leave things lying on the beach.