Violent crime involving tourists is rare in Costa Rica but it’s a serious and rapidly growing problem for residents. Since 2015 the murder rate has significantly exceeded the World Health Organization homicide epidemic threshold of 10 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2016 the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security declared a high level of crime risk in Costa Rica. In 2019 the government of Canada issued dire warnings to “Exercise a high degree of caution due to crime” and other dangers of travel in Costa Rica.
The Costa Rican government and businesses are aware that negative publicity from even a single incident involving a tourist could cost millions of dollars in lost revenue. It’s cynical but they are extremely fiscally motivated to do everything possible to ensure tourist safety.
Despite the huge potential downside they are doing little to control the illegal activity that is growing at an alarming rate in Costa Rica’s national parks and other natural areas.
Reducing the Risk of Crime
There are a number of things that travelers should do to protect themselves.
The vast majority of crime occurs in San José and its suburbs. Skip it and head straight to the cloud forest or beach.
If you do visit the capital or surrounding cities there are simple things you can do to reduce your risk. We spent a few years living in the most notorious borough of New York City – the Bronx. The admonitions we learned there apply all over the world.
Know where you’re going and what you’re doing. Read up in your guide book and familiarize yourself ahead of time, all those authors want you as a return customer and won’t send you to Hell’s Kitchen NYC or Coca Cola San José without ample warning.
Plan your route on a map ahead of time, know where you are going, walk with relaxed confidence and purpose. If you get lost, don’t stop acting like you know where you are going until you are somewhere safe (cafe, bookstore, someone’s house). If you have to ask directions on the street, young women are your best bet, they are safety conscious and won’t direct you through bad areas.
There are taxis all over in an emergency jump in one (make sure it’s an officially licensed cab, they are usually obvious). Buses work well too, but you never know exactly where they are headed…if it’s an emergency you probably won’t care.
Be aware of your surroundings and your stuff. Be aware that there’s more going on in cities, higher densities of criminals, and more opportunities for distractions. Don’t flash cash/cameras/jewelry.
Talk to people (not necessarily the guy playing mayonnaise buckets in the Times Square subway station), but other travelers, at your hotel desk, in restaurants, and museums. Let them know where you are going and what you are planning to do, believe me, you’ll get up to the minute reports of any discomfort or unsafe experiences they had if they took a similar route. You’ll also get great suggestions for alternatives and someone will know where you were headed if you turn up missing (which almost certainly means you found an amazing beach with no phone or internet access).
If you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, stay calm, look down, be quiet; remember that it’s just stuff and let them take it if they really want it.
Sexual Harassment and Assault
The combination of the Latin macho sensibility and tourists trying to let their hair down a little can lead to uncomfortable situations for women. Usually this is limited to shouted suggestive comments (that the instigators often genuinely believe are complimentary), but some travelers report being groped or grabbed. It’s best not to go to bars alone, or walk alone after dark or in remote areas.
Men face a different danger from sex. Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, but often connected with theft, STDs or mugging.
Date rape drugs are available in Costa Rica and used on both men and women for sexual assault and robbery.