Suggestions From an Expat on How to Avoid Crime in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is generally a pretty safe place to live. In fact, according to the Global Peace Index, Costa Rica is ranked the most peaceful country in Central America and the Caribbean. However, no country is
Costa Rica is generally a pretty safe place to live. In fact, according to the Global Peace Index, Costa Rica is ranked the most peaceful country in Central America and the Caribbean. However, no country is completely without crime. Luckily, most crime here tends to be of the petty theft/opportunistic variety, but unfortunately, armed robbery can occur even in crowded areas during the day. In fact, I know of someone who was once mugged at knife-point for his iPhone in downtown San Jose during the middle of the afternoon while other people were walking around. That being said, I have found the country to be like any other I have ever travelled or lived in which is to say that if you take proper precautions, the likelihood of you being the victim of a crime is greatly reduced.
Below is a list of my suggestions and tips to help keep you and your possessions safe while in Costa Rica.
Learn the Lay of the Land Quickly: As with any place, certain neighborhoods are simply “no-go” zones. In general, some of the more dangerous places would be Leon XIII, La Carpio, certain parts of the Hatillo neighborhoods, certain parts of Alajuelita, and the area in downtown San Jose close to the Children’s Museum. Downtown San Jose is generally safe, but it’s a very good idea to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
No place is 100% crime-free, but some of the safer areas tend to be Escazu, Santa Ana/Lindora, Belen, Heredia, and Cariari. San Pedro, Barrio Escalante, and Los Yoses in San Jose tend to attract a younger, hipper crowd and so those neighborhoods are also usually pretty safe to walk around in.
You’re Safer with a Friend: If you are going to go into downtown San Jose or other of the sketchier neighborhoods, go with a friend. You are less likely to be the target of crime when you have at least one other person with you and better still to go with a group. You will be safe in most malls/shopping centers or in restaurants as well as once you get outside the Central Valley area. Most crime in the beach towns tends to be petty theft related (though Jaco, Playas del Coco, and Tamarindo as slightly larger beach towns can have a bit of a seedy underbelly). Although sexual harassment/assault is no more common in Costa Rica than in many other countries, it has been on the rise in recent years. It’s recommended that women should not travel alone in certain areas of the country, but instead meet friends before venturing out for late nights, hiking trips, or visits to remote beaches.
Do Not Leave Electronics in Your Car: I have personally been robbed only twice in my nearly 20 years in Costa Rica and both times it was when my car was broken into because I had foolishly left electronics in my car. In the first case, I had left an iPod in my car in around 2005 and the local guachiman (a person who watches over your car and then expects a small fee in return) was clearly in cahoots with a thief (or was the thief himself). He saw me leave my iPod in the car and when I came back, my car had been broken into and the iPod was gone along with some change and a car jack. The second time, I left a laptop in my back seat while I ran into a local pulperia and when I came out, someone had broken the back window and stolen the computer. The lesson: don’t give people an inviting (and easy) target, it is better if you don’t leave anything in your car.
Don’t Play the Tourist: It’s often very easy for the petty thief or conman to spot the tourist. They’re the ones who are walking around the city with a cellphone in front of them, using a map app. Of course, a map app is an important way for getting around town, but use it carefully. For example, if you have a destination set on your map, keep it in your pocket and only check if you’re going in the right direction periodically. It’s nice to stop off for a coffee or a juice when you’re sightseeing, so use these opportunities to check the map, while sitting down at a table, off the street. The petty criminals of the street rarely venture into local bars, cafes, and restaurants to commit crimes, so it is a more discreet way to check your whereabouts than flashing your new phone in the street.
Act Low-Key: Of course, no one thinks you’re going to skip down the street singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or “God save the Queen,” but try to mingle under the radar and not be easily identifiable as a tourist. Social areas can be quite loud, but a U.S., British, or Australian accents can stand out in the busy markets and malls. If you’re new to the country, a combination of a loud foreign accent and a natural unfamiliarity with local customs, can identify you to local criminals. Blend in and try to pick up a few phrases such as No, lo siento (no, sorry) which you can use when approached for a spare dollar. You can dress down, too and avoid wearing luxury designer labels or expensive watches and jewelry if you are walking downtown. . An English resident of Costa Rica told me, “When I first arrived, I was an easy target. I was always looking at street signs, shop signs, checking my phrase book, speaking loudly in English, and wearing brand new Levis and Nikes. So, on every street, I’d be approached asking for a dollar here and there. It took me a while to figure out it was the same gang following me around. The dollars soon added up. After a few months, they left me alone because they knew they’d get nothing as I wasn’t acting like the foreigner abroad.” There is some great night life in Costa Rica, and I recommend you take full advantage of it. However, after dark, take extra precautions. Have an idea where you’re going and, once out, limit visits to reduce the opportunity for muggings or robberies.
Travel Light: If you have just arrived, and are staying at a hotel or rented apartment, it is a good idea to check if they have a safe in your room or on the premises. Most do. Keep valuables in there at all times. Most hotels are respectable but, as anywhere in the world, theft occurs. Keep your passport, any travel documents, and cash in the safe, only taking with you what you need for the day. If you have more than one credit card, leave one in the safe and take one with you for when you overspend your cash budget for the day. In the unlikely event you do meet with misfortune, you will only have lost a day’s worth of cash and still have a credit/bank card to fall back on. Try to think about the impression you are giving. If a petty criminal sees you handing over a $20 or a $50, he will assume two things. The first, that because you are using foreign currency, you’re probably new in town (an easier mark than a seasoned expat). The second, he will assume that there are more dollars where that one came from. These street criminals sometimes hunt in packs, so if you’re robbed, it might not be by the one you suspected. Therefore, wherever possible, try to convert dollars to colones as soon as possible. Break them down somewhere you consider safe, perhaps where you’re staying, or in a restaurant. Don’t wait until you’re in a busy street at a market stall. If you’re withdrawing cash from a cash machine, why not take it out in colones in the first place?
ATMs and Exchanging Money: ATMs in Costa Rica can be unreliable unless they are actually within banks. If possible, avoid using the ATMs in the run-down areas as they may be either faulty or rigged by criminals to keep or clone your card. An English teacher friend of mine told me: “We stopped at an ATM in a grubby outskirt of town. The machine took my card. I went to the bank the next day and they told me that my card had been seized by my bank in the UK. This was nonsense, there was no excessive spending on the account and over £2,000 in the account. Unfortunately, there is no direct communication between Costa Rican and international banks for this kind of situation. I had to apply for another card from the UK and because of the CR postal system, it took nearly two months for a replacement card to arrive. And that was the second replacement, the first had just gotten lost in the system.” If you want to avoid this situation, which is more than an inconvenience if your card is actually stolen by criminals, only use your credit/bank card inside a major bank or a cubicle attached to the building. Not only are the others unsafe or unreliable, they have a standard charge of approximately $1.50 simply for using them. And always avoid changing money anywhere than at a reputable dealer. There will be people on the street who will offer to exchange your dollars at reasonable rates. But be wary – these vendors often carry counterfeit currency which drugs gangs are keen to unload in exchange for genuine US dollars, making you a victim of money-laundering.
Driving: The country, due to the conditions of the roads, is prone to significant traffic jams, which allows for vehicle theft. When you’re in a traffic jam, keep your windows closed and rely on your air conditioning. If your windows are open, don’t dangle an arm out as you could lose your watch. Street signs aren’t common in the country, so when you’re driving, use a GPS to avoid ending up in the wrong (and dangerous) places. Finally, one common scam that occurs here is for someone to tail you and try to waive you over to presumably inform you that your car has a problem (flat tire, is belching smoke, etc.) only to then rob you when you open the door or window to check. Exercise caution when dealing with strangers.
General information: Costa Rica is a warm and friendly country which is significantly dependent on tourism as a national income. As I stated at the beginning, it has a low crime average compared to other countries in the region. However, wherever we are, it is prudent to take precautions against opportunistic crime. If you are the victim of a crime, the police and medical emergency number is 911, with the tourist police available on the following numbers: 2586-4620, -4287, -4457, -4458, or -4143.
For some more helpful information about avoiding crime in Costa Rica, please see the webpage for the U.S. Embassy.