Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica brings its own personality and uniqueness to travelers visiting Central America. Known for its vast rainforests and protected wildlife, Costa Rica is the perfect place to relax on the beach, and have a once in a lifetime adventure in nature. From surfing and white-water rafting, to beach hopping and sunset-cruising, the list of awesome things to do here is endless.
Despite the insane amount of fun to be had, Costa Rica suffers from the same problem as other developing countries who depend on tourism: theft and robbery. It’s no secret that tourist attractions are common places for pickpocketing to occur. One second you’re watching an urban dance troop perform in downtown San Jose, the next second your wallet is stolen from your bag. When the heck did that happen?
Costa Rica’s own publication, The Costa Rican Times, stated that robberies toward tourists are on the rise. Foreigners are assumed to be wealthy and therefore a target for pickpocketing. Some attribute Costa Rica’s theft crimes to its geographical location in the drug trafficking market, between Colombia and Mexico. Where there is drug trafficking, there are likely many other crimes occurring alongside it. Whether Costa Rica’s theft and robbery crimes are due to the drug market, or from the influx of wealthy tourists to underdeveloped cities, there are numerous ways travelers can protect their belongings.
Street Theft in Costa Rica and How to Avoid It
This level of theft happens in nearly every big city in the world. Anytime you’re distracted by a famous landmark, by reading your map, or even by giving directions to someone, your belongings on your back may not be safe. The common theme in every pickpocket occurrence is that your valuables are out of sight, out of mind. One solution to this common problem is to not carry valuable items with you. If you do carry them with you, don’t be flashy with them. Wearing blingy jewelry and whipping out the newest smartphone will make you an even bigger target. Keep your belongings hidden and always be aware of them.
Costa Rica has some notoriously fun party towns (Jaco, Tamarindo, Dominical, etc.). Many tourists flood to these cities for bachelor/bachelorette parties and birthday celebrations each year only to return home without a valuable they came with.
Being publicly intoxicated in popular party towns is dangerous because pickpockets can easily target you by your behavior. Drunk stumbling, acting rowdy and obnoxious, and having lower inhibitions all put you at risk. If you’re planning a trip to one of these cities, make sure you lock up your passport and other valuables in the hotel. Then, once out, plan on one person in your group being sober each night to keep an eye on things
Costa Rica has some of the worlds best beaches. Whether you’re at Playa Pavones for the legendary surf, or meditating on the tranquil sands of Playa Potrero, you’re a target for tourist theft. You may think your belongings are safe on the sand as long as you can see them from the water. Or maybe you even bury your stuff and cover the spot with a towel. In both cases, you’re leaving your valuables extremely vulnerable to a passing thief.
Do not bring important belongings to the beach; leave them in the safe in your room. If you must bring that expensive DSLR camera to take some Insta-worthy beach pics, then at least consider an anti-theft bag. I really like the Loctote because it’s cut-proof and can be locked to an immovable object.
ATMs: Cash is King
On the one hand, you’re not supposed to carry a lot of cash on you because that can make you a target the second someone is aware that you have it. On the other hand, paying for souvenirs with cash is much less risky than swiping a credit card into potentially-corrupted card machines. ATMS are also dangerous because criminals can easily install a card reader into a corrupt machine and then use your information. The solution? You can use an RFID-blocking money belt under your clothing to store cash discreetly. You can withdraw enough cash at home, and keep the excess you won’t be using that day in the safe at your hotel. Lastly, and the most important in Costa Rica, is to never use an ATM at night, especially if It’s in a secluded area.
We all have our ways of making money, legal or not. In Costa Rica, a country where a large amount of the population is impoverished, many people will take advantage of tourists in order to put food on their table. A common way of doing this is offering private tours and excursions for cash. You pay the charismatic salesperson on the street corner, he promises to pick you up at your hotel this time tomorrow, and then you never see him again. Your cash is gone, and you still haven’t seen the Arenal Volcano. The best way to avoid this scam is to book all your tours and excursions in advance through reputable companies. You’ll know if they are reputable by their reviews online and by what other travelers in your hotel recommend.
A unique method in Central America is that thieves will sometimes steal from your car – while you’re in it!
The streets of San Jose are notorious for the congested and often stressful traffic. One testimonial from a traveler said they were at a standstill in traffic, and heard tapping on the driver side rear window. The person was pointing at something below that rear door. The traveler opened the door to see what they were pointing at and suddenly heard glass shatter. A different person has smashed the opposite window and took her purse, which was sitting on the seat next to it.
Unfortunately, this style of robbery is not uncommon. Many times, it’s as simple as a smash-and-go. You hear your window break and whatever was near that side of the car is gone, along with the thief. One way to protect your stuff is to keep it hidden, even when you’re in the car. Keep your purse under your seat or in the glove compartment. And never put anything valuable in the trunk, where It’s easier for thieves to steal without you noticing.
There are hundreds of reputable and accredited hotels in Costa Rica that vow to keep your belongings safe. However, when you book a room at a hotel you aren’t told who all the staff entering your room will be and you don’t know if they’re trustworthy. It’s way too common for hotel guests to come home from a day trip to find cash missing from their bedside table or even laptops and passports. There are numerous solutions; use the hotel safe to lock up belongings, or even bring your own portable travel safe so you know you’re the only one with the password.
Transportation Security: Ride Safely
Costa Rica has multiple forms of transportation, but the most popular for tourists are taxis and buses. Some tourists also hire rental cars; no matter what form of transportation you take, there are risks of theft you must protect yourself from.
Most popular with tourists on a budget or those on a guided tour of an attraction, buses can be great ways to see Costa Rica. However, the moment you leave the bus for an excursion, whatever you left in your seat is vulnerable. As always, leave your important documents and belongings locked in your hotel room. Don’t leave anything on the bus when you get off. For day trips, bring an anti-theft bag to store your must-have essentials. Even though many transit and tour companies are reputable and trustworthy, you never know who will be allowed to get on the bus while you’re gone.
If you’re on a long-distance bus from one city to another, you will likely have your luggage with you. Most buses have overhead compartments or storage under the bus. If possible, keep your luggage near you at all times. One testimonial from a traveler in Costa Rica said they put their luggage under the bus and when they arrived at the destination, it was mysteriously missing from the storage compartment. The bus driver was indifferent to the situation because it happens so often. Use the overhead or under-seat areas to store your luggage. If you have no choice but to put your luggage under the bus, then make a note to look out the window at every stop to see who is accessing that area and if your bag gets removed.
When you step out of the San Jose airport, you will likely be greeted by dozens of loud cab drivers trying to get you in their car. This can be very overwhelming when you step foot in a foreign country for the first time. It’s important to know that Costa Rica has two different types of taxis: regulated and non-regulated. Regulated taxis are from a company that has standard rates and will have a meter in the car tracking your cost. These are either red or orange cars. The United Kingdom’s travel advisory board even recommends that you make sure your regulated taxi driver’s ID is clearly displayed on the dashboard. Take note of who is driving.
Non-regulated taxis are independent people offering taxi services privately, and therefore can charge whatever they want. These are the taxis that can potentially take you the long way to your destination and then overcharge you, or just add random charges (like for going over a bridge) that a regulated taxi service would cover. Plus, if you accidentally forget one of your belongings in a taxi, regulated taxis have a company number that can be called in. You can tell them the license plate number of the taxi you took and hope that the item is still there. If you forgot your phone in a non-regulated taxi, good luck ever seeing it again.
If you choose to rent a car for your stay in Costa Rica, make sure you never leave valuables in open view. As mentioned above, car smashers will see your valuables through the window and find a way to break in. Plus, thieves can easily target tourists in rental cars because the name of the rental agency might be on the vehicle. One tactic thieves will sometimes use is to lightly rear-end you while you’re driving so that you must pull over to check the damage. Then, they rob you. If this ever happens while you’re driving in Cost Rica, do not pull over. Keep driving until you’ve lost them.
Scams: Don’t Get Taken
Costa Rica, as every country in the world, has its fair share of con artists and scammers. Unfortunately, thousands of visitors each year are scammed and the memories of their time in Costa Rica are tainted. You may not know when you’re being scammed, but there are multiple ways to protect your money and valuables.
One common form of theft through scamming is with credit card reading scanners. Thieves don’t even need to physically touch your card to access all your funds and even your identity. It could be as simple as the stranger ogling La Fortuna Waterfall next to you having this card reading device in their bag. You won’t know it happened until you go to use your card and get told you have insufficient funds. It will be impossible to know who the thief was. A relatively new solution to this form of theft is to use an RFID-blocking wallet. Basically, it intercepts any card reading device from accessing your cards. You can buy purses, wallets, and even money-belts with RFID-blocking technology.
Another tactic common in Costa Rica is specifically in beach towns where there are lots of tourists, like Santa Teresa beach. Local vendors will approach you to buy one of their hand made bracelets, buy their flowers, or to even take a picture for you and your group. Regardless of what they are offering, be prepared to pay before you say yes. In one case, the vendor tied a bracelet to the tourist’s wrist to show how nice it looked on, and then demanded money. Other common situations are a local approaching you to assist in taking your groups picture so that you can all be in the shot. Then, they expect a pretty penny for taking the picture. Always remember that nothing is free.
In most developing countries, you will be approached by impoverished locals begging for money. Sometimes, these are genuine people who have no other way to earn an income. Other times, these people are working with a network of other beggars to take advantage of sympathetic tourists. USA Today called these types of scams “good Samaritan scams.” There have been cases of women using babies and small children to seem more in need of charity; some people even hire children to approach tourists for money since we are more likely to feel bad for a poor child than poor adult. In some cases, people even go as far as mutilating themselves with burns or scars to make their appearance more sympathy-attracting. Regardless of if they sincerely do need your money, the best way to avoid being scammed is to keep your money to yourself and never flash your wallet. If you’re feeling compassionate toward someone in need, then buy them food or donate some clothing to them.
Hotel and Accommodation Security: Secure Your Digs
Costa Rica has a variety of places tourists can stay at each budget level. From hostels and home-stays to hotels and apartment rentals, each option poses risks that you should prepare for. Here are some tips for keeping your stuff safe:
- Always check the security amenities of the hotel you’re considering staying at. Does it have 24-hour concierge? Can anyone walk into the building and access the rooms? Does the front desk have a safe? What about each room? Read the reviews from other travelers to see if anyone had issues with theft there before. Do your research before trusting that your belongings will be safe.
- If your room does have safe, you should know that it’s not 100% secure. All hotels have just-in-case ways of opening your safe in cases of emergency, like you forgot the password you set. Plus, since most people set the password to something easy to remember, room cleaners that plan on stealing from you will start with the most obvious passwords. The best way to protect yourself is to choose a unique password for the safe, or to simply bring your own lockable safe that only you know the password to and can physically lock to an immovable object.
- Lock your doors and windows. Even if you’re renting a private property to stay at while in Costa Rica, your belongings are not necessarily safe. One couple I know rented a private bungalow to stay at; while they were swimming in the pool out back, someone snuck in the front of the house and stole their laptops. Thieves are often aware of which houses are rental properties (they can simply watch for guests coming and going) and when to target them. Even if you’re home, make sure windows and doors in other areas of the house are locked.
- If you’re staying at a hostel, don’t assume that all the other travelers in the bunks around you’re completely trustworthy. It’s not hard for a thief to pose as a traveler and then steal from your bag while you sleep. Most hostels have storage compartments that can lock; bring your own padlock or lock and key from home- don’t borrow one from the hostel. There are even portable drawer locks you can buy and attach to any hostel/hotel bedside table drawer.
Other Theft Threats in Costa Rica
Passport theft is a huge problem all over the world. Thieves sell them on the black market, and buyers use them to set up bank accounts under new identities to launder money, or even to cross borders where they would otherwise be turned away. Specifically, in Costa Rica, many passport thieves sell to those intending to illegally enter North America. To prevent your passport from being stolen, keep it hidden always. You could use a passport holder that hangs under your clothing, or in a money belt around your waist.
If your passport is stolen, you must report it to your home country’s embassy in Costa Rica. You can find your embassy’s phone number and address in the resources below. It’s a good idea to bring photocopies of your passport to use in place of the original when possible.
The Final Word on Safety in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a favorite destination for adventurers and beach-bunnies alike. Although this country is rich in beautiful scenery and activities, its economy often struggles. Tourists are targeted for being from wealthier countries. Although pickpocketing and petty theft are common in Costa Rica, there are more than enough products and sources for advice on keeping your belongings safe. Doing your research and choosing the right items to pack can ensure your trip is a great one. Costa Rica is a staple for every world traveler’s bucket list.
Resources: For more information on protecting yourself from theft and scams in Costa Rica, check out the following:
Costa Rica Guide – A well done blog
Anywhere‘s good general guide