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Is it safe to travel in Costa Rica?

A few years ago I would have answered this question with a sound YES, but after my latest trip to Costa Rica at the end of 2018, I feel a little bit more wary about wholeheartedly recommending Costa Rica as a travel destination – especially to a solo female traveler – than I would have when I visited Costa Rica for the first time, as part of a Central America backpacking trip in 2011, and then again for a two-month housesit in a seaside villa in 2012.

The first time I visited Costa Rica, I entered the country overland from Nicaragua, having just traveled through Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. I had sketchy moments in all of those countries, including gunshots outside the hotel I was locked up in in Honduras’ capital Tegucigalpa, an attempted bag slashing in Guatemala, and a being told to put my guidebook away in San Salvador, to not clearly out myself as a tourist.

Back then, arriving in Costa Rica after traveling through several poor and politically unstable countries felt like arriving in North America. Just a few miles south of the border we were able to drink the tap water again, there were hot showers, ATMs abound, and American hotel and restaurant chains including Hard Rock Café and Taco Bell. While I had always felt a little tense and ‘on guard’ while traveling through Costa Rica’s neighboring countries to the north, this tension immediately eased and I started to let my guard down. Costa Rica felt so much safer than the rest of Central America!

When I revisited the country a couple of months ago for a 3-week road trip I didn’t feel as safe, however. I was already more vigilant and aware of my surroundings, and I had bought travel insurance before the trip. My pre-trip research had led me to several Tripadvisor forum threats and articles about tourists getting their rental cars broken in, armed robberies, tourists raped and two female tourists were raped and murdered just a few months before my visit. In January 2018, an entire tourist bus was robbed at gunpoint on the Caribbean Coast – something that you usually only hear happening in Guatemala or Nicaragua. There had been enough incidents in Costa Rica recently for the UK to publish a travel advisory.

And as my Costa Rica trip was coming to an end, news of a female tourist that had gone missing slowly broke. As I returned to the U.S., I watched the story of the missing girl unfold, which eventually turned into the horrible news of the third female tourist murdered in Costa Rica in 2018. It was her last night in the country, and she was supposed to fly back to Florida the next day, spending only one night by herself in an Airbnb after vacationing with her sister-in-law. She wasn’t even a solo traveler, just one night by herself after a girls trip that should’ve been her birthday trip, just as this was my birthday trip, too.

Is Costa Rica becoming too dangerous for female travelers? asked The Costa Rica Star a few days ago, stating that all of the female travelers who were killed while vacationing in Costa Rica “were seasoned, well-traveled females, who nonetheless wound up as victims of murderers and predators.”

I know that a lot of travelers, especially female travelers, will now rethink their travel plans to Costa Rica, which is why I wanted to talk about my own experiences traveling Costa Rica and how safe I felt there, and also share some safety travel tips for Costa Rica with you.

It is difficult for me to say ‘Go to Costa Rica anyway!’ or ‘Stay away from Costa Rica’. Because I myself have traveled to several countries or cities where other travelers had bad experiences, but I personally had a great time. In Ecuador I went to a beach town where two female travelers from Argentina had been murdered the year before. I visited to Koh Tao, which had made news for several tourist murders. I traveled to Colombia on my own after reading a fellow female traveler’s horror story of getting robbed at gunpoint. And that trip turned out to be one of my best trips of all time.

While I feel that the murders in Costa Rica are still isolated cases (they were not connected to another), I don’t think they should be completely left out of the picture when planning a trip to Costa Rica – no matter if it’s solo, on a girls trip or with a boyfriend. I strongly recommend to take safety precautions if you are planning to travel by yourself, look through travel forums on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet to find the most recent safety information.

Before sharing some safety tips, I wanted to point out that you should take into consideration that crime is not the only safety issue in Costa Rica – there are a number of non-crime related safety issues in Costa Rica, that you should consider, too:

Natural hazards

VOLCANO ERUPTION: Costa Rica is home to five active volcanoes and over 200 dormant volcanic structures, and volcanic eruptions are a common occurrence. It is rare that people die during an eruption, but it has happened, and an eruption can effect your trip and the places you’re able to visit.

EARTHQUAKES: Costa Rica is also sitting on the edge of the Pacific Rim’s Ring Of Fire which means earthquakes are common. I myself have experienced several earthquakes in Costa Rica, which is not a pleasant experience, and again, can affect your trip if roads and other infrastructure are damaged during an earthquake.

MONSOON RAIN: Monsoon rains are quite intense in Costa Rica, and in 2018 they led to several fatalities involving tourists. A newly-wed man who was on his honeymoon with his wife was swept away and died when the couple got caught in a flash flood, and four Americans, part of a 13-people bachelor weekend, drowned when they went rafting in a river that turned into a deadly torrent after heavy rains.

Monsoon rains can also affect your trip if they cause travel delays, landslides that cause road closures, and limited activities, so make sure to check the weather for the month you’re planning to visit. July – October are usually the rainiest months, but this year, it rained well into November, which made driving during our road trip dangerous at times.

Crocodiles

Believe it or not, but Costa Rica takes the #3 spot in the ranking of countries where tourists are likely to be attacked / bitten by a crocodile, according to a nature guide I took a tour with on this last trip. We encountered crocodiles in several locations, including a close encounter in the swamps of Cahuita National Park. There has been a growing number of crocodiles in recent year, so don’t underestimate their speed and how close you can get to them. Crocodile sightings on popular surf beaches have also increased.

Safety in Costa Rica

Looking at the bigger picture, I think that natural hazards are much more prevalent than crime, especially murder and rape, and tourist-targeted crimes in general, but be aware that petty theft and pickpocketing are not uncommon in Costa Rica.

Here are some safety tips for Costa Rica:

Safety tips for Costa Rica

Avoid carrying lots of cash

Since pickpocketing can happen, especially when you take buses around the country or in San Jose, I’d advice you to not carry around too much cash, and while traveling in between cities, have it in a safe place on your body (I am using both a money belt and pickpocket-proof tanktops with hidden pockets). Have your cash in several places, not just one.

Debit / Credit Cards

Costa Rica has become much more receptive to card payments since my last visit – take advantage of that and don’t carry around hundreds of dollars in cash. If you lose your debit or credit card, you can cancel them quickly, but if you lose $500 in cash, you won’t get them back.

Valuables

This should go without saying, but don’t flash your valuables. An iPhone, a tablet or an expensive digital camera are very attractive to a lot of people, especially those living in small beach towns without access to the newest gadgets or the funds to buy them. Don’t leave your valuables out of sight when you’re at the beach, and have your backpack always on you when you travel on buses, don’t ever put them in the overhead compartment.

Thieves are very clever and if you are approached by someone and something feels off, it might be a spiel to distract you so that they can get to your valuables.

Taxis

There are plenty of unofficial taxis in Costa Rica – if you do take taxis, make sure that you take an official taxi (including the airport!). Taxi robberies have occurred in Costa Rica.

Rental Car Theft

Car break-ins are anything but uncommon in Costa Rica, so make sure to never leave any valuables in your car, even when you’re leaving the car only for a short while. If you are in transit and stop for a meal somewhere along the way, I recommend covering your suitcases or using a manned car park.

Travel Insurance

After having our beach bungalow broken into in Colombia a couple of years ago, I have become much more diligent about buying travel insurance. Better safe than sorry. Make sure to take down serial numbers of all the electronics you’re bringing to Costa Rica (tablet, camera, phone, etc) – most insurance companies require the serial numbers if you file a claim.

Adventure Travel Activities

Since Costa Rica is known as an adventure travel destination, make sure that the insurance package you purchase covers the activities you’re planning to do. After carefully reading the small print of the insurance company I usually use, WorldNomads, I noticed that ziplining, snorkeling, tubing and white water rafting were covered under their Standard package, but diving and abseiling were only covered in the more expensive Explorer package. Check beforehand if you need additional coverage for the activities you’re planning to do.

Safety tips for solo female travelers in Costa Rica

Trust your instincts

First and foremost, always follow your instincts. If something feels off, you are most likely right about it. The sad thing is that Stefanie, the girl that was murdered in Costa Rica last month, knew something wasn’t right and texted her friend that the place she was staying at felt sketchy – but it was too late. If you feel uncomfortable in a hostel or Airbnb, leave. That goes especially for remote bungalows and cabins.

Inform people of your whereabouts

I have to admit that I am particularly bad with this when I travel alone – I visited a remote village in the Amazon, a 2-hour boat ride away from the closest town, and without any internet or cell phone network, without telling anyone, and jumped on the back of a motorcycle with a stranger not once but twice in the Philippines – without telling anyone. I’ve gotten better with informing people where I am and what activities I’m doing, and I have also started using my cell phones location services – see below.

Use your smartphone’s location services

This is a great way for people to locate you should you go missing or get hurt during a hike, unable to move. Most people dislike these services and don’t want the  tech companies that use location services, but for safety reasons while traveling alone they can be useful, and my family is always relieved when they can spot me on the map somewhere. The New York Times published a useful article last year when and when not to use location services on your smartphone.

Use your phone for more than just taking selfies in the waves 😉

Know basic self defense moves

If you do travel alone, it doesn’t hurt knowing some basic self defense moves, and be it something basic like how to use your key as a weapon, in case of an attack. It is sad that we live in a world where we always have to be alert, and even though I find that most people are good, I can’t deny that there are bad people in the world and again – better safe than sorry. If you cannot afford a self-defense class, check out these videos on Youtube:  

Airbnb vs Hotel / Hostel

Considering that the last girl murdered in Costa Rica was staying in an Airbnb – and in a seemingly safe one, in a gated apartment complex with a security guard (who turned out to be a sexual predator / her killer), I’m a bit cautious about recommending Airbnb’s to solo travelers right now, even though I myself stayed in one (an easily accessible beach bungalow without security guard, cameras, etc) and had no problems whatsoever. If you do prefer vacation rentals over hotels, just make sure to read the description and reviews carefully and only book a place that you feel 100% comfortable with. And if you get there and things don’t look as expected or / and you’re feeling uneasy – don’t be afraid to leave early. Remember that hotels and hostels do have the advantage of having a receptionist / staff around, which might give you more piece of mind than the solitude that comes with an Airbnb.

Do your research

A quick Google search is the first thing I always do when I travel somewhere – and even just putting ‘Costa Rica’ into the search box and clicking on the ‘NEWS’ tab will show you recent events in Costa Rica. Many things like crocodile attacks or earthquakes don’t make international news, and even the most recent murder, which made news in the U.S. because the girl was a U.S. citizen, wasn’t reported in Europe. If you google the specific place you’re planning to visit, you’ll get more detailed news about that town, and I also recommend reading forums like Tripadvisor’s for the latest travel news. When I traveled around Colombia, where I felt a little uneasy in the beginning, I also always talked to other solo travelers, asking them about their experiences and how safe they felt on buses, etc.

Be cautious when venturing off the beaten path

If you are like me, you want to get off the beaten path, but if you are a solo traveler, keep in mind that safety is a bigger issue than it is for solo male travelers. If you are planning to visit lesser popular places such as Tortuguero (where one female tourist was murdered in 2018) or the Osa Peninsula, try to find another traveler to team up with. If you feel confident traveling alone, remember to inform someone of your plans.

Don’t visit the beach alone at night

…and also not with someone you just met. The female traveler who was killed in Santa Teresa, a popular surf spot on the Pacific coast, was walking the beach with another female traveler when the women were attacked by two men (the other girl was able to escape).

In Puerto Viejo, the main tourist hot spot on the Caribbean coast, we were offered drugs on a daily basis, and some of the guys who tried to sell us drugs seemed rather sketchy. In December 2018, a male photographer was murdered at night on the beach in Puerto Viejo when he got up early to photograph the sunrise.

Is it safe to travel in Costa Rica?

So, would I say it is safe to travel in Costa Rica? I still think that Costa Rica is still the safest country in Central America, and I don’t think you should be put off by the recent murders, which are, as I mentioned before, still isolated cases. It is important, however, to be aware of the fact that crime and yes, even murder, do exist in Costa Rica, and to always be on guard.

I personally was more afraid of the natural hazards that I listed, but because I was aware of the recent tourist murders, I was much more aware of my surroundings when I went for solo runs on the beach (the Spanish girl murdered in August 2018 in Tortuguero was killed while out on a run) or when I stayed in a beach bungalow without a proper gate.

That said: Did I have an amazing vacation? Absolutely. Would I go back to Costa Rica? In a heartbeat!

Remember that nearly 3 million people travel to Costa Rica every year, and the number of tourists affected by crime or accidents is diminutive, considering how many travelers the country welcomes every year.

Tourism is a huge part of Costa Rica’s economy, so the government does as much as possible to keep the country and especially foreign visitors safe. There’s an entire section of the police dedicated to tourists, and after the recent tourist murders, police presence was increased in popular tourist destinations.

Further reading

Here are some great articles and websites I found while I was researching for this article:

2 Comments

  1. Hey Dani! It’s been a long time! I am heading to Central America for the first time next years. Thanks for making such a helpful guide to Costa Rica! It will be super handy!

  2. I can’t offer any advice on not to get raped, except never go out alone.
    But even then, your friends might rape you. And anyway, what kind of a limited life would that be?

    But robberies are much easier to avoid: simply carry nothing with you that somebody else might want to steal.
    I only have a very old Nokia phone. If a robber sees that, they just have to laugh.
    After staying in Salvador, I put together some of my advice in this article: https://andreasmoser.blog/2017/02/04/robbed-south-america/

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