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Costa Rica 2017 Crime & Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Costa Rica; Western Hemisphere > Costa Rica > San Jose; Western Hemisphere > Costa Rica > Santa Cruz

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

U.S. Embassy San Jose does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SAN JOSE AS BEING A HIGH-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.

Please review OSAC’s Costa Rica-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.

Due to the country’s reputation as a leader in ecotourism and biodiversity, Costa Rica receives almost three million tourists annually from around the world. The country appreciates the revenue generated by visitors. The year round temperate climate and above average healthcare system has long-established Costa Rica as a destination for expatriates from the U.S. and elsewhere to retire or establish secondary residences.

Crime Threats

Crime is a consistent and significant concern in Costa Rica. While the vast majority of visitors do not become victims of crime, all individuals are potential targets for criminals. The majority of crime and safety threats to U.S. official and private communities are opportunistic theft. U.S. citizens commonly report motor vehicle accidents and theft of travel documents. Theft is very common in highly populated and tourist areas, particularly when personal belongings are not closely watched, to include beaches or parked vehicles. The most common types of theft involve vehicle burglaries, home robberies, pickpocketing, smash-and-grabs, mugging, and purse/wallet snatching. Random acts of petty theft remain the primary area of concern; however, armed robberies do occur, even in daylight. More serious crimes occur against visitors (armed robberies, sexual assaults, murders), although less frequent. There is generally a spike in the number of home burglaries and robberies during the holiday season. If confronted by a thief, do not resist. Try to remain calm, give the perpetrator what they want, and they are unlikely to hurt you. Most victims of theft are injured when they resist or try to fight back.

American citizens are advised to practice good situational awareness with regards to their passports. Theft of travel documents is a common complaint among foreign visitors – particularly during peak tourism season in the dry season, when criminals take advantage of larger crowds. Use a well-secured safe or lockbox wherever you stay. Tourists are encouraged to leave passports in hotel safes or other secure locations and make a photocopy of the biographical and entry stamp pages in lieu of carrying your passport.

The downtown area of San José is a prime tourist destination during daylight hours. Visitors are cautioned to be aware of their surroundings, or limit their visits entirely, after dark due to the change in environment and increased crime potential. Travelers are advised to limit their travel to established and frequently-visited areas in order to avoid “wrong place-wrong time” scenarios.

The most widely used indicator of crime is the homicide rate, which reached a record high in 2016 (11.8/100,000 people), continuing a three-year upward trend. There were a reported 579 murders, exceeding the previous record breaking number of 566 recorded in 2015. The murder rate surpasses the threshold of 10 per 100,000, which the WHO considers to be an endemic level of homicide. Some of this violence is driven by competition among groups engaged in the sale and transport of drugs.

Sex tourism is common, especially in tourist areas, and specifically, coastal areas. Tourists who engage in/solicit prostitution exponentially increase their chances of being a victim of theft, violent robbery, or for violating Costa Rica’s trafficking-in-persons law. The government of Costa Rica has passed legislation to curb the promotion of the country as a destination for sex tourism and is undertaking outreach on the legal risks of engaging in prostitution with minors.

Organized crime is an increasing concern. Costa Rican nationals and third county nationals participate in organized crime: car theft, drug trafficking, petty thievery, and burglary. Costa Rica’s porous borders allow the country to be utilized to traffic drugs and other types of contraband. As a result of its geographic location, criminal organizations increasingly favor Costa Rica as a location to commit financial crimes, including money laundering and financial scams. Proceeds from international narcotics trafficking represent the largest source of assets laundered in Costa Rica, although human trafficking, financial fraud, corruption, and contraband smuggling also generate illicit revenue.

Cybersecurity Issues

Costa Rica has cybersecurity concerns that affect many countries; however, there are no identified cybersecurity issues unique to Costa Rica.

Credit card theft/fraud is also a common crime faced by visitors. Many victims maintain physical possession of their card, but their credit card information is stolen and later used without their knowledge.

Other Areas of Concern

U.S. government officials are not permitted to stay in hotels in downtown San José due to safety concerns.

When traveling in remote areas or by boat, be mindful of limited mobile phone reception and limited first responder access.

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Driving can be extremely challenging, even to the most experienced driver. Roads are often in poor condition, and large potholes are common and can cause severe damage to vehicles. Traffic laws and speed limits are often ignored, turn signals are rarely used, passing on dangerous stretches of highway is common, and pedestrians are not given the right-of-way. Motorcyclists commonly drive without respect to rules of the road, often passing on the right, weaving in/out of traffic without warning, and creating lanes where none officially exist. Heavy traffic provides the opportunity for thieves to steal property that is left in plain view from vehicles. Another challenge confronting drivers is the lack of street signs/names, which makes finding an address extremely difficult even with a GPS. Visitors planning to drive are strongly cautioned to practice defensive driving skills and exercise common sense. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”

Visitors are reminded to obey all traffic regulations and be familiar with road conditions prior to traveling. Road conditions may change drastically and suddenly due to weather, construction, or accessibility. A large volume of vehicular traffic and single lane roads often lead to severe congestion and delays across the country. In downtown San José, the government has imposed a law restricting cars from operating on certain days of the week. The last number on a vehicle’s license plate determines which days it can operate. This tactic has proven to relieve some of the traffic congestion; however, traffic delays remain a common daily occurrence. In 2017, road construction has generated even more traffic congestion than usual.

Driving outside of San José at night can be treacherous due to narrow or poorly-maintained roads, many of which often lack adequate lighting, guardrails, and street signs. During the rainy season (May-November), landslides and washed out roads are a common occurrence.

The fatality rate for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists is high. Due to a lack of resources, the traffic police are not proactive and do not regularly monitor the roads; they mainly respond to traffic accidents. Costa Rica law prohibits the movement of vehicles involved in an accident prior to the arrival of investigative authorities. Those involved in traffic accidents should be prepared for a significant wait. As a result, single lane roads of travel can often be backed up for miles. Further, the government of Costa Rica may prevent any driver involved in a vehicular accident from departing the country until all injury claims have been settled. This is true regardless of whether the driver is at fault or covered by insurance. The courts often delay imposing a settlement until all injured parties have fully recovered and the definitive costs are known. As a result, travelers may be prohibited from leaving the country until a local judicial resolution is reached.

Criminals have been known to target rental vehicles. One tactic used by criminals is to puncture the tires of rental vehicles and then follow the car until the driver pulls over to inspect. Criminals posing as Good Samaritans will approach the vehicle to assist with changing the tire and, in the process, steal the tourist’s personal items. In the event of car trouble, drivers are advised where possible to pull over in well-illuminated, public places (gas stations, supermarkets).

Public Transportation Conditions

Visitors are advised to only use taxi cabs from reputable companies. Officially registered taxis will be red or orange with a yellow triangle on the side door. The triangle will include a designated number that matches the number on the taxis license plate.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

There are two main international airports in Costa Rica.

  • Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is located approximately 12 miles west of downtown San Jose. It is the primary airport serving international travelers to the country’s capital and central valley regions. SJO is rated the second busiest airport in Central America (following Panama’s Tocumen International Airport) with over 15 international airlines that serve over four million passengers annually.
  • The second airport is Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (Liberia International Airport), in Guanacaste province. It serves as a tourism hub for visitors to the Pacific coast and western Costa Rica.


In addition to the larger international airports, there are multiple smaller airports and airstrips serviced by smaller domestic carriers and a variety of charter flights. 

In general, air travel is deemed reliable without major security concerns or unnecessary travel delays. Visitors should be aware that changes in weather conditions and increased levels of volcanic ash can often cause flight cancelations or delays.

Various agencies, to include U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration, work closely with the government of Costa Rica to continually improve their airport procedures for the increased safety of passengers and efficiency of airport operations.

Terrorism Threat

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SAN JOSE AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There are no specific threats of terrorism regarding Costa Rica. Due to the relative open nature of portions of the country’s borders, the threat for terrorist elements to use the country as a transit point does exist; however, the threat of terrorist-related activity remains low.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SAN JOSE AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.

Costa Rica has a long tradition of being a stable democracy. The country has not had military since 1948, and prides itself on its peaceful nature and efforts to maintain neutrality.

Civil Unrest

Protests occur in the heavily-populated areas on occasion and typically center on fair pay and working conditions. Protests are generally peaceful; however, all protests should be avoided as a safety precaution and to avoid any perception of interfering in local politics. The Constitution bars foreigners from political activity, and foreigners involved with protests, even peaceful ones, could be arrested.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Costa Rica is located in an active earthquake and volcanic zone.

  • The last large earthquake occurred in September 2012, with a magnitude of 7.6. It was one of the largest earthquakes recorded in Costa Rican history but caused limited damage, considering its size. Smaller earthquakes in the seismic range of 4-5 are much more common and occur throughout the year.
  • Experts from the Health Ministry and the National University have stated that fine particulate matter from volcanic ash (frequently from Turrialba) and automobile exhaust can be a public health concern in the greater metropolitan area, which includes San José and parts of Alajuela, Cartago, and Heredia. These areas are home to approximately 60% of Costa Rica’s population, 70% of its vehicle fleet, and 85% of its major industry, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute. In recent years, the average annual amount of fine particle pollution in the greater metropolitan area ranged between 22 and 25 micrograms per cubic meter, more than double the recommended level set by the WHO. 


Serious flooding occurs annually in the Caribbean province of Limón and the Pacific province of Puntarenas, and flash floods and severe landslides occur in other province as well, depending on the time of year and rainfall.

Exercise extreme caution when swimming in the ocean. Many beaches with dangerous currents or rip tides have neither lifeguards nor warning signs.

When planning travel to the area, consider that a disaster may strike without warning. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Economic Concerns

Costa Rica has been on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 Watch List for deficiencies in their protection of intellectual property rights. In spite of this, many U.S. companies with extensive intellectual property rights have business operations in Costa Rica.

Personal Identity Concerns

In very limited situations, cultural or religions ideologies may impact discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Drug-related Crimes

Costa Rica’s strategic location, porous borders, limited security forces, and thinly-patrolled waters make it a major transit and temporary storage country for illicit drugs. The continual increase in the homicide rate has in part been attributed to the increase in organized drug trafficking and associated activities. As the number and size of groups associated with narco-trafficking have increased, so have the presence of illegal drugs, greater domestic consumption, and associated turf wars. The government is steadily increasing its spending on law enforcement agencies and improving its focus on counter-narcotics programs. A key factor in combating the increasing drug-related criminal activity is the strong security cooperation with the U.S. government. The recent accomplishments in Costa Rica’s counter-narcotics programs can partially be attributed to the improvements in equipment, training, and infrastructure projects provided by the U.S. government.

Kidnapping Threat

The kidnapping rate is very low and rarely involves U.S. citizens. The majority of kidnappings are a result of feuds between rival criminal organizations.

Police Response

Police response can be obtained by calling 911; however, response times have improved but may vary due to availability of manpower/vehicles and based on location, time of day, and severity of the accident, particularly outside of San Jose or major tourism centers.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

U.S. citizens who are detained by the police will be given the opportunity to contact friends or family. Those detained by law enforcement should immediately contact the U.S. Embassy at 2519-2000. Harassment is not common with foreigners, but should it occur, the incident should be reported to the U.S. Embassy. If detained, a defendant has a right to a Public Defender and Translator services.

Crime Victim Assistance

A crime in action should be reported to Fuerza Publica.

To have a crime investigated/prosecuted, it must be reported to Organismo de Investigación (OIJ), the investigative/Judicial police, at 911, 2295-3639, or 2295-3640

Police emergency – 911

Ambulance - 911

Fire – 911

Tourist Police – 2586-4620, 2586-4287, 2586-4457, 2586-4458 or 2586-4143

U.S. Embassy – 2519-2000

Police/Security Agencies

Fuerza Publica: Uniformed police agency. Performs ground security, law enforcement, counter narcotics, and border patrol functions. This agency is within the Ministry of Public Security.

Organismo de Investigación (OIJ): Agency that investigates all crimes for prosecution. This agency is within the Poder Judicial (judicial branch).

Policía de Transito: Transit police enforces traffic laws and responds to all traffic accidents. This agency is within the Ministry of Transportation and Public Works.

Directorate de Inteligencia y Seguridad (DIS): Costa Rica’s intelligence agency, within the Ministry of the President.

Unidad Especial de Intervención (UEI): Special weapons and tactics police unit, specializing in explosives. 

Migración: Controls immigration at the borders, overland ports of entry, sea ports, airports, and maintains immigrant detention center for pending deportees; within the Ministry of Governorship and Police.

Medical Emergencies

Medical care in San José is adequate. U.S. medical insurance is not always accepted, and most hospitals will require payment or deposit up front for services. Public hospitals generally do not accept private insurance, though private hospitals will if the plan includes suitable coverage for care while abroad. To be covered under the Costa Rican public health system, an individual must be a Costa Rican citizen or have residency. The Costa Rican government can place a departure impediment on individuals who attempt to depart without paying their medical bills.

Red Cross Ambulance - 911

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

San José

Hospital CIMA* - 2208-1000

Hospital Mexico - 2242-6700

Hospital Clinica Biblica* - 2522-1000

Hospital Calderon Guardia - 2212-1000

National Children's Hospital (Hospital Nacional de Ninos) – 2523-3600

Hospital Clínica Católica (Private) San Antonio de Guadalupe – San José –2246-3000

Hospital Metropolitano (private & Services U.S. Veterans) - San José, principle headquarters:

+ (506) 2521-9595

*CIMA and Clinica Biblica, will require payment up-front for non-emergency care.

 

Puntarenas: Hospital Monseñor Sanabria - 2630-8000

Limón: Tony Facio Hospital - 2758-2222

Guanacaste: Enrique Baltodano Hospital - 2690-2300

Ciudad Nelly (Closet to Panama): Hospital Ciudad Nelly – 2785-9600

Nicoya: Hospital Anexion – 2685-8400

Los Chiles: Hospital Los Chiles – 2471-2000

San Carlos: Hospital de San Carlos – 2460-1176

Cartago: Hospital Max Peralta – 2550-1999

Perez Zeledon: Hospital Escalante Padilla – 2785-0700

Alajuela: Hospital San Rafael de Alajuela – 2436-1001

Heredia: Hospital San Vicente de Paul – 2562-8100, 2563-8352


Available Air Ambulance Services

REVA Inc. is a fixed-wing air ambulance and medevac service with operations throughout the Western Hemisphere. Individuals interested in a quote or obtaining additional information should consult the agency’s website or their 24-hour air ambulance communications center at 1-800-753-4195.

Insurance Guidance

Medicare and Medicaid do not offer coverage outside the U.S; visitors are strongly encouraged to review their insurance plans to guarantee coverage in the event of an emergency during travel. Supplemental medical insurance with specific overseas coverage, including a provision for medical evacuation, has been useful in many emergencies. The Embassy recommends visitors consider purchasing private air medical insurance before traveling.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

The CDC issued updated guidance on the Zika virus that adds Costa Rica to the list of countries that have ongoing cases of Zika transmission.

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Costa Rica.

OSAC Country Council Information

The San Jose Country Council currently meets bi-monthly and has approximately 25 members. Please contact OSAC’s Western Hemisphere team with any questions or to join.  

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Embassy San José, Costa Rica Calle 98 Via 104, Pavas, San José, Costa Rica, in front of Centro Comercial del Oeste Pavas, Costa Rica.

Business Hours: Mon-Fri, 0800-1630

Embassy Contact Numbers

Switchboard: 2519-2000

RSO Office: 2519-2313

American Citizens Services Section: 2519-2590

Consular Visa Inquiries: 4000-1976

Website: http://costarica.usembassy.gov

Embassy Guidance

It is highly recommended that travelers register their travel with the U.S. Embassy via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This allows the embassy to pass emergency information to visiting travelers.

Additional Resources

Costa Rica Country Information Sheet