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December 22, 2012 7:26 PM   Subscribe

How safe is Costa Rica in terms of violent crime/theft? My partner and I are planning to visit in February, and I'm reading wildly contradictory reports of the danger levels for tourists there

Costa Rica looks beautiful and I'd love to take a decent ($700) camera to take pics of the the amazing jungle/wildlife. Some of the threads I've read about it describe it as the safest place in Central America, and others describe it as a very dangerous place where kidnappings/marching to ATMs at gunpoint are common, serious assaults to tourists are regular, etc. Would it be foolish to walk around with cameras or are locals used to seeing this?

We don't speak any Spanish (English/German), but my partner could take the next six weeks to do an intensive course. What are your experiences of the safety levels and threats to visitors? Any helpful hints/tips on keeping safe? My partner is extremely risk averse so getting them to go somewhere they perceive to be hazardous with me in the first place is a majorly big deal.

Thanks in advance for any advice you might have!
posted by abbagoochie to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there a risk that something will happen? Yes. Are the odds in favor of something happening? No, nowhere near. However, think about the consequences if something does happen to your extremely risk averse partner -- it will always be your fault that one of you got mugged, or the hotel room was broken into, or whatever (and that doesn't even count how much stress your partner will be under just being there). Do you want to take that chance, in comparison to somewhere else that will be just as beautiful and won't be difficult to convince your partner to go to?
posted by Etrigan at 7:36 PM on December 22, 2012

It would probably be worth reading the U.S. State Department's take on it.
posted by grouse at 7:36 PM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

a very dangerous place where kidnappings/marching to ATMs at gunpoint are common

I've been there twice, and once totally alone, and no, this is not at all common. In fact, it's kind of crazy to me - Costa Rica is a tourist haven and the people are extremely friendly.

You and your $700 camera are fine. Just keep an eye on your things, like you would anywhere, and you'll be fine.

You don't need to speak Spanish but I'm sure people would appreciate it if you knew a bit. The roads are crap but -- seriously kidnappings/marchings, where is this coming from?
posted by sweetkid at 7:42 PM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I studied abroad in Costa Rica a number of years ago, and petty crime is definitely common - do not turn you back on bags. If taking buses to travel, don't put bags on racks above the seats or in luggage compartments, especially if they have expensive equipment. Do keep anything valuable on your body or at least in sight. I do know one person who was threatened for their backpack - they were our TA of sorts, who had been in the country/neighborhood for several years, walking down a pretty dark pedestrian path at night in San Jose with a friend. That said, I think violent crime/theft is not common. Common sense will cover many/most situations - keep valuables on you and walk in well trafficked areas.
posted by raztaj at 7:48 PM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you want to take that chance, in comparison to somewhere else that will be just as beautiful and won't be difficult to convince your partner to go to?

Seriously, if your partner is afraid of Costa Rica to the point of not wanting to go (upon hearing the overwhelming evidence of its overall safety) then I don't think said partner is going to be OK going much of anywhere outside of home country. Costa Rica is not really a "risk" trip.
posted by sweetkid at 8:03 PM on December 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just be wise... if it's dark out, it's probably not a good idea to take out the trash, in unfamiliar territory. If someone has a gun, give them everything tangible. Nothing tangible is worth your life. Just try to avoid any trouble in the first place. Most of my encounters could have been avoided ahead of time If I had just been wiser.
posted by JamesBlakeAV at 8:08 PM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah it was this, from the Austrailian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, that spooked me:

We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Costa Rica because of the high risk of serious crime. Pay close attention to your personal security at all times and monitor the media for information about possible new safety or security risks.
The incidence of violent crime including armed robberies, carjackings, home invasions and gang muggings in Costa Rica remains significant. 'Express kidnappings', where individuals are abducted and forced to withdraw funds from ATM machines to secure their release, are becoming increasingly common.
Foreigners have been the target of armed robberies and drug-related crime.

Everything else I've read could be boiled down to "proceed with the same level of caution you'd excersize in London/NY', which I'm OK with.
posted by abbagoochie at 8:13 PM on December 22, 2012

I'm Costa Rican although I don't live there, so I'm by no means an expert on the safety situation. However it's definitely my experience that San Jose is by far the most dangerous place in CR, and if you're a tourist chances are you're going to spend limited time there (and any time you do spend will likely be in nice hotels). Once you leave San Jose it becomes much safer, violence and crime-wise. San Jose is definitely pretty sketch at night and there are certain very unsafe areas, though, so that is somewhat accurate. Keep an eye on your stuff wherever you go and you should be fine as a tourist.
posted by Papagayo at 8:15 PM on December 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I went to Costa Rica a couple of years ago. In addition to all of the delightful things Costa Rica has to offer, I was very impressed by the tourist infrastructure. Someone could arrive in Costa Rica, without a guidebook or knowledge of Spanish or Costa Rican attractions, and have a fabulous time and not be harmed. That said -- the city of San Jose seemed quite sketchy in comparison to the rest of the country. (Personally, I noticed that there were very few women out and about in San Jose, whereas in the smaller cities and towns I saw plenty of all sorts of people.) Always be alert and mind your safety everywhere you go, but if it's a big concern to you, avoid San Jose.
posted by stowaway at 8:21 PM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The touristy parts of Costa Rica are basically Europe. Use the same precautions you'd use anywhere: don't wander around late at night, keep your backpack strap hooked around your ankle on the bus, don't get in cars with strange men.

But seriously, if your partner is really that concerned, maybe go to actual Europe.
posted by baby beluga at 8:22 PM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

One more suggestion if you decide to go to CR - try and keep bags with you, even in taxis. I recall once incident with a classmate, in which the driver pretended to organize her bag in the trunk, but was instead quickly rummaging and stole her wallet. I had my purse stolen after turning my back for a max of 30-45 seconds, at a restaurant, by a restaurant employee, the first week I was there (left all my valuables and identification at my host family's house, so my loss was thankfully only about $15 US dollars). Violent crime is rare, kidnappings are non-existent, but theft is extremely common. There are so many more incidents I could recall, but I don't want to scare you. Costa Rica is indeed a very beautiful country, and most people are kind and decent. But unfortunately, there are many people also always on the lookout to take advantage of tourists turning their back for a moment.
posted by raztaj at 8:31 PM on December 22, 2012

I'd love to take a decent ($700) camera
One of the really old tricks is to take a piece of black electrical tape and tape over the brand name and model number of your camera. This is a particularly good idea for Leica shooters, since that big red dot marks them out as a PRIME MUGGING TARGET.

Edit: also, never, never, never use a camera bag with a known photography logo on it. Prefer generic bags with generic logos, and pack cameras and lenses in individual fitted cases. Big Canon or Lowepro logo = VALUABLE GOODS TO STEAL.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:39 PM on December 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know statistics but one of my friends is on a trip to Costa Rica and got mugged a few days ago.....
posted by bq at 10:56 PM on December 22, 2012

I've vacationed in CR many times, usually over on the Nicoya Peninsula, and have never felt unsafe, even at night, or had anything stolen.

Certainly there are places you don't want to go after dark, just like anywhere else. Use basic good judgment as outlined above and you'll be fine.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 11:40 PM on December 22, 2012

I did Peace Corps in Nicaragua and went on vacation a couple of times to Costa Rica to meet up with family and friends who weren't quite up for the more intense central American experience- first time out of the US for some of them, and they all loved it.
I never had any trouble at all and I did a lot of traveling by bus on my own. In my opinion, it is by far the safest country in Central America and the easiest for tourists to navigate (not to say that the other countries aren't awesome, they are also amazing and beautiful but just have an overall higher level of poverty and lower level of infrastructure)- you can rent a car and get around easily, even if you don't speak English. Safety-wise, it's basically Europe- pickpocketing in touristy areas happens but violent crime is very rare. As mentioned above, San Jose does have some pockets that can be sketchy at night. I'd say go, bring the camera out during the day but not night, don't wear a lot of jewelry or carry unnecessary cash or valuables (you can keep you passport at the hotel, if you need to carry a bag make it a plain, non-descript one- i.e no Louis Vuitton)- basically, take the same basic safety precautions you would in any unfamiliar place. Go and have fun, but personally I wouldn't want to travel with someone nervous and reluctant so if your partner isn't excited about the idea maybe you should pick somewhere you both want to go.
posted by emd3737 at 12:15 AM on December 23, 2012

Here's one more anecdotal positive experience. Last year, my wife and I spent a week in Costa Rica. We traveled by car. I asked about it beforehand on mefi. We never felt uncomfortable with our surroundings or any of the people that we encountered.

We did have one close call with petty theft similar to what others have described. This happened at a full service gas station on our last day there. My wife had walked about 50 feet away to buy something from a vendor. She realized she didn't have any cash and called me over to pay. While I was away from the car someone ( the gas station employee is my guess ) got into the car and started to go through our belongings. We realized that this had happened after we drove off when we noticed that a few things in the car had been moved and a backpack had been opened. Nothing was stolen, probably for lack of time. I don't think I was away for more than a few seconds.

So, overall our experience was good and it seemed safe but be alert.
posted by metadave at 6:56 AM on December 23, 2012

I'm pretty risk averse as well, and I found San Jose pretty scary. Literally every building had bars and gates outside it. The very small hotel/B+B we stayed in had a fulltime (large) guy at the locked gate. Due to changes of plan, we ended up being taken around by a driver/guide, and every time we stopped anywhere, he paid someone to keep an eye on his van. This was outside San Jose as well as in, though nearby. I'm not saying don't go, but if your partner is a skittish traveler, he or she may be pretty uneasy in the city. But it's probably very different further out.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 7:43 AM on December 23, 2012

Costa Rica felt so safe I was actually a little bored after Nicaragua. It's basically feels like an American colony. Just use normal travelers' caution, especially in San Jose and don't wander around alone at night in unfamiliar territory. There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
posted by empath at 9:20 AM on December 23, 2012

A good friend of mine is from Costa Rica. Over the 15+ years he's been living in the US, San Jose has creeped him out more and more each time he visits. Even Costa Rica is being affected by the drug trade through Central America, but it sounds like most of the danger (and most of the narco money) is focussed in San Jose.

Towns on the coast (like Tamarindo, Puerto Limon) are basically still as great as ever. Of course, most of my friend's family lives out there, so his perspective may be a little different!

If I remember correctly, most of the big scary dangerous-to-tourists news out of Costa Rica in the past few years came when some thrill-seeking American tourists joined a drug convoy (!) which got hijacked by rival smugglers. Normal sane-person behaviour should be fine.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 1:45 PM on December 23, 2012

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