Please understand that after you read this article, do not be paranoid, just aware. Like any big city these days, there are over four million people living in the Costa Rica, the majority quite poor for American standards, and what I am about to report are a few of the isolated incidences that have occurred. Keep in mind the chances of running into severe trouble are rare, and increase with stupidity, drunkenness and lack of knowledge.
Around the world, crime is increasing and tourists, with their perceived wealth, are prime victims. Costa Rica has not escaped this plague and In San Jose in particular, criminals often operate together. The majority of crimes are non-violent, but recently criminals, especially juveniles, have been using handguns or other lethal weapons to have their way. Tourist areas with high concentrations of bars and nightclubs like Gringo Gulch in San Jose are particular crime areas, especially at night. Walk or exercise in pairs, and realize that tourist attractions and resorts also bring in the criminals. Do not respond to any verbal harassment. In Costa Rica you can photocopy your passport and leave the original in your safety deposit box. If you want to take photos, consider carrying camera equipment in a plastic grocery store bag to disguise it. Police have limited capabilities, are largely untrained and tend to show up long after the crime is over.
In recent years, a few foreigners have been victims of sexual assaults, and even murdered in Costa Rica in urban, rural and resort locations. Usually the victim knew the assailant. Taxi drivers have been involved in sexual assaults and travelers are advised to use licensed taxis, red with yellow triangles containing numbers painted on the doors. Airport taxis are orange, and when you are coming to Adventure Inn, be sure to pay at the ‘Airport Taxi’ booth just before you exit the terminal. All taxis need operating door handles, door locks, meters (called ‘marias’), as well as seatbelts which you are required by law to wear. It is advisable to sit in the back seat and request that no other passengers be picked up, as it could be a set-up. If the maria isn’t working, agree on a price before you begin the trip.
Some unsuspecting bar patrons have reported being drugged and later robbed. Be aware of your surroundings, be with people you can trust to keep an eye on your food and drink if you need to leave the room. Again, travel in groups to not be an easy target.
Although unusual, there have been a few kidnappings reported over the past several years, including the kidnappings of Americans and other foreigners. Some of these cases have been so-called ‘express kidnappings’, where victims are taken for many hours and dragged from ATM to ATM withdrawing cash. Carjackings are increasing he or she has been involved in a minor car accident, and is taken hostage. Drivers should remain vigilant to these types of incidents, and use caution if bumped from behind on an isolated stretch of road.
Recently when I was driving new new little Yoyota Yaris, a car cut me off by making a right turn from the left lane. He stopped before completing the turn, blocking me from continuing and got out of his car yelling and waving his arms (as if it was my fault) wanting me to get out of the car. Who knew what his problem was, perhaps he had a gun or knife, maybe he should be put in a mental institution, maybe he was a bad drunk, so I backed up and drove around him, as he slapped the roof of my car. What an idiot I thought, then was told the newest assault is just this, with others hiding in his back seat waiting for me to get out of my car, then they jump me, rob me, and steal my car. See, I am learning, if something doesn’t add up, there is probably a reason.
Another common tactic by thieves is puncturing or placing a nail under the tires of rental cars or obvious tourists. When they pull away, tey notice the flat and ‘good Samaritans’ appear out of nowhere to help change the tire, helping themselves to your valuables, or holding you up with a gun or knife. If you have an unexpected flat, you are advised to drive regardless to the nearest gas station or other well-lit public area, and change the tire yourself while guardinging your valuables. Some car rental companies will support you and not charge you for a damaged rim if your personal safety and their vehicle seemed threatened.
If renting a vehicle, discuss with the company representative the options of insurance coverage controlled by the national monopoly, I.N.S. Always park in secured lots whenever possible, or pay the known street guard a few hundred colones after you return. You get to know their faces if you are here long enough. Never leave any visible valuables in your vehicle, though this is no guarantee that you won’t be robbed.
Don’t bother with street money changers, they offer you nothing except grief passing counterfeit, and switcho-chango maneuvers. Use Costa Rican banks. Credit card fraud is also increasing round the globe, always check your credit card statements against you receipts, and report anything odd immediately. It is difficult to keep you eyes on your credit card when you pay in a restaurant or at a gas station. (either using stolen credit cards or the account number alone following copying of the number) is on the rise. Limit your use of debit cards at ‘point of sale’ purchases, as they can clean out your entire bank account with a stolen number.
In Costa Rica call 911 to report emergencies. Reporting petty crimes is a waste of your holidays, unless you lost your passport, and need it replaced. In the event of a traffic accident, vehicles must be left where they are, and not moved out of the way. Both the Transito (Traffic Police) and the Insurance Investigator (call 800-800-8000) must make accident reports before the vehicles are moved. Although sometimes slow to respond after notification, these officials will eventually come to the accident scene. If you move it, you may be held responsible for the accident whether it was your fault of not.
In Costa Rica, penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than you expect including jail and prison time, large fines or expulsion from the country.
The Costa Rica government has an aggressive program discouraging sexual tourism. Prostitution is legal if it involves persons 18 and over, under 18 and you are looking at ten years in a Costa Rican prison, no excuses. Several foreigners are now serving long prison sentences in Costa Rica.
The Costa Rican law has severe long-term penalties for illegal drug possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs. Bribing officials in usually the best thing to do if you are a facing huge retribution. Personal harm often goes hand in hand with prostitution and drug use. A friend of mine died of a heart attack in such a combination, and even with eight pieces of identification found on him, it took the authorities five days to notify his family. When they identified his body in the morgue, it appeared all of his organs had been removed, as he was sewed up with a thin rope from crotch to around his neck, and two huge cuts across his skull. This ain’t Kansas!
Costa Rican law can force uncharged suspects to remain in jail for up to two years or more until they finish the investigation and are ready to go to trial.