Areas To Avoid in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful countries in Central America. People all over the world travel to Costa Rica for vacation. Ex-pats, digital nomads, and retirees make Costa Rica their temporary or permanent home. However, while most areas in Costa Rica are safe, there are some areas to avoid. 

I was pleasantly surprised to experience a few crime incidences, considering I had heard of the friendliness of the local community. Though my camera was simply stolen, some friends told me about laptops stolen from their accommodations. The most severe crimes I have heard about in Costa Rica are homicide and violent robberies. 

Key Takeaways From This Article

Common crimes against foreigners mainly include petty theft, money scams, car break-ins, and items stolen from their accommodation places. However, some areas face serious crimes such as murders, violent robberies, sexual assault cases, and kidnappings. I highlight a few key takeaways. 

  • The disparities between the wealthy and poor in neighborhoods in big cities such as Liberia and San Jose are the major contributors to most crimes.
  • Many port towns, such as Puerto Limón and Puntarenas, are transit points for drug traffickers who export drugs to other countries. Because different gangs are trying to take control, violent crimes such as homicides are common.
  • Even in safe towns, it’s essential to avoid being out at night, especially in parks and on the beach.
  • Before visiting any town in Costa Rica, I recommend you ask around fellow travelers or the desk clerk where you’re staying. 

Costa Rica’s 6 Areas to Avoid

Considering that Costa Rica has no standing army, I was surprised to find that it has had no civil wars. The Global Peace Index ranked Costa Rica 39th out of 169 countries in 2023 as the most peaceful. However, a few areas in Costa Rica are not as peaceful. 

Puerto Limón

It is the capital city of Costa Rica’s Limón Province. However, it’s in the Limón canton region. Pretty confusing! Limón province is on the eastern side of the Caribbean coast. The province has three port terminals: the Puerto Moín Container, Puerto Limón, and Puerto Moín. 

Because it is a port, Puerto Limón is popular with drug traffickers. Most tourists avoid the town. Poverty and crime make the town very unpopular among tourists. Unfortunately, in 2022, homicides were 62 per 100,000 people. 

Limón is the port used by drug cartels to export cocaine. Gang wars are common because of territorial disputes. Matina, a small rural community, is one of the areas in Limón you should totally avoid. In Limón province, La Cieneguita has the highest rate of homicides.

Pococí

It is a canton in Limón province. Pococ is located on the Caribbean coast and is home to Tortuguero National Park. The unemployment rate in Pococ has led some young people to engage in drug trafficking. Because of the many gang wars, the number of homicides has increased. The nature of these homicides has been as violent as the burning or decapitation of victims. 

Regular shootouts between the gangs in bars and restaurants have also been common. But what makes this town so unsafe? Because it is near Puerto Limón, it provides warehouses and safe passage for drugs heading to the port for export.

Pococí is also a significant hub for different gangs trying to control the drug routes. Often, gang wars can ensnare travelers.

Puntarenas

Unfortunately, according to Ticotimes, Costa Rica’s leading newspaper, Puntarenas will be the third city to lead in homicides (116) in 2023. Limón was the first with 190 murders, and San José came in second with 186 homicides. 

Puntarenas is a port city, and crimes are mainly theft, drug dealing, muggings, and verbal assaults. Gang wars to control the movement of marijuana and cocaine have made this port town dangerous to visit and live in.

Drug lords transport cocaine through Puntarenas, which is less closely monitored than Puerto Limón. Alternatively, they don’t want to engage with the other drug barons over routes. El Roble, Fray Casiano, and Barranca are the most dangerous neighborhoods in Puntarenas. 

San Jose

Because San Jose (the capital city of Costa Rica) is a big city, crime is higher among foreigners. Avoid traveling at night, especially in the downtown area of San Jose. Drug traffickers have their bases in the most significant towns in Costa Rica, making them risky for foreigners. 

An upsurge in immigrants from other countries has also made San Jose insecure. Because San Jose has a mix of poor and wealthy neighborhoods, there is an increase in crime as the poor try to survive.

In the table below, I highlight the neighborhoods in San Jose that you should avoid. If you must, please visit with a well-known local, but only during the day.

San Jose’s most dangerous areas
Los Guido It is one of the poorest districts, and its primary inhabitants are immigrants from Nicaragua.
Desamparados The neighborhood has a bad reputation among the locals because of drugs and crime.
Pavas It is located on San Jose’s western side. Some parts of Pavas are okay, but I would avoid the west side, which is a dangerous slum.
Leon XIII The neighborhood is northwest of San Jose and is known for drugs, crime, and poverty due to unemployment. 
High-risk residents live in government housing projects. Many slums have sprung up around the area.
La Carpio It’s a slum, and most of the people live below the poverty line and are unemployed.
Alajuelita Drugs are well-known.

 

Liberia

It’s another central Costa Rican town. Because it has an airport and a lot of tourist attractions, the city attracts many tourists, which can be an attraction for criminals. The public beaches in Liberia are notorious for pickpocketing, theft, and car break-ins. 

The crime rate is 93 out of 100,000, higher than in San Jose. Armed robberies and carjackings are on the rise in Liberia. Unfortunately, because of rising civil unrest and protests in Liberia, there are not enough police to patrol or respond to minor incidents. 

Santa Rita de Alajuela (El Infiernillo)

Santa Rita is a district of Río Cuarto canton in Alajuela province. It is also known as “El Infiernillo” (little hell). 

The area is very insecure due to rivalries among drug gangs. Unfortunately, El Infiernillo is a primary distribution center for marijuana, crack, and cocaine in Costa Rica. 

Traveling to this province poses a risk of becoming entangled in the crossfire between rival drug gangs. Many tourist firms do not have tours to Santa Rita de Alajuela and don’t even recommend them to their clients. 

Tips for Staying Safe in Costa Rica

Even in the safest places, you must be cautious and alert, especially in public. Follow the tips below to stay safe in Costa Rica. 

  • Don’t camp out on the beach, especially at night. Avoid walking around at night. Take an official taxi when leaving bars or restaurants at night. 
  • If you are planning to travel at night or early in the morning, it is advisable to travel in a group. I would recommend the same, especially if you’re a female solo traveler. Avoid areas with few people, too, as sexual assaults can happen in isolated places. 
  • Avoid wearing flashy jewelry or carrying too much money in public. 
  • Avoid leaving items inside the car, as they are a magnet for car break-ins. Park the car in a guarded and well-lit area and lock the doors and windows. 
  • Keep your valuables inside your hotel safe and carry only copies of your documents. 

Ask the desk clerk where you’re staying which areas you should avoid in every town you visit. Avoid traveling to remote areas, especially those bordering Nicaragua and Panama.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the safest area in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is generally a safe town. Despite having a few risky areas, there are other safe places to visit in Costa Rica. Some of the safest areas in Costa Rica include Tamarindo, Arenal, Escazú, Santa Ana, and Grecia. 

Fortunately, there is a mix of safe rural, coastal, and city areas. Hence, you have a safe place to visit or live in whichever area suits your preference.

Is Costa Rica safe for LGBTQ+ travelers?

Costa Rica is pretty safe for LGBTQ people and travelers. In 2020, Costa Rica became the first country to authorize same-sex couples to obtain a marriage license. Local communities in Costa Rica are tolerant, but it also depends on the location. 

Rural communities might not be so tolerant of public displays of affection between same-sex couples. 

Conclusion

Don’t fear traveling to Costa Rica because of the unsafe areas. Most places in Costa Rica are safe. The Costa Rican government is doing a lot to enhance security. The country has tourist police who patrol tourist areas and respond to any incidents affecting tourists. 

Have you ever had a bad incident in Costa Rica? Please share your experiences with us. 

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About 

Born in California, Michelle traveled extensively through the USA and Europe before moving to South Florida during the pandemic. Her career in Marketing has taken her all across the world. Her favorite country is France but she'll never turn down a beach vacation!

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