The Red Light District in San Jose, Costa Rica (Survival Guide)

My many years of living outside San Jose, Costa Rica, coupled with my business of entertaining foreign clients around the Central Valley, brought me to every nook and cranny of this Central American paradise.  Not every paradise is palm trees and white sand beaches, and often times, the more deviant, adventure seeking tourists seek out the dark underbelly of the country.

Today I’m going to share with you what to know about the seedy red light district of San Jose, Costa Rica, as well as share some safety tips in case you end up taking the plunge to see more of the dark side of Costa Rica.

Where is the The Red Zone in San Jose?

The Red Zone starts one block north of the Mercado Central in an area dubbed “the Gringo Gulch” and is centered by the now mainstream Hotel Del Rey.  Referred to by locals as the “Zona Roja,” or translated to English, the “Red Zone,” this is an area of downtown San Jose where your chances for getting robbed, stabbed, or worse, are greatly amplified.  No matter what time of the day or night you visit this section, you can be certain to expect to find prostitutes, drugs, and a lot of people who are well, flat out bad apples.  You’ll certainly run into some erratic crack heads and be able to score pretty much any drug you choose, as well as cheap prostitution, but this area is one that should be entered with extreme caution and never alone.

Before anything, know that prostitution is legal in Costa Rica.  However, pimping is illegal, and more so, sex with minors is a SERIOUS crime.

San Jose Red Light District
The blue pins in the upper left corner are “Locals” venues with very cheap hotels rented by the hour. Avoid this area as it can be very seedy.

Do not even think about it unless you want to rot away in a very subpar Costa Rican prison with awful living conditions and little chances of getting a speedy and fair trial.  I’ll repeat – don’t even think about it.

You could perhaps be approached by children offering sex and drugs, often at ages that may shock you.  Don’t even engage with them and move on.  Hotels are very keen on getting identification from any visitor you have in your hotel to make sure they are of age as they look to protect everyone from doing something stupid.

Red Light District Safety Tips

STD’s are very common in this area, as well as in all of the prostitution scene in the country.  With it being legal, and rampant, be very careful and always use protection.  You’ll hear stories like “oh I never do this,” or “I just got tested.”  Don’t fall for this, and don’t trust anyone no matter how convincing they may seem.

In fact, according to Wikipedia, at estimated 13,800 people live in Costa Rica with HIV / AIDS.  A lot of this has to do with sex tourism and most of this is confined to young adults and even teenagers, with people from 15-24 accounting for over 10% of the population infected in Costa Rica.

I don’t care how seasoned of a traveler you are, how street smart you are, or how good your Spanish is, you are NOT in Kansas anymore.  There is organized crime even in low level barrios where people are impoverished, and often times they will bait you in with attractive young women offering you something you want, only to have lurkers nearby waiting to rob you.  If you are a tourist, you are a target! You have a higher probability of being beat up, robbed, or stabbed than anywhere in the country.

Watch Out for Transvestites!

Hey, if this is your thing, carry on and do your thing – legally of course.  In passing through this area dozens if not 100’s of times, I’ve seen it all and could write a book about it.  It’s well known that the streets of San Jose are lined with trans women who are sex workers.  These sex workers are not allowed in the more main stream hotels and bars.  If I’m being honest, often times they are hard to identify until you are very close to them and start noticing manly features.  While most are simply sex workers looking for a companion who is into that, others are there to flat out rob people.

The trans women usually work in two areas:

First, around Parque Morazan and the Costa Rica Institute of Technology.   I’ve walked the Gringo Gulch late at night and bounced between the Fiesta Casino and the now closed Horseshoe Casino and you’ll have to pass by this area.  While it’s usually a popular hangout, akin to Central Park in New York, at night it brings out a different crowd and you must keep your head on a swivel.

transgender prostitution costa rica
A map of where the trans women sex workers roam. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The other area is the area around the Hospital Clinica Biblica and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.  While these aren’t the only two areas, they are the hotspot for these street walkers.

On a sad note for humanity, there’s a lot of violence against these sex workers.  There have been attacks on them with people throwing rocks, shooting pellets at them, and more.  For that reason, I tend to avoid these areas at night at all costs.  However, sometimes you have to leave town (I lived in Escazu and had to traverse through here at times to get home) through this area.  Be careful if you are at stop signs or lights.  You could be approached and you should not engage with these people.

Summary

Be very careful anywhere in San Jose, but especially if you venture into the Red Light District.  Always take an Uber after dark, and if you are walking during the day, do so in groups.  Stay inside venues and don’t linger in the streets as you’ll attract attention to yourself.  Do not wear flashy jewelry, throw money around like you are some sort of baller, and always keep your head on a swivel.  Do anything you can to blend in with the crowd.  This may mean dressing down or wearing dark clothes that and non-designer brands.  You can never be too careful in a third world country, and this is even more important in the Zona Roja of San Jose.

 

Rate this post

About 

Tim Schmidt is a 20+ year Entrepreneur and Digital Marketer. A Fort Lauderdale-based "Digital Nomad," he enjoys traveling as much as possible with family and friends. AllWorld is his escape to document all of his adventures, including being a hardcore "foodie." He has property in Costa Rica and visits several times each year and is happy to offer his expert advice for planning your trip.

Leave a Comment