With its lush rainforests, fantastic local food, and friendly people, there are few reasons why someone would not want to visit Costa Rica. It was practically designed for both nature-junkies and beach loungers alike, and can allow you to commune with nature like you never have before. Its green landscapes keep travelers coming back year after year.
But many of those who have yet to visit often find themselves asking: is it even safe to visit Costa Rica?
The short answer is yes – though Costa Rica does experience its share of violence, either related to gangs or drug trafficking, it is perfectly safe for tourists, where your actual biggest threats are petty theft or being scammed for a few dollars. Plus, it happens to be considered one of the safest countries in Latin America for tourists, which is just one reason why it’s become a major travel destination in the last couple of decades.
Though Costa Rica is overall quite safe, there are tips and tricks you can apply while you traipse through city and village alike which will help ensure your holiday is not just good, but worry-free.
Costa Rica Travel Safety
Looking for the do’s and don’ts? Here are some basic things to always keep in mind when moving around in Costa Rica:
- Don’t Isolate Yourself: Travelers who are by themselves, especially in isolated places, are ripe for the picking by muggers. This is even more important to remember after dark. Be sure to stay in crowded areas, or make some friends at your hostel/accommodation! Moving in numbers helps give travelers more security against those who would do harm.
- Learn Some Spanish: While you will encounter English, it’s best not to rely on it. Carry a small phrase book and get some of the basics down, thinking about situations like restaurants, bus stations, taxis, and medical services (if needed).
- Hold Onto Your Bags: It’s tempting to leave your things on the beach while you go for a dip, but you’ll make yourself an easy target to opportunistic tourists and locals alike (hint: this also applies to hanging your bag on the back of a chair). Always keep your things with you and in sight, and only walk around with your total necessities.
- Don’t Show Your Expensive Taste: flashing your pricey accessories is the best way to signal to those around you “I have money which can be taken.” Dress plainly, and keep valuables hidden and secure.
- Purchase Travel Insurance In Advance: This will keep you financially protected in case of theft, injury, or illness, and is generally invaluable in any new travel situation.
- Look Alert on the Bus: It’s come up a few times already – you’re trying to protect yourself from pick-pockets and petty thieves, and public transport is a major hunting ground. Always remember to keep your belongings visible (hold your bag or sit it on your lap) and keep your eyes open.
Food and Water Safety in Costa Rica
You’re traveling somewhere that is probably in a completely different area of the globe from where you grew up, with a shockingly different ecosystem. What about food safety? Is the tap water potable?
Luckily, you really don’t need to worry too much, but follow a few ground rules and use common sense, and you should be fine!
First, the food:
Street food: is amazing, including in Costa Rica. Best of all, the food is cooked right in front of you, so you can be assured of its freshness. Don’t be afraid to ask them to make it fresh for you if you’re feeling unsure.
If it looks sketchy, stay away. The salad doesn’t look fresh? The dish has been sitting in the sun for who-knows-how-long? The chicken looks…questionable? Stay away, easy peasy.
Go for crowded joints. Restaurants with a lot of patronage are most likely to be tried, true, and delicious.
Limit the fruit. We know, it’s amazing, and this is the best place in the world for it. But slam down a few too many pieces of tropical goodness, and your gut will haunt you (it’s all that fiber).
Can you drink the water in Costa Rica?
In general: yes. The tap water in urban areas is potable, perfectly safe, and even delicious. However, in some places the quality of the water is not guaranteed and more caution should be taken – these include beach destinations and rural areas. If you find yourself out of the city, you may be relying on bottled water. Or, for more eco-friendly options, try water purification tablets or a UV pen, which you can carry with your green reusable water bottle.
Getting around: Buses and Taxis in Costa Rica
Trains are not a thing in Costa Rica and haven’t been since 1991, after a major earthquake shut the system down. When getting around, you’ll be looking to buses and taxis as your serviceable options.
Buses: Inner-city and Inter-city
Keep these in mind when taking the inner-city bus:
- There are no bus passes or tokens – you’ll pay your fare in cash each time you take a ride, and fare is usually posted on the windshield.
- Don’t stand between the vertical bars when you enter the bus – these count passengers, and standing there racks up the number (and the driver will yell at you, do not be surprised).
- Basically, the drivers will pick you up anywhere, not just designated stops. If you see your bus, wave your arms like a maniac to get their attention – they’ll let you hop aboard.
For busing between cities, it’s likewise a straightforward system which allows you to sit back and relax while your experienced Costa Rican driver navigates the bumpy and pock marked roads. Tips to remember:
- Pay in local currency – busting out USD may make you a target for the prowling pick pockets.
- For regional buses, there are generally two types: Directivo and Colectivo. Directivo is as it sounds – that bus is going straight to its destination with no stops. Colectivo, on the other hand, will be making various stops for passengers, and is not the best option for people going to the end of the line.
- If you’re stopping somewhere that isn’t the final destination, communicate this to your driver to ensure the stop won’t be skipped (this is where your Spanish phrasebook will come in handy).
- Don’t use the overhead compartments. This gives fellow travelers the perfect opportunity to snatch your bag when you’re not looking. Instead, opt for the under-bus storage, where your luggage will be safe.
As with anywhere else, stay vigilant on the bus to avoid thieves, and trust no one with your belongings.
Are the taxis in Costa Rica safe?
Traveling by taxi is certainly safe, but only when using authorized or official taxis. You’ll recognize real taxis by the fact of their cars being red or orange.
Unauthorized or “pirate taxis” are dangerous as they are uninsured and can charge you whatever they please. Luckily, these are easy to spot: their cars are very old, and they will run over to you asking if you need a ride, rather than waiting for you to come to them.
You’ll want to remember a few more safety tips when it comes to taxi use:
- Make sure the meter is running. It is a common scam for the driver to say the meter is broken and then charge you whatever they please.
- Do not hail a taxi at night. If you need to ride after dark, have your accommodation call a taxi for you so that you can be assured of a reputable company.
- Carry small denominations of currency. Most drivers will refuse to give change if you try to hand them a large bill.
Remember: stay alert, ensure your taxi is authorized, and make sure they’re using the meter correctly, and your taxi ride in Costa Rica will be stress-free.
Alternatives: Private Car Transfer
Some travelers aren’t keen to navigate unfamiliar bus systems, or take a chance on a questionable taxi driver – it’s hard to blame them. After all, isn’t ease and relaxation the point of a holiday?
One way to avoid that stress and unknown is by booking a private car transfer with a professional local driver to take you from point A to point B, so you can sit back and relax while a friendly local maneuvers the unfamiliar roads. Such transfers are booked in advance and operate door-to-door from your accommodation, so you wouldn’t need to concern yourself with finding the right station or stop.
Daytrip is an excellent option for this type of transport: with experienced drivers always ready to provide you with safe, stellar service, you wouldn’t need to worry about a thing. You can visit mydaytrip.com to start planning your next trip!
Scams in Costa Rica
Let’s go straight to the juicy stuff – scams to watch out for, from the tricksters and con artists among us:
- Taxi scam: as mentioned above, this is one of the more common scams in Costa Rica. Drivers will say the meter is broken so they can’t be held accountable for overcharging you. Get out and get a different taxi with a functioning meter.
- “Helpful” scam: this takes a couple forms. First, if you look like you don’t know what you’re doing, someone might approach you to “help” and then demand a tip for their services. Second, a person may offer to “help” with your bags and then either steal them, or (again) demand a tip. Avoid these people by walking with confidence and refusing assistance where you did not seek it.
- Tour scam: It may happen that a very friendly and professional looking individual approaches you to tell you about a fantastic tour they operate (at a very competitive price point) and offers you a spot on the bus for tomorrow. Impressed and interested, you may decide to take this tour and give them a “deposit.” However, when you await pick up the next morning, they will never come. You’ve been had. The solution: seek out authorized tour companies and check their reviews so you can be assured of a wonderful (and real) experience.
How can I keep my money safe while traveling in Costa Rica?
There are a few things you can do to keep yourself as financially secure as possible while you move around.
First, keep your money separated. Whether that’s cash in one place and cards in another, or just dividing your cash into multiple locations. This will help ensure that, God forbid the thieves get you, they only get some of your money. If everything is in the bag, and the bag is snatched, that will make for a very sad day of your holiday.
In addition, when going out, carry small amounts of cash, or only what you need, so that you can avoid becoming a target. The best way to keep this safe is by using a money belt, something which stays under your clothes, so you can move around with a little less stress (tip: keep your passport in the money belt too – you need to keep it on you, and you don’t wanna go messing around with such an important document!).
Finally, never use an ATM after dark – prime target for thieves who want to get tourists at their most vulnerable.
Solo Travel in Costa Rica
Being willing to set out anywhere completely unknown is always an act of courage, but to do so alone takes a certain level of bravado. Solo travel can be one of the most rewarding experiences in a person’s lifetime, but it’s nonetheless important to be prepared in advance.
This is where that “learn some Spanish” advice comes in handy in a big way – especially when you’re alone, being ready for interactions with locals will make your life infinitely easier when you need assistance.
Remember that “travel blues” and loneliness can play a big part in solo travel, if you let them. The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to do the easiest thing about traveling solo – meeting people! Staying in hostels is an excellent way to meet fellow travelers, as is joining day tours and excursions. However, even just going into busy areas and meeting new people out and about will do the trick. This will also be an important factor in your safety – remember that tip from before about not being isolated and moving groups? Being around good people whom you trust is going to be vital to your security from thieves.
Is Costa Rica Safe for Solo Female Travelers?
Undoubtedly and unfortunately, women who are traveling alone face a different set of challenges. Everything mentioned above still applies, but here are a few more important safety tips to keep in mind:
- Do not walk alone at night. Just don’t – it’s always a risk and never worth it. Instead, walk as part of a large group. Also, don’t take taxis alone after dark.
- Confidence: Fake it till you make it – acting like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going is a great way to ward off unwanted attention from those who might want to take advantage of your situation. If you’re actually lost, move confidently into a shop or other establishment where you can ask for directions.
- Be a copycat – pay attention to how other women and girls dress. Long skirts? Covered shoulders? Do your best to mimic local fashion choices to better blend in and avoid unwanted attention.
- Make friends. Get to know as many people as possible so that you can always practice safety in numbers (also, friends are great, just saying).
- Write down the emergency numbers. Just in case, you don’t know when you might need to reach a dispatcher, and having that information can help give you peace of mind.
Yes! It is safe to travel in Costa Rica.
Even the safest countries in the world are not without their own share of crime, violence, and cruelty. Luckily, avoiding the (limited) criminal aspect of Costa Rica is as simple as opening your eyes and employing some common sense into your day-to-day activities. We hope that you use this article moving forward as a guideline to keep your Costa Rican holiday comfortable and enjoyable, while keeping yourself protected and worry-free.