Violent crime is not a serious problem in Costa Rica, but thieves can easily prey on tourists, so be alert. The government has created a Tourism Police unit whose more than 250 officers can be seen on bikes or motorcycles patrolling areas in Guanacaste, San José, and the Arenal area.
For many English-speaking tourists, standing out like a sore thumb can't be avoided. But there are some precautions you can take:
- Don't bring anything you can't stand to lose.
- Don't flash expensive jewelry or watches.
- In cities, don't carry expensive cameras or lots of cash.
- Wear backpacks on your front; thieves can slit your backpack and run away with its contents before you notice.
- Don't wear a waist pack, because thieves can cut the strap.
- Distribute your cash and any valuables (including credit cards and passport) between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money belt. (If you use a money belt, have some small bills handy so you don't have to reach for it in public.)
- Keep your hand on your wallet if you are in a crowd or on a bus.
- Don't let your purse dangle from your shoulder; always hold on to it with your hand for added security.
- Keep car windows rolled up and car doors locked at all times in cities.
- Park in designated lots—car theft is common—or if that's not possible, accept the offer of the guachimán (a term adopted from English, pronounced "watchie man")—men or boys who watch your car while you're gone. Give them the equivalent of a dollar an hour when you return.
- Never leave valuables in a car, even in an attended parking lot.
- Padlock your luggage.
- Talk with locals or your hotel staff about any areas you should avoid. Never leave a drink unattended in a club or bar: scams involving date-rape drugs have been reported, targeting both men and women.
- Never leave your belongings unattended, including at the beach or in a tent.
- Use your hotel room's safe, even if there's an extra charge. If your room doesn't have one, ask the manager to put your valuables in the hotel safe and ask him or her to sign a list of what you are storing.
- If someone does try to rob you, immediately surrender your possessions and don’t try to be a hero.
Scams occur in San José. A distraction artist might squirt you with something, or spill something on you, then try to clean you off while his partner steals your backpack. Pickpockets and bag slashers work buses and crowds. Beware of anyone who seems overly friendly, aggressively helpful, or disrespectful of your personal space. Be particularly vigilant around San José's Coca-Cola bus terminal, one of the dicier areas but a central transportation hub.
A few tourists have been hit with the slashed-tire scam: someone punctures the tires of your rental car (often right at the airport, when you arrive) and then comes to your "aid" when you pull off to the side of the road and robs you. Forget about the rims: always drive to the nearest open gas station or service center if you get a flat.
Lone women travelers will get a fair amount of attention from men; to minimize hassles, avoid wearing short shorts or skirts. On the bus, try to take a seat next to a woman. Women should not walk alone in San José at night. Ask at your hotel which neighborhoods to avoid. Ignore unwanted comments. If you are being harassed on a bus, at a restaurant, or in some other public place, tell the manager. In taxis, sit in the back seat. If you want to fend off an earnest but decent admirer in a bar, you can politely say, "Por favor, necesito un tiempo a solas" (I'd like some time on my own, please). Stronger is "Por favor, no me moleste" (Please, stop bothering me), and for real pests the simple "Váyase!" (Go away!) is usually effective.