Is San Jose, Costa Rica Safe to Visit? Travel Safety Guide

is san jose costa rica safe?
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San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica. It’s a rowdy, spread-out city that’s home to more than a third of the country’s population. San Jose pales in comparison to the natural beauty of the Costa Rican countryside, so most people don’t spend very long here. In fact, the majority of people just use it as a stopover spot after long flights or in between trips to the coast and national parks. But that’s not to see that San Jose isn’t worth visiting. The city has some interesting sights in and of itself – from pretty parks to eclectic architecture. But is San Jose safe? 

Generally speaking, San Jose is a safe city to visit, so long as visitors keep their wits about them and behave in a street smart manner. Knowing which neighborhoods to avoid and keeping an eye on your possessions is key. As long as a couple of basic safety rules are followed, it’s perfectly easy to have a smooth and enjoyable trip to San Jose.

So what are those safety rules? Luckily for you, we’ve put together everything you need to know to avoid harm’s way in San Jose. Read on for a guide to staying safe in Costa Rica’s crazy capital.

Is San Jose safe right now?

San Jose has relatively high crime rates.
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Like many large cities, San Jose has a relatively high rate of crime. According to Numbeo, the city has a high crime level of 64.17, with this rate increasing in the last three years. But don’t let this put you off. While San Jose’s crime rate is significant, the majority of the crime is labeled as “opportunistic acts of theft” – think bag-snatching, non-violent muggings, and burglary. Of course, no one likes the sound of having their stuff stolen, but there are numerous ways to protect yourself from this type of crime – from wearing money belts under your clothing when out and about, to keep all valuables locked away in a safe.

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San Jose does suffer from gang-related violence. But this isn’t likely to affect anyone outside of warring gang members. Nonetheless, remaining vigilant of one’s surroundings and knowing which neighborhoods to steer clear of is important to avoid being caught in the crossfire. This might all sound a bit scary, but it’s the reality of life in a developing, Central American country. Crime rates might be high, but remember that the vast majority of people enjoy a danger-free trip to San Jose. As long as you use some basic common sense, it’s highly likely that you will too!

Wondering how San Jose compares to other nearby cities in and around Central America? Check out our guide to Juarez and Puerto Escondido.

Is San Jose safe for tourists?

You must remain vigilant of your belongings at all times in Costa Rica.
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Is San Jose safe to visit as a tourist? Without meaning to repeat ourselves too much, the answer is yes – so long as you keep your wits about you and know which areas to avoid.

Remember that theft is the most common crime in San Jose, and Costa Rica in general. If you take one core piece of advice from this article, it’s to remain vigilant of your belongings at all times. Don’t leave your bag unattended in shops, or under tables in bars and restaurants; don’t walk around with an expensive camera around your neck, or money visibly on your person, and avoid wearing rucksacks on your back – it’s very common for thieves to stealthily unzip rucksacks while they’re still on the owner’s back.

Passport theft is a particularly prevalent issue targeting tourists and non-locals in San Jose. Whatever you do, don’t take your passport out with you – keep it locked away in a safe at your accommodation. It’s also advised to make a photocopy of your passport, should you need to provide documentation when out and about.

Another core piece of safety advice is to avoid walking down unlit streets, parks, and alleyways at night. If in doubt, stick to the main tourist zones. It’s not the sort of city where you can mindlessly amble through residential areas, particularly after dark. The areas of the city that are best avoided include Los Guido, Desamparados, Pavas, La Carpio, Leon XIII, the El Carmen neighborhood in Cartago, and the “El Infiernillo,” sector of Alajuela. It’s best to speak to trusted locals – such as hotel staff or restaurant owners – to get a feel for the unsafe areas close to where you are staying.

Is it safe to live in San Jose?

Costa Rica is considered the safety country in Central America.
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Costa Rica is considered the safest country to live in Central America. And with a reasonable cost of living, an enviable climate, a vibrant culture, and friendly people, San Jose attracts many ex-pats – from retirees to digital nomads and young families. Knowing which areas to avoid, and having common sense is usually enough to live there happily and without problems.

The wealthier neighborhoods of Santa Ana and Escazu are particularly safe. Many of the homes in these neighborhoods are within gated communities. With levels of vandalism and theft relatively high in San Jose (63.65, according to Numbeo), this extra level of security offers ex-pats peace of mind by guarding against burglaries. We recommend you reach out to local ex-pat communities before moving to San Jose to obtain first-hand information before deciding to move there. 

Is San Jose safe at night?

San Jose is far less safe at night than it is in the day.
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San Jose is far less safe at night than it is during the day. It has a high rate of muggings – 63.65 according to Numbeo, so avoiding unlit areas after dark is essential in order to avoid falling prey to opportunistic thieves. As a general rule, try not to walk alone at night, particularly in non-tourist areas. If in doubt, hop in a registered taxi – they’re inexpensive in San Jose and a much safer option than wandering the streets by oneself. 

Is public transport safe in San Jose?

Public buses are a cheap way to get around San Jose, but they're not always safe.
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Taxis are an easy and affordable way to get from A to B in San Jose – and they’re probably one of the safest options too. But remembering to look out for licensed taxis is essential. Authorized taxis as known as ‘rojos’ in San Jose, due to their red color. You can tell licensed taxis apart from illegal taxis – known as piratas – by looking for the yellow triangle on the car’s door. While unauthorized taxis will offer you a cheaper rate, don’t be tempted to get in an illegal cab – traveling with a licensed taxi driver is always the safer option. You might be able to rely on Ubers in San Jose, too. But an Uber ban at the international airport means that they are less prevalent in Costa Rica than in other countries. 

Public buses are another cheap way to get around San Jose. However, tourists can be targeted by petty criminals and pickpockets on public bus routes – particularly when traveling with large backpacks or suitcases. It’s also fairly easy to get confused by bus routes and end up in unfamiliar parts of the city. If you’re carrying lots of luggage, or don’t feel confident with the bus system, it’s easier and safer to just hail a taxi.

Is it safe to walk alone in San Jose?

Avoid walking alone in unknown parts of San Jose at night
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By day, it’s generally very safe to walk alone in San Jose. According to Numbeo, San Jose’s safety when walking alone during the day is 68.79. However, this score drops to a low score of 28.03 at nighttime. Of course, it’s important to take these statistics with a pinch of salt.

It’s much safer to walk alone at night in some parts of the city than in others. But as a general rule, don’t head out alone in San Jose after dark. It’s always a good idea to buddy up with a friend or take a taxi, particularly if you’re a lone woman traveler.  As in many places, women walking alone are likely to attract unwanted attention from men in the form of catcalls. And for those that are unfamiliar with San Jose, it’s not a good idea to stray from the main tourist zones after dark.

Is it safe to drink tap water in San Jose? 

It's a better idea not to drink the tap water in San Jose, unless you're used to it.
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Tap water is safe in San Jose, but it’s not for people with sensitive stomachs. For tourists and those not yet used to the local tap water, it’s generally recommended to stick to bottled or filtered water. To avoid excessive levels of plastic pollution, it’s worth investing in a water filtration solution.  For example, the SteriPen water purifier is a great on-the-go solution to ensure that you have access to filtered, drinkable water wherever you go. Or there’s the LifeStraw bottle, which filters out bacteria, parasites, chemicals, and microplastics as you drink. 

Top 7 San Jose safety tips

In summary, San Jose is not without its dangers. But every year, tourists and digital nomads from around the world enjoy the hustle and bustle of this vibrant Central American city without coming in harm’s way. It’s always important to use a bit of common sense and take some fairly obvious precautions. Here’s a list of seven useful tips to make sure you have a safe and worry-free trip to San Jose

  • Speak to locals. People with local knowledge are always the best-placed to offer up to date and accurate safety advice. Seek advice from your hotel or hostel owner about the areas of the city to steer clear of.
  • Keep your valuables out of sight. This one is fairly obvious, but it’s so important that it’s worth repeating. Don’t draw attention to yourself by wearing flashy jewelry (even if it’s not expensive jewelry), using smartphones, tablets, or expensive-looking cameras in plain view of others, or carrying large amounts of cash. Be conscious of the way you carry your possessions, too. For example, don’t walk around with your smartphone in your back pocket, or use a bag without a secure zip.
  • When hailing a taxi, always check for a yellow triangle on the vehicle’s door. This is the main way to distinguish licensed taxis from piratas (unauthorized taxis).
  • Avoid unlit areas at night, particularly if you’re by yourself. Walking in unlit alleyways, or unfamiliar neighborhoods outside of the tourist zones could make you vulnerable to muggings. If you find yourself in trouble, draw attention to the situation by yelling ‘fuego’ (fire in Spanish).
  • If you’re mugged, don’t resist. While no one wants to lose their possessions, it’s always the safer option than risking angering a potentially-armed criminal. Simply hand over what they are requesting, and try to stay calm. Once you’re safely out of the situation, head to the local police station.
  • Don’t buy drugs. Gang activity is an issue in San Jose, and you don’t want to implicate yourself in corruption or violence. Tourists that seek out drugs make themselves extremely vulnerable. 
  • Avoid the areas of Los Guido, Desamparados, Pavas, La Carpio, Leon XIII, the El Carmen neighborhood in Cartago, and the “El Infiernillo,” sector of Alajuela (Infiernillo translates to English as hell: need we say more?). As a tourist, you can’t guarantee your safety in these parts of town. They are best avoided unless you are accompanied by someone who knows their way around.

For more information on safety in Costa Rica, check out our Costa Rica safety guide, and our breakdown of what to avoid in Costa Rica. And for those worrying about creepy crawlies and other natural hazards, our guide to dangerous animals in Costa Rica has you covered.

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Charlotte Hanwell is a writer and travel enthusiast from London. Her studies of Spanish language and literature have taken her from Barcelona to Buenos Aires. In between travels, she loves to run, read and cook her way around the world.