Crime in Costa Rica – is it as bad as the Ticos would have you believe?

Just before a female friend and I set off on a trip to Puerto Viejo (de Limón) for the first time, we mentioned our plans to a bunch of Tico friends.

“Have you been before?” They started.
“If not, you shouldn’t go alone. Wait until one of us can go with you – it’s dangerous if you don’t know your way around.”
“There’s a lot of crime there. And drugs. Two gringas like you will almost certainly get robbed.”
“Don’t leave the hostel at night, in the dark it’s worse.”

This went on for a while until I became thoroughly irritated and even more determined than ever to go to Puerto Viejo. And when we arrived, we were surprised. It seemed like a laid-back rasta town, with quite a large proportion of hippy gringos living there. Most of the locals looked to be pot-smoking surfers, and everyone was thoroughly pleasant to us.

My point is that a prevailing sense of fear has crept into the Ticos’ everyday life over the past five years or so. I don’t deny that there is certainly crime in Puerto Viejo, and have heard this from Gringo sources as well. They speak of people being knocked off their bikes, their bags robbed at machete-point, and of drug-runners threatening the lives of would-be whistle-blowers. But really, if you go to Puerto Viejo and take the proper precautions – such as not carrying a massive purse and avoiding dark lanes at night – you should be fine.

If a Tico tells you a place is dangerous, it is probably worth getting a second opinion from a traveler who has been there before. Costa Rica is no more dangerous than most other Central American countries – in fact I would say it is less so, especially outside the capital. The paranoia seems to largely come from the fact that ten years ago, crime was almost unknown, and in the last five years it has suddenly become a fact of every-day life. My Spanish teacher tells me that in the ten years before 2002, she only had one student come in and tell her that they had been mugged. Now, she says, it’s more like two a month. Her three children have had their cell-phones robbed five times between them, and the news media has run several stories in the six months I have been here about people who were shot dead because they wouldn’t give up their cell-phone. If someone tries to rob you, as in any country, give them what they are asking for.

I’m told that if you call the police and ask them to come out to a crime, they ask you if you’ve got enough money to pay for their petrol

Ticos will have you believe that crime is burgeoning because of the sudden inflation of immigration into the country by Nicaraguans and Colombians. Ticos tell every tourist that the person who robbed them was almost certainly not Tico. Ticos have more dignity than that, they add. It may also be something to do with the ineffectiveness of the police. I’ve never had the occasion to try, but I’m told that if you call and ask for someone to come out to a crime, the police often ask if you have enough money to pay for their petrol. They’re pretty badly underfunded and underpaid.

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Wildlife-spotting in San José – no, really!

Sloths - an unlikely city resident

I went to Corcovado. Oh yes. I spent those three days traipsing through the jungle, carrying everything I needed to live, unable to tell the difference between sweat, humidity and rain, and desperately keeping my eyes peeled for tapirs, sloths, even those little squirrel monkeys would have done. I got bitten to shit by the very many, very ravenous mosquitoes, and discovered no less than 11 ticks in various unmentionable places on my body.

I saw a small, golden-furred anteater. And that was on the truck on the way in before I’d even started walking. I am not a very successful wildlife hunter, it has to be said.

At least, that is what I though until one day as I was strolling through the Universidad de Costa Rica campus in San Pedro.

San Pedro is called a separate town from San José, but you’d be hard pushed to draw the line between them. There is no let-up in the urban landscape. The only vague difference is that there are more young people roaming around San Pedro as it is the student district of the city.

But it was there, as I headed towards the gates near the law building, that I detained myself on the edge of a large crowd that had gathered underneath a tree. They were all gawping at something in the branches, so I dutifully craned my neck in a similar fashion. And there it was. A sloth. Hanging out in the least nature-friendly part of Costa Rica you can imagine. He may as well have been having a snooze hanging from a window ledge in the towering Instituto Nacional de Seguros sky scraper.

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