In a country that was rated as the happiest in the world for four years in a row, where there’s no standing army, and around 28% of the land is given over to nature reserves, it’s almost impossible to believe that there would even be any unsafe locations. But there are. Cue this guide to the most dangerous places in Costa Rica…
Here, we’ll focus in on seven of the spots that we think warrant a bit more wariness from travelers in the land of the chirping resplendent quetzal bird and the slow-moving sloth. We’ve included both gritty urban districts that have higher-than-average crime rates, and vast wildernesses where you’ll be cut-off from civilization in the company of deadly snakes.
We should add that Costa Rica is widely seen as one of the safest places in Latin America for travelers. The vast majority of people who jet in here to see the smoking volcanos and ride the waves will come and go without a single issue. What’s more, you can usually totally avoid the most dangerous places in Costa Rica listed below – they’re hardly musts!
El Infiernillo, San Jose
If the name offers any sort of a clue as to what you can expect in this frankly uninteresting corner of San Jose, then it’s certainly one to be avoided. Roughly translating to “little hell” in English, El Infiernillo is a three-street cut-out of the northern hills of Costa Rica’s capital that’s known for its drug gangs, cartel violence, and everything in between.
Yep, the folks here are a far cry from the smiling Ticos you get in the center of the city. Most are thought to carry guns, and turf wars can erupt at any moment. The area itself isn’t much of a looker – it’s got a hint of the barrio about it, what with ramshackle, tin-topped huts converging on narrow alleys that always seem to lead to nowhere.
With that in mind, there’s no real reason you’d want to stray from the centro district or nearby Alajuela to visit. Our advice? Keep driving on through because the wild mountaintops of the Parque Nacional Volcán Poás lie beyond, with their incredible crater-rim walks and glistening highland lakes.
Puerto Limón, Limón Province
Far away from the beaten trail out on the fringes of Limón Province in eastern Costa Rica, Puerto Limón doesn’t really benefit from the tourist dollar like Tamarindo et al on the Pacific coast. On top of that, it’s distance from the capital has stifled economic growth since independence back in 1821, leading to high levels of poverty, poor housing, and depravation in the region.
That sets the scene for a town that’s got some pretty darn striking stats on the crime front. In 2022, over 25% of the homicides committed in Costa Rica were committed here. Yep, we’re talking more than a quarter of all murders across the WHOLE COUNTRY!
Recent interviews with local police officials have revealed that the main source of the violence is the presence of the industrial import docks at Moín. They’re a known trafficking point for cocaine coming from South America and have been hotly fought over by warring cartels in the last few years.
León XIII, San Jose
The second cut-out of the sprawling capital of the country to make it onto this list of the most dangerous places in Costa Rica comes in the form of León XIII. Spilling off the main highway that cuts across the northern side of town, it’s long been seen as the most poverty-stricken area in the whole nation.
There’s a whopping 16,000 residents wedged into the blocks, which combine to measure around just one square mile in total. It’s proper barrio-like stuff, with corrugated roofs meeting breeze-block walls and whatnot.
They say the police outpost for León XIII has only been there for a few years – officers used to be, simply, too scared to enter. These days, there are bobbies on the beat, but it’s hardly making a difference. Homicides occur regularly, gun ownership is prevalent, and gang violence dominates after dark. It’s not for visitors.
Cieneguita, Puerto Limón
We’ve already mentioned the bustling port town of Limón. As it happens, the southernmost quarter of that gritty industrial town, La Cieneguita, probably deserves its very own mention on this list of the most dangerous places in Costa Rica.
The reason? Well…because it’s downright dangerous, that’s why. Stats show that the majority of the murders that occur in the city – and remember that we’re talking about a city that accounts for 25% of all murders nationwide here! – actually happen in this part of town.
The area in question spreads southwards along a 1.5-mile stretch of Caribbean beachfront that’s backed by the occasional palm tree. Don’t be fooled by the description, though. Cieneguita might be washed by the salty breezes and fronted by glistening sand, but it’s a hotpot of gangs and turf wars that often end in violence.
Look, we don’t want to get carried away talking too much about the dangers of Jaco over on the Pacific coast. The fact remains that this is one of the most popular beach escapes for city-dwelling Ticos and new arrivals. It’s a mere 1.5 hours’ transfer from the big airport in San Jose and has a long, arcing beach with oodles of surf. Life is, generally speaking, pretty darn good in Jaco.
But that’s kinda’ where the problem lies. Over the last 10 years, this one’s established itself as the booming nightlife hub of Puntarenas province. It’s got a whole strip of pumping backpacker bars, plus a slightly less-savory showing of “gentlemen’s clubs” (**ahem**) and the like. It’s sort of Costa Rica’s answer to Thailand’s Pattaya.
Of course, that’s not bad in and of itself. It’s just that the regular parties and imbibing sessions that happen here have been known to get a little out of hand. Jaco is now a hotspot for casual tourist-on-tourist violence, but also street scams, petty theft, and things of that sort.
Parque Internacional La Amistad, Cordillera de Talamanca
Costa Rica is no stranger to vast, untrodden wildernesses. Nearly a third of the nation is now demarked as a protected nature reserve in one shape or form! But there’s arguably no more feral a place in the land of Pura Vida than the 800-square-mile Parque Internacional La Amistad.
Butting up to the Panamanian border in the extreme south of the country, it covers a whopping great big dash of the Cordillera de Talamanca mountain range. There are basically no modern towns to be seen within the reserve and only a few small outposts for park rangers, conservationists, and the small stream of intrepid folks who come by with the hiking boots in tow.
So, where’s the danger? Everywhere, actually. Simply being in such a vast and remote part of Costa Rica brings its own worries. While parks like Manuel Antonio have clearly marked trails and proximity to bustling towns, this one’s completely undeveloped. Plus, it’s home to some of the most formidable critters in Central America, including the fer-de-lance snake (they’ll kill you in under 24 hours!) and the elusive jaguar (you don’t want one of them on your scent).
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Limón
Just a mention of the name Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is usually enough to get surf travelers frothing from Bali to the US West Coast. This town, wedged between some of the most gorgeous beaches on the Costa Rican Caribbean, is flanked by bombing barrels and glassy wedges throughout the main wet season summer months.
The vibe in the center matches that, too. You’ll find bopping reggae bars, cool surfer shacks that sell vegan breakos and smoothies, and oodles of bars that like to go on until the early hours.
Sadly, there’s a dark side to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. There are regular reports of thefts and robberies, and much of it has been directly aimed at travelers. The best advice we can offer is to avoid going out at night alone, always keep your valuables locked in safes back at the hotel, and never carry important documents on your person.
The most dangerous places in Costa Rica – our conclusion
Costa Rica isn’t a dangerous place. The nation is famed around the world for its adherence to eco-tourism principles, its rich biodiversity, its laid-back surf culture, and friendly locals. Most people who come here will leave with nothing but a newfound love for the land of Pura Vida and everything it stands for.
That said, there are certainly some places that are probably best avoided during that once-in-a-lifetime jaunt to Central America. They include the barrios of northern San Jose, which are known hotspots for cartel crime, and the gritty port of Limón in the east.
You’ll also want to plan properly if you’re heading for hikes in the great wildernesses of the Parque Internacional La Amistad or other reserves, and always have your wits about you in towns like Jaco and Puerto Viejo, where tourists have been targeted by thieves.