Is San Jose, Costa Rica safe for potential expats? Check out our guide to the parts of San Jose to consider moving to and the parts that are best to avoid.
In travel and expat circles, San Jose is a pretty polarizing place. When I first came to Costa Rica‘s capital in 2000, the narrative was that the city is a dump and tourists/foreigners should get out as soon as possible. They pretty much said as much in my Lonely Planet guidebook at the time. And I suppose, for tourists, it makes sense. Costa Rica is, after all, famous for its beaches, rainforests, and wildlife. It’s a stunningly beautiful country so why would you spend any time in a pollution-choked metropolis when you could be hiking, surfing, or whitewater rafting?
But for expats, for people living in Costa Rica longer term, San Jose is harder to ignore
Even expats who move to the beach will find themselves, every now and then, in Chepe. It’s the center of government, business, and culture. The jobs are there. It’s home to the best shopping, restaurants, galleries, nightlife, and theaters. The best schools are there. And it’s where the best hospitals and medical facilities are. Sure, in this age of the internet and getting everything done online, you might be in San Jose less than before. But you’ll still find yourself there on occasion.
Not all expats in Costa Rica want to isolate themselves in some tourist beach town surrounded by transients in the searing heat. Many of them want the cooler weather that San Jose brings and access to the amenities listed above. Oftentimes expats have families and need access to good schools, or they meet a Costa Rican who lives in or around the capital. Some 40% of Costa Ricans live in or around San Jose. That’s perfectly fine.
I’ve lived all over San Jose since I arrived in 2000. San Francisco Dos Rios, Desamparados, Alajuelita, Barrio Escalante, San Pedro, Sabana, Rohrmoser, and Escazu to be precise. I might have missed a couple of places. Point is, I know my way around San Jose and I have to say I love the city.
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Many don’t. That Lonely Planet narrative isn’t easy to shift
And I remember when we used to lovingly refer to San Jose as “Stinktown” in the office back in the day. But since those heady days of the noughties, the city has improved markedly. It’s a million times better than it was, even though the travel snobs will tell you how horrible it is and that you should leave asap. Phooey to that. I’ve found over the years that many people talking bad about San Jose on social media don’t know San Jose. I know San Jose and I like it. Things are immeasurably better than they were 15 or 20 years ago.
When I say “better”, I’m talking about amenities like restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. That’s all a lot better than it used to be, with many more options for all tastes. But not everything is better. San Jose is nowhere near the most dangerous city in Central America, but it’s not the safest either. Crime has risen in Costa Rica generally since the pandemic, and most of it is in San Jose – after all, that’s where the people are.
Like everywhere else in Latin America, inequality is a major problem and the differences between the haves and the have-nots is bigger than ever. San Jose has ultra-wealthy neighborhoods, poverty-stricken barrios, and everything in between. The cost of living crisis has not helped matters and sometimes it feels like there are two Costa Ricas who no longer understand each other. This is not unique to Costa Rica, of course, or even San Jose. Most Latin cities have always been like this but sometimes it feels like San Jose is doing the best it can to catch up.
None of this makes San Jose a bad place to live, of course. It’s the same as most Latin American and North American cities in that it has its good and bad parts.
So where are the best places in San Jose for expats to live? By that, I guess I mean, where are the safest neighborhoods in San Jose? With all the will in the world, not many expats want to move to a sketchy part of a Latin American city, so this article, we hope, will help.
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Let’s discuss the safest and least safe neighborhoods in San Jose
We’ll start by going through the neighborhoods I’ve lived in personally, and then look at a few others locations:
- San Francisco de Dos Rios. This is the neighborhood I first lived in when I arrived in the city. Located in the southeast of San Jose, it was – and continues to be – a lower-to-mid middle class area. Is it dangerous? Not particularly, although you wouldn’t walk around here at night (this applies to most of San Jose, by the way).
- Desamparados. Desamparados is just south San Francisco de Dos Rios, and it’s a poorer version of that neighborhood. Many Ticos consider Desamparados dangerous, but as long as you watch yourself, it’s okay. It’s not a place I would recommend any expat move to, though.
- Alajuelita. Also on the south side of the city, but towards the west, is Alajuelita. Not to be confused with the city of Alajuela where the airport is, Alajuelita has quite a bad reputation. That said, I used to walk around there back in the day with zero fear. I was young and naive back then, though, and wouldn’t do that now. Ignorance was bliss.
- Barrio Escalante. Barrio Escalante is on the east side of the city, loosely located between downtown and San Pedro. When I lived there it was a safe, upper middle class area. Nowadays it still is, but it’s also become more famous for its bars, restaurants, and nightlife. There were a few spots when I lived there, but nothing like now. It’s still quite safe but nothing like it used to be. If you’re up for partying and going out, it’s a good place to live, although not cheap by any means.
- San Pedro. A large area on the east side and home to the University of Costa Rica and other colleges. It has a large student population mixed in with the middle class families and professionals who live here. Is San Pedro safe? Yes, pretty much, although some parts are definitely sketchy, especially around the student bars at night. If I was younger I would have no issues living here. Be careful wandering around at night, though.
- Sabana. On the west side of San Jose, Sabana is really four neighborhoods surrounding San Jose’s main park, Parque La Sabana. You have Sabana Norte, Sur, Este, and Oeste (North, South, East, West). Now, Este and Oeste are pretty small, and mostly commercial, while Norte and Sur are larger and more residential. If you’re talking to someone who lives in Sabana, chances are they’re in Sabana Norte or Sabana Sur. I’ve lived in both. Sabana Norte is upper middle to high end. It’s a good neighborhood and safe. Sabana Sur is lower to upper middle and quite safe, but not quite as safe as north of the park. It’s closer to some rougher areas to really feel safe, and there are more bars around here. But either of these places is livable for expats, and plenty do live here.
- Rohrmoser. Right next to Sabana Norte is Rohrmoser, stretching off to the northwest of the park. It’s a high end area with many embassies and consulates, including the U.S. Embassy (although I consider that more Pavas than Rohrmoser). It’s safe, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Sabana Norte, in my view, is safer. Rohrmoser borders a not-so-nice area called Pavas, and you sometimes get some overspill. That said, it’s a popular expat area close to the park and I would have no hesitation living there again.
- Escazu. Escazu really demands its own separate article. It’s a huge area and a town/community in its own right, with its own neighborhoods. You can’t simply say that Escazu is “safe” or “unsafe” because it has luxury areas, ultra-luxury areas, rural areas, and yes, some dangerous areas. Labeling all of Escazu anything is disingenuous. But I live in Escazu now, so will briefly include it for context. Most expats in San Jose probably live in Escazu, in San Rafael or Guachipelin (these areas also have their own distinct neighborhoods), although you’ll find plenty up the mountain in San Antonio. Overall, Escazu is safe, but it depends on where you are in Escazu. As I said, Escazu really needs its own article.
The above neighborhoods are where, over the last 23 years, I’ve lived myself. The only places I would call “dangerous” are Alajuelita and Desamperados, but even that’s a stretch. If you’re looking for a safe “expat community” consider the west side of the city and the areas of Sabana, Rohrmoser, and Escazu. Avoid the south side neighborhoods mentioned above. If you’re younger and looking for a party, then the east side neighborhoods of Escalante and San Pedro are fine.
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Other safe areas of San Jose
There are other neighborhoods in San Jose where I haven’t lived that are considered safe or safer/livable. We’ll look at them now.
- Curridabat. Over on the east side, past San Pedro, is Curridabat. This is an upscale area along the lines of Sabana Norte or Rohrmoser. Perfectly safe and respectable while maintaining easy access to the bars and nightlife of San Pedro.
- Los Yoses. Close to Escalante and the same vibe, although more residential and with less nightlife.
- Barrio Dent. Same as Los Yoses (you can really throw that whole east-side-before San Pedro area of Escalante, Los Yoses, and Dent as one general zone).
- Zapote. Squeezed in south of San Pedro and north of San Francisco de Dos Rios in the southeast of the city, Zapote is solidly middle class and not considered dangerous. Like San Francisco, it’s not worth walking around at night, but it’s fine to live in. The Casa Presidencial is here (where the president works, not lives).
- Tibás. Tibás is on the north side of the city, and although some might call it dangerous, it’s not that bad. I’d put it somewhere between San Francisco de Dos Rios and Alajuelita in terms of safety and I know plenty of people who live or have lived there. If you’re looking for a cheaper neighborhood, it’s doable.
- Uruca. To the north and west of the city, this part of San Jose is kind of like Tibás in vibe.
- Santa Ana. Further out, west of Escazu, is Santa Ana. Like Escazu, it’s very popular with wealthy Costa Ricans and expats. I think some three or four of the most recent presidents of Costa Rica live in Santa Ana. And like Escazu, Santa Ana really needs its own article.
- Ciudad Colon. You’ll find Ciudad Colon even further west beyond Santa Ana, as the city continues its sprawl in that direction. Probably the next main place for expats coming to San Jose and with easier access to the coast.
Regardless of where you decide to live in San Jose, safety should be a priority regardless of how safe the neighborhood is. Apartment buildings contribute to safer living conditions than stand alone houses. This is part of the reason why nicer areas like Rohrmoser and the Sabanas have seen a massive rise in condo development in recent years.
A building intercom system in your apartment or condo provides an additional layer of security by allowing you to verify visitors before letting them in. This is especially important if your building doesn’t have a doorman (which many don’t). The presence of visible security measures, such as intercom systems, acts as a deterrent to potential criminals.
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What about downtown San Jose?
None of the neighborhoods and areas listed so far are downtown, meaning in the center of San Jose. The closest to downtown are Barrio Escalante, Los Yoses, and Barrio Dent. San Francisco de Dos Rios and Zapote aren’t far either, and I suppose, neither is Sabana. It’s a small city, after all. But none of them are downtown, and that’s my point.
Truth be told, there aren’t a great deal of living options in the city center. You could live in some of the neighborhoods directly south of Avenida 2, but it won’t be in a nice place. Ditto around Coca Cola. Gringos really have no business living in these areas. I suppose there’s Barrio Mexico, but it can get sketchy around there.
Very close to downtown, heading north and east of Parque Morazon, are the neighborhoods of Barrio Amon, Barrio Otoya, and Aranjuez. They kind of form a line next to each other across the north-central part of the city towards Escalante. It’s all old coffee mansion vibes here and very pretty. These areas are gentrifying somewhat, and quite safe, although you still need to be careful. It’s not so long ago that all this was streetwalker central and some residue remains. That said, if you can find a place, these aren’t too bad areas to move to.
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What are the worst areas of San Jose? Where should I avoid?
San Jose has areas where you should avoid, especially as a gringo. The below areas are some parts of the city you shouldn’t consider when looking for a place to live. They’re places where you, as a foreigner, will stand out. Social problems, crime issues, and searing poverty are the main factors in the following areas:
- The Hatillos (a bunch of numbered neighborhoods close to Escazu and Sabana Sur in the southeast of the city).
- San Sebastian (southern San Jose between Alajuelita and Desamparados).
- Central San Jose (aside from the aforementioned Barrio Amon, Barrio Otoya, and Aranjuez). Note: By all means you can go downtown for shopping, museums, etc. Just don’t live there!
- Pavas. West and northwest of Rohrmoser on the west of the city, you have no business here as a gringo. Parts of Pavas are okay… other parts not so much.
- La Carpio. A shanty town in the west of the city, near Pavas and Escazu.
- Leon XIII. An extremely rough part of Tibas in the north of the city.
It’s important to note that most people in these places are decent folk, doing the best they can to raise their families under difficult circumstances. Not everyone is out to “get you” in these places. Not by a long way. But still, you don’t want to take unnecessary risks, so you should stay away from them.
We hope this guide gives you somewhat of an idea of which areas of San Jose are safer
Again, crime can happen anywhere, even in the better areas, so vigilance is always key, wherever you are. This, obviously, is the same in any city in the world.
Personally speaking, I still love San Jose, warts and all. It’s an acquired taste but I hope you will too.
James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.