Switzerland of Central America

Switzerland's Matterhorn

If you have done any reading about Costa Rica, you have heard it called the ‘Switzerland of Central America.’ It has a nice ring to it. The ‘Switzerland of anywhere’ sounds great, especially if you can yodel.

Way back in my college days, I took a class in Political and Economic Geography. It wasn’t all that interesting a class and I didn’t get too much out of it. But one thing that did stick with me was the phrase ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ applied to Lebanon. Lebanon in the late 60s was a multilingual, multicultural country, relatively prosperous and peaceful, and was a regional finance center. Of course that was 40 years ago. I don’t know if anybody calls it the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ any more, unless they still have a chamber of commerce. But as always, I digress.

There are three similarities that I can think of right off hand. Both countries have been very good at avoiding wars and military coups. Switzerland’s last war was in 1815. Costa Rica’s last (a civil war) was in 1948. In 1949, the year I was born, they abolished their army. Both countries also have a lot of mountains. Both countries have been democracies longer than their neighbors. So far so good.

Beiruit, Lebanon

Economically, and culturally, I don’t see much similarity. Switzerland consistently ranks between 6th and 13th in the world in terms of purchasing power parity. Don’t ask me what that means, but it has something to do with median income and cost of living. Costa Rica is down around #63 to 77, depending on who’s measuring (IMF, World Bank, CIA…) right around the median of all countries, behind countries such as Panama, Mexico and Kazakhstan. Oh, and Lebanon.

But although Costa Rica doesn’t really have any natural lakes, glaciers or snow, or make watches and have secret bank accounts, there are plenty of things Costa Rica has that Switzerland doesn’t. We have volcanoes, tropical rainforest, bananas, pineapples, beaches, perfect weather and plenty of other good stuff. But other than democracy and no wars for 60 years, not too much similarity.

Looks like Paradise

Still, you’ll hear that phrase bandied about. You will also hear the word ‘paradise’ used a lot. I did a little ‘google’ on ‘paradise Costa Rica’ and got a little over 3 million hits in two-tenths of a second. I’m a little rushed for time tonight, so I won’t look at all of them, just the first three pages worth. Let me count what we have. Of the 30 I looked at, most were selling travel services, vacation rentals, real estate or the like. Somehow Yo-Yo in Paradise got on the first page. I am IMPRESSED, Macha!

But the point is, most people who want you to believe Costa Rica = Paradise are out to sell you something. Don’t misunderstand me, I am glad to be here and don’t have plans to move, but Paradise? Get real. I don’t think the streets of Heaven are lined with beggars. I don’t think Paradise requires iron bars on every window and razor wire on top of every building. My idea of Paradise would include decent cell phone and internet service, and rivers that weren’t filled with garbage.


Here’s my point, for what it’s worth. If you live here or are  thinking of relocating down here, realize that nobody makes money by talking you OUT of coming. It’s the same thing with vacation and travel services.

The sales pitch might make passing mention of a few safety precautions, but their main purpose of existence is to SELL YOU SOMETHING.

Since I moved here in 2004, I have met more liars, scammers and con artists than I had in my entire 55 years to that point. I don’t want to discourage anybody from coming down, but for your own sake, please don’t fall for the hype.

Costa Rica isn’t Switzerland with palm lined beaches. It isn’t Paradise. It IS a country with a lot of natural beauty and great weather, not too far from North America and reasonably affordable.

Come on down, but do it with your eyes open. Remember this general rule: Anybody, Gringo or Tico who approaches you hopes to separate you from some of your cash. The Gringos just think bigger.

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  1. SwissMiss says:

    What about the cheese and chocolate? The Swiss do a much better job with that.

  2. Good article. I went once, as a language student (in '06). You're dead on about the scammers, etc. They're even WORSE in other parts of L.America, of course. You gotta stay on your toes………just like in certain areas of U.S. cities.

    The one thing I LOVED about CR was the consistent usage of "usted" rather than "tú" and the AMAZING fact that they don't roll their r's. ASOMBROSO, yet true.

    • I think they overuse "usted" with foreigners because they are a little embarrassed by their use of "vos". I can't break the habit of using "tu", but have also adopted the custom of frequently using "usted".

  3. Wow you're kind of insufferable. No offense.