Is Costa Rica Really the Switzerland of Central America?

By: Casey Bahr

The Top Reasons that Costa Rica Might Be the Switzerland of Central America and Reasons Why Not

It’s a decades old comparison that one still runs across now and then: “Costa Rica is the Switzerland of Central America.”

I read those very words again recently in spam email that was chock full of glossy “facts” about the living paradise Costa Rica offers retirees. Before I moved to “Central America’s Switzerland,” I felt the comparison to be a bit of a stretch but I was willing to give it the benefit of my doubts since I had, at the time, never visited either country myself.

I still have not been to Switzerland, but after having resided in Costa Rica for the last five years, I thought it would be fun to take a stab at examining the worth of this oddball comparison between two seemingly disparate countries.

I am guessing that the initial Switzerland metaphor arose as a reference to Costa Rica’s mountainous terrain. Although Costa Rica’s “alps” are not as high as the Swiss enjoy, the backbone of the country is filled with rugged, picturesque, even quaint, valleys. Cows and cheese are quite common in both I would hazard to guess.

A direct physical and geographical juxtaposition between the countries raises concerns about the metaphor’s validity in a hurry. Direct comparisons of, say, GDP or predominant industries, are unavoidable, but I think they tend to taint the picture. A fairer comparison of similarities and differences should take into account each nation’s local context, i.e. Central America or Central Europe.

In the end, I came up with two top lists. The top reasons Costa Rica might really be the Switzerland of Central America and the top reasons where I think the analogy fails.

How Costa Rica is Like Switzerland

1.      Both countries can boast high life expectancy of their inhabitants. Switzerland is number one for life expectancy in the world. Costa Rica holds an impressive position of 33 on the same list, well above its neighbors and ahead of the U.S.

2.      This point from a Swiss acquaintance: The Swiss are very polite and dislike direct confrontation. However, they have subtle ways to let you know when they do not share your opinion. This lines up perfectly with the Tico reluctance to say “no.”

3.      Both receive the vast majority of their electric power from hydroelectric sources.

4.      Both receive about 3 percent of their GDP from the tourism industry, although the absolute amounts are vastly different of course.

5.      Costa Rica and Switzerland are roughly the same size: 51,000 and 41,000 square kilometers, respectively.

6.      Both have universal medical care, though that is common within Europe and much less so in Central America.

7.      Both have palm trees (no kidding, see the Swiss shore of Lake Lugano)

8.      Both have legalized prostitution.

9.      Both maintain neutrality when it comes to international disputes. In fact, Costa Rica took that a step further by abolishing its military in 1948.

How It Is Not

1.      Despite similar life expectancy, Costa Rica is decidedly a more dangerous place to live than Switzerland. Costa Rica’s homicide rate is 10 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, whereas Switzerland’s rate is 0.7.

2.      Costa Rica is loaded with national parks, preserves and conservation areas whereas it appears the Swiss only have a single national park.

3.      CR exports: Coffee, bananas, sugar, textiles, electronic components, electricity (chocolate fell off the list a long time ago, unfortunately). Swiss exports: medicinal and pharmaceutical products, watches and clocks, machinery for special industry and metalworking machinery and tools.

4.      Switzerland has four seasons. Costa Rica just two.

5.      Switzerland has four official languages, but Costa Rica has just one.

6.      The Swiss drive Audis and VWs, whereas the Ticos drive Toyotas, Nissans and Hyundais. I have a feeling, however, even the Swiss would be appalled at the cost of cars here.

7.      Over 1 million Swiss commute everyday via public transport and that public transport has a 99 percent on-time record.

8.      Swiss trains were the first to install Starbucks kiosks. Costa Rica really does not have much of a rail system and I should live so long to see an espresso bar in one. 

Does It Matter?

I admit to holding a dismissive bias regarding this Switzerland metaphor before I began to think about it in earnest. That bias seems to have evaporated. Now, I sit on the fence.

In reality, the comparison to Switzerland originated only as a trivial tourism jingle and nothing deeper than that. I seriously doubt the analogy was meant to encompass details such as I listed here. In the end, it matters little except as a way to brush up on comparative geography, culture and economics.

I do sometimes wish there were snow here now and then and that all the roads were paved, as I am sure they are in Switzerland. Either one is a fine place to live in the world and within their respective geo-political contexts. I still hope that one day I can further delve into this question with some on-the-ground research in the Costa Rica of Central Europe.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingCasey Bahr is an American expat living in Costa Rica. Blog description: Oregon ex-patriate living in Costa Rica since 2008 in La Zona Sur. Help and advice for those thinking about expatriate living in Costa Rica. Filled with real-life experiences.
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Contest Comments » There are 25 comments

Greg Seymour wrote 5 years ago:

Before your I read over your list, I too thought that the comparison was just another phrase in the Costa RIcan marketing machine. Your list shows this to be wrong. Very interesting read.

Lori Sanders wrote 5 years ago:

I always took the statement to say that compared to other Central American countries, Costa Rica has more wealth, education and development. Remember, this is comparative to other Central American countrie, not US or European countries. I'm not so sure this is true anymore or definitely much less of a difference. It was interesting on your take of the saying.

Mrs. Chasing The Donkey wrote 5 years ago:

Hi life expectancy, but with 2 seasons... Yeah that's a place I can love no problemo! Best of luck Casey.

Jana Stotler wrote 5 years ago:

Very interesting take on this very common saying! Delving into it as you did made me really think about the comparison and what it means. Excellent article Casey!!

Golnaz Kaveh wrote 5 years ago:

Casey, I really enjoyed reading your article. I used to think of the comparison between the two countries as a marketing gimmick, but not anymore. The only point of comparison that was missing, maybe, would have been a gauge for population mental state of being. Which country lends itself more to a content existence? But, how does one measure that?!

Trish wrote 5 years ago:

Palm trees and legalized prostitution? Now that's something completely unexpected! What about average earnings and climate for entrepreneurs?

Kimberly Beck wrote 5 years ago:

The main reason I read your blog is for well thought out posts like this. Informative, enjoyable and leaves me hungry for more.

Greg LaHaie wrote 5 years ago:

I've visited both countries, and Casey's comparisons seem 'spot on'. If Costa Rica has only two seasons, at least they are the BEST of the seasons, IMHO. Great reading, as always...

Jenn Turnbull wrote 5 years ago:

I've always thought the comparison to Switzerland was strange too. The first time I came across it was in one of the well known retiring in CR books. I think the author was more or less on the same page as you as far as there not being many similarities between the two countries other than that both are about the same size, are relatively peaceful and stable, and have beautiful natural environments (although with markedly different climates). Leads me to wonder where the comparison originally came from. Anyway, nice research- your lists are the best comparison I've seen so far!

Larry N1TX wrote 5 years ago:

Good information, Casey, and especially valuable at this time as my wife and I plan retirement in earnest. Thank you for sharing.

Loranzo wrote 5 years ago:

Interesting comparison! I don't recall palm trees in Switzerland, but it was very nice when we were there long ago. But it's hard to beat the variety of things to do and the friendly people in Costa Rica!

Belinda wrote 5 years ago:

I enjoyed reading the comparison between the two countries. I had never heard that expression before, but I know that after living through numerous snowy winter seasons, I would be very happy to live in a place like Costa Rica, with only two seasons. I enjoy reading your blog. I especially like reading about the transition that your family went through when you relocated, as I am also considering moving there, with young children. Good luck on winning the Expat Blog Award.

Jen Seymour wrote 5 years ago:

Very interesting read, Casey! It always makes me sad, though, to know that chocolate has fallen off the list of Costa Rican exports. Although, maybe that means more chocolate for me here! :) I would love to visit Switzerland one day too. Good luck not he contest!

Naomi Colb wrote 5 years ago:

Interesting article....and so true! I would add that another way the two countries differ is that there are frequent opportunities in Costa Rica to experience indigenous plant medicine rituals to raise one´s consciousness...and as long as you are present and openhearted..Costa Ricans are extremely helpful and generous. I find people here alot more relaxed than people in Switzerland. The currency exchange rate and cost of living like a Tico is also much more favorable.

Dan Coble wrote 5 years ago:

Having now lived in Costa Rica for nearly two years (not as long as some), I find that, Yes, there are comparisons to be drawn, but for those of us who live here and love Costa Rica, in the end......there is NO comparison, whether we've "been there" or not.... It's hard not to love Costa Rica, warts and all.

Sharron Harper wrote 5 years ago:

I always thought the reference had something to do with being able to make investments or create income free from the intrusion of the US tax agency so it was interesting to see the other areas of comparison.

Mike Sebring wrote 5 years ago:

Excellent post! Very informative. Does Costa Rica have civilized, strict gun laws that helps to quell what has become in this country a deadly out of control America fetish? What percentage of the "10 murders per 100,000 inhabitants" are from gun violence?

Shannon Ford wrote 5 years ago:

Since I live in Costa Rica now, but spent time in Switzerland many years ago, I definitely enjoyed your article. Both countries have absolutely incredible natural beauty. And I DID see palm trees when I was in Switzerland! Thanks for your wonderful insights and info, Casey--I always enjoy reading your blog.

Greg D. Lehman wrote 5 years ago:

Would be interested to know start up costs to move there, I.e. housing, utilities,how hard would it be to find employment, etc. Beautiful country and the lifestyle sounds utopian.

Elizabeth wrote 5 years ago:

Thanks for writing this, uncle Casey! I don't remember Costa Rica being particularly like Switzerland when I came down to visit you- I was never served hot buttered rum by a comely lass on skis, or whatever it is that happens in Switzerland. You guys should make your own multi-tool knives, try and give the Swiss Army some competition! Only kidding of course. Say hi to everybody for me please! - Elizabeth

Larry Caldwell wrote 5 years ago:

People think everything with a pretty mountain is Switzerland. I'm sure Costa Rica has its own culture and resources. I have been to Switzerland, and can't imagine Costa Rica being much like that.

Yuli wrote 5 years ago:

Never did put much stock in that Switzie stuff. You forgot, too, no volcanoes in CH-land.

Rachel wrote 5 years ago:

Thank you Casey for a lovely description of life in Costa Rica. I have lived many years in New Zealand, understandably known as the Switzerland of the south. I look forward to visiting Costa Rica one day and discovering that it it is as remarkable and certainly distinctive as a tropical paradise all it's own.

Rachel Leigh wrote 5 years ago:

It's amazing to me that Costa Rica's life expectancy exceeds that of the U.S. It would be interesting to discuss what the contributing factor's are to this circumstance. Could it be better accessibility to health care, genetic factors, climate, happiness, general fitness or maybe the non confrontational nature of the society? All of the above?

Casey Bahr wrote 5 years ago:

Rachel L., My own opinion is the increased life expectancy is due to all the factors you've mentioned. It may be skewed by the genetics of the people in CR's Blue Zone in Nicoya, who regularly live over 100, but there may not be that many of them. Climate for sure and they rate high on the Happy Planet Index (as do the Swiss). Fitness is still a factor as Ticos do a lot of walking, but there's an increase in obesity now that 1st World culture is getting a deeper hold. What would really be interesting to me personally is to find out if expats who move here live longer than their cohort in the U.S. Thanks to everyone for leaving comments on this article, by the way! I'm very thankful that you all took the time to make quality comments. I enjoyed them all. Pura vida!

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