Is Costa Rica a Third World Country?

Costa Rica is a popular vacation destination, but many people don’t know what to expect. Is it a fancy island? Is it a poor, remote area? And many wonder, Is Costa Rica a third world country? Let’s dig in to what that really means and do a little research to answer that question.

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Costa Rica dirt bumpy road

Definition of Third World Country

In order to know if Costa Rica is a third world country, we have to understand what that means.

Third world country has a few definitions, depending on what you are looking at.

Definition During Cold War

First, during the cold war, countries were classified based on their political affiliation or allegiances with each other. Any country that was not with NATO or the Warsaw Pact was considered a third world country. In other words, during that time, a 3rd world country was a country that was not aligned with either the West or the East. (Click link for a map!)

By this definition, Costa Rica is a third world country.

Highway costa rica

Present Day Definition

Though the definition originated during those time, the definition has shifted. Many people often think of impoverished lands and lack of industry when they think of a third world country.

Today, mortality rates (specifically infant mortality rates) are taken into account when classifying as well. Economy, education, standard of living, and income is also looked at.

So the definition has changed from political to economical, and it’s hard to pinpoint where Costa Rica stands based on all of these factors.

However, Costa Rica has risen in the economical world. The GDP has nearly doubled since 2009 and it is currently at .809 on the HDI (Human Development Index), with the highest possible being 1.0

So Is Costa Rica a Third World Country?

By definition from the International Monetary Fund, Costa Rica remains a developing (third world) country due to lower economic performance.

By definition from the UN, Costa Rica is considered highly developed because of its high HDI score. (source)

So it really depends on which definition you go by.

But a lot of progress continues.

While many people live with less than a standard Western country, they have high quality health care, rank high on the happiness index (named the happiest country in the world), and have a life expectancy of 79.28 years.

Is Costa Rica a Developing Country?

Today, it has become more derogatory to use the label “third world.” The term has now been replaced with “developing country.” This refers to a country’s participation in exports, industry, and world trade and finance.

Most of Costa Rica’s exports head to the US. Their main export is medical instruments, followed by bananas.

world political map showing from Mexico down to northern South America, with a red circle around Costa Rica

Where is Costa Rica Located

We went to Costa Rica recently. When we told people we were going, many people assumed we were going to an island in the Caribbean.


Costa Rica is located on the land strip in Central America that connects Mexico and South America. It has the Atlantic on the east side and the Pacific on the west side, but land attached at both the north and south sides.


How Safe is Costa Rica

Costa Rica ranks as the 38th safest country in the world. While they do have a police presence, they do not have a military. They pride themselves on being able to have traditional negotiations

Costa Rica is generally a very safe country to visit. In fact, it is considered the safest country to visit in Latin America.

Since it is the happiest country in the world, crime tends to stay low. Of course theft is a problem as it can be anywhere.

If visiting, make sure to talk to a local for current events and areas to avoid (typically tourist areas are fine, but political issues do arise in some of the lesser-visited cities inland.)

Stats on Costa Rica

Poverty in Costa Rica has been on a steady decline over the last few decades, landing at 1.2% in 2021.

Population of Costa Rica is over 5 million and currently at a .6% growth rate per year.

Unemployment has climbed over the years and currently sits at around 15%.

Conservation efforts have helped restore forest lands, with nearly 60% of the land currently forested. That is up from 56% in 2010.

Homicides have gone up, from 6 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 11 per 100,000 in 2020.

See more Stats on Costa Rica at the World Bank website.

Is Costa Rica a Third World Country?

To decide if Costa Rica is a developing country, you first have to decide which indicator you are looking at. Regardless, Costa Rica is a beautiful, happy, safe country making strides in economics and healthcare. It’s no wonder it is such a perfect place to visit.

Read More:

What to Know Before Visiting Costa Rica

Costa Rica 7, 10, 14 Day Itinerary

3 Weeks in Costa Rica – where to go!

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