Skip to content
Are Central Americans happier?

Are Central Americans Happier than Foreign Expats and Tourists?

Inspired by a recent tweet, we take a look at the myth that Central Americans and Latinos “are happier” than foreigners by examining their real-life struggles, aspirations, and realities beyond common and superficial impressions.

The other day I was scrolling through Twitter – or “X” or whatever you want to call it nowadays – and I saw something that resonated with me, about happiness in Latin America. The tweet (or post or whatever we’re now meant to call them) reflected a longstanding belief I’ve personally had and made me glad I wasn’t the only one with the ground shaking opinion that Latinos and Central Americans are just normal people with normal problems, the same as anyone else. Before I start sounding too cryptic, here’s the tweet in question, and below that, I’ll start trying to explain what I mean:

So What Do I Mean?

In almost 25 years of living in Latin America, mostly in Costa Rica, I’ve seen the contents of the above tweet (and the replies) played out a billion times, Especially in Costa Rica, which went through a patch in the 2000s and 2010s of being labelled the “happiest country in the world” or close to it, alongside the likes of Denmark. I always thought there’s something very patronizing about wealthy foreigners talking about “how happy the locals are” just because they, I dunno, see them dancing salsa in the park with smiles on their faces. It’s almost like they never actually speak to them at all.

The thing is, people in Latin America, whether Costa Rican or Central American or from wherever, have the same worries you do. They worry about their jobs, about money, about their ability to pay their bills and choosing between food or electricity in a world where prices for everything have skyrocketed. They worry about crime, about the safety of their children, about the state of their corrupt governments, and about their health. In fact, it might shock you to know that they are no different from you and your worries in your country.

When we talk about cost of living from an expat’s or foreign tourist’s point of view, we often cite the cheap cost of labor as a major positive. Which, if you’re earning a US or European salary, it clearly is. The other side of that though is being the local who is only earning $600 a month. For gringos to wax lyrical about how “happy” this guy is because he has smile on his face around them is, in my opinion, rather obscene.

Ten People to a Home

It’s the same when gringos point out multigenerational families living under one roof as a positive. It’s certainly true that compared to the US, Canada, and Northern Europe, Latinos generally do connect with their families and communities more. That’s a definite positive and something to learn from.

But oftentimes, those generations under one roof – grandparents, parents, kids, and grandkids – are there because no one can afford to move out. We’re seeing this situation play out in our own countries right now. Cost of living, high rents, and the inability to find deposits for buying a home are forcing many people to stay living with their parents much longer or to move back in with them. In Latin America, this has always been the case. It’s not a recent phenomenon, it’s been this way forever and is just how things are. The struggle is real.

And Latino families are just as dysfunctional as anyone else’s. There’s child abandonment, domestic violence, and a host of other stresses and strains that many gringos don’t perceive to exist in their expat or tourist bubbles.

If foreigners in this part of the world took the time to learn the language, watch or read local news, follow local social media groups, they would know exactly how much local people complain. They hate their politicians as much as gringos hate theirs. Probably more, actually. They have more cause to worry about crime and safety than the vast majority of gringos. Many locals live in areas where tourists never see, where safety is an issue, the schools are terrible, and the public services extremely limited. I mean, why do so many Central Americans dream of living in the United States?

Cultural Colonialism?

Now I’m not saying that local people in this part of the world are specifically unhappy. Some are, obviously. And others truly are happy. I’m just saying that they are no different, no more or less happy than anyone else in the world. To me, it stinks of some kind of colonialism when gringos talk about how happy the locals are, like their aspirations and dreams for their children somehow matter less.

Look at this guy earning $600 a month,” they say, tucking into their lunch at the Four Seasons or Sofitel that might take their server or driver almost a week’s salary to pay for. “Look how happy he is. I could learn so much from him.” (In fairness, they might not know he’s earning $600 a month.)

Yes. They might learn what it’s like to live crammed into a home that’s too small to fit nine people of at least three generations in a dodgy area where crime is a grave concern. They might learn what it’s like to count every single cent, quetzal, or colón that comes in and still not have enough. But hey, they’re smiling and laughing, right? And as Elaine said in the Puerto Rico Parade episode of Seinfeld, “They are a very festive people,” right? Ha. Maybe this whole perception comes down to Seinfeld of all things.

Scratching Beneath the Surface

Bottom line is that many gringos come down here and put local people on pedestals based on a cursory perception, without even bothering to scratch a little beneath the surface. Often they don’t want to scratch beneath the surface for fear of revealing their own reasons for being down here in the first place – running away to a “happier place.

To many people, it’s impossible to believe anyone couldn’t be permanently over the moon with happiness in a place where the weather is always so good and the beaches so beautiful. It makes sense to just believe that everything is amazing and everyone is happy, when in reality, we’re all exactly the same, with the same worries and concerns, and that’s fine. It’s how it should be.

Expats who end up successfully staying long-term in Central America generally understand all of this, and quickly realize their new country is no different from their old one in many ways. Those who permanently live with rose-colored glasses on regarding this topic generally end up disillusioned in some way and leaving.

James Dyde is the editor of He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.

James Dyde

James Dyde

James Dyde is a British immigrant to Costa Rica and the editor of this website. He has lived in Central America since 2000 and retains a deep love for the region. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.