Geography of Costa Rica
Costa Rica's geography reveals a history of cataclysm, with earthquakes, floods and volcanoes shaping its present-day landscape. A diversity of soaring mountains, dormant and active craters, black and white sand beaches, rushing rivers and powerful waterfalls grace Costa Rica’s 19,653 square miles, an area smaller than West Virginia.
From north-to-south and east-to-west, Costa Rica never measures longer or wider than 200 miles. Though situated just 10° north of the equator, Costa Rica is much more than a hot and sunny tropical paradise. Rolling mountains and highland cloud forests contrast with 800 miles of Caribbean and Pacific shoreline, creating a country with four main geographical areas: the Tropical Lowlands (Caribbean and Pacific coasts), the Northern Central Plains, the Central Valley and the Northwest Peninsula.
Costa Rica's geography mainly consists of coastal plain vivisected by five towering mountain ranges: the Central Mountain Range (Cordillera Central), the Talamanca Mountain Range (Cordillera de Talamanca), the Tilaran Mountain Range (Cordillera de Tilaran), the Guanacaste Mountain Range (Cordillera de Guanacaste) and the Escazu Hills (Cerros de Escazu). Mount Chirripo, the highest point in Costa Rica at 12,450 feet above sea level, is located in the Talamanca Range.
In addition to plentiful mountains, Costa Rica boasts at least 60 volcanoes, five of which are active (Poas Volcano, Irazu Volcano, Arenal Volcano, Rincon de la Vieja Volcano and Turrialba Volcano). This volcanic abundance comes courtesy of two tectonic plates – the Cocos Plate and the Caribbean Plate – that sit beneath the country's landmass. The shifting plates have caused many serious earthquakes over the years, slowly terra-forming Costa Rica's horizon with soaring mountains and conic volcanoes.
There are 14 major river systems that originate in Costa Rica's mountains, each draining into the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, the San Juan River or Lake Nicaragua. Two of these rivers, the Pacuare and Reventazon, produce world-famous whitewater rapids, while others, such as the Sixaola and San Juan Rivers, provide natural boundaries between Costa Rica and bordering nations.
Costa Rica is part of the Neotropic ecozone, and has both tropical and subtropical climates. The country is famous for its microclimates, which are created by the variations in weather and temperature seen through the nation. For example, the town of Monteverde can be sunny with blue skies, but the Santa Elena Cloud Forest, just a few miles up the mountain, may be cloudy and misting rain. As a general rule, the temperature drops 4° F for every 1000 feet of elevation gained.
Costa Rica, meaning "Rich Coast," owes its diversity and natural treasures to its varied geography, ecological zones, and microclimates. For the visitor, such geographical diversity equals a rich adventure through some of the world's most biodiverse ecosystems.