Costa Rica, despite being small in size, is geographically a land of extreme contrast. Located in the tropics, between 8 and 11 degrees north of the Equator, with a mountain range that is responsible for the constant seismic activity, volcanoes, the distinctive climate zones and the vast biodiversity. Hot jungles, fertile pastures, uplands and cold mountain peaks make Costa Rica a fascinating land of infinite variety.
The country’s area is over 51,100 square kilometers with a maximum longitude of 464 km between the borders. Costa Rica is bordered to the North with Nicaragua, Panama to the south, the west by the Pacific Ocean and east with the Caribbean Sea. The country is divided into seven provinces: San José, Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón, and these into cantons and districts.
Costa Rica is near the Cocos and Caribbean tectonic plates, as well as local failures, causing thousands of small tremors every year. The seismic activity has been recorded since 1638, but projections remain unclear.
Mountain ranges that go from the northwest frontier of Nicaragua to the southeast border with Panama splits the country in two. Costa Rica has three main mountain ranges that run the country: the Central Volcanic Cordillera, the Cordillera of Talamanca and Cordillera of Guanacaste. With the exception of Intermontano Central Valley, the rest of the country is occupied by large plains, located to the north, northwest and southwest of the territory. The Guanacaste Cordillera in the north, has the Rincon de la Vieja volcano. Further south in the Cordillera de Tilarán is the most famous active volcano, the Arenal, which continues throwing rocks and lava. These eruptions are a major tourist attraction, as well as the Arenal Lake, the largest lake in Costa Rica.
In the Cordillera Central, is the still active Poas Volcano, which continues emitting sulfurous gases and threatening bubbles. The Irazu meanwhile, the highest volcano in the country with 3,431 m (11,257 ft), had its last eruption in 1963, showering the Central Valley with ashes for two years. Turrialba Volcano, part of the same range, has been dormant since 1866. Dormant volcanoes – Tenorio, Miravalles, Orosi, Santa Maria, Cacho Negro, Platanar and Barva – can awake at any moment and the numbers say that there are about 200 extinct volcanoes on land and at sea.
Geologically oldest, but not volcanic, located southeast of the country is the Cordillera de Talamanca, which is the largest and most robust in the country. Here lies the fifth highest peak in Central America and the highest peak in Costa Rica, the Chirripó with 3,820 m (12,530 feet), experiences sub-zero temperatures and occasional small scale snowfall. To the South of Cartago, the Interamerican Highway begins to climb the Cerro de la Muerte, from about 5.00 to 11,450 feet, where temperatures range between 5°C and 20°C. Justly, in the central area of Los Santos and La Costanera along the south Pacific coast, are the lower areas of the country.
The country has a relatively long coastline in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Most of the few islands of Costa Ricans are in the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific Ocean, highlighting among them the Chira Island, which was an ancient indigenous settlement and today has some small villages of farmers and ranchers. The Calero Island which is the largest island of the country with 151.6 km2 (58.5 square miles). As well as the famous Cocos Island with 24 km2 (9.3 square miles), which is also recognized as a National Park, about 500 kilometers from the coast and in the Pacific Ocean, is the farthest possession of the country and currently competes to be one of the wonders of the world, and still at present is a source of legends about invaluable treasures buried there centuries ago by pirates who ravaged the Spanish colonies in America. The temperature ranges between 37°C in coastal areas.
Half the population lives in the fertile Central Valley, known for its abrupt changes in altitude, temperatures and landscapes. It is home to the capital, San Jose, Orosi Valley and major cities like Alajuela, Heredia, Cartago and Turrialba. For possessing a fertile field and a volcanic soil, they are the major coffee areas, as well as milk production. Intermontano Central Valley, with an average temperature of 20°C and an average height above sea level of 1000 meters, covers an area of 3250 square kilometers, in which are located the largest cities and most part of the population, which is approximately 4 million.
Multiple changes in altitude and temperature are responsible for the incredible variety of climates that cause the country’s incredible biodiversity. The average temperature in San Jose ranges from 18°C and 27°C throughout the year. Other nearby communities may be five to six degrees warmer or colder. Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula are burning during the day with temperatures between 31°C and 38°C, dropping about 20°C overnight. Ten hours of sunshine during the dry season and six hours in the wet is the norm for this region of the tropical dry forests and plains of grass famous for their cattle.
The lush rainforests of the Caribbean are the main growing regions of plantain and banana. Rainfall throughout the year to October, traditionally the driest month, produces a higher level of moisture that the Pacific coast, with temperatures averaging 25°C to 27°C.
The Central Pacific distintive for palm oil plantations, and the borders south area with its dense jungles of steam from the coast of the remote Osa Peninsula. The northern area for its diverse topography, resulting in a wide variety of microclimates. The landscape includes the Lake Arenal and Monteverde cloud forest.
The entire geography of the country is crossed by highways and roads linking the ports of Limon and Puntarenas, passing through the capitals of the provinces of Cartago, Alajuela and San José, with a group of roads connecting with Heredia. The air field covers the whole country, through countless airports and airfields. The Inter-American highway, built during World War II in cooperation with the United States, crosses the country from north to south, linking with the rest of the continent.
The hydrological aspect of Costa Rica is extremely important since it determines an important hydroelectric potential, not only by the availability of energy for the needs of the nation but, in fact, Costa Rica is currently exporting energy to other neighboring nations.
Even though Costa Rica has a small territory and few great rivers, such as Reventazon, the Térraba, the Grande de Tárcoles and Tempisque, the topography of the country offers very suitable characteristics for water use.